Last week, we covered the last of the items on the Boy Scout and The Mountaineers classic lists of Ten Essentials. The Mountaineers updated list consolidated other items, leaving room for its item 10: emergency shelter. There are many options to fill this spot. Here, we will look at the tarp.

“Tarp” is an informal, shortened version of “tarpaulin,” which the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as “a large piece of waterproof material (such as plastic or canvas) that is used to cover things and keep them dry.” “Tarpaulin” was first used around 1600 according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. It is a compounding of “tar” and “palling,” or “heavy cloth covering.” At the time, canvas was often coated in tar to make it waterproof.

While a tarp is one of many options for an emergency shelter, there are some campers, who swear by a tarp as their standard shelter, in place of a tent. The argument goes that a tarp is lighter than a tent and quicker to set up.

While we have camped out on nights where a tarp would have been an enjoyable experience, more often, we would have also needed to bring a bug net. Add in a ground cloth, which we always do, and you basically have a tent. In our area, what most people call camping season is bug season. For us, it’s almost always camping season, so perhaps on one of these cool weather camping trips we’ll finally get around to trying out simply sleeping under a tarp.

Returning to the definition of tarpaulin, it seems inappropriate to carry a heavy piece of tarred canvas as an emergency item in your daypack. It is. Even those blue polyethylene tarps, which are sold in the camping section at the Local Walmart, seem a little on the big & bulky side. They are. Modern purpose-built backpacking tarps are made from compact, lightweight materials which we’ll examine in upcoming posts. Until then, we hope you’ll find time to hit the trail to absorb some nature, but please be sure to take along your Ten Essentials.