Colin Ibbotson on Using a Tarp in the UK

As regular readers will know, Colin Ibbotson is one of the most high profile, ultra light, backpackers in the UK.

The Colin Ibbotson pages now feature an article he has produced that considers his own experience of using tarps in the UK. He describes the tarp that he will be using for the 2009 TGO Challenge and considers how his equipment might develop over time.

Colin Ibbotson Talks Tarps


  1. Thanks Colin and Andy. Interesting stuff. I’ll wait until Colin has made the perfect tarp before I go tarping!

  2. Sean Nordeen says

    I notcied Colin has experimented with closing the ends of the tarp off. Has he tried tarps with beaks that early US UL pioneer Ray Jardine advocated. It offers increase protection from the weather and still offers great ventilation. Oware in the US has a picture of a cuben fiber version on their website’s front page (if you scroll down) called a cat bird tarp.

  3. Colin Ibbotson says

    Sean I have tried beaks and I did have a picture of a Saunders Jetpacker tent that I converted to a beaked tarp that unfortunately didn’t make it into the final article. I haven’t found a beak to be that much use in UK conditions. When pitched correctly with the tail into wind then the front on the tarp is always naturally protected. The only time I could think of when a beak would be useful would be on a still winter night with swirling snow.

  4. Colin Ibbotson says

    Robin. I think my near perfect tarp isn’t that far away. My goal next year is to get you under a tarp at least once! Perhaps I should organise a tarping weekend for beginners?

  5. The Saunders Photo will be back in soon. Not sure what happened to that but I’ve retrieved it. Apologies.

  6. Good idea Colin. Bob Cartwright has been promising to do something like that for a while. Perhaps, we need to pool our resources?

  7. I agree with Colin about the beak. A caternery cut tarp usually has a bit of a beak effect. In bad weather you pitch the tarp quite low. There’s tons of room for you to move under the tarp. I’ve had mine in bad rain and wind and getting wet has never been a problem (apart from water seepingu p through the ground, but that’s another story).

  8. Tarping for beginners, I like the sound of that. I’ve actually got everything I need apart from…. a tarp! I was thinking of using the flysheet of my ME AR Ultralite as a sort of tarp next year along with my spinnaker Laser Comp underlay. If you tie back the two doors, it’s quite close to a tarp. I have to weigh the fly on its own, but I expect it’ll be about 700g. You can use walking poles as tent poles for it, so it could be quite a good half way house.

  9. That would work Robin, but it will be nowhere near as good as a real tarp.

    Most people worry about the putting of tarps, me included. But it is surprising how quickly you get the hang of it. Knots were the other big problem (for me anyway) but the new line locs seem to have made a big difference. I’ve a set of line locs but have not opened the packet yet. Must try them.

    A beginners tarp overnighter would be really good. We should wait to the better weather to really have a crack at it – don’t want to put people off for good.

    Where would be a good venue? Scotland? The Lakes? Suggstions welcome

  10. Definitely summer! Lakes would be more convenient for most people, myself included. Brecon Beacons or Dartmoor are other possibilities for us down south. LineLoks are excellent.

  11. Dartmoor? Not sure Colin goes that far South – he might get a nose bleed 🙂

  12. Let get put it this way. Two brothers go for a walk. Each is identically equipped except one has a Laser Competition which weights 940g the other his tarp and bivy bag total 595 + 300 = 895g in total. Lets say it is raining and gusting to 30mph. It’s late and there 300ft up on a Munro. They camp. The tent user has his up quick. He pitches it end into the wind and its fine. Shortly he is sitting up with a brew on. The porch has lots room for his wet kit and the bathtub floor keeps him dry from the damp ground. He relaxes in the inner tent warm, his kit drying in the porch. The tarp user has to pitch it low to prevent the wind blowing it away and crawl under. Bivy bag laid out. Does he take his damp clothing of easily slithering under the tarp on the wet ground. He crawls in to his bivy (clothing of or on?) and fumbles to cook laying down. Be honest would you wish you had carried 45g more for the comfort and space of a tent. It has doors to open to see a view and keeps your kit dry from wet ground. I don’t see any advantages from tarps in the UK and don’t think they offer anyone any thing on the Challenge. I would happily share a wildcamp on a Munro summit with a tarp user to show me I’m wrong next year. I am on the Challenge. Cairngorms be OK.

  13. Heavy tarp combination Martin!

  14. Colin Ibbotson says

    Martin the weight of 595g includes the bivi! Sorry if i didn’t make that clear.

