When bikepacking, a tarp can make a great option for a cheap, lightweight, and versatile shelter, for both you and your bike. However, with so many options for tarps out there, knowing which size to get can be confusing.
A 9’x9′ tarp is the most popular size among bikepackers. They are versatile and compromise the amount of material you have to carry with good protection from wind. If you plan to use your tarp for hammock camping then you should use a rectangular tarp such as a 7’x9′ tarp, as this shape is easier to fit between trees.
While a 9’x9′ tarp may be the most common size of tarp used by bikepackers, that does not mean it is the right choice for everyone. In some cases a smaller or larger tarp will be much better for you, and only by knowing what factors to consider can you get the size best suited for you.
Factors that impact which size tarp you should get
What shape of tarp do you plan to get?
Tarps typically come in broad categories, either flat or shaped.
Flat tarps are either rectangular or square and are what most people think of when you consider a “typical tarp”
On the other hand, a “shaped tarp” has curved sides instead of flat. This helps the tarp to better make a certain kind of shelter called a ridgeline tarp shelter. These are used frequently by ultralight backpackers as they use less material to make a shelter that is well suited for high wind or bad weather.
Overall, shaped shelters are not as flexible for pitching as flat tarps are, but the few shelters that they can make are easier to set up.
Obviously, picking a shaped tarp will have an impact on the size of tarp you will get. Firstly, shaped tarps do not come in square sizes, and as such you are forced into a size of tarp that fits into the rectangular sizes they come in.
Shaped tarps typically are described in 3 dimensions rather than the 2 dimensions that flat tarps are described with.
If you are looking for a shared tarp, we’d suggest a 9’x 7’x 9’tarp such as this one from Yama Mountain Gear.
This means a tarp that has the following dimensions:
|Front width||9 foot|
|Rear width||7 foot|
What are you planning to use the tarp for?
Tarps have multiple uses. In the bikepacking world, there are 2 main uses that people get a tarp for.
- Making your full shelter
- A rain cover for hammock or bivvy camping
Firstly, and most commonly would be using the tarp as your main shelter. In these cases, you will want to get a slightly larger tarp than if you are just using it as a rain shelter.
In this case, the larger tarp gives you more versatility in the way you plan to set up your shelter and also helps to give you more protection from the weather.
The other common option is to use the tarp as a rain cover for either hammock or bivvy camping. In these cases, you do not need as much material as if you were using it for shelter.
If using a tarp for this purpose many people prefer rectangular tarps as they are easier to fit into a small area in between trees in a forest while giving you more rain cover. You will want to ensure that your tarp extends at least 8 inches past the end of your hammock once it is set up, any less than this and you risk getting wet.
Take a look at this guide from DD hammocks on different tarps in comparison to a basic hammock.
You also need to consider if you plan to keep any gear covered by the tarp as well. Some people like to keep their bikes under the tarp (this isn’t necessary) or keep gear such as bags etc. In these cases, you will want to add a few more feet to the tarp to ensure you can account for this.
How do you plan to set up the tarp?
How you plan to set up the tarp will also have an impact on what size you should get.
If you are planning to use 2 trees and a ridgeline to set up your tarp, you will want to ensure whichever tarp you choose is large enough for this. In this case you will want to ensure both sides of the tarp are at least 7 feet (some people suggest 7’x5′ tarps however I find these too small).
It’s important to note that in the bikepacking world, you are unlikely to have the trekking poles that many backpackers take with them. This means that setting up the tarp without a tree or natural anchor point can be trickier.
It’s worth looking into how to set up a tarp around your bike, as this can come in useful if you get stuck somewhere where you don’t have access to another way of setting it up. Take a look at this link from Alpkit for a step-by-step guide on how to set up a tarp around a bike.
As with all the other sections we’ve talked about, a smaller tarp gives you less flexibility when it comes to tarps, and so a slightly larger tarp will give you more options in the ways you can set it up.
How many people will be using the tarp?
Obviously, if you plan to use a tarp for more than 1 person, then you are going to need a bigger one. We wouldn’t recommend using a tarp for more than 2 people, as for anything more than this it will be better to bring more than one tarp.
If you are using a tarp for 2 people we’d suggest a 10’x10′ as a minimum. While this sounds only a little larger than a 9’x9′ tarp, you need to remember that this extra foot adds 20 square feet to the total tarp coverage.
Do you have any other uses for the tarp apart from bikepacking?
If you plan to use this same tarp for multiple purposes, for example, car camping, then you will need to consider those when picking a tarp size.
In the case of car camping, you will need to get one tall enough to cover the car and space in front of it if you plan to make a porch in front of the car (as some people do).
Alternatively, if you plan to use this tarp for ultralight backpacking then you may want to consider a smaller tarp than we have suggested here. In this situation, the extra weight may be too much and you will happily compromise on a slightly less functional tarp.
Finally, the last thing to consider that may impact your tarp size is the weather you will be using it in.
If you plan to use a tarp in a warm, summery environment where the chance of rain is low, and the rain itself will be light, then you can probably get away with a slightly smaller tarp (as long as you appreciate you are taking a bit of a gamble).
On the other hand, if you live in a country or are bikepacking somewhere where there will be lots of heavy rain and wind, then going for a larger tarp may be sensible.
This gives you more material that can directly shelter you and your gear, and also gives you a larger area that you can peg down to increase the structural security of the tarp itself.
What is the most popular size tarp for bikepacking?
A 9’x9′ tarp was the most popular size tarp among the bikepackers we spoke to. A 9’x9′ tarp is very versatile and is effective for a range of different bikepacking uses, which is likely the main reason it was the most popular.
Another factor in its popularity is its common use as a tarp for other sports and hobbies such as backpacking. As people already own these types of tarps, they will be more likely to use them for bikepacking.
Tarps smaller than 9’x9′, for example, 8′ x 8′ tarps were often too small. If for example you are a 6-foot man using a tarp, and you use an 8′ x 8′ tarp to make your shelter, it only leaves 1-foot at each end to protect you from the wind and rain.
Using a 9’x9′ tarp will only add another 6 on each side, however in reality this is a 50% increase in the 8-foot tarp. Which will keep you significantly drier.
While this may make you think that larger tarps are always better, this is not the case. While a 10′ tarp will give you a whole extra foot at each end, a tarp of this size is 100 square feet and often leaves you with too much fabric to wrestle with.
As you can see, there are a lot of factors that go into picking the right size tarp for your bikepacking trip. However, in reality, going for a simple 9’x9′ tarp will often be suitable, certainly, this is the tarp size that I own.
Remember, while having too much fabric can be a nuisance, if in doubt, go for a larger tarp. I’ve never regretted having too big a tarp as long as it keeps me dry when I need it to.