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If you’re looking to spend an extended period of time in the outdoors, you may have considered different types of shelter. A cabin (or, for the more experienced, a cave) might not always be available, so a form of portable shelter may be a better idea.

In this case, a tent or a tarp would suffice. But what exactly is the difference between the two?

This article will compare these two types of popular outdoor shelters, detailing their definitions, structures, sizes, materials, and uses.

Definition

A tent, in its most basic form. is a type of outdoors structure that features cloth or other fabric stretched over a frame of poles. A tent usually, but not always, has a tent floor of the same material.

A tent may be a stand-alone structure. If it is larger, however, it will usually have cords (known as guy-lines) that attach to the frame — which in turn, attach to tent pegs (or tent stakes) that anchor the tent to the ground.

In comparison, a tarp shelter or tarp is based on a piece of tarpaulin. A tarpaulin is a large, flat piece of cloth or other fabric coated in polyethylene or polyurethane. Tarpaulins are designed to be water-proof by nature and, and like a tent, can be propped up by poles, guy-lines, and tent stakes.

The difference is that a tarp shelter does not necessarily have to reach all the way down to the ground. In fact, most tarp-based shelters are set up in such a way to allow users to walk or look out from under the tarp canopy with ease. A tarp shelter characteristically has at least one single wall, and often no floor.

Structure

Tents can be of many different structures. Gearhungry.com mentions beach tents shaped like domes, smooth drop-shaped waterproof tents, and tall, narrow shower tents. The common factor in all these tents is that they have an internal pole-based skeleton covered by some sort of fabric. Tents can be of all different shapes and designs, but they have at least this in common.

In comparison, a tarp-based shelter does not usually have an internal pole-based skeleton (though poles can be used). Waldenlabs.com says that a tarp can be as simple as an A-frame — that is, a tarp draped over a piece of cord that stretches between two trees. The tarp is then anchored to the ground using stakes, creating a structure with a roof that angles outward at 30 degrees.

Other common tarp structures include the sunshade, cornet, tube-tent, mushroom fly, diamond fly, and arrowhead varieties. Unlike tents, these structures do not necessarily have floors — and certainly do not consist of an internal pole skeleton.

Size

Tents can come in a range of sizes. Goodhousekeeping.com mentions a pop-up tent that weighs less than three pounds and is small enough for a dog or small children, while Tentsntrees.com mentions a 24-foot by 12-foot tent that can hold up to 20 people.

Tents can come in even larger sizes. Popularmechanics.com mentions a 30-foot by 10-foot gazebo canopy tent that can hold up to 50 people, and this is just one of many party-style tents available (Gearhungry.com mentions many different pop-up canopy-style tents, for example).

In contrast, tarps are usually moderately-sized. According to Tripsaavy.com, a single person, or a pair of people, can reasonably be accommodated by a 7-foot by 8-foot tarp. Thehikingadventure.com says an ultralight 12-foot by 12-foot tarp can serve the same purpose.

That said, tarps can reach immense sizes, with some lengths and widths reaching over 100 feet — although these tarps are often used for waterproofing grass fields and construction projects, and not for camping shelters. So when compared to tents, tarps are usually designed to house less people, and for these purposes are normally categorically smaller.

Materials

As tents have an interior pole-based frame, many of them have skeletons made of some hard material. The beach and pop-up tents as described on Gearhungry.com, for example, have lightweight steel wire or fiberglass frames — though aluminum and carbon fiber frames are also common.

The outer materials of tents vary to some degree. According to EUtouring.com tent fabrics can be of cotton (also known as canvas), nylon, polyester, or polyurethane make. Cotton is the most breathable, while nylon, polyester, and polyurethane-based fabrics are waterproof to different degrees.

Tarp materials, except for the obvious lack of an internal skeleton, are somewhat similar. Homestratosphere.com mentions tarps made of canvas and polyester, but also those made of vinyl, PVC, mesh, and cotton-poly blends.

These tarp materials are generally distinguished by their waterproofing abilities. Canvas and polyester are water-proof up to a point, while vinyl and fabrics coated in polyurethane are more water-resistant. In comparison to tents, some of these tarp materials would simply be too heavy for easy portability.

Uses

Different tents serve different purposes. Tomsguide.com mentions “For those hauling their own gear an ultra-light compact tent makes the most sense, while those planning for an extended stay will want more headroom and will be less concerned about the weight.”

Tents may also be better for “extended stays” in general. Wheretheroadforks.com emphasizes that tents offer better protection from wind, rain, and insects, while offering more privacy and a faster set-up. Tents may also make better shelters for large groups overnight.

Tarps, in contrast, might be better for solo journeys, long journeys, motorcycle camping or one-day hunting trips. Wheretheroadforks.com states that tarps are easier to carry and provide greater visibility than tents. In addition to this, you are generally able to start fires safely under tarps, as well as adjust the position of the tarp to suit changing environmental conditions.

Conclusion

Tents and tarps have a lot of differences in their uses and basic structure. But they can be similar in their component materials, as well as in other ways. It is ultimately up to the user to determine the type of purposes and environments for which they will use these structures. Understanding this will help them benefit the most from each type of shelter.

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