Camping Tarps and The Bicycle

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  • By Darren Ohl
Camping Tarps and The Bicycle

Oh my sweet-baby-lord-probably-born-with-a-mustache is this one complicated when it really doesn't have to be. As a modern society we've been packing things onto our backs and wandering off into the wilderness as a form of recreation for the better part of two centuries. You would think by now we'd have some clear and common products available for the masses that wasn't a bear attack on your credit card.

Let's get to the meat of some things.

Over the course of this series we'll talk about the different gear choices I've made. The goal is to write some kind of guide to help people with their own adventure equipment choices. This first article is about something I've struggled the most with.
My tarp.

Some info here about why I need a tarp. My shelter of choice for bike packing is a jungle net style hammock, one that has the bug net built in. It packs light and small and it allows me to add and take away layers depending on the weather and environment. I do the same thing with my bike clothing as well, so I have familiarity with what works and doesn't work for the conditions. The great thing about the hammock is that all those accessories will pack down just as small. Well, that's the goal anyway.  I have a great under-quilt that is a part of what keeps me warm. I have a simple cotton sleeping bag liner I use on its own in warmer weather and layer up with a sleeping bag in cold weather. I have a regular old cover-the-lawn-mower tarp for additional insulation and for over the hammock wet weather protection.

My Blue Tarp

Yup. Those blue tarps at the hardware store. Except mine is smaller. At 8 foot by 10 foot it's an ideal size, though I have toyed with going to a 12 by 10 tarp, none of the trips I've done have motivated me to make the change. That's a solid piece of advice my friend Kevin gave me. If you see something you want for your next trip wait, take your next trip, if you missed having that addition on your trip, buy it when you get back. It's a great method for those of us who are budget conscious.


DISCLAIMER: Obviously you should have the basics for survival, don't go out without knowledge and necessities for survival.


I've struggled in finding options that work well and that I can afford. So where do we start in building our sweet bike packing rig without breaking the bank?

Oh my sweet-baby-lord-probably-born-with-a-mustache is this one complicated when it really doesn't have to be. As a modern society we've been packing things onto our backs and wandering off into the wilderness as a form of recreation for the better part of two centuries. You would think by now we'd have some clear and common products available for the masses that wasn't a bear attack on your credit card.

In the bicycle world we love to have the latest and greatest stuff. That stuff can come at a premium price. If you think that about bicycles and bicycle parts take a look at the camping industry. At least with a bicycle I see all the cool technology I'm paying for. Electric shifting, super plush suspension that can tell the difference between dropping off a cliff or climbing up a hill.

The camping industry though. Do I even want to talk about it? Look at this $280 tarp. LOOK AT IT!!!


Hey, I get it, it's light weight and has all those little sewn on bits for propping it up and hanging it and it's water proof and it's light weight! Oh, I mentioned that twice? So does the manufacturer. Here's the thing, it doesn't do anything your run-of-the-mill tarp doesn't already do.

Let's talk about some reviews of this tarp:
• It's "lightweight" A couple of reviewers actually weighed the tarp and have it coming in at 14oz. That's a significant difference when we look at a regular run-of-the-mill rip-stop poly Tarp with reinforced brass grommets. The regular tarp is also 80 foot squared and weighs in at 16 oz.
Oh, and the super cool tarp is 72 square feet for that 14oz.
• Sewn in Bits. I can use my trekking poles to prop the tarp up. If I have the right trekking poles. I can use poles to help shape the tarp. Hold on a second, the reason I've chosen a tarp is so I can avoid carrying tent poles and very few tent bits. Oh hey, guess what, you have to use their poles, not just any old tent pole.
• It's waterproof. Sort of. I'll get to the sort of in a bit, first some technical info. It's made of Silnylon. A product often touted as being used in hot air balloons and parachutes. It is waterproof and windproof as is it made combining two materials, Silicone and Nylon. It's a really nice material that is very strong and usually very reliable. It depends on manufacturing. You see, not all Silnylon is the same. There are different ratings of those nylon bits. This is not made of the same Silnylon found in parachutes, which is made from type 66 nylon. A very different material than what is used in camping equipment. Silnylon has a tendency, like most tarps that are set up as shown in the directions, to collect condensation. Silnylon is waterproof, however it does absorb water and get heavier. You could leave it out to dry in the sun. You can leave your 300 tarp out in the sun to dry it, which breaks down the silicon waterproofing faster, and it will dry. Or you can pack it up wet.