  15. Colin Ibbotson says

    We will do the tarping weekend. All will be welcome, hopefully Martin will come along and give it ago. I’m sure i could come south just once!

  16. I have just a premonition. Its a little foggy but I see a an empty field -no wait a munute there’s Martin sitting Buddha like, cup of Earl grey in hand within his Scarp 1.
    The surrounding hills and trees seem to be draped in tattered shreds of sailcloth, Tyvek etc.
    Don’t worry my premonitions are always rubbish.

  17. Thanks Colin for clearing that up. I read ..”I found that a properly constructed and pitched 600g shelter can survive in UK winter conditions without me lying awake all night worrying when it will collapse”.. So the bivy weight was added.

    So we are talking 400g. What can 400g offer. Lets see:

    • A porch and full shelter from the rain
    • Inner tent and warmth
    • More protection from the wind
    • Being able to sit up and cook in the porch
    • Space to lay out it safe from damp ground
    • A bathtub ground sheet keeping dry from that damp ground
    • Comfort
    • No need to be cocooned in a bivy bag night after night
    • Protection from condensation (bivy bags get that)
    • No need to have all my spare clothing on in camp to keep warm from the wind ripping through my shelter

    I could go on and have recorded my view on tarps and there use in the UK or Challenge. Andy you don’t seem to keen on using one in May. Does that not show there limitations. Take your Akto it wont kill you that extra kilo. Train a bit harder, walk a bit more before May and you’ll be fine. Colin, good luck to you. Thing is your still trying to make it work. If tarping was suitable to the UK wet and windy conditions you would be there already. But good luck anyway. Any tarp users on the Challenge I am up for that Munro summit wildcamp, let me know if you think the tarp is up to it.

  18. Martin,

    My Challenge this year will be with my partner Kate. She needs her tent. I can get her tarping for a night or two but no more. Last time out we had a horrific time. A double tarp is big and more problematic in the wind. We will be taking a Super Solar 2.2, which is about 1 kilogram each and quite luggable that way.

    Last year – had I got in – I would have been doing the Challenge solo. I was considering using a tarp and probably would have. This would have effected my route and my usual habits of walking. I’d have to think more carefully about campsites and probably would have finished walking earlier than usual. In the event the weather conditions were perfect for it.

    That being said, I’ve talked a lot about this here. When the weather is bad there is something to be said about just collapsing into your tent. My Akto can go up in an instant – blindfold.

    If the weather had been worse I would have investigated something like the Hex shelter, or maybe one of the similar, lighter alternatives from the US.

    I’m not as hard core as Colin. I look at the weather forecast to see how things are going to be. I tend not to tarp in the winter. I find torrential rain to be no problem, but wind is more challenging. One night of constant tarp adjustment is passable – but two weeks?

    My last trip to Scotland was in the summer when I took an Akto (midges). This was fine and I guess my pack weight (without supplies) was well below 8 kilograms. The Akto was welcome. Next year I shall experiment with the MLD Bug Bivy.

    For the Challenge I reckon the first target is to get weight below 10 kg. This seems to be something of a magic number with anything under this becoming much more manageable. Mind you, four or five days of food makes a big difference!

    Next year I shall be walking for four days at a time without resupply, and for me that means carrying 5 days of basic food. I could put in some hostel stops in the Torridon/Cullin area but then I really want to stay wild camping if I can.

    Colin lightens his load further by thinking carefully about supplies. He doesn’t drink warm drinks for example, heating only an evening meal and saving on fuel and stove weight.

    The great thing about the Challenge is that it represents a personal Challenge and everyone can make of it what they will. Colin’s personal challenge is to tread as lightly as possible and I respect him for that.

    Me, I just am happy if I avoid getting lost too often 🙂

  19. Sounds a good plan Andy. I hope those who have little experience of Scotland take head if they plan to use a tarp. You pointed out a couple my objections.

    I have always argued they restrict route choices. You said..”This would have effected my route and my usual habits of walking. I’d have to think more carefully about campsites and probably would have finished walking earlier than usual”.. Those taking a tarp consider that.

    On the weather I still say there not suited to the UK. You said..”I find torrential rain to be no problem, but wind is more challenging. One night of constant tarp adjustment is passable – but two weeks?”.. Challenging stuff.

    It will run and run this debate. I don’t say they wont work in the right sort conditions. Short over night in summer maybe. But not a fortnight in Scotland.

    On sub 10kg. I reckon that is a good weight to get a pack weight down to. Have fun planning that and lets hope for good weather.

    PS don’t forget the GPS to stop that getting lost bit 😉

  20. Colin Ibbotson says

    Martin. Thanks for your opinions. I will just clear up a couple of inaccuracies with your points.

