For people planning their first long-distance thru-hikes, there is a load of gear-related questions and concerns as to what is necessary and what can be left at home to help cut weight.
A tent footprint is an important piece of gear that can protect you when you pitch your tent keep you dry and may be vital to your trek.
The simple answer is they are very important as they protect the bottom of a tent from environmental damage. Rough and uneven ground can cause abrasions and wear away protection from water along with causing punctures or pinhole wear issues shortening the lifespan of your tent.
A tent footprint is simply a piece of fabric that covers the ground underneath your tent. In addition, it helps to protect both you and your tent from dirt, rocks, debris, and other outdoor elements along with keeping the tent itself cleaner.
As a thru-hiker, you need to evaluate all the parts of your gear before adding something to your backpack as you have limited space and weight that you can carry.
When examining your shelter system you may wonder what the footprint is and how it benefits a long-distance trek.
What is a Tent Footprint and Why Do You Need One?
The tent you carry has a general amount of space required for the shelter itself to sit flat on the ground without issue to set up correctly. This is the footprint, or space, of your tent itself.
In addition, as protection for your tent, you can buy a more tough or durable footprint that is a different material.
Your tent footprint is the space it needs to be fully set up, this matters when you are on the trail as not all tent sites are a similar size. This can make it difficult to know if you can fit your tent if you don’t understand the space required to fully assemble and stake out your shelter.
Many tent manufacturers create specific footprints for their tents crafted from similar or beneficial fabrics to work perfectly with the tent itself.
So what kind of fabrics and materials can a footprint be made from and what are the differences?
What Materials Can You Use for a Tent Footprint?
There are many different materials that can be used to create a footprint that can protect your tent from damage.
There are tent materials like Sil-Nylon and Sil-Poly that can be used or there are lighter options that can function similarly with fewer weight issues like PolyCro and Tyvek which are frequently used as DIY tent footprints.
- PU-Nylon – Nylon rules in the hiking and camping world due to being a good cost and well-performing overall fabric, especially when given a waterproof PU coating.
- PolyCro – Also known as Window Shrink Film, this is a transparent very thin plastic sheet that may seem like it is easy to damage and fail but it is remarkably strong while being ultralight and able to be folded down incredibly small.
- Mylar Emergency Thermal Blankets – Yes, those little silvered blankets you have for survival make for an incredibly inexpensive but strong footprint and can easily be replaced if you should damage them in the next town or even maybe a gas station, but they are pretty noisy.
- Tyvek – This is the material you see on the outside of the building while they are being constructed. It is nearly impossible to puncture and will be strong protection for your tent but can be quite crinkly and noisy unless prepared before the trail.
- Dyneema – The magical waterproof material from high-end backpacking tents shows up in footprints on sites like Zpacks, but it is neither lighter than other materials nor less costly, but it can add more toughness if you have the money to spend.
- Polyethylene Tarps – This is that signature blue tarp that my dad used non-stop when we would go hiking. They are bulky, not lightweight, but are easy to buy and functionally sound.
Most thru-hikers will opt for the PolyCro sheeting or the Tyvek as they are typically much lighter and take up far less space within your backpack and since weight and space are a premium grabbing these is easy as they are also simple to replace on the road for a very low expense.
What is the Purpose of a Tent Footprint?
The need for a tent footprint is two-fold. One is to take care of your tent, which is typically much more expensive gear to replace. So, what is a tent footprint used for?
A tent footprint takes the abuse of the trail, the sticks, and stones, the sticks and objects that would typically damage your tent and instead hit the footprint. In addition, the footprint helps you by creating an additional water barrier between you and the ground.
Typically, even if you clean up your tent site before setting up your tent, there can be sharp objects or rough ones just under the surface that can damage the tent floor.
Using a footprint will allow you to easily replace this other cheaper gear if it becomes damaged instead of working to tape and cobble together a tent fix.
Where Does the Tent Footprint Go – Inside or Outside?
Those who haven’t used a footprint for their tent may wonder where you place the footprint, so to make sure it is well understood, let’s explain it quickly here for you.
The footprint goes under the tent and should be shorter in length and width than your tent to ensure it doesn’t catch rain or condensation. The main goal is to prevent damage or wear and tear on your tent body, as it is expensive to fix or replace.
So now that we know where you place the footprint, is there any specific way you are supposed to put it on the ground for the best performance? Let’s take a look now.
Tent Footprint Positioning – Which Side Should Touch the Ground?
For the polycro or other materials that are the same on both sides, there is no specific way you need to lay them down, but on manufacturer-created footprints, you want to look at their guidelines, so what would I put facing down?
Most footprints will have a coated side and an uncoated side, the uncoated, or dull side, should be placed against the ground. The coated, or shiny side, then would face up to help minimize abrasions and damage to the coating.
This layout should always be checked against the manufacturer’s paperwork to ensure you use the footprint correctly and extend its life as long as possible, so what other benefits does a footprint provide you? Let’s dig in and take a look!
The Key Benefits of Using a Tent Footprint
There are many reasons why using a footprint makes sense for a thru-hiker. We will cover the points below that I find valuable for longer hikes.
Improve Tent Lifespan
A footprint helps to extend the life of your tent by protecting it from what is typically seen as normal trail abuse.
The area under a tent will almost always have debris, sharp sticks, or stones that can puncture and damage your delicate shelter in one night if you are unlucky to set up too close to them.
Adding an extra layer between these objects means less chance of tears and holes over the miles, and if you are using a more expensive tent, this can be a real lifesaver.
