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I love camping with a tarp and bivy. It makes me feel so much more connected to nature, but it’s certainly not for everyone!

Do you really need a tarp with a bivy?

You don’t have to use a tarp with your bivy bag, but you’ll probably sleep a lot better if you do. The tarp will offer a little more protection from the weather, and it can also give you a bit more privacy. Don’t expect it to keep you completely dry, though, as the wind and rain will still be able to find their way to you on the ground. 

This article will give you some tried and tested advice for camping with a tarp and bivy, including straightforward tips for setting up an effective camp. 

Setting Up Your Tarp 

There are several ways to set up a tarp, each of which is appropriate for a certain situation.

The following video offers a brilliant introduction to setting up your tarp. It will provide you with some fantastic safety tips, as well as 3 of the best tarp setups. 

Your tarp will give you a lot more protection from the elements, but you could technically camp in just a bivy alone. 

If you’re not confident about setting up your tarp effectively, you can go for a bivy tent instead.  This is a nice compromise because it’s lightweight and you get some rain protection—plus, it’s much easier to set up than a tarp. 

The downside of a bivy tent is that you can’t see the open sky, and it can feel very claustrophobic if you aren’t used to it. 

Pros & Cons of Camping With a Tarp and Bivy

Like I mentioned before, camping with a tarp and bivy is not for everyone. Here are the pros and cons as I see them:


  • Lightweight—Makes thru-hiking a lot easier.
  • Feel more connected to nature—You can stargaze all night and watch wild animals passing through your camping area at night.
  • Offers more protection than a bivy bag or bedroll alone.
  • Versatility—You can set up your tarp differently depending on the camping spot. You can even set up quick day shelters for some shade or rain protection during your hike.
  • Ventilation—Heat quickly builds up inside regular tents. On a summer’s night, you’ll be grateful for the cool breeze and ventilation.
  • Discretion—If you’re wild camping and want to be discrete, it’s easier to set up your tarp and bivy in a way such that no one will even notice you are there.
  • Price—Tarps and bivvies are generally a lot more affordable than backpacking tents. Of course, that will vary depending on the quality. 


  • Creepy crawlies—Insects and spiders will be able to crawl into your sleeping area more easily than if you were in a tent. Be very careful if you’re in a region with venomous spiders
  • Wild animals—Snakes and other wild animals are also more likely to get into your sleeping area if you have a tarp. Wild animals will very rarely run over your tent, as it just looks like a boulder to them. If you’re in your tarp and bivy, they’re more likely to investigate.  
  • Weather protection—If it’s windy and rainy, you will have less protection with a tarp and bivy than you would have in a tent. If you camp in a bivy and don’t bring a tarp, the rain falling on your body will probably keep you awake at night, even if your bivy is waterproof. 
  • Takes practice to set up—Setting up a tarp is not as easy as it looks, and you’ll need to practice to be able to strike a good camp. I recommend that you practice at home in advance!
  • Feel more vulnerable—Although a tent does not offer much protection from people, I can’t help but feel more vulnerable with my bivy. Something about the tent walls makes it easier for me to let go and get to sleep, instead of worrying about some crazy person out on the hills. (But it is extremely unlikely that anyone will harm you on the trails. Outdoors people are friendly!)

Tarp and Hammock Set Up

Beyond using a tarp with a bivy, you could consider setting it up with a hammock instead. What’s great about a hammock and tarp setup is that you have better protection from moisture and animals because you’re raised off the floor. 

It’s also surprisingly comfortable to sleep in a hammock, as your back is nicely supported. You can also get hammocks with built-in mosquito nets, so you will be fully protected from biting insects

Of course, you’re going to need some trees to tie your hammock to, so it won’t be the best sleeping system for every situation. 

A Note on Insects

When you sleep with a tarp and bivy, you make yourself much more vulnerable to insect bites. You should bring a mosquito net with you, or at least choose a bivy with a built-in bug screen. 

I also recommend using a decent bug spray and avoiding scented toiletries like deodorant, which will only attract more insects. 


Are Tarps Good for Backpacking?

Yes, tarps are great for backpacking. They are super lightweight and versatile, so you’ll be able to set up your shelter in a range of conditions. They aren’t the most comfortable way to sleep, though, so make sure you do a practice run before heading off on a long-distance thru-hike. 

How Big Should a Tarp Be for Camping?

I would advise that you get an XL tarp of around 4.5 x 3 meters. The bigger your tarp, the more options you will have when it comes to setting up. This also means your gear will be more expensive and heavier, so ultimately the choice is yours. 

Are Tarps Expensive?

As compared to a tent, tarps are a relatively cheap way to camp. You will have to invest in better layers and waterproofs, though, so overall you probably won’t save any money by camping in this way. 

Do You Use a Sleeping Pad With a Tarp and Bivy?

For the sake of a good night’s sleep, you probably want to use a sleeping pad with your tarp and bivy. It is also possible to collect moss or fallen leaves to create a spongy area to sleep on, but this will be teeming with insects and spiders that you probably don’t want in your bed. 

Final Thoughts 

I think bivy camping is a lot of fun, but plenty of people disagree! I highly recommend using a tarp because it will give you better protection from the weather. 

If you think that bivy and tarp camping sounds a little too extreme, a bivy tent would be a great alternative. This is an excellent option for ultralight backpackers who want more protection from the elements, but you’re likely to feel claustrophobic at first. 


Rachel Horne

Rachel is a freelance adventure writer and founder of Highly Sensitive Nomad. When she isn’t writing, she can be found wild camping in the mountains and swimming in the lakes of Europe.

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