Don't get me wrong, this camping tarp is nice. Silnylon is awesome. This tarp in fact is great. In my opinion there is no tarp worth $300. The problem I have is that it is nothing special for the price tag it comes with. In fact, you could buy the material for around $10 a yard (about 5 feet usable width). At that price you could buy 8 yards, pay someone to cut it and sew it into a 12x10 and install grommets and even pay a little extra to have reinforced grommets installed where ever you like for less than $100. I priced a Silnylon tarp made of the same nylon as our expensive Big Agnes tarp at, at the time of this blog entry it was on sale at just $6.00 a a yard.


My solution 

I struggled over what to get for a long time. I read reviews and I just couldn't stomach items like the Big Agnes Onyx tarp. I can't afford to spend 300 on a rain fly. I know there are options out there for much less money, the challenge is finding something that I know will be strong, reliable, waterproof, and windproof. I read a lot of reviews online for different products, none of them really seemed to hit all the marks I needed.
I kept coming back to that lawn tarp. Why can't I carry one of those? The stuff at the hardware store was too big and because of the size, too heavy. Often times the hardware store product is also made to be as cheap as possible and in the camping environment that might not hold up.

That's when I found the TexSport RipStop Poly Tarp. It's kind of amazing. At first I thought, surely this would be too heavy. The ship weight said 16oz. That's not bad, in fact, that's pretty awesome when compared to the actual weight of the $300 14oz tent. What about strength? It has ripstop poly nylon fabric through out. It also has some kind of "steel core" string sewn into the edges where the brass grommets are installed. TexSport says that the grommets are sewn in every "3 to 4 feet". I don't know why they struggle to measure that out. Who cares, there are enough grommets for my needs.
I can easily pack down this tarp in a 5x5x7 inch roll is smaller than the Big Agnes Onyx which rolls down to 3x3x14 inches. What about condensation and waterproof? We know both options are waterproof. Because the TexSport let's me set it up anyway I want, I can set it up in a pattern that minimizes or even prevents condensation. Even if that happens, or it rains, the material won't absorb any water. It will just roll off. That means in the morning give it a good shake before you disconnect the other side from the tree and it'll be dry in no time and will weigh the same as the night before.
If I rip it I don't care, I can patch it if the hole is small enough, if not, I can go buy another DAMNED $10.00 TARP!
So let's get kind of an overview of the two tarps:
Lightweight: Both
Sewn In Bits: They've both got everything I need.
Waterproof/Windproof: The TexSport waterproofing is better, both have it though.
Packs Small: The TexSport packs smaller!
Price: $9.95 for the TexSport, $280.00 for the Big Agnes Onyx UL!!

There is another advantage to the TexSport that I found worked much better than the Big Agnes. In the Winter camping with a tarp means wrapping your hammock. Using the rain fly for this sort of thing is handy. The TexSport works better because I'm not afraid to push the tarp a little harder and end up tearing something. I'm also not afraid to do whacky things like tie a not in the end of it to make it bowl shaped. It's also thicker, so the wind protection is better. Something about the Big Agnes felt colder than the tarp. In the end the TexSport tarp is ideal because I can do whatever I feel like doing without the worry of damaging something. Wrapping the tarp outside the under quilt of your tarp helps keep it close and helps block wind. It really makes for a toasty camping experience. In fact I would even go as far as packing a second TexSport for such a thing. I can do that cause it's only 10 damn dollars.

I love my lawn mower tarp. I just can't justify anything more expensive when this does the job so well. I might grow up one day and move to one of those uber-cool adventure man outdoors camping tarps, though it'll take something amazing to tear me away from my simple little lawn tarp.