    • A porch and full shelter from the rain
    • Being able to sit up and cook in the porch

    A tarp is one big porch, in there you have much more room to cook safely and store gear than in any backpacking tent. Sitting up is no problem, with a height of 120cm at the front why would it be? And of course you are fully protected from the rain.

    • Inner tent and warmth
    • More protection from the wind
    • No need to have all my spare clothing on in camp to keep warm from the wind ripping through my shelter

    The bivi bag is the inner tent, in there you are fully protected from any wind. It has also been well documented that bivi bags add a few degrees to the rating of the sleeping bag.

    • A bathtub ground sheet keeping dry from that damp ground

    Bivi bags also have a full bathtub ground sheet so no difference there.

    • Protection from condensation (bivy bags get that)

    Water resistant bivi bags suffer little with condensation problems, the only place condensation is likely to form is on the groundsheet just the same as with a tent. Waterproof bivi bags aren’t so good but eVent is very condensation resistant.

    • Space to lay out it safe from damp ground
    • No need to be cocooned in a bivy bag night after night

    Fair points. That’s something you learn to live with.

    •Thing is your still trying to make it work. If tarping was suitable to the UK wet and windy conditions you would be there already.

    I’m an engineer and a perfectionist if I think something can be improved even slightly then I will. Tarping in UK isn’t the norm and no commercial tarps are ideal so I have had to try different designs and materials etc. This has taken a lot of time but I’m very close to what I think is the perfect UK tarp.

    •Any tarp users on the Challenge I am up for that Munro summit wildcamp, let me know if you think the tarp is up to it.

    Fortunately the Cairngorms are my local playground and where most of my testing is done!

  21. Colin when I see your photos I see a low pitched tarp most times. How can you sit up when its raining and blowing 30mph?

    Is cocooned in a bivy comfy night after night with water pooling around you from wet ground?

    Condensation in bivy bags seems to be a ongoing debate with I think I recall other forums discussing that. Anyway its a debatable topic.

    Cairngorms your local.. I’m envious. You camp high then? do you have lots of high-level camp photos of the tarp in use? Just I don’t see photos much of them pitched high in the UK. I see lots of valley scenes due to needing more protection from the wind. Hence my point on route restriction.

    Ever way good luck for the Challenge and safe crossing. Honest when I say I hope it works out for you. Just when its blowing a stonker in the Cairngorms I want to be pitched in a tent in a good spot.

  22. Colin Ibbotson says

    Martin it may look low pitched from the photos but I can assure you that it’s actually 120cm at the front which is certainly higher than an Akto. I nearly always have the rear low to keep out any rain but rarely have the front lower than 120cms. I don’t pick routes that stay low because I’m carrying a tarp. Like you I prefer high level camping. On this years Challenge I had two camps at over 1000m and a few more not that much lower. Of course I’m flexible and if the weathers particularly bad then I may change where I planned to camp just the same as I would if using a lightweight backpacking tent. My tarp isn’t as bombproof as an Akto but I would say it compares well to a Laser Competition which are very popular on the Challenge.

  23. Sounds good if you can sit up. The Laser Comp is good by the way. I use the bigger Laser and its as good as an Akto any day. The comp pitched right is superb. Just a mention as the Laser does seem to be undervalued. On tarps I will be impressed when I camp on a Munro summit with someone using one and their refreshed and fine in the morning. Still not convinced am I….See you on the Challenge.

  24. Colin Ibbotson says

    See you on the Challenge Martin.

  25. To me, his debate seems to be about two distinct issues: style and competence. I admire Colin’s style, and am in awe of his abilities. Some, like Martin, are cabable of a safe and comfortable night out in a tarp, but choose a different style. I suspect that, compared to Colin, I am an incompetent buffoon who in U.K. winter or on the TGO would miss the margin for error supplied by my (light) tent , though I’ve used tarps in U.S. summers and gentle springtimes.

    I’d really enjoy a chance to try some tarp camping under Colin’s (and/or Bob’s) tutelage. It looks like I might be in the U.K. next summer, and if the dates jibe, I’d make a real effort to attend.

    Regardless, it’s fascinating to watch Colin close in on his ultimate tarp.

    Cheers, all.

  26. Space to watch.

    I agree with Colin’s comments. My points on choosing routes were more to do with my current tarp, rather than tarps in general.

    There is far more room and headroom in my tarp than in my Akto. Like Colin my bivy bag has a bathtub floor and a bug net.

    Biggest problem for a Challenge? Adjusting tarp in the middle of the night!

