What to Use a Tent Footprint For

Photo by Photo by Josh Larios / CC BY-SA 2.0

What to Use a Tent Footprint For

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).

Tent footprints? Useful or Useless?

You’re in the right place! In this guide we will be covering the following:

  • What is a tent footprint
  • Why bother with a tent footprint at all?
  • Tent footprint tips

What is a tent footprint?

In a few words, a tent footprint is a large sheet of impermeable fabric that can be laid underneath your tent to provide your tent floor with 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 footprints 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 going down the DIY route with your footprint is simple. 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.

The best materials for DIY footprints are the same as those used in lightweight tarps, namely Tyvek, silnylon, 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.

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 protects against abrasion and leaks.

That said, there are still a number of reasons why backing up your tent’s flooring with a footprint is a good idea.

First up, using a footprint can help prolong the lifespan of your tent by reducing the amount of wear and tear to 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 nicks 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 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 footprint 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.

Kieran James Cunningham

Kieran James Cunningham

Kieran James Cunningham is a climber, mountaineer and writer based in the Italian Alps. He’s climbed a handful of 6000ers in the Himalayas, 4000ers in the Alps and loves nothing more than a good long-distance wander in the wilderness. He climbs when he should be writing, writes when he should be sleeping, has fun always.

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