Do Backpacking Tents Need a Footprint?

Do Backpacking Tents Need a Footprint? - Do Backpacking Tents Need A Footprint

What is a footprint for a tent? What is a tent footprint used for? Do you need a tent footprint? What will it do for you and is that extra expense even worth it?

If you’ve just bought or are about to buy a tent, you’ll likely have heard about tent footprints but you may well be wondering whether a footprint is a worthwhile investment to your kit, especially if you’re trying to keep things ultra lightweight on the trail.

To help you understand better if a footprint would be useful for you, as well as how to find the perfect footprint for your tent, we’ve gone into detail below about what you should consider with regards to footprints, the best place to buy tent footprints and also what your options are if you want to make a DIY footprint.

Editor’s note: This article is part of our guide to the very best small 2 person backpacking tents in 2024, be sure to check out the rest of this guide for our top buying tips:

What is a Tent Footprint and Why Do You Need One?

Simply put, a tent footprint is a piece of waterproof material that you put down on the floor under the tent to help protect the base, avoid abrasions and rips to help prolong its life.

It will usually have eyelet holes at all four corners so that your tent poles can attach through them underneath the base of your tent to hold it in place. A footprint can also help to provide that extra level of security in making sure you actually have a waterproof tent floor in particularly rainy and harsh conditions (in a way working as a tent floor liner).

It’s important to remember that whenever you use your tent in the outdoors it is going to come up against wear and tear and the conditions you use your tent in can make a big difference. Do you need a footprint for a tent? We think it depends on where you plan to use it.

Why Use a Tent Footprint?

Regardless of the denier of your tent floor, if you’re pitching up on surfaces with lots of loose rocks, pebbles and potentially sharp stones or twigs for example, your tent floor can weaken over time causing rips that can off put the waterproofing qualities of the flooring of your tent.

Not great news for any tent, especially when used over long distances or over multiple days, but also very far from ideal if you’ve made quite an investment on your tent.

How Big Should a Tent Footprint Be?

Your tent footprint should be as close to the size of your tent as possible. Some tents already come with a footprint as part of the package, so this is something to certainly look out for but generally, it seems to be more common than not that the tent footprint is sold separately.

There are a lot of footprints for tents out there, but you will often find that the manufacturer of your tent will sell a footprint that matches your tent perfectly, so we’d generally recommend seeing what the manufacturer has available to start with.

When buying, make sure you double check the tent footprints by size before you purchase as many manufacturers will make a 1,2,3,4 and even 5 person version of the tent you’re ordering and will offer footprints to match.

The great thing about this option is that the footprint will be a perfect fit, which makes putting your footprint down and securely fastening it to your tent much easier. There are of course many other options out there too for much cheaper, ready made tent footprints – and if this is the option you go for, we’d recommend measuring your tent as closely as possible in its upright position and getting a footprint as close to the size as possible.

If the footprint you get is bigger than the floor space of your tent and reaches out past the rainfly, we’d recommend tucking it under the edges of your tent rather than leaving it out from your tent so that rainwater can run off more easily into the ground rather than accumulating around the edges of your tent.

This isn’t an ideal solution and cannot always be guaranteed to work, so in a perfect scenario, a snugly fitting footprint is always better.

Tent Floor Durability and Waterproofing

Whether or not your tent could benefit from a footprint or not may in large part be determined by the conditions you are likely to use your tent in. If you’re going to be using your tent in mostly desert, dry or sandy conditions, a footprint may well be overkill.

In a situation like that, you’ll possibly be able to get away with not even needing the rain fly on your tent. This can even be the same in very dry alpine climates where rain is much less likely until later in the season.

However, in wetter, more inclement settings where you often find you need to prepare yourself for whatever the elements throw at you, you’ll want to choose your tent as carefully as you choose the footprint.

Tents and tent floors are generally measured by denier rating (D) and the higher the denier, the thicker or more hard wearing the fabric is. You’ll often find this information and specifications listed in the manufacturer details (it’s also worth noting that the higher the denier, the weightier the tent is likely to be).

Tent floors can also differ in their waterproof qualities and when you look at a number of tents up close, you’ll really notice the difference in weight and thickness of the tent floor between different models.

