Ultimate Guide to Tarps: Everything You Need to Know

Ultimate Guide to Tarps: Everything You Need to Know

Tarps are the universal cover that can be used on just about everything, and useful for storm protection to camping, emergency shelters, and so many more things.

This guide to tarps will show you every detail you ever wanted to know about tarps.

We don’t just manufacture tarps here; we educate people on what they’re good for, what materials they’re made of, and throw a little history into the mix. From the US color code system to over a dozen ways to use them, this is what you need to know about tarps.

What Exactly is a Tarp?

By definition, a tarp is a material or fabric that produces cover to an area, persons, or an object. That’s the most basic way to word it, but tarps provide more than just their textbook meaning.

Tarps can be made from a multitude of material, from cotton canvas to vinyl and more, and are used in modern-day society to provide shade in awnings and canopies.

You can also find tarps being used to cover up materials on a job site, or while transferring dirt/ rocks, and other raw materials in dump trucks on the highway. That flapping piece of material you see on the top is in fact a tarp (usually made out of mesh).

But the thing is, tarps have become a lot more useful than just in commercial applications. You can use a tarp to make emergency shelters, it has dozens of applications in camping, and often provides up to fifteen degrees of heat difference when used to block direct sunlight.

They’re used for shop canopies, sidewalk fair tents, and more.

History of Tarps

While modern-day materials are now used to make tarps, it’s not a new concept by any stretch of the imagination. Tarps were originally used to provide cover for sailors back in the 1400s, where it received the name tarpaulin, which we have since shortened to tarps.

In the early days of America, we used cotton canvas tarps to hold down cargo at docks, and to cover wagons when travelling across the country.

Tarps would often be used for soldiers to stay warm and covered during wars in the middle of winter. Because they were able to provide a good shield from the wind and the cold, they were also used for medical tents.

Over the centuries, tarps became useful in middle eastern countries where the temperatures could exceed 115F° and higher, which is extremely dangerous for humans to live in.

Because tarps help prevent heat from sinking into the ground, they could be used to keep areas in the desert nice and cool when the sun was at its peak.

In the last 120-or-so years, we’ve seen tarps made from new materials, such as PVC, vinyl, polyethylene, polyester canvas, and more.

The tarp world is alive and well: tarps can be seen in industrial settings as well as numerous varied uses in smaller ventures throughout the world.

20 Uses for Tarps

Tarps can be used in so many different ways, and you’ll find yourself relying on them in a lot of situations. Let’s take a look at some of the ways you might use your tarp depending on your interests and necessary situations where you have to pull them out.

1. Ground Covering

It’s a basic use, but if you’re planning on hosting something outdoors, whether that’s an event or a yard sale, it’s important to have a layer between you and the dirt below.

With the right tarp, you can still have a tactile surface that won’t be slippery, while also giving a safe, clean space to place down items or allow people to walk.

2. Painting

Painting is a lot more difficult than people assume when they start redoing the walls in their room. It’s easy to think you’ll do perfect brush or roll strokes without spilling a drop, but even professional painters that have been doing this for ten or more years will spill paint. It happens.

If you paint often, or you’re going room by room to paint your entire house, tarping the floor is a great alternative to using single-use liners. They can be tucked away for later, used again and again, and save you money in the long haul.

3. Emergency Shelter

A hammock tarp is what you would need for this. Generally, they have five or more points where you can tie them down. In about three minutes, you can use one to make a shelter on the ground without even needing trees to hang it off of.

It’s not the most comfortable, but it’s better than getting soaked and sick if you’re stuck on a hiking trip that goes south. It pays to have a hammock tarp in your backpack.

4. Protecting a Damaged Roof

A storm has already rolled through, and now your roof is suffering. Shingles went flying, there’s holes; the works. It’s going to take a week to get the funds together or the contractors on site, so you need it covered in the meantime.

Tarps can secure a tight seal on your roof, preventing water from getting in and causing further, wildly expensive damages from occurring.

5. Protect Windows During a Storm

Protect Windows During a Storm

While some would suggest that plywood boards are the best to prevent damage from a storm, tarps aren’t as invasive to your window frames.

Secure a tarp nice and tight, and it will not only help with the wind force, but also to help bounce debris away. Tarps can be taken down a lot easier, and stored more simply than plywood boards.

6. Tent Flooring

You don’t want to lay on the dirt, but your tent didn’t come with a tarp for the flooring. Or, they gave you one, but it was thin and see-through, and didn’t last beyond your first trip. Some people sleep hard and roll around and destroy those things.

