This post is intended for people who are thinking about using, or have just started using tarps as a shelter method. I want to just show a few very basic configurations that can be put up fairly quickly. They will require one or two trees to put up as I have described them in this post. There are numerous more advanced techniques which can be set up using poles and other methods, but I will not cover any of them here.
For the pictures I am using a DD 10'x10' tarp. For lines I am using simple paracord cut up into different lengths. I use paracord instead of thicker ropes because I have found it to be strong enough, and it significantly saves on weight. The ropes will be one of the heaviest parts of your shelter set up. It is not uncommon to see people carrying a light weight tarp with enough rope to make it weigh more than a three person tent. For stakes I simply use sticks that I sharpen in the field. It adds another 10 minutes to the set up time, but I just see no need to carry them from home.
The first configuration is one of the most basic, and in my opinion most useful and versatile ones. The reason why I say it is versatile is that it can be set up at different heights, offering different types of shelter. You can put it high up, giving you sufficient room to work, or you can place it close to the ground for better rain protection. In more advanced techniques, you can use poles to lift up one side of the tarp, offering better exposure to a fire.
The set up is simple. If you look at the tarp, most likely there will be a centerline of loops. Thread a line through them, and tie each end to two appropriately spaced trees. This is not a post on knots, so use the knots that work best for you. Nothing fancy is required. Along that same centerline of loops, there will be a two additional loops at each end facing outward (on most purpose built tarps). Thread a separate line through each of them, and pulling them tight, tie the lines to each tree. This ensures the tarp is well stretched out. If the trees are far apart, you can tie these two lines to the main centerline with a friction knot instead of tying them to the trees.
Once this is done. Tie short lines to the corners on the tarp (or to as many of the loops that run along the sides as you like), and tie them down to stakes that you place in the ground. I would recommend placing the stakes at an angle, facing away from the tarp. This ensures that the rope will not slide off, and holds the stake more securely in areas where the ground is soft.
When tying the rope to the stakes, I make sure to use a friction know so that I can adjust the tension as I work through all the different points along the tarp.
That is all there is to it. I have found that the set up is fast. The most time consuming part for me tends to be the finding of suitably spaced trees that have a fairly good piece of ground between them.
Another easy set up, which I like a bit less, but is even easier to put up is this:
Here you will use the tarp diagonally. Stake down one of the corners, and just tie the other one to a tree. All you have to do then is go around the tarp and stake down the remaining loops. It is just that simple and it offers good protection.
A variation of the first tarp set up, which offers a huge amount of protection from rain and wind is this:
It is put up exactly like in the first example, with two differences. The loop on one of the ends along the centerline has been staked to the ground instead of tied to the tree, and the corners of the tarp on that end have been tucked in under the tarp. The rest of the loops along the tarp have been directly staked to the ground without the use of any ropes. This creates almost tent like protection, but limits space under the tarp.
None of these set ups are complex, nor do they require any special skills or equipment.
If you are just starting out with tarps, an important tip is to keep a way to isolate a wet tarp from the rest of your gear. This is an easy way to quickly see who has never had to actually use a tarp in the rain. The tarp will protect you from the rain just fine, but when you take it down, you can’t just put it back in you pack. I like to carry a plastic, waterproof bag for the tarp that I can put inside the stuff sack. That way the rest of my gear stays dry. Similarly, I keep my ropes in plastic bags because they get just as wet.