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What is a tent footprint… and do you need one?

Tent footprints can be a useful piece of camping gear, especially for backpacking. Here's everything you need to know about them, including how to make a DIY, ultralight footprint to fit your tent.

What is a tent footprint? Well, it’s basically a groundsheet or ground cover made of waterproof material that you place underneath your tent to protect its floor from wear and tear, puncture, moisture, and dirt.

It is usually made of lightweight and durable materials such as nylon, polyester, or polyethylene, and is designed to be slightly smaller than the outline of the base of the tent so that it does not collect rainwater or trap moisture.

Many tent manufacturers sell specific tent footprints to perfectly match the outline of their tent models (and some are even included with the tent).

However, another more budget option can also be to make a DIY footprint, which you can do using materials such as tarps, Tyvek (normally used as house wrap) and painters polyethylene sheets.

What is a tent footprint useful for?

Tent footprints are especially useful when camping on rough or rocky terrain, where the ground could damage the tent floor. In these situations, the footprint acts as a protective barrier under the bottom of your tent, between your tent and the ground.

Having a footprint for your tent can also be useful in wet conditions, where it can provide an extra layer of protection against water seeping through the ground under the floor of your tent, as well as insulation from the ground.

Using a tent footprint also helps keep your tent clean and can also help prolong the life of your tent by protecting it from damage.

This may mean it’s particularly worth buying (or making) one if you have an expensive tent (such as an ultra-lightweight backpacking tent) that you want to look after and protect from damage and dirt.

Use of a footprint (also referred to by some as a ground cloth) is particularly popular among backpackers who won’t necessarily know what the ground is going to be like each night when they arrive at a camping spot and look for a place to pitch the tent.

Tent footprint vs tarp – are they the same?

Tent footprints and tarps serve similar purposes, but they are not the same.

A tent footprint is specifically designed to fit the shape and size of a tent’s floor, providing a protective barrier under your tent.

On the other hand, a tarp is a larger sheet of waterproof material that is often used for a variety of purposes, such as creating a shelter, covering gear, or protecting against rain or sun.

A tarp can be used under a tent to provide extra protection against moisture or rough terrain, but it is not designed to fit the specific shape and size of a tent’s floor, and tarps also tend to be thicker and heavier than necessary for using as a tent ground cloth.

That said, you can absolutely use a tarp to make a DIY footprint by cutting it down to match the outline of your tent – although there are thinner, lighter-weight materials that could be a better option.

Using thinner, lighter materials is going to be a better choice for you if you are planning to use it for backpacking rather than a car camping trip, where having a light pack weight is important.

How to pitch a tent using a footprint

The footprint goes on the outside of your tent, directly on the ground.

To pitch your tent using a footprint, lay your tent footprint on the ground in your chosen camping spot, making sure it is flat and – as much as possible – free of any rocks or debris.

Align the corners of the tent with the corners of the footprint.

Set up your tent on top of the footprint, as you would normally.

Should you buy a tent footprint or make a DIY one?

If you need a footprint, have the money and are not interested in saving cash by spending time making one, then look into whether your tent’s manufacturer sells a specific footprint that will fit the outline of your tent.

The tent brands’ versions will also feature webbing straps with ‘eyes’, bungee loops or clips that can be used with your tent stakes to hold it in place when you pitch your tent on top.

Sea To Summit Telos TR3 Footprint at REI what is a tent footprint
This Sea to Summit footprint (available at REI) is designed to fit their Telos TR3 tents perfectly

If cost and weight are a priority, however, you may prefer to make your own DIY version.

To do this, buy a roll of suitable material – as mentioned above, decorator’s poly sheet or Tyvek make good ground barriers that are also lightweight and pack down small when folded.

Lay the sheet out on the ground (best done on a non-windy day) and set up the tent on top of it.

Mark with a marker pen the outline of the tent, and cut the sheet so the edges don’t extend past the tent.

Where to buy tent footprints

Check your local camping store or online such as at REI, which stocks a wide range of tent brands and accessories, including some of their own REI Co-op tents that come with footprints included in the price.

One of Trail & Kale's co-founders, a mom, and guardian of our resident trail dog, Kepler, Helen can be found trail running with Kepler and enjoying road runs with her mini in a jogging stroller, all while testing out the latest running gear for our readers.


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