However, whilst tent floors can look quite flimsy, they’re generally made of very well designed technical fabrics that have been chosen with purpose in mind.

It’s worth keeping in mind that if you’ve bought an ultra lightweight tent to shave off as much weight as possible from your pack, that adding a footprint will add extra bulk.

For example, for the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL tent we reviewed, the brand specific Big Agnes footprint for that tent adds an extra 142g in total. We personally believe the pros of having a Big Agnes Tent footprint that is specific for your tent can really outweigh any of the cons that would come from the extra weight you’ll need to carry.

However, if ultra-light is your thing, it might be better to opt for a DIY footprint made from very lightweight material – which is something a lot of backpackers do (although where the example of this particular tent is concerned, there would be very little in it in terms of weight between the Big Agnes tent footprint and a Polycro footprint).

If weight isn’t the be all and end all for you with what you’re carrying, opting for the thicker, heavier option from the manufacturer could well be your best bet.

Like with so many things when it comes to camping and backpacking – it’s about looking at the situation you intend to use your tent in most of the time and making the best decision for your needs.

Choosing the Best Place to Pitch Your Tent

The locations that you’ll be hiking and backpacking through are going to make a big difference in whether or not you need a footprint for your tent. In reality, all surfaces that you’ll encounter in the outdoors can pose hazards to your tent floor when it comes to rips and abrasions.

However, a forest floor with a softer, mossy or muddy surface is going to cause less damage to the floor of your tent than a rocky area. As hard wearing as a tent floor can be, it isn’t impossible for a hole to appear if the wrong pressure is put on an area by sitting with a rough rock underneath.

If you’ve still got miles to go and your tent gets a hole – this really isn’t ideal, especially if rain is forecast. If you’re going to be camping in a well defined camp site or tent pad/under tent pad where the surface has been ‘bedded down’ you may well find that it’s been cleared of most debris, but if it rains, it can form a channel where water can collect under your tent.

Having water collect heavily under your tent also isn’t ideal when it comes to protecting the floor too. In a situation like that, for example, you may well find that a tent footprint is a great option to have.

The frequency you go camping will have an impact on your tent base too – if you’re using your tent much less often, you can expect its life to be prolonged for longer – perhaps without the need for a footprint (depending on conditions).

However, if you’re planning to use your tent a lot, taking the condition of the tent floor seriously is going to be important – especially if you’ve invested quite a lot in your tent. This is also worth considering if you’ve bought a used tent – check and inspect the tent floor when you receive it or are looking in store to see what the condition is like.

This will help you decide on the best tent footprint for your needs.

Potential dangers and floor surfaces aside, finding a good place to pitch your tent is going to make a big difference when it comes to comfort but also in prolonging the life of your tent too.

Finding the flattest possible space and scanning the space for any debris before you pitch up will help here. Make sure your guylines are firm and taught as well – this will help to keep your tent in place and help to reduce as much movement as possible and hopefully reduce the likelihood of any rips of tears.

How Much Does a Footprint Cost and Weigh?

Given that most manufacturers will offer a tent footprint that matches the tent you’re planning to buy or already have, you can have a level of fit and ‘snugness’ around your tent that you won’t get with a DIY option. It can also make putting up your tent quicker and easier as it is made to fit exactly.

A camping footprint that is sold through the manufacturer will have eyelets on all four corners of the fabric, which means that you can connect your tent poles on the bottom of the tent to them to keep it more secure under the tent.

There’s also the fact that the matching footprint to your tent will likely be in a complimentary or matching color, which can be a really nice touch. However, this does come at a cost. Matching footprints generally tend to be much pricier than DIY options.

We’ve found that the matching footprints to many of the tents that we’ve reviewed in our 25 Best Small 2 Person Backpacking Tents of 2023 round up can range anywhere from $15/£12 and $100/£80. When you consider how much you’re spending on your tent to start with, that can be a significant increase in cost! There’s also the weight to consider.

For example, our favourite tent, the MSR Hubba Hubba’s minimum weight is 1.54 kg / 3 lb 7 oz. Whereas the Universal Footprint that compliments the Hubba Hubba weighs 200g / 7 oz. You may not think that this is a lot, but this works out at roughly an extra 12.9% the weight of the tent itself.

