Ground cloths are an item used for backpacking and camping that is often not thought about too much. You buy a tent, get some sort of plastic to go underneath it, and call it good.
But is a ground cloth needed? Are there more choices beyond the expensive ‘tent footprints’ sold at your local outfitter or the ubiquitous blue-tarp sold at hardware stores?
There are indeed choices beyond these two standards that are lighter, less expensive and even more effective. If one is needed at all…
Read more to find out.
Updated for 2018.
Is a ground cloth needed for a tent?
There are many choices of the simple ground cloth to choose from. But, is one needed at all?
Conventional wisdom states that a ground cloth is needed to protect the floor from sharp rocks, sticks, stones and presumably Mole Men tunneling from beneath the tent and kidnapping unsuspecting campers.
But consider that hundreds of thru-hikers put on thousands of trail miles every year. Many of these people do not use ground cloths in conditions ranging from the heavily wooded Appalachian Trail to the desert conditions of the Arizona Trail.
The shelters used are lightweight and perhaps not as robust as the traditional tents that allegedly require the use of bulky and expensive “fitted tent footprints.”
Yet these lighter shelters do not get punctured, ripped or torn (mainly 😉 ). A little careful scoping out of a potential spot and pre-clearing rocks and brush does wonders.
Another reason many backpackers advocate ground cloths is to keep out water. It seems even the most carefully fitted ground cloth (a few inches smaller than the tent floor) will eventually get moisture in between the tent floor and the ground cloth. It will keep moisture in and cause condensation and moisture to build up in the tent. Not good!
So, in my opinion (and it’s just that, my opinion. Not a fact. ;) ), a ground cloth is generally not needed for the backpacker who takes a little care with their gear in addition to choosing a site and clearing it appropriately.
There are exceptions, however.
So, when is a ground cloth needed?
There are times when a ground cloth is admittedly a good investment:
A backpacker that mainly “cowboy camps” and use a tarp
For the backpacker that enjoys sleeping under the stars and only uses a tarp in inclement weather, a simple ground cloth is an excellent item to have. Throw it down, put your sleeping pad and sleeping bag on top and enjoy the night sky above. The ground cloth will help protect and keep the dirt out of your sleeping bag and pad, help organize gear a bit and help protects the backpacker from any dew or ground moisture.
A backpacker that uses a floorless shelter
Some shelters such as the Megamid do not have the floor for weight saving reasons. A ground cloth that is smaller than the total footprint of the shelter weighs less and serves the same function as the ground cloth for the cowboy camper above.
Using a shelter or lean-to in such areas as the Appalachian Trail
As others pointed out to me, the wooden floors on the AT style shetlerts can be dirty and hard on inflatable pads.
A backpacker or camper that beats on the gear or routinely camps in areas that will rough on a tent
Anyone who regularly beats on their equipment, camps in areas that are not ‘gentle’ to tents (some established car campgrounds, very rocky soil, etc.) may indeed want to use a ground cloth to protect their tent.
Peace of mind
If someone is absolutely convinced a ground cloth is needed for their tent, that they probably should get it. They are not expensive and only add a few ounces. All these ‘just in case’ gear items add up, however…
I really need or want a ground cloth. What ground cloth should I buy?
If you decide you need or want a ground cloth for your style of backpacking or camping, then there are a few popular choices.
I will add that if you use a ground cloth for a tent, be sure that it is ~2″ shorter than the tent floor itself. If it is too big, the ground cloth will collect any rain underneath the tent.
I would not suggest trenching as that type of activity is frowned upon in all but emergency situations. Likewise with a more extensive ground cloth and making a lip. Modern tents with bathtub floors and proper site selection are more efficient than these older methods.
The blue tarp. Seems to be found at every KOA campground, Boy Scout Jamboree and more than one minimalist backpacker has used it as a shelter. And why not? They are inexpensive, reasonably light, reasonably sturdy, and versatile.
They might be overkill for the typical backpacker, however. There are lighter alternatives available. If you are going car camping, they are most useful for a sunshade, a makeshift rain vestibule, and other items around camp. Not a bad item to take for similar reasons if you are base-camping and don’t wish to spend the money on a more expensive tarp. The blue-tarp also works well for a dirt-bagger shelter for a person on a budget. Probably would not use it for a ground cloth, though.
