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The Many Uses Of Tarps For Survival and Prepping

Avatar for Samantha Biggers Samantha Biggers  |  Updated: July 3, 2019
The Many Uses Of Tarps For Survival and Prepping

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Tarps are one of the most versatile things out there. Everyone should have a few tarps as part of their preps.

The smaller sizes are of course lighter and easy to carry. 8 ft by 10 ft is about the largest one you want for portability but you may want one that is much larger for other uses.

Tarps come in different thicknesses and vary a lot in cost depending on quality.

Tarps can cost much more than you would expect. When my husband Matt and I decided to live in an old 1978 camper that nothing worked in we immediately bought an RV grade tarp and put it over the camper because camper roofs are notorious for getting leaks especially older ones that have been sitting for years and not maintained much.

We managed to live in that camper for two very snowy and cold winters with no leaks. You get what you pay for when it comes to tarps. There is nothing wrong with the classic inexpensive blue ones for some uses but do realize that they have a lifespan and you should expect to replace them sooner the lower the quality and price point. There may be some exceptional tarps that have a lower price point. and if you know of any, in particular, please share in the comments below.

Water Distillation

To distill water with a tarp you have to hang it up over a boiling or steaming pot of water and catch the runoff. Of course, this must be done with care and the water could be a bit smokey.

Tent or Tent Cover

Tarps are great for providing an extra cover over your tent for increased water protection. You can also make a shelter out of just it if you have too.

An extra barrier between you and the ground.

Who has woken up to a soggy tent? Well, this gal sure has. A tarp can provide an extra barrier between you and the ground. It can also prevent tears and rips to your actual tent if you are camping in rough terrain. A good tent is worth protecting and if a cheaper one is all you got and you are in a survival situation, a tarp is going to help you get the most out of it.

Temporary cover for projects

You cannot always finish a project in one day and a tarp can sure help keep things protected while you work on something.

Covering hay

You have to be careful about covering hay too well because tarps can trap moisture and cause rot. Just make sure that your hay is perfectly dry before covering or at least take the tarp off once in a while to let andy trapped moisture out.

Roof leak relief

A leak should be addressed as soon as possible but you might not be able to get a repair done before the next rain. A well-placed tarp can prevent further damage until a real repair can be made. This should be temporary though.

Use to drag heavier objects

Sure I know that dragging a loaded tarp on the ground is going to cause it to wear out faster or tear but if you need to drag something it is something to consider.

Remember that you can also use it as a gurney to get an injured person to a safer location.

Catch rainwater

If a tarp is sound it can hold quite a bit of water that can be used for filtering and drinking, cleaning, or cooking.

Poke holes and use as a strainer or fish net

There are times when having something to strain things comes in very handy! In some streams, you may be able to add some extra protein to your diet by using even just part of a tarp as a fish net.

Covering up windows that are damaged

A broken or damaged window can be troublesome but a tarp can cover it up until you can get it fixed permanently.

To stay warm and prevent shock

Although a tarp is not as warm as an emergency blanket, it can be used to help someone or even multiple people stay warm and dry or not go into shock during an emergency or traumatic incident.


Tarps can be cut into strips and braided for additional strength and durability. It will be very strong and rot resistant.

Keeping firewood dry

I still don’t have a woodshed up here on the mountain. We regularly use tarps and pieces of tin to cover the wood. Building the house, the vineyard, and a lot of other work has just taken precedent.  A real woodshed is coming soon but until then a tarp is nice. Just make sure to throw it off once in a while or make sure that there is some air flow so that moisture doesn’t just build like to does with hay.

Windbreak when trying to start or maintain a fire under bad conditions

Trying to start a fire can be challenging enough in a survival situation. Getting a little flame going only to have the wind blow it out can be a major bummer. A tarp can be used to provide a windbreak. Just be careful to place the tarp so it doesn’t get damaged by fire. You may have to move it once you get your fire going so keep a good watch.

Covering and camouflaging supplies and gear

A camo, brown, or green tarp will work well for covering your gear if you need to stash it or are making an attempt at keeping a low profile.  You can even pile branches and other natural materials on top and around it to hide it even further.

Signaling For Help

A brightly colored tarp will make it much easier for others to spot you. Even a classic blue colored tarp can work well in a wooded or desert-like environment. On the water, you are of course going to want something different. The brighter colored tarps are not as easy to find at brick and mortar stores so ordering might be the easiest way to get your hands on a few.

Trapping two and four-legged predators

To create a trap you could dig a hole and cover it with a tarp. You have to make sure to weigh down the edges. This can be done with dirt or stones. Place leaves and other materials on the tarp to make it look like the surrounding area, just make sure you don’t pile on so much in the middle that it sags a lot.

For a more lethal trap, you can sharpened sticks and push them into the dirt. My dad saw this plenty during the Vietnam War but the other side would rub feces on the sticks to encourage infection to set in during the tropical heat.

Tarps are good for making privacy shields

For showering, bathing, or toilet needs, a tarp can be placed so that you can have more privacy. While you may think that the woods are very private, if you have to camp with others or put together a long-term camp location, privacy is something that will come up at some point.

Sure you can go further away to do some things, but that could pose a risk if conditions are not safe. Also, who wants to walk hundreds of feet to do basic things in a long-term emergency if they can avoid it?