It’s also worth noting that the MSR footprint is actually a good bit lighter than some of the other options out there – so always consider if the footprint is going to remove some of the more lightweight properties you were looking for in your backpacking tent.

DIY Method to Make Your Own Tent Footprint

There is always the option to get a bit crafty by making your own tent footprint – especially if you don’t want to spend the money associated with a manufacturer specific one or you’re looking to conserve weight as much as possible.

One option which is very popular with long distance hikers and ultralight hikers is thin (usually 0.7mm) Polycro sheeting. You can usually find this at a local DIY or hardware store or on Amazon and is similar to the material that you might see some dust sheets made of for decorating.

This solution is relatively inexpensive so if you want one of the best price tent footprints out there, this could be a really good option for you. The great thing about this is it will likely come in a large sheet, so if you have multiple tents, you can cut various pieces to size to suit your needs and your tent footprint size or you have replacements on hand if and when you need it.

If having an ultralight ground cloth isn’t the most important option and you’re looking for something that will help more so with waterproofing, you can get thicker options too, such as 1.5mm for example, which can provide an extra level of rain protection as well as strength. It’s fairly common to see ultralightweight hikers who are using a tarp or sheet tent as their main shelter instead of a ground tent, or are camping without a tent, to use a Polycro groundsheet alone as their only ground sheet or tent ground cloth.

We personally find that this option is a bit too noisy in the night and prefer a more traditional tent with a floor built in. There are also numerous brands out there who offer a Polycro groundsheet sold specifically for camping set ups to be used as tent footprints but if you’re going down this route, you may well just find it cheaper to get something fit for purpose on Amazon or from your local DIY.

A Polycro footprint will not last forever and will likely need to be replaced relatively regularly depending on how often you camp. There are numerous options out there in terms of plastic sheeting – we’d recommend heading to your local DIY store and seeing what is available and what kind of thicknesses is suitable for your needs.

Polycro vs Tyvek

Tyvek is another option for creating a custom lightweight footprint. Whilst Polycro is lighter in weight, it isn’t as durable as Tyvek which means you can get more use from a Tyvek footprint than you possibly can Polycro.

However, Tyvek can become crinkly and after a few uses can be a litter harder to pack back down. It is also only rated as water resistant rather than waterproof, so if you’re likely to encounter very harsh rain, Polycro may still be your best option.

Tyvek looks similar to paper but is actually completely synthetic, is another popular option amongst lightweight hikers, is cheap to buy and rivals a lot of the weight ratings of the manufacturer specific footprints out there. You can buy Tyvek by the meter from Amazon or from any good DIY store.

Creating a Tyvek ground cloth follows exactly the same steps as a Polycro one. When looking at Tyvek vs Polycro and which one is best, each has properties that would be better suited to different types of climate, environment and usage – so it’s about weighing up the pros and cons of each for your particular needs.

Tent footprint vs Tarp – which is better?

Tarps can make a great camping groundsheet and if weight isn’t the deciding factor but price is, using a piece of tarp under your tent that can be trimmed/cut to the same size as the base of your tent to create a tent groundsheet can be a great option.

This can be particularly good if you want to keep things really simple, use an A frame style tarp tent, go camping without a tent in the traditional sense or want to make a custom shelter for your needs.

What Size Tarp do I Need For my Tent?

Really, the best tarp for under a tent needs to fit as closely to the size of your tent as possible so may need some adjustments once you buy it to fit snugly. You’ll want to create something that can be ‘pinned down’ in the same way a traditional tent footprint would be.

Most tarps will come with grommet or eyelets at the corners and sometimes around the edges, however it might not be possible to buy a piece of tarp that is the exact same size as your tent, so you may find that the grommets and eyelets already installed aren’t in the right places.

In this case, you’ll want to cut the tarp to size and add grommets or eyelets, or create holes in the corners to make a ‘meeting’ between your tent and the tarp footprint where your tent poles can connect. However, this approach could create fraying on the material which over time might jeopardise its longevity.

A piece of tarpaulin can be purchased relatively inexpensively from Amazon or any good DIY store – but should you put a tarp under your tent and is the option of an under tent tarp any better than a DIY tent footprint or the manufacturers footprint?

