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Emergency Shelter

Five tarp tips to make your emergency shelter secure and safe

Tarps can make very effective emergency shelters.
Five tarp tips to make your emergency shelter secure and safe

Tarp shelters can make a rainy campout much more bearable. In some emergencies, a tarp might save your life. Here are a few tips for making your tarp shelter more secure.

This simple A Frame tarp shelter is a quick emergency shelter, and can provide ample protection.

This simple A Frame tarp shelter is set up between two anchor points.

by Leon Pantenburg

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I hiked the 225-mile John Muir trail and completed a two-week southern loop of Yellowstone using the same piece of plastic visqueen as my only shelter. At the time, I was in my early-20s, just out of college, broke and trying to backpack long distances. My gear choices were directly related to my financial resources! (See survival tents)

Today, even though I have several backpacking tents, I still frequently use a tarp. In some cases, such as making certain snow shelters, or when you need to go light, a tarp may be the best shelter choice.

Tarp shelters are only limited by your imagination. Regardless of how you’re rigging yours, here are a few proven tips I’ve learned that can help make your shelter more secure.

This timber hitch knot is effective for securing one end of a tarp. The harder it's pulled the more secure it gets. The knot is easy to untie.

This timber hitch knot is effective for securing one end of a tarp. The harder it’s pulled the more secure it gets. The knot is easy to untie.

1 – Start by learning a few simple knots, and practice tying them until you can produce an effective  knot in the dark or in bad weather. Chances are, that’s when you’ll most desperately need a quick emergency shelter, and you don’t want to be fumbling around.

A very simple, effective shelter is the A Frame.  Basically, the A Frame is  a line set up between two anchor points, with a tarp draped over it. An A Frame looks like a pup tent without ends.

These two knots will help you quickly set up a line between two anchor points.

Use a timber hitch first to secure one end of your line. This friction knot is simple to tie, and the more pressure is put on the knot,  the tighter it gets.

This trucker hitch allows the center line to be tightened by pulling on the tag end.

This version of a trucker hitch allows the center line to be tightened by pulling on the tag end.

Use a trucker hitch at the other end. This hitch allows you to tighten the centerline effectively by pulling on the tag, or loose, end of the cord. This hitch allows you to stretch a rope as tight as a banjo string. View the video.

2 – Choose your campsite with an eye toward pitching a tarp. Try to have at least one solid object to secure one end. Always check for dead or fallen branches above and around any potential tarp site! Ideally, the ground should be slightly slanted so rain will drain easily. You may have to dig trenches around the sides to aid drainage.

3 – Insert a small stick in a rope loop in the grommet.

The concept is simple. The line is threaded, double, through a grommet, and a stick is placed in the loop. This anchors the tarp at a particular point on the line, while at the same time allowing the rope to move and be tightened. The tarp can be evenly tightened and the stick/rope combination protects the grommets from being torn in heavy winds.

During one windy, rainy campout, we used this technique (I learned it  at a PeterKummerfeldt  survival seminar) to secure a tarp over the

Use a small stick to help secure the main center line. When pressure is put on one end, the line will tighten evenly, keeping the grommets from being torn out.

Use a small stick to help secure the main center line. When pressure is put on one end, the line will tighten evenly, keeping the grommets from being torn out.

cooking area and gear. The rain continued for two days, and the sticks and paracord kept the tarp taut and effective so the water drained off easily. In another instance, during a two-week campout, I left a tarp set up in this manner for 14 days. Other than the paracord stretching some, there were no problems at all.

Aluminum tent stakes weigh virtually nothing. Combined with a tarp, and about 25 feet of paracord, the items can be made into an effective emergency shelter.

Aluminum tent stakes weigh virtually nothing. Combined with a tarp, and about 25 feet of paracord, the items can be made into an effective emergency shelter.

4 – Take along aluminum tent stakes. They weigh hardly anything, and can be used to stake down the corners and sides of the tarp. While I typically use rocks to anchor the corner of a tarp, sometimes there aren’t any handy.

