Stay warm and dry with these improvised tarp shelters

If you're caught in the elements and don't have a tent, you'll want to know these expert shelter building tips.

a survival tent made from tarp, kayak and paddles
A kayak, tarp, and a break-down paddle are all you need for a great paddling shelter.Craig Caudill

This article was originally featured on Field & Stream.


With careful consideration, we must ask ourselves what sort of items we should take that will help us in outdoor adventure. One thing is for certain. Creating adequate shelter is a must-have in austere conditions. There are dozens of items and ways to build a shelter effectively. One thing that makes life much easier is a good tarp setup. Some are simple, and some are more technical. We will break this down, so you know how to be a shelter-building boss.

Building a shelter is important

The key to developing a good shelter is first to understand why you need it. Your primary goal for any shelter is maintaining your core body temperature. If you're going to have to spend the night in the woods, getting an efficient shelter put together quickly and easily will abate external influences and can help prevent hypothermia. The ability to improvise is important, and there are materials we can take with us that make it much easier to develop shelter when and where we need it. Let's consider some of those materials and then look at improvised setups.

Shelter-building materials and tools:

Tarps

different tarp type selections
Top to bottom: inexpensive plastic, ripstop nylon, and camouflage Codura.Craig Caudill

Tarp material is the first important consideration. They range from inexpensive plastic ones with flimsy grommets to heavy-duty Cordura with bomb-proof stitched loops. Plastic tarps are good for minimal use in the short term. However, plastic fibers break down quickly due to heat, light, and chemical exposure. This can occur even stored away in a garage, your pack, trunk of a car, or toolbox. It will serve you well to avoid these if you want a tarp to last a long time.

For a good middle-of-the-road tarp, choose one made from ripstop nylon. Nylon resists sun and chemicals very well, and ripstop is much stronger than woven plastic. If your budget allows, then splurge on a Cordura tarp. Cordura does all the great things that a nylon tarp does, but is also much stronger, which makes it a great choice for improvised setups. The Personal Survival Shelter (PSS) series of tarps from Wildnerness Innovations are excellent choices for top-of-the-line shelters that can be used in several different ways.

Stakes

different types of tarp tent stakes
Top to bottom: anodized aluminum, aluminum, plastic, and improvised wooden stakes.Craig Caudill

You can easily make stakes in an environment with sticks and wood to save on the weight that you carry. If you're okay to add just a few ounces to your pack, choose anodized aluminum. These sorts of stakes are lightweight and often have cordage already attached for easy setup. Since they are also brightly colored, it makes them, and the guylines attached, much easier to see in low-light conditions. This helps to avoid getting tangled, or tripped up, especially at night.

Cordage

frayed pieces of paracord
Left to right: braided, twisted, and paracord kernmantle cordage.Craig Caudill

Cordage, rope, and string commonly used to set up a tarp come in three primary types.

  • Braided cordage: Made of several different small sections of cordage that are woven together.

  • Twisted cordage: Contains three to four strands twisted together as the name implies.

  • Kernmantle: Paracord is kernmantle. It consists of strands of ropes inside of a sheath. The sheath is there to protect the strands from damage.

Kernmantle is the preferred style of cordage with paracord being the most popular type to use and carry in your pack. Kernmantle ropes allow you to improvise when needed. You can pull out individual strands from inside the sheath and use them separately or use the cordage as it comes for a stronger hold.

Reflective thermal blankets

camco portable foil space thermal blankets
Reflective thermal blankets can keep heat in or out, depending on your needs.Camco

Thermal reflective blankets are a fantastic addition to any first aid or survival kit. Usually, they are used to wrap a patient to aid in maintaining core body temperature. They are also great tools to be utilized in concert with a tarp set up.

Trekking poles

In recent years, trekking poles have seen more use for day and through-hikers. Hikers and hunters feel they help with balance, efficiency, and support in rough terrain. They are also great for setting up improvised shelters.

Garbage bags

man wearing garbage bag
Using a 55-gallon drum garbage bag is a quick way to get out of the weather.Craig Caudill

Garbage bags are one of those great multi-use tools for survival in particular. They can be used for water collection, immediate shelter (see below), ground cover, gear protection, and trash collection. For survival, use a heavy-duty, 3mm or thicker, 55-gallon drum clear bag. Clear is best because it aids in its use as a transpiration bag, as well as giving you the ability to see gear in it more easily.

