What Is A Tent Footprint? (And Why You Need One)

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One of the most overlooked and misused pieces of camping equipment is the tent footprint.

If used correctly, a footprint will increase the lifespan of your tent, keep you more comfortable overnight, and prevent water from soaking up through the floor.

Plus, many options are lightweight, inexpensive, and a breeze to set up.

So, let’s learn exactly what a tent footprint is and why you should bring one on your next camping adventure.

What is a tent footprint?

A tent footprint, also known as a ground sheet, is a piece of material placed on the ground between the bottom of your tent and the earth. These sheets add a layer of protection, comfort, and additional waterproofing for your tent.

If they offer them, you can buy a tent footprint designed for your unique tent straight from the manufacturer or retailer that sells your brand of tent. These will fit the shape of your installation perfectly and often matches the color as well.

You can also use a universal tent footprint, designed for use under any tent. Simply find one that closely matches the size of your tent and you’re good to go. This is a fairly cheap way to help protect your tent.

Waterproof Camping Tent Footprint

Waterproof Camping Tent Footprint

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Otherwise, you can make your own DIY footprint with a tarp or other plastic sheeting. This route is often more lightweight and affordable. Plus, we’ll show you how to make your own footprint below.

Do I need a tent footprint?

I recommend you use a footprint unless you never move inside your tent, camp on perfectly smooth surfaces, and never outside in cold or rainy weather. If you’re a regular tent camper, you rarely fall into any of those categories.

All jokes aside, tent footprints can help in the following ways:

  • A groundsheet keeps you warmer and more comfortable while you sleep. It provides an extra layer of insulation and cushion between you and the potentially cold ground which makes it more comfortable to sleep in your tent.
  • Using a footprint keeps the inside of the tent drier. By helping to keep water, dew, and ice away from the bottom of your tent, your floor cover ensures that you’ll be toasty and dry all night long.
  • Footprints also make setting up and taking down your tent easier. With your protective layer spread out, you see exactly where your tent will be. Then, you can remove any unwanted objects from the area instead of finding them with your spine when you lay down to sleep. Plus, your tent won’t be muddy when it’s time to put it away.
  • Covering the ground below your tent increases its lifespan. If you consistently use your footprint, then you’re less likely to see small punctures or tears in the floor surface. Tents aren’t cheap, so anything to make them last longer is ideal.

We cover this question in more detail in our guide titled Do I Need a Tarp Under My Tent?.

Do footprints prevent holes in the tent floor?

The short answer is both yes and no. A footprint doesn’t make your canvas impenetrable to any sharp objects. It will prevent rips that often develop from normal wear and tear.

If you set up your tent on top of cacti, sticks, or sharp rocks, then you’re still likely to end up with a puncture through your tent floor. No ground cover can prevent a hole like this from forming.

That’s why it’s crucial to check the entire area before setting up your tent. Move any rocks or branches out of the way and look closely at any plants you might be covering.

I recommend using established campsites when possible. Not only does this follow Leave No Trace (LNT) ethics, but it also puts less strain on your gear.

However, even with careful use and perfect campsites, all tent floors break down over time.

Everyone moves a little bit while they sleep. When you’re camping, this makes your sleeping bag rub against the bottom of the tent.

The rubbing, even when it’s slight, creates friction on both the inside and outside of the floor. This consistent tension weakens the fabric and eventually causes it to break down or rip.

A ground cover slows the tent erosion process. Instead of the bottom of your tent rubbing against rough twigs, rocks, or plants, it’s brushing along a smooth surface. Because of this, you will have many more nights under the stars before needing to repair or replace your tent.

Can I use a tarp as a tent footprint?

Sometimes, the footprint made especially for your tent is out of your budget or pushes your backpack over your desired weight limit. In these instances, using a homemade version is often the solution.

Related: Tent Footprint vs Tarp: Which Is Best for Camping?

Camping groundsheets designed especially for your tent are a perfect size. They often have snaps or clips that attach quickly to the setup. This method ensures that it won’t slip out of place and that you set it up correctly to prevent potential flooding.

The weight of these clips adds up, especially if you’re planning a long backpacking trip. It will make you question if you can sacrifice the comforts of the ground cloth to save weight. That’s where the DIY options come in to save the day.

Most people choose a sheet of Polycryo plastic or Tyvek. Both options are lightweight, durable, and affordable.

RELK Ultralight Tyvek Ground Cloth

RELK Ultralight Tyvek Ground Cloth

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If you choose to make your own, it’s essential to cut it down to the right size. We’ll cover the reasons for this in the next section. Here, we’ll explain how to cut it into the perfect shape for your tent.

  1. First, set up your tent with the tarp underneath. When you buy the sheet, make sure that it’s long enough to cover the entire floorplan of your tent.
  2. Then, trace around the edge of the tent. Follow the curves and lines as carefully as possible.
  3. Finally, cut the plastic about two inches inside of your traced lines. This method not only keeps the majority of your tent floor protected but also prevents any of the potential pitfalls of a cover that’s too large.

That’s all there really is to it for a simple homemade tent footprint. However, if you want to build a more professional style footprint with grommets, etc, then check out this DIY tent footprint tutorial.

Backpacker Magazine SkillsCast: Build A Tent Footprint

Once you’ve made the perfect footprint, check out our guide on how to use a tent footprint the right way for the best results!

Should a tent footprint be smaller than the tent?

At first glance, it’s easy to assume that you’d want an extensive ground cover underneath your tent. After all, it protects the canvas, keeps you comfortable, and doesn’t allow water to seep inside. Why wouldn’t you want that cover to expand throughout the entire area?

If your footprint is larger than the tent, then you’re likely to experience flooding inside. When it’s slightly smaller than the tent floor, then you won’t have the same problems.

Think about this: when it rains, water accumulates on top of the ground. Then it flows down to the lowest point or eventually absorbs into the earth.

A large ground cover creates the perfect capture for the water. Rain flows down your tent and hits your large tarp instead of going onto the ground. The rainwater will slide towards the middle of the tent and sit there, creating a large puddle. The last place you want an accumulation of water is directly underneath your sleeping spot!

When the footprint is smaller than your tent floor, the rain simply flows across it and keeps moving. Water will fall off the edges and soak into the ground instead of pooling underneath your sleeping spot.

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