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Should Your Bugout Bag Have a Tent or Tarp? Here’s How to Decide

Bug out bag - tent or tarp - choosing what's right for you

In a bugout situation, a tent or tarp will give you more comfort and protection than the food that you pack or how you keep hydrated. Finding and creating shelter arguably affects your sanity more than any other basic need. We can go without food for days or weeks. With a select tool or with proper planning, we can attain or carry enough water to last a full 72 hours. But suppose we don’t have a proper sheltering plan. We lose the ability to protect ourselves from the elements. We become unable to keep ourselves healthy and in good spirits. Regardless of your preference, a bugout bag should contain a tent or a tarp as a basic form of shelter.

A tarp is a smarter choice for your bugout bag. A tarp is cheaper than a tent and usually weighs less. A tarp is also more versatile and can be used in various situations that a tent may not be suited for. However, tents are far more comfortable and may make more sense for your situation.  For some, it may be best to pack both a tent and tarp in your bugout bag.

There are valid arguments for using both types of shelter. For short term bugout situations, a tarp is what most seasoned survivalists recommend. Are they right?

Reasons to choose a tent over a tarp for your bugout bag:

Does your bug out plan include family members? Having more than one person to pack for makes packing a lightweight tent a feasible plan. One person can carry the tent and a few additional items, leaving the bulk to be carted by others in your party.  For more than two adults, consider packing extra small tents for storage or privacy.

Can you afford the extra costs? Bugging out is supposed to be something that can be done for relatively cheap, though I’m sure everyone who builds a bugout bag makes a concession or two.

A good tent is worth carrying out with you, as long as it doesn’t weigh more than a few pounds. When it comes to tents, cheap isn’t widely used along with the words lightweight or quality. The price of an ultralight tent ranges from a couple hundred to a few thousand dollars.

Could you be bugging out in below-freezing temperatures, with snow or high winds? I don’t deny that there are survival methods for shelter building in any weather. But a good 4-season tent will allow you to focus on other aspects of your survival like foraging for firewood or setting up traps.

Do you have a car/bike or other transportation in your plan? Some might say that planning to leave on foot is the ultimate survival plan. It’s easier to avoid congested highways during evacuations, and that makes sense to me. If your exit plan includes a car or bike, a less-expensive tent is feasible. In this situation, I recommend packing a tarp as well if leaving on foot is suddenly the only way out.

Are you a creature of comfort? Like the wife, some people would prefer to keep as many of the creepy crawlies separated from their living accommodations with the barriers that a tent provides. Some don’t worry too much about sharing space with critters, which might make a tarp a better choice, but it’s something to think about.

Bugout Bag Tent Recommendations

What size of tent for a bug out bag? Planning for one or two people? A small ultralight tent is what you need. The Marmot Tungsten is less than 3 ½ lbs and has a fly that creates two covered outdoor spaces on each side.

I need a massive tent! The Peregrine Gannet 6 Person tent might be a good option. It is one of the most lightweight 3-season tents of this size, and it’s made with quality parts and durable materials. Its full pack weight is 8lbs 4 oz, but it also converts into a fast-flight option, which drops the weight down two lbs.

Need a winterized tent? The Black Diamond HiLight Tent is a two-person tent made for all seasons and is very popular among high-altitude climbers. It’s remarkably light considering it’s a 4 season tent, coming in at a trail weight of only 2 lbs and 10 oz. The downside is that it would need a little extra camouflage to hide the brilliant blue color.

Reasons to choose a tarp over a tent for your bugout bag:

Tarps make for versatile shelters. For a ground shelter, they can be used to protect you from some weather, but they can also be used as an above-ground hammock.  If you have two tarps, you can use one as a hammock and the other as a topper shelter. Or, create a bed out of less-pointy flora and use one tarp as a mattress cover, the other as your shelter.

Better Utilization of Fire. Help to keep warm and comfortable by appropriately placing a campfire near your tarp structure. It’ll help keep you warm and stays ventilated, unlike a tent. And as long as you’re smart about its placement, it won’t catch fire.

Easy Packing. A tarp is a giant square or rectangle. It’s pretty easy to fold up and store. Some nylon tarps fold up into unbelievably small packets and weigh only a few ounces. Instead of dragging poles out, you can make your own supports using trees, sticks, ropes, and rocks.

And even more versatility. A sturdy tarp can be used as a shelter at night, but it can also be used in many ways to support your survival efforts.

  • Collect rainwater
  • Hide/camouflage stashes
  • Make animal traps
  • create privacy screens for a camp privy or shower
  • build a survival tarp raft
  • Use as a stretcher to pull an injured person
  • Use as a blanket to trap body heat

Tarps are the Inexpensive Choice. Though you can drop a pile of money on a tarp, you definitely don’t have to spend much to get a good one. Keep in mind that new material technologies and manufacturing will price some tarps much higher, but not necessarily at any real benefit. Just remember that nylon tarps are light, but old school polyester tarps will keep you drier and will likely hold up longer.

Bugout Bag Tarp Recommendations

What size tarp for a bug out bag? Tarps are pretty universally lightweight, but they are not all the right size. For one to two people, an 8’ by 10’ tarp is plenty big and should weigh no more than a couple of pounds.

What features do I need? At a minimum, your tarp should be waterproof and have a way to tie it down. At the bare minimum, the tarp should have some grommets or ties on each edge, and don’t forget paracord. Don’t forget to practice your knot-tying skills.

A great bare-bones blue poly tarp is available everywhere for less than $20, like this one at Amazon.

For a lighter-weight option, the Peregrine Ultralight Tarp is a decent choice. It’s only 1¼ lbs and utilizes silicone waterproofing and taped seams. I like this one because it has extra loops inside to hang a flashlight. This is my favorite for hammock camping, but it is not cheap. However, it is definitely less expensive than an ultralight tent.

Even if you choose a tent to shelter in, a tarp is still a good idea. Maybe even a few tarps. And some paracord.

Choosing a Tent or Tarp: A Final Word

Over the years, I’ve learned that everyone has an opinion on what should be packed in their bugout bag. My recommendations on choosing a tent or tarp are my own, based on the understanding that not everybody can live on the barest of necessities. And if they’re willing to make sacrifices elsewhere, a person shouldn’t have to live under a tarp if they don’t want to.

For beginners, family people, or creatures of comfort, an ultralight tent might be the better option.

If you need to build your bugout bag on the cheap, a tarp is the best place to save money. If you’re new at this, get your tarp and paracord and go sleep outside for a night. The best way to get comfortable with a tarp shelter is to practice using one.

Whatever opinions you read, you should do you. I personally prefer a tarp, but with a wife and small kids to keep safe, a tent makes more sense at this point in our lives.

The one point most agree on is that shelter is an important part of your emergency preparedness plan. So go forth and prepare.  Give your plan a dry-run and find out where it’s lacking before an emergency situation shows you.