Packing for your next backpacking trip requires you to make tough decisions about what will and will not come along. The heavier that something is, the more you tend to ask yourself, “do I really need this?” This is a common thought people have when it comes to their tent footprint- do you really need one, or is it yet another unnecessary item weighing you down?
What is a Tent Footprint?
Tent footprints, also called groundsheets or ground tarps, are, in essence, polyethylene tarps that lay on the ground beneath your tent, separating the tent floor from the earth. The footprint usually has a higher denier– the measurement used for fabric thickness in tents and other synthetics- to stand up to wear and tear.
Sometimes, tents will come with a footprint included. If your tent does not include a footprint, you can usually purchase one for about $40. You also have the option of creating your own groundsheet by cutting a tarp or a sheet of Tyvek to the size of your tent.
Tent Floor vs. Footprint
These are two terms that are easy to get mixed up if you’re a beginner backpacker or just checking things out for the first time. The floor of your tent is the thick, ultra-durable part of the tent that keeps water and dirt out. Footprints do the exact same thing- keep the tent clean, dry, and in one piece- but they are not connected to the actual tent.
What are Tent Footprints Used For?
Your tent footprint puts an extra layer between your tent floor and the bare earth- which, in turn, puts another layer between you and the bare earth. This results in extra protection against moisture, mold, and wear and tear. If you have a tent that cost you a few hundred dollars? You need a good footprint to keep it safe! Just like a good polyester base layer protects your body, a ground cloth protects your tent.
Some of the benefits of using a tent footprint are:
- Moisture Protection: If you’re camping on wet ground or taking a multi-day backpacking trip with unpredictable weather, a tent footprint can be the very thing that prevents you from waking up with a soaked tent. It effectively doubles up on your tent’s waterproof capabilities, meaning it can withstand twice as much water without leaking.
- Mold: Taking a multi-day backpacking trip in a wet area means your tent will be subjected to moisture over and over without a chance to dry out. Even if you aren’t out for multiple days, one night of wet camping can cause tent-ruining mold to form. Using a ground cloth shields your tent from moisture, reducing the chances that mold will form. It’s much easier (and cheaper) to replace a tent footprint than it is to replace an entire ultralight tent.
- Abrasion: Using a tent footprint protects your tent floor from punctures and wear and tear that rough terrain will cause. Rocks, twigs, even a rough tree root on the ground can puncture your tent floor and force you to accept a less-than-ideal camping situation. The solution? Slap a ground cloth down there and let it get beat up by the earth instead! If a tent is staked in loosely, it can slide around on rough ground during the night, causing it to have a much shorter life due to wear and tear.
- Tent Life: Your tent is one of the most expensive parts of your backpacking gear collection. It simply makes sense to invest a little bit of extra money to make sure it lasts for decades, not years! The tent footprint will take all the abuse that you don’t want to subject your tent floor to, a true “take one for the team” sacrificial lamb!
How Much Does a Tent Footprint Weigh?
This is what most people are worried about when it comes to tent footprints. If you’re an ultralight backpacker, or you just want to make some extra room for food/other supplies, it can be hard to give tent footprints a place in your pack.
The average tent footprint weighs somewhere between 0.5 and 1 pound. All things considered, that’s not a ton of extra weight, even though it does add up. The more gear you pack, the quicker you’ll wear out and the less room you’ll have for items that are more essential. For ultralight backpackers, that extra 3/4 pound is simply not worth it. For the rest of us, however, tent footprints are light enough that we shouldn’t have qualms about bringing them along.
Can I Use a Tarp as a Tent Footprint?
Using a tarp from your local hardware store as a ground cloth will work okay, but these tarps take up way too much space in your backpack. A true groundsheet/footprint is lighter, thinner, and folds up much tighter. If you want to make your own tent footprint, order some 20 or 30 denier polyethylene fabric or Tyvek and cut it to size!
When Do (or Don’t) You Need a Tent Footprint?
Even though you really have no reason not to bring a tent footprint, that doesn’t mean you truly need one. Unless you’re camping for multiple days on terrain that you know will be rough or wet, you will probably be fine leaving the tent footprint at home. Also, tents with high denier floors will hold up a lot longer than tents with low denier floors. 20 denier is average and typical for ultralight backpacking tents; 30 or 40 denier is more common with camping tents used at campgrounds. However, bringing a footprint with you can extend the life of your tent by many years.
Camping in dry, clean conditions means that a new tent will stay new for a long time. You won’t need a footprint if the tent you own has a high denier, either. That doesn’t mean that bringing a footprint isn’t a good idea; in fact, it’s never not a good idea. It’s just that footprints aren’t so crucial that you can’t hit the trail without one.
So, do you really have to have a groundsheet? Not technically, but footprints do extend the life of your tent and make camping simpler and cleaner. It’s always a better idea to have one than not to, especially if you’ve invested hundreds in a high-quality tent! But, at the end of the day, you’ll likely be fine without it- so don’t punish yourself if you forget it once in a while.