Improvised shelter setups

Hasty shelter options

If you have ever been surprised by an unexpected rain event, you will understand the need to always have one or two good options for hasty shelter setups. The easiest and quickest shelter is a 55-gallon garbage bag. Cut a hole in the center and two on the sides for your head and arms to stick through, and you have an immediate, wearable shelter. Another option is to stuff one with leaves and use it as an improvised mattress on the ground. This will make a rough night a bit more comfortable, give you an insulating layer from the cold ground, and keep you dry.

a person wrapped in a tarp
Wrap your tarp around you to make a quick retreat from an unexpected storm.Craig Caudill

Another great hasty setup is to simply wrap a tarp around your body to keep wind, rain, or snow from getting on you. Bonus points to you if you find a hill, rock, or tree that wards off much of the weather before it gets to you. Since the earth conducts much of your body temp away, it is best if you find something to sit on while in this position. The earlier American frontiersman utilized this method with oil skin tarps as a primary shelter set up for months at a time when moving through unexplored areas. If it was good enough for them, we are quite sure you can put it to use in an emergency.

Trekking pole lean-to

a lean-to tarp shelter
Improvised shelter using trekking poles and the Wilderness Innovation Personal Survival Shelter (PSS) poncho.Craig Caudill

You can use one or two trekking poles at the mid-point of the face of the shelter. Stake the other sides down, and you have a quick and easy setup. In the setup pictured, we are using the Wilderness Innovation Personal Survival Shelter (PSS). It is an excellent, heavy-duty choice that will last a lifetime with proper care.

Use your canoe or kayak

a shelter made from a kayak
A canoe and a tarp make for a great shelter option.Craig Caudill

Paddling shelters are easy because they are already designed to shed water for you. Turn them upside down or on their sides, and they still shed water. Add a tarp to the mix, and you have an excellent shelter for an overnight. Since you are using the boat as part of the shelter, half of it is built for you before you even start. The simplest setup is to use a canoe and prop one side of it up with branches attached to the seat structures, or you can fasten the paddles to the canoe cross members. Stake two sides of the tarp down on the backside of the canoe. On the leading edge of the tarp, stake it to the ground for strong, blowing wind. Stake it up if you only desire a sunblock as you lay up and get some rest from a long day of paddling.

equinox tarp outdoor shelter
An Equinox tarp along with a canoe makes for a great camping setup next to the water.Craig Caudill

You can also use a kayak as a nice start to a roof structure for shelter. First, stake one end of your kayak down. Bind two paddles together to form a front support structure that the other end of your kayak rests on. You can then use a taught line out front to help secure it down. Throw your tarp over and stake it down for another easy and quick setup using not much more than your paddling gear and some cordage.

a shelter made from a kayak and paddles
Using a kayak along with a broken-down paddle is another way to set up a tarp easily and quickly.Craig Caudill

In both of these, we used an Equinox 9X9 ripstop nylon tarp with fabric loops at the tie-off points. With grommets or loops, it is best to utilize cordage to tie off to stakes. Cordage serves as a "shock absorber" of sorts so high winds will not uproot the stakes as easily.

Make a hammock

If the goal of shelter is to maintain your body temperature, getting off the ground will go a long way in doing this. When the ground is not suitable for lying down due to moisture, insects, snakes, or other uncomfortable problems, then a hammock may very well be your best tool to get some rest.

wilderness innovation personal survival shelter
The Wilderness Innovation Personal Survival Shelter has cordage sleeves for a hasty hammock setup.Craig Caudill

For this shelter, you will need a strong tarp with even stronger sewing and tack points. The hammock pictured is again the Wilderness Innovation PSS and is purposely designed to be a personal survival shelter. It can be worn like a poncho and set up in any basic tarp configuration. It also has sleeves at the end so you can insert paracord or woobie slings for an incredibly lightweight hammock setup. Carabiners are a nice addition to make it an even easier and quick setup. Make sure you know and use some good knots that untie after being placed under pressure.

Use a sapling for your ridge line

a tarp bent over a sapling
Bend over a sapling and stake it down. Then throw over a tarp, tie it off, and stake it down. It's a quick and easy improvised shelter.Craig Caudill

If all you have is a tarp and nothing else, then you can use a sapling as an impromptu ridgeline. Bend the sapling over and stake it down. Then you can stake out the corners of the tarp for a minimalist approach to shelter building.

Stay warm or cool

thermal blanket shelter
Using a thermal blanket helps reflect heat from a fire back into the setup.Craig Caudill

By having a fire in front of a shelter, you can "capture" some of the heat that radiates from it. However, a lot of that heat conducts through the tarp material. A reflective thermal blanket placed on the underside of a tarp will reflect much of that heat back onto you. Duct tape is a great choice to do this and also serves so many other uses as well. It is a great survival tool to keep in your first aid kit for use there as well. Be aware that the thermal reflection is surprisingly efficient at doing this. You will want to test this before you need it as it can get really warm inside of your shelter.

thermal blanket on topo of a lean-to shelter
Using a thermal blanket on the backside of a nice, thick tarp reflects heat away from the shelter.Craig Caudill

The second method is to use one in the summertime on the outside of a shelter setup. Once again, a tarp setup will conduct heat through it rather easily. This includes heat from the sun. So in a summertime setup where you need to keep the heat off of you, place the thermal blanket on the outside to avoiding overheating.