Water is a source of constant worry for hikers and adding another layer to protect you from nature is important as staying dry and warm is vital to willingness to stay on the trail.
A footprint can help to prevent this by giving your tent an extra barrier between it and the ground.
This is especially beneficial in areas where the soil is damp or there is a higher chance of water seeping through the bottom of your tent.
Better Site Prep and Positioning
A footprint can help you position yourself before putting up a tent and assist in site selection.
Using the footprint as a template, you can quickly check if an area is clear of debris and sharp objects that could potentially damage your shelter, saving time in the long run.
Enhanced Tent Cleanliness
Having a footprint also helps you to keep the tent clean than if you did not have one. The footprint acts as another barrier to dirt, dust, and sand that can get kicked up while hiking and find their way into every nook and cranny of your shelter.
Potential Drawbacks to Keep in Mind
There are some solid reasons why using a footprint doesn’t make sense and adds more complexity to your gear.
As with any gear, there is a weight, and the footprint is no different. What you are trading off here is comfort for weight.
If you want to save ounces, then this could be a great place to cut down, but if not, carrying the extra few ounces may not make a difference in the grand scheme of things.
A footprint, especially when made out of high-quality fabrics like DCF, can run you $100 or more.
Costs add up fast on a hike, and this $100 may be what you would want back to be able to finish your hike later when a polycro sheet runs around $15.
Extra Backpack Space
Many of the footprints don’t fold up too small, especially ones you buy from the manufacturer may be as large as your sleeping pad.
This can take up a lot of space in your backpack limiting you from carrying more important gear or requiring you to buy a bigger backpack, both aren’t very good options.
Tent Footprints vs Tarps – What’s the Difference?
The biggest difference is that a tarp is built to cover cars and be more of a functional tool than a lightweight and compressible base for your tent to lay on.
Nearly all the tarps you buy from a store could work as a footprint or groundsheet for you but only as a stop-gap.
In nearly all circumstances if I had to use a traditional tarp I would look hard to replace it as soon as I could in the next town with a hardware store as Polycro and Tyvek are pretty easy to get ahold of and lots lighter and fold up far easier, smaller, and weigh much less.
Do Thru-Hikers Really Need a Footprint? My Take
Many would say they aren’t necessary, and I would be hard-pressed to tell you you NEED one, but I can tell you when you have a heavy rain period and your ground begins to wet out, you would wish you had one.
For me, they are an inexpensive way to protect myself from nature and a more moisture barrier between me and the ground helps to keep me dry and safe.
So given all this is it worth buying a tent footprint than for a thru-hike? I would highly suggest investing in ground cloth.
Personally, I use a polycro sheet as they are less than $15 in most cases, and you can cut it down to match your tent it will be nearly zero weight and perfect for long-distance use.
How to Choose the Right Tent Footprint for Your Needs
Here are the most essential things to think about when selecting your groundsheet in terms of weight and budget.
These should help you make an informed decision on a purchase so you don’t have to buy multiple pieces of gear.
Your tent footprint should be a few inches smaller than the size of your tent floor so it doesn’t catch rainwater and direct it under the tent, so make sure to check this before use.
Footprints from cottage-gear manufacturers range in size from 25″ to 40″ wide and 84″ to 96″ long for one person. These groundsheets for two people are usually 50″ to 72″ wide and the same length as the one person.
Remember that if your footprint is too large, you can always cut it down to size.
Durability (Tear, Puncture, & Abrasion-Resistance)
The best approach to keeping your footprint for a long time is to choose a decent location to put up your tent or tarp and clear the ground of anything that might harm it, such as twigs, pebbles, and pinecones.
On the low end of durability, you have Mylar space blankets, window shrink film, and Polycro. They’re all about the same weight so most of this will be down to ease of acquisition and noise.
On the heavier end of the groundsheet, the spectrum is Tyvek and Dyneema, which are even more durable.
Noisiness & Crinkliness
Anyone who’s ever slept on a crinkly sleeping pad, pillow, or other gear knows that the noise of a piece of equipment can make sleeping in the woods much more difficult, and your footprint is no exception.
The Mylar emergency blankets are extremely noisy if you’re sensitive to this. It’s also clear that Tyvek crinkles loudly, but washing it in the machine without any detergent a few times will make it softer and quieter. With time, it will soften as well.
For myself, the best option I have used to date is the Polycro from window kit, which is very lightweight and fast to repack, helping me get up and moving in the morning, and quick to camp setup for the night.
For some people color is a go or no-go for purchase; personally, I like toned-down gear that matches the forest so no hot pinks and fluorescents for example.
One benefit to color is something like Tyvek being white can help gear stand out from the surrounding areas unlike polycro, which is see-through, so if you had something on the Tyvek, it would be easier to spot.
Bath Tub or Flat
The “bathtub” footprint is something I saw over on Zpacks and is similar to the regular flat groundsheet, but instead, there is a raised edge around the outside to help prevent things from getting in, and is popular with tarps or more open tarp tents.
Final Thoughts – Prioritize Weight and Durability
A tent footprint is what you put under your tent to protect the ground from getting wet and dirty.
A thru-hiker should always carry one because it’s possible that during the course of their journey, they may encounter heavy rain periods and need protection for themselves and what they’re camping with (i.e., gear).
Tent footprints come in various sizes: a single person or two people; durable or not so durable; colorless or colored; flat or bathtub style, etc. It all depends on what kind of hiker you are and what your budget can afford.
But if I had to recommend one thing about this piece of gear, make sure you find something with good performance to weight, like Polycro, or go fully durable with something like Tyvek!