You’re a paddling Jedi who can keep it hull-down in any sea conditions, roll a loaded double and cook a mean backcountry soufflé. But can you set up a tarp? Follow these tips to stay out of the elements and setup a tarp shelter on your next kayak or canoe camping trip.

Tarp Shelter Setup for Kayak Camping

Whether you’re stuck in a 10-straight-day reminder of why it’s called the “rainforest” or blessed with blistering sun in Patagonia or Baja, solid tarp skills are the sine qua non of campcraft lore that separate the backcountry pros from the schmoes.

To salvage an otherwise drowning or overcooked experience, try this advanced tarp setup, known as the Big Top. With a little practice, you can create a spacious shelter for any situation.

“We all need a little shelter Just a little helper to get us by...” —Cinderella | Photo: Dave Quinn
“We all need a little shelter/Just a little helper to get us by…” —Cinderella | Feature photo: Dave Quinn

4 Easy Steps for Tarp Shelter Setup

1 Tie Tarp to Poles

Attach tarp corner lines to either paddles or cut driftwood poles just above head height, using a clove hitch.

2 Secure the Corners

Tautly secure all four corners at a 45-degree angle from the tarp edge and a 45-degree angle to the ground.

3 Prop Up the Big Top

Elevate the center with either a driftwood pole, raft oar or two paddles duct-taped together (experiment with lengths, depending on tarp size). Tie the top of the pole to the tarp center to keep it from falling in wind gusts.

4 Watch Out for Extreme Weather

Extreme conditions may require extra anchor ropes along the tarp sides. Anchors can be driftwood, boulders, boats, trees or simply a deadman anchor—a stick or log buried in the beach perpendicular to the rope, with the rope tied to the center.

3 Top Tarps for Your Next Camping Trip

Sea to Summit Escapist tarpSea to Summit

Escapist Tarp

$229 |

Perfect for minimalist camping trips, this ultralight tarp shelter comes with eight super-strong tie-out points and attached cord adjusters. Weighing less than a pound, this versatile tarp can be setup with trekking poles or attached to nearby trees. Also attaches to Sea to Summit’s Escapist Bug Tent.


MSR Sun Shield 200 camping tarp shelterMSR

Sun Shield 200

$349 |

The modern, lightweight MSR Sun Shield 200 would be equally at home on the set of Battlestar Galactica as the wildest, wettest corners of Earth. Sold with poles, the funky design provides 200 square feet of shelter while weighing only six pounds. Now with updated UPF of 50+ for sun protection. Perfect for expeditions where weight is as important as comfort.


Kelty Noah's 12 tarp shelterKelty

Noah’s Tarp 12

$79 |

Carried in a convenient roll-top bag, this simple tarp shelter from Kelty includes attached corner guyline with storage pocket and multiple reinforced tie-out points for secure setup. Weighs less than three pounds and provides 144 square feet of shelter. Poles sold separately.


Paddling Magazine Issue 65 | Fall 2021

This article originally appeared in Adventure Kayak, Spring 2010 as well as in Paddling Magazine Issue 65. Subscribe to Paddling Magazine’s print and digital editions here, or download the Paddling Magazine app and browse the digital archives here.

“We all need a little shelter/Just a little helper to get us by…” —Cinderella | Feature photo: Dave Quinn



  1. Using a base line between two trees and then tying a Prusik Knot to that line enables one to attach tarp line to this base loop and using the Prusik to slide tarp line along this length using the Prusik to quickly keep tautness on line and reposition for best affect. Also suggest Cooke Custom Sewing (CCS) for excellent tarps, color patterned for high visibility and with good connecting points throughout tarp edge and surface.


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