A heavy-duty poly tarp could be your answer. Utilizing bungee balls, you can connect it to the bottom of your tent to make a good seal, and keep the bugs out during the middle of the night.

7. Greenhouse Coverings

Greenhouses are expensive… if you get all glass panes, that is. You can make a greenhouse out of a tarp. Mesh tarps allow some UV light to get through, as well as some moisture, giving a great environment for plant life to grow.

These have to be secured thoroughly for them to be effective, and it will require a lot of tarps, but it’s ridiculously inexpensive compared to getting professional glass panes installed.

8. Tie Down Outdoor Furniture

Storms don’t wait around for you to get things secured, and they can come on faster than we would like to think.

Using stakes and a heavy duty tarp, you can tie down all your outdoor furniture in a single space (preferably close to a building), and prevent it from getting damaged from the rain, or flying through the backyard causing more property damage.

This is a tricky thing to do properly, but once you know how, it’s going to save you a lot of headaches in the future.

9. Roof Tarping at Construction Project Intervals

Building your dream home? Refinishing the roof on the garage?

The rain not only makes it hard to do that, but it can cause water damage that undoes all of your effort and progress. To avoid this, you’re going to have to tarp it up (which isn’t as easy as it sounds right away).

This comes down to selecting the right tarp and knowing what you’re doing, but a tarp can be the difference between massive water damage and a successful project.

10. RV and Boat Cover

RV and Boat Cover

You only get a chance to use your RV four to six times per year, so when it’s not in use, it sits in your backyard soaking up the sun. The thing is, all that UV light from the sun’s rays are going to wear down your paint job and make it look ratty without even moving it.

Most of us that have carports don’t have one large enough to handle an RV, but you can make a custom canopy out of a UV-blocking tarp that can protect it. This works for boats as well, and you really want to protect the coating on your boat more than anything else.

11. Sleeping Bag

This is where insulated tarps come into play. While they’re a lot more rigid and hard to control, with a few ball bungees and some basic folds, you can turn an insulated tarp into a sleeping bag to help you get through the cold night.

Whether you forgot to pack yours, or the fleece lining inside has been torn and allows the cold in, this is a great alternative.

Overall, this takes about six or seven minutes to set up, and the only trade-off is that it’s difficult to make a hood or pillow area to rest your head, but it can be done. It’s not a replacement for the sake of comfort, but more for necessity.

12. Leveraging Heavy Items

Tarps that are made of PVC or poly are strong, and can handle being dragged on the ground a little bit here and there. If you ever find yourself moving a large item that would normally require two people to lift it up, you can position it on a tarp instead for leverage.

This allows you to move the tarp instead of the item to transfer it from one place to another, so you’re pulling on the tarp and letting it glide across the ground instead of hauling the item itself.

13. Trunk Lining

Lugging something from point A to Point B? Don’t want the lining of your trunk to get coated in dirt or torn up?

Just lay a tarp down in your trunk to protect it.

You can use ball bungees to hang it off of the various spots in your trunk to secure it so even if your items roll around, they don’t cause any issues. This also works great if you’re transporting something that would ruin your lining if it spilled, like liquids or groceries.

14. Workshop Cleanup

Whether you do woodworking, painting, or arts and crafts of any sort, a tarp flooring works as a catch for all the debris and materials that come off.

You can just pull on the corners of a tarp and bring it to the trash, funnel the contents into the garbage can, and bring your tarp back for another project.

Nobody has time to clean up sawdust and wood trimmings off the garage floor; this takes about three minutes between setup and dumping as opposed to ten or more minutes for 

15. Dog Kennel

Yes, tarps can really do just about anything. A tarp isn’t going to be its own shelter unless you have the right canopy fittings and tether spot to secure it, but the rain protection and heat retention of a dog kennel does come from a tarp.

If you can’t make a wooden dog house, you can use insulated, fire retardant tarps to wrap around a metal frame and make a better dog kennel for your pup.

With an included space heater (that they can’t knock down), you all but eliminate the risk of fire and give them a warmer place to sit outside than a wooden dog house.

16. Collecting Rainwater

If you water your own crops or even urban/container gardens, then you know the water bill can really pile up. After a short amount of time, you can see your water bill double, and your garden is only going to get bigger.

Using a tarp to collect rainwater could be the answer. It requires some rigging or digging a hole in the ground to collect it, but in your tarp, it will be viable to capture it so you can store it and use it for future gardening.

17. Sign

While this surely isn’t intended use, that’s the great thing about tarps – you don’t just have to use them as advertised. You can paint a tarp (we have a guide on how to do so), which means you can make a custom sign.

