Reaping the benefits of a tarp shelter in fickle weather at Mt Whitney basecamp, Guitar Lake, John Muir Trail. copyright Colby J Brokvist
Reaping the benefits of a tarp shelter in fickle weather at Mt Whitney basecamp, Guitar Lake, John Muir Trail. copyright Colby J Brokvist

Let’s take a moment to think out of the box, or tent as the case may be. Most SYMG guides don’t carry a tent, but a tarp shelter instead. Take, for instance the Black Diamond Betamid. These types of shelters take a bit more care to set up and live in, but there are some benefits also. Compared to most full tents, they are more lightweight, compressible, and don’t have extra poles (you use your trekking poles instead). Since there’s no floor, you can cook in them if the weather is poor, the major benefit for the guides who manage camp for larger groups. And when it’s time for bed, you just lay out a groundcloth underneath the shelter.

Tyvek is the best choice for a groundcloth. This is a product that is used as a “housewrap” for waterproofing and as an insulating barrier in newer homes. It is a siliconed paper that is extremely durable and tear-proof. It’s feels stiff and papery at first, but with a few uses becomes just like cloth. It is supremely lightweight, durable and completely waterproof. It’s sold in Home Depot-like stores in giant rolls, but is inexpensively available on ebay in small sheets. Tyvec can be custom cut to your own shelter or needs. We suggest a double-wide sheet that’s big enough to sleep on and keep your gear on, keeping you out of the dirt and rain.

The Tarp-Tyvek system is perfect for those who prefer to sleep under the stars and just use the shelter in the event of rain. Your Tyvek groundcloth may also be used as a rain awning for groups eating together, tied vertically for wind protection, or can be used for a hypothermia wrap.  Of course, just like any other system there are drawbacks too. Tarp shelters take more care to set up and are not freestanding (i.e. they need to be staked out). They also won’t do much to keep mosquitoes away. Finally, in very windy weather some do not perform well, although most just need to be oriented in a particular direction.

In all, the tarp shelter-Tyvek system offers backpackers a lot of flexibility in a very light-weight package if you’re willing to do without the convenience factor of a heavier fully enclosed tent.  Especially here in the sunny Sierra, they just might be the best choice for you.

Graham Ottley
Born and raised in the Midwest (Iowa & Illinois), I always held a fascination for the outdoors and mountain landscapes as some “distant place” on maps. That fascination continues today but I am fortunate to have now lived and worked in the mountains for 15+ years. My first job as a guide was leading sea-kayak trips in coastal Ketchikan Alaska. After that season, I attended undergrad in the Southeast (Montreat College) studying Outdoor Education and Environmental Studies and went on to pursue my MBA. I first visited the Yosemite area during a spring break climbing trip with some buddies. I can vividly recall driving in and being completely awestruck by the beauty of The Valley, well as all the great climbing : ) After college I worked as a Guide with Summit Adventure in Yosemite as well as internationally in the Ecuadorian Andes and mountains of Mexico. I enjoyed teaching outdoor education in Santa Cruz and Yosemite Valley during my off-seasons. I also worked with Outward Bound California leading youth trips and eventually worked as Program Director at their Midpines and Joshua Tree locations. In 2016, I transitioned to SYMG and appreciated the thoughtful approach to the work of guiding. I enjoy spending time with the great crew of guides that come here to work, live and play. Beyond work in the outdoors, I am a proud father of two children, Owen & Eleanor. I enjoy adventures with them and my wife Sarah not quite as far afield. While we still return regularly to visit family in the midwest, we are happy to call Southern Yosemite home.