  27. James B says

    For me, one of the greatest things about the outdoors is the sense of freedom, personal choice and responsibility for your own actions. I don’t use tarps but I have absolutely nothing against people who do. Same as I have nothing against people who choose to walk ‘heavyweight’ and carry the kitchen sink when backpacking. That’s their decision and they are responsible for it – that’s one of the fantastic things about the outdoors. Some of the posts on here are determined to deconstruct every aspect of tarp use which I think is a shame. There is no harm is using them and fair play to people like Colin who are doing things their way and making their own choices in the outdoors. That’s the way it should be.

  28. James,

    You are spot on. I think using a tarp is a great experience, not for all the year perhaps, and not for everyone.

    Like with much of life, the tarp argument seem to be deconstructed by folks that have never tried it!

    I don’t think either Colin or I are evangelical about them, rather we provide something of a hub around which people can come and talk about tarps, ask questions and share experiences.

    My piece in TGO a couple of months ago highlighted for me the best part of it, the closer link with nature and the outdoors.

    Even if people only use a tarp once or twice a year, good weather, they will be exposing themselves to a new experience.

    As for the kitchen sinks you’ll see quite a few of these on the Challenge. Each to their own. I can’t lift some of these packs off the luggage rack in the train. How they can lug them across Scotland is beyond me. But they do, and they have my undying admiration!

  29. “A beginners tarp overnighter would be really good.” Count me in!

  30. To assume those who oppose or “deconstruct every aspect of tarp use” Andy as people who have not used them is a bit assuming. Myself, well truth be told along time ago. I was in the army cadets and we spent many a night in the wood under tarps. We got shown how to use them. Is that relevant to the light modern ones you use. In some ways no, but I do have a clue about wildcamping and hill craft. An opinion is always challenged. Post on the merits of tarps and you’ll find that. Post on trail shoes and some will argue against that as well.

    Did Cameron in his debate on tarps with you not have experience with tarps and was he guilty of deconstructing tarp use? Chris Townsend uses tarps but not on the TGO, why? It is not that we think there no good. It is about questioning there suitability in the UK. Some would say that backpackers in the Pacific North West favour tents still due to the wet and wild weather they experience there compared to other parts of the US. Your own writings explore the challenges that tarping has compared to a tent. No one is saying your choice is wrong. I have just challenged the arguments of tarps over tents. Like trail shoes over boots, and meths stoves vs gas. It is about discussing equipment and its use in the hills.

  31. There is nothing wrong with challenging choices – but one is better or right.

    As for Cameron, he was just trying to create a but of energy for his relaunch – I don’t take any of that seriously 🙂

    If you ever want a laugh, just ask Cameron about why he has never walked the Challenge!

  32. Martin, unless I’ve misread something no where on Colin’s or Andy’s posts claim that tarps are better than tents. So I’m a bit bemused that you feel the need to challenge the arguments of tarps over tents. Especially ironic as you were the one to post the argument of tents over tarps in the first place, nice one :0)

    BTW I now understand why you aren’t keen on life under a single sheet of cuban fibre. That experience in the cadets has clearly had a lasting effect.

    Give it ago next summer and put it all behind you.

  33. Baz all I know is Colin talks a lot sense in pointing out the challenges the UK weather conditions posse to tarp use and I have enjoyed the chat with him, Andy (great blog and keep it coming). It is good to talk about different styles, posse questions and learn. Better still to go to the hills. What ever kit folks use on the Challenge good luck to them and safe crossing to all. As for you Baz it was good to meet up – lets do a backpack sometime.

  34. Colin Ibbotson says

    Debates are good and Martins opinions are just as valid as mine or anybody else’s. The point of the article was to show that it is possible to use a tarp year round in the UK with only some minor inconveniences. I have not said that a tarp is better than a tent but that it is a valid option should you want that. With suitable tarps available that save 350-800g off the weight of the two most popular tents (Laser Competition & Akto) anybody that seriously wants to save some weight should at least consider them. A tarp is a pure and raw camping experience that will not appeal to all but unless you try it you will never know. I’m not a risk taker and do not find pleasure in being wet and cold but a tarp if used properly you keep you safe, warm and dry, and just possibly you will enjoy your precious hill time that little bit more. There is certainly a period of adaptation needed and that’s probably best done slowly over a few months during. Perhaps a good way to start would be by ditching your inner tent and just using the fly first. Then maybe a tarp with an enclosed rear will certainly offer excellent protection before finally going for the full monty! That’s certainly the path I took and I’m very glad I did.

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