5 – Don’t forget your walking stick, ski poles or trekking poles as potential  supports for a tarp shelter. In a pinch, you can use a pair of these sticks or poles to make an A-frame shelter.

6 – Keep your corner grommets from tearing out. This tip came from my friend Bob Patterson, of Mankato, MN. Bob is a retired firefighter, and knots, ropes and lashings are his thing.

The idea here is to disperse the stress and strain, so the corner grommet doesn’t get torn out by a blast of wind or prolonged gusts. Basically, you thread a piece of paracord between the three grommets on a corner. The loops that result are threaded through a carabiner.  With the stress dispersed between three grommets, there is not an instance when the full brunt of a gust can be focused on one grommet. Check out the video.

All these tips can contribute to an efficient shelter that can get you out of the nasty weather quickly.  That hasty tarp shelter may be what tips the scales in favor of your survival.

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View Comments (5)

5 Comments

  1. Leon

    09/15/2016 at 14:52

    No, but if you go to the website, just search under the topic that interests you. You’ll find everything I’ve posted.

  2. EDWIN

    09/14/2016 at 09:01

    DO YOU HAVE A SMALL BOOK OR ARTICLES ON YOUR SUGGESTIONS ON THESE VARIOUS SURVIVAL TIPS I WOULD LIKE TO PURCHASE IT

  3. Leon

    02/10/2015 at 08:19

  4. Sandilo

    02/07/2015 at 14:45

    Just a question, please. I am a novice, so as I realize that this may be a stupid question, I just do not know. Any, constructive, help is appreciated. Anyway, how do you keep the ends for the tarp from sliding down the line? I have seen this but the tent would slide down the line creating a gather in the center of the line.
    Again, thank you for any help.

  5. Douglas Setchell

    05/26/2014 at 12:14

    You might concider upgrading to a 3 loop bowlin to keep your grommets from ripping out. just incase you want to gather rain owingwater when the wind isn’t blowing simpley adjust center bite so that tarp sags slightly in the middle to form a funnel but can be quickly readjusted if the wind picks up

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Emergency Shelter

Leon Pantenburg is a wilderness enthusiast, and doesn't claim to be a survival expert or expertise as a survivalist. As a newspaperman and journalist for three decades, covering search and rescue, sheriff's departments, floods, forest fires and other natural disasters and outdoor emergencies, Leon learned many people died unnecessarily or escaped miraculously from outdoor emergency situations when simple, common sense might have changed the outcome. Leon now teaches common sense techniques to the average person in order to avert potential disasters. His emphasis is on tried and tested, simple techniques of wilderness survival. Every technique, piece of equipment or skill recommended on this website has been thoroughly tested and researched. After graduating from Iowa State University, Leon completed a six-month, 2,552-mile solo Mississippi River canoe trip from the headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minn., to the Gulf of Mexico. His wilderness backpacking experience includes extended solos through Yellowstone’s backcountry; hiking the John Muir Trail in California, and numerous shorter trips along the Pacific Crest Trail. Other mountain backpacking trips include hikes through the Uintas in Utah; the Beartooths in Montana; the Sawtooths in Idaho; the Pryors, the Wind River Range, Tetons and Bighorns in Wyoming; Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, the Catskills in New York and Death Valley National Monument in southern California. Some of Leon's canoe trips include sojourns through the Okefenokee Swamp and National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, the Big Black River swamp in Mississippi and the Boundary Waters canoe area in northern Minnesota and numerous small river trips in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Leon is also an avid fisherman and an elk, deer, upland game and waterfowl hunter. Since 1991, Leon has been an assistant scoutmaster with Boy Scout Troop 18 in Bend, and is a scoutmaster wilderness skills trainer for the Boy Scouts’ Fremont District. Leon earned a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, and competed in his last tournament (sparring and form) at age 49. He is an enthusiastic Bluegrass mandolin picker and fiddler and two-time finalist in the International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championships.

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