Raincoat or poncho

If you find yourself in a rainy situation then you will be thankful to have a tarp on hand. Even a small tarp is plenty big enough for one or more persons to get under and walk out of a situation or at least big enough to cover a single person with a large pack!

Useful Accessories and Gear For Making The Most of Your Tarp


This lightweight yet strong cord should be in everyone’s pack. It can be used for so many things such as tieing a tarp down or stretching it out to make a roof or shelter. If you haven’t already read our post on paracord uses, I recommend taking a look.

Duct Tape

While you may not want to have a huge roll of duct tape in your pack, it is something that you might want to consider since it is so useful. Duct tape can be used for patching holes in tarps or to bind a tarp around something.

Tent Stakes

You can make these using sticks and your pocket knife if you need to. At the same time, some lightweight metal ones are nice to just have in your bag, so you don’t have to waste any time putting up your shelter.

Make sure you buy the right size for a specific task and allow for odd shapes that add to the length.

Without measuring it can be difficult to decide what size you need for specific tasks like covering a car or RV.  A little larger than needed is better than too small. Although you can use two tarps to cover something big, the area where they overlap is prone to water running down and onto what you are covering.  One also must allow for any odd shapes.

For example, if an RV is listed as being 20 feet long but has a bunch of racks and vents that hold the tarp up when you cover it, then you are going to need one that is considerably longer. Then there is the fact that you want some leftover to hang down on the sides, so you have to add that in. As you can see, a 20 ft long RV could easily require a 30 ft long tarp.

Coatings and UV Resistance

Some tarps are made to be more UV resistant than others. This is important if your tarp is going to be used in the direct sunlight often. Some tarps have a silver side to them that is designed to reflect UV rays and heat more readily. This can be handy at times. Remember that darker colors of tarp absorb more heat.


Some tarps are not as breathable. If you use a tarp for a shelter or a blanket, then this is critical to consider.


Most tarps I see are either brown, blue, silver, or silver on one side and brown on the other. There are plenty of other colors out there, but they are a specialty item that is likely going to require you to order one. Camo tarps can be nice if you like the option of easier concealment, but they are not going to do you a lot of good if you find yourself in a situation where you want visibility.

Different Materials That Tarps Are Made Of


This is heavy for starters. You also have to retreat canvas occasionally with a water repellent. How often simply depends on how much you use it and the conditions it is used in. Canvas is great for some things, and it is heavy duty, but the weight is substantial when compared to a plastic-based tarp. Canvas also tends to be very bulky.

Poly Tarps

If you have bought one of the cheaper blue tarps in the past, then you have bought a poly tarp. They vary in quality a lot based on the density of weaving. Pay attention to the ratings and choose one that is appropriate. Most tarps will say they are for light duty or heavy duty.

Vinyl Tarps

These don’t breathe, but they do provide very good protection and water resistance. Vinyl tarps are typically used for heavy industrial use. They cost more but have better UV resistance and can tolerate very harsh conditions. You might have seen vinyl tarps covering loads going down the road.

So which is best?

I think for most preppers and survivalists the answer is to have a variety of tarps for different uses. Some of you may be just fine with a few light to medium weight tarps in the 8′ x 10′ to 10′ x 12′ range while others may want a few larger ones on hand for creating makeshift shelters for livestock or to provide extra cover for a group of tents if you have to bug out in a family unit or group.

One thing I have to say in conclusion is that tarps are one of those preps that are inexpensive but invaluable during a crisis. Of course anything with so many uses makes a good trade item too. Stick to buying the small to mid-sizes for barter since a lot of people are going to want a tarp that is easy to pack.

Do you have a favorite brand of tarp? What other uses can you think of beyond those in this post? What sizes do you think are the most versatile?

For more articles be sure to check out our Lifeline archive. All of Backdoor Survival in one easy to use USB drive.

Samantha Biggers can be reached at [email protected]

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4 Responses to “The Many Uses Of Tarps For Survival and Prepping”

  1. I had no idea that tarps could be used for water distillation. One of my friends wants to go off the grid, so I think he may be interested in learning this. Thanks for sharing all the functions a tarp can be used for.

  2. Just a hint here, if you go to Walmart and go to fishing section you can find s.s. leaders up tp 18 or so inches and these can work well with a fishing swivel to catch small game that can’t be chewed through. Good posts on tomahawks. I can’t see the small one with any use except butchering. I think you would think one at least 16-18 handles would work better for camp duties. Also I just received some firestarter ferro rods from Uberleben and they look and work great especiall the hex shaped ones. Still reading the post.


  3. Thanks for helping me understand that a tarp can be used for additional coverage for the tent to serve as protection. I guess I would also use it for the car since we need to cover the items we have in the back of the pickup truck while going to the campsite. It will be a long ride, 8 hours to be exact, that is why we need to secure them and keep things from flying away.

  4. For rainwater catchment line the pickup bed and park it under the corner of a roof or guttering. Then use it to fill smaller containers by bucketing, siphoning and eventually the remainder being poured from the tarp itself. One word of caution though is that it weighs a lot and you can find yourself stuck, especially after a rain, so place boards under the tire are to spread out the weight.
    Only camo tarps go in the bag or kit. It’s easier to find signal colors to mark for rescuers than to try and tone down a bright color to hide from predators. You will also still need to “brush it in” to reduce glare and breakup the outline.
    Always get bigger then what you originally think you need.

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