Pros:

  • A tarp groundsheet is generally cheaper than a footprint.
  • As well as being an under tent tarp or ground sheet, it can also be used as an emergency shelter if needed (think A frame tarp shelter). It can also be used to add an extra layer over the top of your tent in extreme weather and rain to maximise your chances of keeping dry – in a way as a kind of universal tent rainfly. Whereas a footprint is only designed to be used on the bottom of your tent.
  • Can give you a lot of flexibility with sizing.
  • Using a thicker material for your tent footprint can provide insulation from colder temperatures such as snow that a footprint may struggle with.

Cons:

  • In order to use a tarp that isn’t the exact size of your tent, you’ll need to make some adjustments to avoid extra ‘bunching’ that can cause a build up of water at the bottom of the tent from rain run off. However, cutting the tarp down isn’t the best idea due to the fact that the edges could fray and you’ll likely loose the grommets (eyelets) which will help to keep your tent sturdy and in place.
  • Can take up more space and weight (considerably so) in your backpack than a manufacturer specific footprint.
  • A tarp can struggle at withstanding certain surfaces – considering they’re not made for specifically that purpose!

Conclusion

When trying to decide on a camping tent footprint, there really isn’t just one answer – it needs to be about what’s right for you. We personally think that if you’re going to shell out quite a lot of money for your tent in the first place, that the best place to buy tent footprints is generally from the manufacturer of your tent.

We would say generally that buying the footprint to match almost needs to be part of the purchasing decision. We always try to look at the full cost of a set up when buying something, including any extras or accessories and if we’re going to be spending a lot of money on a piece of kit, we want to ensure that we can prolong its life for as long as possible.

However, if adding that extra cost pushes things too much for you – you could look to add a cheaper option such as an under tent tarp or Polycro sheet (for ultralight) until you can invest in the manufacturer footprint for your tent system.

Numerous manufacturers are now offering their tents with a footprint included in the price, which can make it more of an attractive offer, and it’s also worth looking at seasonal sales where you can sometimes get packages as better deals. However, the ‘tent with footprint’ deals you often see are usually on heavier tents with a higher tent floor denier, so ironically, would actually be in less need of a tent footprint to start with.

If you’re someone who really takes care of your equipment, and wants to see it last a long time, especially if you’re hiking a long trail or planning to camp a lot and have spent quite a lot of money on your tent, you should consider what you’d do if you did get a rip on the trail and how easy this would be to fix without a camping ground sheet there to protect your tent floor.

It’s perhaps not a question of ‘do I need a tent footprint?’ but more ‘will a tent footprint help my gear last longer?’

Either way, deciding what is best for you when it comes to a tent footprint really depends on where you plan to use your tent, how often and what kind of hiking you’re planning to do.

A tent footprint can be a real tent floor saver so it’s a good idea to weigh up the pros and cons of each option to see what would be right for you. We hope this guide has helped make that decision a bit easier!

Other FAQs:

What Does a Tent Footprint Do?

A tent footprint’s purpose is to provide extra waterproofing, insulation and protection from anything your tent floor might come up against in the outdoors. You could also describe it as a kind of under tent mat.

What Is a Ground Cloth?

A ground cloth is another name for a tent footprint, and is simply designed to keep the base of your tent protected as much as possible.

How to Use a Tent Footprint?

Setting up a footprint or tent ground sheet should add minimal time to your tent set up. Once you’ve selected your campsite, you can unfold your tent footprint and lay it on the ground where you intend to pitch your tent.

This can be a great way to pre-visualise if there is actually enough space for your tent where you’ve chosen to pitch. If it is particularly windy, we’d suggest pinning down your tent footprint with the ground pegs that come with your tent until you have your tent constructed.

How to Put a Tarp Under a Tent?

If you’ve chosen (and if needed, customised) your footprint tarp as close to the size of your tent as possible, this should be very quick to set up. However, if your tarp is a little larger than your tent, you’ll want to tuck the edges under your tent as much as possible – do not leave it bunched up as this can create a waterlog and add extra pressure to your tent.

What is a Tent Pad or Under Tent Pad and What is a Tent pad at a Campsite?

A tent floor pad is an area that has been designated to set up your tent, meaning the area should need little if any preparation from you before pitching.

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