Tent footprints—also known as ‘groundsheets’—are an accessory that divides opinion among many campers. Are they useful or not? Worth the extra weight or an unjustifiable and superfluous add-on that we could just as well do without? For fastidious boy scouts only or an indefensibly overlooked asset that more of us should consider packing to safeguard our camping tent?
Below, we’ll answer each of these questions with our short guide to tent footprints’ uses and utility (or lack thereof). First, though, let’s take a look at what a tent footprint is.
Tent Footprints: A Definition
In a few words, a tent footprint or (tent ground cover) is a large sheet of impermeable fabric that can be laid underneath your tent. The main purpose is to act as a barrier between the tent floors and the forest floor, thus proving extra protection against abrasion caused by rough or rocky terrain. In appearance, most footprints look like simple tarps and are usually made with similar synthetic, waterproof materials.
Should I Buy The Tent Footprint Sold By The Manufacturer Of My Tent?
In a few words: probably not. Branded tent tarp sheets are usually expensive and don’t offer much—or anything—more than a simple tarp that you can buy in a hardware or outdoor store for as little as a quarter of the price.
And making your own tent footprint is pretty straightforward. All you have to do is know the dimensions of your tent floor and then head down to the store to have the matching size of tarp material cut.
Protip: Always make your DIY tent footprint size marginally smaller than the base of your tent. That way you don’t have to worry about rain runoff collecting on the footprint & rolling under the tent floor.
The best materials for DIY footprints are the same as those used in lightweight tarps, namely Tyvek homewrap, silnylon, polyethylene sheeting, or cuben fiber, all of which can be sourced at a far lower cost than branded footprints and, in all likelihood, will not fall far short in terms of performance.
Tent Footprint vs Tarp – Do I Need A Tent Footprint?
The vast majority of tents on the market these days use bathtub-style floors with reinforced, highly waterproof materials—usually silnylon—that protect against abrasion and leaks.
That said, there are still a number of reasons why backing up your tent’s flooring with a footprint are a good idea.
First up, using a footprint can help prolong the lifespan of your tent by reducing the amount of wear and tear on your tent floor and providing added protection against potentially corrosive elements like sand, grit, animal scat, and tree sap.
Secondly, footprints can add a morsel of extra insulation on the floor of your tent—we may be talking as little as half a degree’s worth, but in very cool temps, every little bit helps.
Finally, a footprint can also provide extra protection against leaks. While your tent floor should be perfectly capable of fending off ground moisture, if it’s getting on in years, hasn’t been reproofed in a while, or has any unnoticed holes or punctures, then using a footprint could save you and your gear a soaking if conditions are especially wet.
On the downside, using a footprint obviously means carrying more weight. While (depending on the tent footprint material) this may be negligible (as little as 10.5 ounces (300 grams)), those who prefer to travel ultralight or are headed deep into the backcountry might deem the addition to their load unjustifiable.
The solution? If you’re car-camping or pitching up close to the road, then you can bring your footprint along to minimize wear and tear without too much consequence in terms of effort; if you’re headed further afield, only bring the ground cloth if you aren’t averse to increasing your pack weight and/or suspect you’ll be pitching up on particularly abrasive ground.
How To Use A Tent Footprint
Using a tent footprint or groundsheet is very easy: simply lay the footprint out on your chosen camping spot, pitch your tent on top of it, then tuck the excess material under the tent floor to prevent any rainwater or condensation pooling on this “fringe” of the footprint.