Matthew Cattin investigates the back-to-basics trend of tarp camping in the backcountry
“Do you boys know you’re breaking the law?”
In the cold light of morning, I guess it was obvious.
Bleary-eyed and cloudy-headed, we three tired musicians fronted up to the council worker, feeling guilty he’d been called out to work early on a Sunday morning on account of us.
This is not how I expected my first night of tarp camping to go.
“Honestly, we didn’t – we got here at 2am,” I said, dumbly.
It had been a rough night with little sleep, and here we were rolling away sleeping bags by a boat ramp in Coromandel at 7am.
Two friends and I had played at a beach wedding the night before, and after a late finish we couldn’t face the nearly three-hour drive back to Auckland.
Some local bach owners had suggested we drive to the boat ramp to catch a few hours' kip. We did and set up a quick A-frame with the tarp between two pines.
A cold wind whipped across the estuary. The month-long drought had ended earlier that day, and more rain wasn’t off the cards.
I had two hammocks and a sleeping mat, so we played paper scissors rock for the best sleeping spot.
My bed – regrettably – was the hammock we couldn’t fit beneath the tarp.
Exposed to the wind, I didn’t stand a chance.
I gave it a decent crack of a few hours, but in the end, I dropped the hammock and curled up on the ground under the tarp – my head on my mate’s sleeping mat.
Uncomfortable as hell, but warm and out of the wind, I rested without sleep until sun up and thus spent my first night sleeping – if you can call it that – under a tarp.
Despite my near delirious state of tiredness, the gear nerd within me was wide awake, noting the tarp’s performance.
I concluded a few more pegs on the grounded edge would cut the draft sneaking under, and a tighter ridgeline would reduce some of the rippling in the gusts.
Besides that, it was doing a fine job. The bulk of the wind was stopped dead by the 3x3m nylon tarp, and in the event of rain, I’m confident we would have remained dry.
I’ve owned a tarp for years, and while I’ve never used it for backcountry camping, it’s been an extremely versatile part of my camping kit.
On a rainy summer’s day in the Bay of Islands, I strung one as a cooking shelter to boil up a crayfish beneath. In fair weather, I’ve used it to keep the heat of the sun at bay while hammocking, or as a makeshift verandah for a two-man tent. Pitched between two tent poles, I’ve set up a sturdy, adaptable beach shelter, which lets the breeze in and keeps the sun out.
More familiar with proper tarp camping is Blenheim hunter Simon Wyatt.
Traditionally a tent camper, Wyatt converted to tarping recently in an attempt to cut pack weight on hunting trips, after reading about them in a hunting magazine.
He has built his own 2x3m tarp out of supplies found at Bunnings – glazing polycarbonate (the transparent plastic used to make DIY greenhouses), heavy tape and washers – and it’s never let him down.
“One night a couple of possums broke a branch off of a tree which fell on top of the tarp. It was nearly three metres long and it didn’t tear or scratch it,” Wyatt says.
“It’s better than nylon as you can pack it up wet, and it doesn’t sag.”
At around 400g, the tarp is significantly lighter than the tents Wyatt is used to carrying, meaning he can pack more meat on the journey home.
Being open to the environment, it never has condensation issues, and when wet, it can be shaken and packed damp, with no risk of mould damage.
Even more enticing for some, the plastic is transparent which gives Wyatt unrestricted views from his sleeping bag.
“You can lie in there and flick the light on when there is a possum in the tree above you, or when you’re in a more open area you can look at stars when you wake up in the middle of the night – it’s pretty cool,” he says.
“I’m rapt with it. I would never have gone down that line if I hadn’t read about it.”
Dunedin tramper Danilo Hegg is another keen tarp advocate.
He packs a hefty 1800g 4x6m tarp on camping trips when he’s sticking below the bushline.
“It’s the same weight as a tent, but you can fit so many more people under it, as well as your backpack and all of your gear,” Hegg says.
“You can cook under it easily, without worrying about burning it down, and you manage to stay drier when you are in really wet places.”
Hegg has weathered the worst of Fiordland’s rains under his tarpaulin, including February storms which wreaked havoc on dozens of tracks. No leaks, no drips, no worries.
“I sleep on a bedroll – same as in a tent – but if the ground is wet, I’ll make a bed out of fern fronds turned upside down so the dry underside is underneath me,” he says.
When the rain’s coming down heavy, Hegg puts his cooking pot under the tarp edge to quickly collect drinking water – another advantage of this style of camping.
Hegg’s typical setup is a classic A-frame with its edges pulled low to the ground and the ridgeline attached to whatever is handy – trees, packrafting paddles, or walking poles.
“It’s just a matter of being flexible and playing with whatever you have available – I never carry pegs,” he says.
The indoor-outdoor flow style of tarping has given Hegg some memorable moments in the backcountry, including a late-night visitor on Stewart Island – a little blue penguin – and the less-desired guest; a wetapunga/giant weta.
Rodents and weka are notorious for their campsite raids, and tarp-users need to stay vigilant, Hegg advises.
“You need to be more careful about protecting food from mice and rats – if you leave food out, they will get into it,” he says.
And as for the sandflies? Hegg says it’s simply a matter of getting used to their bites.
Three ways to pitch your tarp
A simple and spacious shelter which utilises your tramping poles, paddles or sticks as tentpoles. Provides shelter from wind, and spacious cover from rain.
A good option for forest camping. Use two prusik knots to pull the tarp tight on the ridgeline. You can use extra guidelines instead of pegs to secure the corners.
Well-suited to windy conditions, the C-fly also provides a dry ground mat for sleeping and a roof for protection from rain.