If you’ve ever read any of our tent reviews, you know that there are a lot of expensive (and inexpensive) shelters out there. But regardless of how much you spent, I suspect that most of you will want to keep your tent in good condition for as long as possible.
One of the best ways to preserve your tent is by tossing a footprint underneath it whenever you go camping. We’ll talk about what a footprint is, why it’s so important, and how you can make your own if your tent doesn’t come with one.
What is a Tent Footprint?
A tent footprint (also called a “groundsheet“) is a tarp that goes underneath your tent. Many tents come with their own, custom footprints that are designed to fit the tent perfectly. However, there are plenty of shelters out there (particularly larger ones) that don’t come with a footprint.
They’re usually made out of the same material as the tent itself, but with a higher denier. This means they’re thicker and more durable, which is exactly what you want to see in a fabric that’s resting directly on the ground.
Tent footprints aren’t required for camping, and many backpackers opt to go without them, since they add extra weight. However, to extend the life of your shelter and help keep water out, it’s good to use one when you’re able.
Why Do You Need a Tent Footprint?
Tent footprints might be simple, but they’re incredibly handy to have for a couple of reasons. For starters, you can think of the footprint as a barrier that protects the bottom of your tent. Campsites, especially those located in the backcountry, tend to have rough and jagged landscapes that can damage your tent floor over time. While abrasions are bound to happen sooner or later, placing a footprint underneath your tent can significantly extend the lifespan of the shelter. Not a bad deal, in my opinion, especially considering the price of most tents!
The other benefit of using a groundsheet is water resistance. Tent floors are usually the most durable and waterproof part of a tent, but even they can become oversaturated when exposed to water for extended periods of time. A footprint acts as another waterproof layer between your shelter and the wet ground, making it a lot less likely for you to experience any leaking during heavy rainfall.
Are They Really Necessary?
With all that being said, you may be wondering if a tent footprint is even necessary. And in response to that, I would simply ask, “What do you value?”
Do you value your tent, and ultimately, your finances? If so, you’ll definitely find that a footprint is necessary for extending the longevity of your gear. On the other hand, if you’re an ultralight backpacker, the extra weight created by a footprint might be more than you’re willing to carry. There’s nothing wrong with valuing mobility and weight reduction, so in a case like this, you certainly don’t need a footprint.
However, I don’t believe the majority of you identify as ultralight backpackers, so my advice is to always use a footprint. It might not make a difference during your first, second, or tenth camping trip. But over time, as continual wear and tear happen, you’ll be glad you spent the extra money on one.
What are Footprints Made of?
A tent footprint is usually made out of the same material as the tent itself. In most cases, this means polyester or nylon – two synthetics that each have their strong and weak points.
Nylon is lighter and more stretchy, making it a great choice for ounce counters. At the same time, it lacks a lot of the abrasion resistance, durability and water resistance that you’ll find in a polyester footprint. However, polyester is less stretchy than nylon, and it also tends to weight a little bit more.
Since a footprint is supposed to help with water and abrasion resistance, polyester is automatically the best choice. However, if the weight bothers you, nylon is certainly a good alternative.
How to Properly Use a Tent Footprint
A footprint may just be a tarp, but there is still a right and wrong way to use it. For example, you want your tent to go directly on top of it, covering the footprint completely. There shouldn’t be any edges sticking out, otherwise water may pool on top of the tarp. The pooled water can oversaturate the tent itself, leaking into the structure and compromising your original goal.
Instead, the tent should extend past the footprint by about 2 inches on all sides. Lay it down on the ground after removing any large rocks and sticks that might cause unnecessary damage to the tarp. After pitching your tent on top of it, attach the footprint to your shelter using the buckles, clips, or loops that came with the tarp. If the footprint arrived with your tent, it may have come pre-attached to the bottom of the shelter.
How to Make Your Own Footprint
It’s not too difficult to make your own footprint if the tent you bought didn’t come with one. All you have to do is purchase the material and trim it down to size, making sure that it’s 1-2 inches short of the edge of the tent on all sides. Here are a few of the most common materials that you can purchase to get the job done:
In case you’re not familiar with it, Tyvek is a house wrap that’s used to protect construction projects from the elements. It’s waterproof, puncture resistant, and cheap, making it one of the better options for creating a DIY footprint on a budget. You can easily buy some at a hardware store for about $2.50 per foot, or if you’re lucky, you might be able to find some lying around a construction site.
The downside is that it’s rather bulky and heavy, rendering it unsuitable for backpacking trips. However, car campers won’t find a better material to use when they want to make their own tent footprint.
For a lighter weight option, polycro is the way to go. The lightest of ultralight plastics, polycro is waterproof and puncture resistant, so you can feel confident about its durability in spite of how thin it is. To give you an idea of how impressive this material is, a 96″x48″ sheet of polycro weighs a mere 1.6 ounces. Now, I know we don’t see the world through the lens of ounces, so I’ll give you a visual. A 96″x48″ sheet of polycro = 1.6 ounces = 3 empty soda cans. It doesn’t get much better than that!
But is it too good to be true? Well, that depends on your budget. It’s only natural that such an amazing product would be pretty expensive, but if you’re willing to shell out for the quality, I guarantee you won’t regret it.
And finally, we have good, old-fashioned tarp. It might be basic, but that’s part of the reason why we love it. Cheap, effective, and simple, it’s the most commonly used footprint material for a reason. Just know that it is a bit heavy, so it’s only suitable for car camping and short backpacking trips.
Other Uses for a Tent Footprint
By nature, a footprint is simply a piece of waterproof tarp – about as basic as you can get. Tarps have a wide variety of uses that extend well past being a simple footprint, so you can always use yours in a creative way depending on the circumstances.
If you’re into rock climbing, you can use it as a rope tarp for the crag. While you’re sport climbing, the rope starts off in a pile on the ground, which is a great way to get it dirty if you don’t have a protective layer underneath it.
The same principle applies for picnicking. I know it’s typical to use a blanket to rest on while enjoying a picnic, but a waterproof tarp is so much easier to clean when you’re done.
A footprint can also be used as a rainfly for bivy sacks and hammocks. These are two forms of shelter that don’t often come with their own rain protection, so it’s helpful to have a tarp on hand for emergency situations.
In Case You Don’t Want to Make Your Own…
If you’re having a hard time finding the right materials, or you just don’t want to go through the effort (trust me, I understand) then there are a few simple options that you can use instead.
Outdoor Products all purpose tarp is a great “one size fits all” option. A waterproof tarp with grommets already built in, the only thing you have to do is make a few adjustments until it fits properly under your tent.
There’s also the Rottay camping tarp, specially designed to be used as a footprint or rain tarp. There are a few different size options, so you can tailor your purchase to fit your tent as perfectly as possible. The various loops and grommets make it easy to attach to your shelter as well.
But honestly, my favorite option has to be the Redcamp ultralight tent footprint. It has a lot of the same features as the product by Rottay, but it’s significantly lighter, making it a versatile option for all types of campers. Whether you need a footprint, a rain tarp, a beach blanket, or a makeshift canopy for a barbeque, this is the product for you.