One of the many great debates among backpackers, and especially new backpackers, buying their first tent – is do you really need a ground cloth or footprint to go with it?
I know there are a few differing opinions on ground cloths, but I’m going to give my short answer, which is, I don’t use a footprint for my tent and never really have. The same tent has gone with me just over half of the Appalachian Trail, sections of the Colorado Trail and many, many weekend trips in between and I’ve never had an issue or incident from not using a ground cloth. * nervously knocks on wood *
But the long answer is, a lot of hikers swear by their ground cloth and don’t want to take the added risk of a hole or tear in the bottom of their home in the woods (which is a totally valid concern!)
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What is a tent ground cloth or footprint?
A ground cloth or tent footprint is simply an extra layer of polyester (usually) that lays between your tent floor and the ground. It’s main purpose is to help protect your tent from punctures and tears since obviously we are not always camping on a smooth patch of dirt.
Most foot prints are not waterproof, but they can help prevent water from seeping through the bottom of your tent…. But more importantly…. Not camping in a puddle will have the same effect 😉
Buying a ground cloth
Almost all of the more well known brands of tents have their own specific ground cloth that go with them. Note: They don’t always come with the tent, you usually have to purchase a footprint separately.
But getting the specific ground cloth for your brand and model of tent means that it will (or should!) come perfectly sized to fit under the tent so that no water pools underneath, and will have the proper loops or gromets to securely attach to the bottom of your tent.
One advantage to buying a ground cloth is that some free standing tents may have the option to ditch some weight by securing the tent poles directly to the ground cloth and pitching the rain fly over the poles – leaving the actual tent body behind and then you sleep on the ground cloth and just have protection from the elements.
DIY ground cloth
Some hikers can get by and save some money, and pack weight, by making their own ground cloth for their tent.
If you’re going to make your own, the best options are to either use Painter’s Tarp or Tyvek – both of which can be bought at your local hardware/home maintenance store for relatively cheap. They’ll be cheaper than what you can buy a brand name, pre-made footprint for.
Be sure to measure or look up the dimensions of your tent before you go and buy more than enough material to extend just past the edges of your tent.
Then you’ll cut it down to make a ‘footprint’ that is a few inches smaller than your tent floor on all sides, this ensures you get the proper size and shape in the end.
Lay out your ground cloth material. Then set up your tent on top of it and trace or make tick marks around the edge, then all you have to do is cut out your final ground cloth a few inches within your tick marks.
The biggest draw of DIY foot prints is you can usually save several ounces of pack weight by cutting your own and skipping the bells and whistles of the loops and grommets that attach brand name ground cloths to your tent frame.
Taking care of your tent and ground cloth
Whether you opt to use a ground cloth or try your luck without (like I do) the most important thing is to take care of your tent and ground cloth. The better you care for them, the longer they will last.
Especially since I don’t use a ground cloth, I’m pretty particular about where I put my tent at night and take the time to move any small sticks, small rocks and pine cones to the side to minimize the chance of getting a hole poked through my tent floor. I think that’s good practice anyway even if you do use a footprint.
Then after I break down camp I fluff back up my tent site by kicking those sticks, rocks and pine cones back where my tent was so there isn’t just a bare tent-shaped spot on the ground. Let’s leave our wilderness areas wild ok?
Always dry out your tent and footprint as soon as possible after they get wet. Now, I know, if it’s just raining, raining, raining, for days on end, your gear is just going to be wet for a while, that’s fine. But at that first sign of sunshine, take a lunch/snack/nap break and drape out your gear to dry a little! Or as soon you get to town for a rest day or back home for your trip – lay out your gear to dry before you forget about it stuffed away in your bag.
If it’s particularly dirty or muddy, a good rinse might be in order as well to remove any dirt and then lay it out to dry.
If you do ever get a hole or tear in your tent or footprint, repair it as soon as you can so it doesn’t grow. It’s pretty easy to patch up a small hole, even on the trail, but a small hole that rips into a long tear is a little more difficult and may even just need to be replaced.
Whether you buy a matching footprint for your tent or make your own, either can also totally be used as a ground cloth for your bum when it’s wet and gross out and you need to sit down for a break 😉
You get bonus points if you write on your DIY ground cloth to use it as a sign to help you hitch rides to towns or back to the trail after resupplies.
Let us know in the comments what thoughts or questions you have about tent ground cloths, and if you made your own – how’d it go?
For more tips on hiking and backpacking gear, check out:
- How to choose the best backpacking tent
- Everything you need to know about waterproof tent materials
- Backpacking gear checklist: what to pack
- Easy make your own backpacking gear projects