Setting up a tarpaulin (tarp)

Many first time campers seem to baulk at setting up a tarpaulin over their camp site because they think that it is too complicated. All those poles, ropes and pegs. And no instructions either!

I was in that category … until I tried it. Even my wife agreed that putting up a 12’ x 16’ tarp was easier than erecting our similarly sized 10-person Jackaroo dome tent.

Following are a couple of photos from setting up a tarp in our front yard for the first time.

Gear for setting up a tarpaulin

Gear for setting up a tarpaulin

My gear. The long bag has the poles; small bag, the tent pegs and mallet; bucket, the guy ropes; and of course there is the silver tarp.

Tarpaulin laid out with pegs, poles and guy ropes ready for raising

Tarpaulin laid out with pegs, poles and guy ropes ready for raising

There are two schools of thought to erecting a tarp: 1) centre poles and ridge pole first, or 2) corner poles first. I prefer the second method.

First lay out the tarp flat on the ground. Then place at each position a guy rope, peg and pole. Hammer in the peg at each location about one metre out from the edge of the tarp. Then put a pole up in each corner – place the spigot through the eye in the tarp and loop the guy rope over the top. If you angle the poles towards the centre of the tarp it is quite surprising how easily the poles will stand, even without the other poles in position and the guy ropes loose. Once you have the corner poles up, erect your centre poles and ridge pole. Raise all poles to the desired height, tighten up the guy ropes and you are done! Easy!

Tarpaulin erected

Tarpaulin erected

I did this 12′ x 16′ tarp on my own in about 30 minutes. This was my first time I had erected a tarp, and I stopped to talk with our neighbour for a few minutes as well. I think I can probably get the set up time down to 10 minutes. The part that takes the most time is hammering the pegs (stakes) into the ground before erecting the tarp.

A few tips:

  • Use double guy ropes in each corner and the poles at the end of the ridge pole (I have not used a double at the ridge pole ends in the above photos)
  • Make sure your guy ropes have springs – it allows the tarp to move when hit by wind gusts
  • Use guy ropes with wooden tensioners – it makes it so much easier to quickly adjust the tension in the ropes
  • Do a lark’s head knot over the top of the poles – easy and quick, but keeps the guy ropes in position better
  • Purchase a good quality tarp with D-rings instead of eyelets – it will last longer
  • Practice at home before you try it at a camp ground!

Update: I set up my FBT (f’n big tarp) on our last camping trip. This was the first time I had set it up because at 20′ x 24′ it does not fit in our yard! The big tarp was actually easier and quicker to set up than our dome tent. We got some wind on the final night and the big tarp did not move. The tent, on the other hand, flapped in the breeze. Note in the following photo the dip in the middle of the left side of the tarp — I did this to shape the tarp and funnel any rain so there were no areas water could pool.

Camp site at Borumba Deer Park

Camp site at Borumba Deer Park

Update: Also check out how to fold your tarp.

9 thoughts on “Setting up a tarpaulin (tarp)

  1. Pingback: An alternative tarp setup | Rant, Rex

    1. Rex

      Hi Gabe.

      I used three 9′ poles, 12 7’6″ poles and a five-piece (I think) ridge pole. I left the centre pole out on either side to create the dip you see above.

      The 9′ poles were used along the ridge, with the centre pole having the spigot replaced with a square bracket to support the centre of the ridge.

      In case you haven’t tried to lift that many poles at once, they are very heavy!


  2. Cheryl

    Love your setup! We also have a large tent (Cougar Flats II) and are looking to replicate what you’ve done but I’m having trouble finding a 20 by 24 ft tarp with D-rings. Would you mind telling me what brand yours is and where you got it? Anything else you considered when choosing a tarp?

    1. Rex Post author


      Usually I just slip the D-rings over the top of the tent poles. I have not come across a situation where the D-rings are larger than the pole. Sorry.


  3. Tali Roebuck

    Hi! Would a 12 x 12 or 14 be big enough for 6 people and a child to sit under comfortably for a week camping?

    Thank you!


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