- Use for: A backpacker on a budget, a versatile item if you are car camping or base camping
The Patagucci standard: The fitted footprint
These fitted tent footprints are sold at such stores as REI and EMS to protect your tent. Typically has shock cords or similar to hook directly into a specific tent, they are expensive and cumbersome (adds as much as 16 oz to an already heavy shelter). Like the blue tarp, there are better alternatives. Unlike the blue tarp, they are not cheap, they are not versatile, and they have no practical use.
- Use for: For the backpacker who likes to spend money on un-need items. 🙂
A classic: Painters Drop Cloth (Polyethylene)
Another old warhorse that works well for those on a budget and wants something light that is still durable. A thicker 6mil is bomber, but heavy. A 2mil ground cloth is very light but not too durable for many people. The 3mil seems about right for a compromise between durability and lightness. An ~3’x7′ piece is 3 oz or so for this grade. Other grades are heavier or lighter, depending. Large rolls can be bought if outfitting a lot of people (such as a Boy Scout troop). A slight disadvantage is that the drop cloths do not breathe at all and condensation can build up underneath over the course of a night.
- Use for: A very durable, lightweight and inexpensive solution that works esp. well for large groups
The new classic: Tyvek
A quick way of describing Tyvek is Goretex for houses. Tyvek keeps out the moisture and lets moisture escape. The same properties of Tyvek that works well for housing also work well for a ground cloth. Often found for free near construction sites (ask for some scraps!), it can also be bought online. An approx 5′ x 7′ section is about 7 oz. (as always, cut down to make it lighter) Tyvek is relatively rugged and is reasonably light. It is a nice compromise between weight, price, and durability vs. other items. Flybox gear sells Tyvek at .99 per linear foot at 3′ widths. Some people advocate washing the Tyvek to make it softer, less noisy, and to make it stuff easier without using it many times first.
Cloth grade Tyvek that is often used for kites can also be bought online. This Tyvek is not as stiff as the construction grade, stuffs into a pack easier, and is not as noisy out of the box. This type of Tyvek is not quite as durable and tends to wet-out after a while. Still, it’s properties may be desirable vs. the construction grade Tyvek of above. Less common in use vs. the construction grade.
- Use for: The happy-medium between price, weight, and durability for general backpacking and camping
An Ultralight version of Tyvek: DCF (Cuben Fibre) ground cloths
The DCF ground cloths are light for their size, versatile, breathe well, and somewhat durable especially if a site is chosen with care. A little less than half the weight of Tyvek. However, they are costly! A budget version is $85 and up to $170 for a hyped-up version that weighs 4 oz. The weight is attractive, but if you are looking for a straight up ground cloth instead of something versatile too, other options are going to be just as light and budget friendly if not quite as durable. As an FYI, it should be noted the long-term durability of DCF is in question. But nothing some repair tape can’t handle as it is just a cloth after all.
- Use for: A hiker who wants lightweight versatility and does not mind spending the money.
For the ultra-lite hiker: Polycryo / Window Shrink Wrap Insulation
Polycryo and shrink-wrap Window Insulator are very similar and are both made from polyolefin. These choices of ground cloths are very light (About quarter of the weight of Tyvek and even lighter than DCF) and inexpensive. Not quite as durable as DCF or Tyvek, this choice is durable enough for those who use camp mainly for sleeping and not spending a lot of time in camp. The main disadvantage is that polycryo has the same (minor) condensation problem as the painters drop cloth. The main issue is that polycryo can also shrink in hot weather up to 2″ in width and 5″ in length. NOT suggested for very hot weather hiking. Probably does not apply to most people.
- Use for: The all-day hiker who wants the absolute lightest ground cloth that is still reasonably rugged and will not be in hot hiking conditions.
These are some of the more popular and well-known ground cloth types depending on your needs, budget, and trip aims. Which one you purchase may work better than other choices.
The overall summary of these choices?
- Want to go cheap, durable, inexpensive, and versatile? Blue tarp
- Inexpensive, sells for different thicknesses and weights depending on needs of durability vs lightness, or buying for large groups? Painters drop cloth
- A good mix of durability and lightness, and proven for backpacking use? Construction-grade Tyvek
- Many of the qualities of Tyvek, somewhat less durable but lighter, and don’t mind spending the money? DCF ground cloth
- Want the lightest choice that also happens to be inexpensive and a need for durability is not the main issue? Polycryo/Windowshrink insulation