This can be for a one-day car wash, a street festival, or a yard sale; it’s really up to you. But a painted tarp is going to grab a lot more attention than flyers and leaflets stapled to telephone poles. It stands out.

18. Hoisting up Food on a Camping Trip

We’ve all heard that you should take all your food and hang it up high in a tree when you’re not at the campsite. After all, we want to keep predators away so we don’t come back to an unpleasant surprise.

You can wrap everything up in the center of your tarp, take the four corners, tie them together with a ball bungee, and then hoist the entire thing up on a rope over a tree branch.

You’ll find by this point that we’ve mentioned a lot of camping-related uses; this is just one more for the list.

19. Rain and Debris Protection for Central AC Compressor

In the southern side of the United States, almost every home has central air just out of necessity. What most of us don’t have is a way to prevent debris from getting in the fan, stressing out the motor, and causing us to call a repair technician.

Those compressors are just sitting out on the side of the house with no protection. You can make your own mini awning and attach it to the side of your house, or prop it up on four poles, and make the perfect layer of protection for your unit without limiting its airflow.

20. Backyard Awning

Backyard Awning

Trying to beat the heat in the dead of summer?

We all are. You can make your backyard a lot more bearable and usable, even in the hottest months of the year, if you install a canopy. Problem is, they’re ridiculously expensive if you go through a company that specializes in them.

Thankfully, with a bit of DIY know-how and a solid, quality tarp, you can make your own awning. This blocks out harmful UV rays, keeps your space up to fifteen degrees cooler, and gives more utility to your backyard throughout the entire day (if you place it right).

Tarp Materials

Tarps have been made from a slew of materials over the course of history, but now, we have access to strong and inexpensive materials that make tarps more durable, last longer, and help protect us against UV rays.

Polyethylene

Normally seen as PE in a lot of plastic constructions, polyethylene is a common plastic grade that is used in tarp construction. It is not flame retardant on its own unless treated with chemicals.

However, PE tarps are naturally waterproof, so with a tight seal, they can be used to prevent rain from damaging a roof.

Resistant to UV rays and built ultra strong to handle tough abrasions, polyethylene is also completely invulnerable to mildew.

It can’t host the bacteria in a way that allows it to multiply. Standing water trapped in a polyethylene tarp can still produce waterborne bacteria, but the tarp itself doesn’t harbor any.

Canvas

Canvas tarps are made out of cotton, polyester, or both. Combined, these are able to make some super durable tarps.

Polyester canvas is much like polyethylene in the sense that it doesn’t really harbor odors, while cotton definitely can. Cotton canvas is prone to UV damage over time, while polyester canvas will endure that damage at a much slower rate.

One thing that both materials have on their side is tear resistance. It’s difficult to tear one of these, meaning it’ll be difficult for weather and abrasions to eat their way through.

Both types of canvas may often be treated with a water resistant coating, which may need to be reapplied once every three to five years.

Vinyl

These tarps include a similarity to PVC in that  they are both naturally fire resistant. This doesn’t mean they can’t burn, but they won’t burn on their own once heat is applied.

A continuous heat source needs to be supplied to cause it to melt, and even then, it’s unlikely that this is going to happen unless under extreme circumstances.

For this reason, you shouldn’t be surprised to see vinyl and PVC included in fire retardant tarps and insulated tarps as well. Vinyl is generally cheap to produce, so you might find inexpensive variants of vinyl tarps over polyester canvas tarps.

Silnylon

A mixture of silicone and nylon, this hybrid material is labeled as a fabric more than it is a material. This is basically a nylon tarp that’s coated with a silicone liquid evenly on both sides, and it’s something that you’ve seen in dozens of household items without even knowing it.

Backpacks, ultralight tents, and tarps all use this material. You can also see higher grades of it being used in parachute construction. Silnylon is extremely wind resistant, though it’s not the strongest material you could wish for a tarp.

Different Tarp Colors

Different Tarp Colors

There’s a lot of different tarp colors, and some of them are affected by the US tarp color scheme that we’ll get into in a minute. However, I want to propose an idea here when you’re selecting your tarp.

You can get tarps in white, black, brown, blue – the list goes on and on. Depending on what you’re using your tarp for, you might want to go with a lighter color.

The color of your tarp defines more than just its aesthetic appeal. White reflects every wavelength color back at you, while black absorbs nearly all of it. In short, white tarps and light-colored tarps reflect far more heat, while black and dark-colored tarps actually hold onto it.

If you’re using a tarp as a backyard waning, you’re going to want the lightest color possible. You might notice that a dark tarp doesn’t allow as much of the light through, and you would be correct, because a white tarp is also reflecting that light through it if the material is thin enough.

That’s why when you look up at the underside of a white tarp, you can still see more light than you would on the underside of a dark tarp.

This doesn’t mean that it’s letting more heat in, though. If your tarp is being used to cover a boat or an RV that isn’t in use, or to provide shade for your family during a cookout, go with light colors.

If you’re just trying to block UV light and keep as much away from something as possible, go for darker colors.

US Tarp Color Scheme Explained

There’s a US color scheme, which isn’t set in stone, that you should know about whenever you go to buy tarps. As we mentioned before, the color of a tarp can affect its ability to retain or deflect heat, but the color system isn’t used for that; it’s used to measure grade.

  • Blue: These can be as thin as 0.13mm up to 0.15mm, which is less than 0.007 inches. Blue tarps are light duty and can be used to cover a floor, as a temporary rain tarp (if it’s made of the right materials), and provide simple protection.
  • Yellow: These are often 0.18mm up to 0.20mm, or about 0.008 inches thick. Yellow tarps are almost always associated with light duty, but can be medium duty since there is a thickness difference between them and blue.
  • Green: This medium duty tarp is anywhere from 0.23mm to 0.25mm, or up to 0.010 inches thick. Green is officially out of the category of light duty, and offers greater resistance against abrasions. These aren’t all too much heavier than blue or yellow tarps.
  • Silver: Silver is always heavy duty. It ranged from 0.28mm up to 0.30mm, which equates to about 0.012 inches thick. These are just a slight step below brown tarps, and can be used for commercial purposes, as well as heavy duty demo and reconstruction plus roof tarping.
  • Brown: The heaviest of the heavy duty, brown tarps are about 0.41mm thick, or 0.016 inches. These are about 25% thicker than silver, making them super heavy duty or ultra heavy duty, depending on where you look for them. These are used on the tops of dump trucks to transport coal, rocks, and dirt. Brown tarps are the heaviest defenders of items and buildings against rain and wind.

The thing is, this is just a proposed system that some manufacturers stick to. It’s not put into place by law; it just became a normal thing for bulk-buy tarp purchasers, so it made this universal system easy to understand and utilize for every tarp brand out there.

Contractors could buy tarps and stick to the color without having to worry about specifics, cutting down their time during the buying process so they could focus on the task at hand.

While each of these tarps have different grades and intended uses, you can use a brown tarp for a canopy, or a blue tarp to cover the floor while you’re painting.

Use your judgment based on the thickness and durability of the tarp, including its materials, and deliberate on your own. For heavy duty work, you should use a tarp that’s rated for it for safety purposes, of course.

Different Tarp Shapes

Tarps actually come in different shapes to accommodate different intended purposes. Depending on what you’re doing (camping, construction, etc.), you might find different utility from different shaped tarps.

These don’t necessarily impede the tarp’s performance, but it should be noted that certain shapes don’t provide as much wind resistance or rain ingress resistance depending on where you put them. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

  • Diamond: These are classified this way instead of just being a slightly turned square based on where the tie-outs are. These can sometimes simply be called hammock tarps, because they’re used for hammocks as well as camping needs and temporary shade in the outdoors. These are not ideal for massive coverage.
  • Square/Rectangle: Simple tarps with multiple tie-down points along the edges. These are the most common types you’ll see, and are used for canopies, awnings, and truck covers.
  • Hexagonal: With six main tie-down spots, these tarps are very situational, but versatile. You can see these used as standalone tarps or canopies that are only suspended by poles or stakes in the ground. This would provide good coverage regardless of the sun’s position, just not a lot of it.
  • Valance Tarps: These aren’t necessarily a shape, but they are an augmentation of a standard rectangle tarp. With 8” strips of additional material along the edges, you can suspend this one poles to give a flat cover, while having this little bit of extra slack around all the sides. This is good for securing a mosquito net to the top and pegging it with stakes into the ground.

Not all tent shapes are going to be good for your project, you just have to decide what you’re going to need. Most tarp manufacturers are also able to create customs if you need a certain amount of tie-down points on a single tarp.

The Master Class on Tarps is Complete

Consider yourself a knowledgeable aficionado about tarps after all of this, from materials, uses, functions and more. Tarps can be utilized in so many situations throughout life that it’s worth having a few of them around for different purposes.

If you’re interested in getting a high-quality tarp, browse our selection to get poly tarp, mesh tarps, and even green camo tarps, among the many other options we give you to choose from.

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