The Thru-Hiker’s Guide to Tyvek
In my mind, “Tyvek” is synonymous with “groundcloth.” A sheet of the stuff helped keep me dry during endless weeks of rain along the every-soggy Appalachian Trail, where it probably saved my inflatable pad from the splinters of ancient shelter floors, too. It has definitely saved my sorry ass from true misery during long, sub-zero nights in quinzee snow shelters high in the Rockies. And for cowboy camping among the nylon-eating rocks and plants of the American Southwest, it’s the only groundcloth I’ll bring.
Tyvek is best known as a weatherproof house wrap. It’s that white, papery stuff you’ve probably seen on the sides of unfinished buildings – though its all-around bad-assery is deployed seemingly everywhere. Those hooded, hazmat-esque garments that have made a fashionable appearance during COVID times? Tyvek. The crinkly, white priority mail envelopes from the USPS? Tyvek! Race bibs? Concert bracelets? (Remember concerts?) Those “world’s thinnest” and “world’s strongest” wallets? Whenever the world needs something cheap, rainproof, lightweight, and durable, Tyvek is there.
Lightweight backpacking has a long and successful tradition of repurposing random stuff that happens to outperform existing manufactured gear. And as many creative souls have long been proving on the Internet, using Tyvek as a groundcloth is only the very beginning. This thru-hiker’s guide to Tyvek will detail some of the material’s most practical and imaginative applications. Get ready to have your most pressing high-density polyethylene-related questions answered.
The Thru-Hiker’s Guide to Tyvek Quick Navigation
- What is Tyvek?
- Common Backcountry Uses
- DIY Tyvek Projects
- Where Do I Get Tyvek?
- Other Common Questions
What is Tyvek?
Polyethylene is a very common plastic. Researchers at DuPont discovered its ability to be turned into a plasticky fluff by accident in the 1950s. After being spun into strands, the material is not woven but rather layered randomly and then bonded by pressure and high heat. This accounts for some of its specific properties. It’s fully recyclable, although whether or not it can be processed along with other plastics may depend on where you live.
The Good Stuff
For the applications discussed here, unless otherwise mentioned, you probably want standard “hard structure” Tyvek HomeWrap or a similar brand of construction-grade, non-woven polyethylene wrap. Before it’s broken in, it should be stiff like paper and feel plasticky to the touch, rather than fabric-like. According to DuPont, HomeWrap weighs 1.8oz per square yard. (Tyvek CommercialWrap, at 2.7oz per square yard, is the beefiest of the family and is very hard to find in small quantities.)
A Lighter Alternative
“Soft structure” varieties of Tyvek, most commonly Type 1443R, have drawn the ire of many backpackers expecting the former variety, although some still prefer soft structure for bivy sacks and other projects. It’s more breathable, more malleable, lighter by at least a half ounce per square yard, less noisy, and softer to the touch. However, it’s also significantly less resistant to tearing, puncture, and water. It’s used for wearable Tyvek products – such as the disposable coveralls I had to wear for a job that involved stirring sewage (fun!) – among many other random things like archival storage and kite making.
DuPont Tyvek varieties that have a type number beginning with “14” are soft structure, with “16” indicating perforated soft structure. If it begins with a “10” or includes the HomeWrap label, it’s hard structure.
Other brands produce similar polyethylene materials, and their consistency to DuPont Tyvek varies. The majority of comments I’ve encountered on trail or online favor the original DuPont Tyvek. Within this article, I use the term Tyvek generically to refer to all such varieties of material, as the brand has long been an industry standard.
Is Tyvek really waterproof?
Like any good question, this has been the subject of vigorous debate on the Internet. Strictly speaking, even hard structure Tyvek is classified only as water-resistant when water exposure is constant, according to the official Tyvek user’s manual. Water-resistance comes as a benefit of Tyvek’s composition and polyethylene’s natural properties, rather than the result of any sort of coating or treatment.
Still, backpackers have been sleeping on the stuff for decades. The consensus among its devotees is that it’s waterproof enough. For the vast majority of the wet nights I’ve endured with Tyvek, I haven’t noticed any issues. This clever experiment corroborates my experience. Unlike nylon, Tyvek won’t stretch or otherwise perform differently when wet.
That said, on my own soggy, northbound AT hike, the off-brand variety I used as a groundcloth started to soak through during the first few hundred miles. I switched it out for a seemingly more robust Tyvek-brand sheet in Erwin, Tennessee, and fared just fine for the rest of my hike.
Is Tyvek really breathable?
To a degree, yes. It has microscopic pores that are permeable to vapor. As house wrap, the material must weatherproof an exterior without trapping excessive moisture in the walls. (Contrary to what some may claim, this means that Tyvek is not a vapor barrier.) DuPont reports a moisture vapor permeance of 58 perms for HomeWrap, which is very breathable as far as hard structure house wraps go.
However, it doesn’t compare with some of the familiar “waterproof-breathable” materials used for outdoor apparel. In my own experience, even soft structure wearable items can get quite clammy very quickly. Reports I’ve read from DIY experimenters confirm that the level of breathability does not fully solve condensation issues for gear like tents and bivy sacks.
Common Backcountry Uses
Tent or Tarp-Tent Groundcloth
While plenty of tents advertise an impermeable bucket floor or come with a separate groundcloth of their own, all campers know that sinking feeling that comes from waking up to a freshly soaked floor on a rainy morning. Tyvek is effective at protecting your tent floor from water (as well as abrasive sticks and rocks).
More importantly, Tyvek can be acquired cheaply, and it’s lighter than many backpacking-specific alternatives. (Whether it is a true lightweight solution depends on your definition of lightweight, your tolerance for genuinely thinny-thin alternatives like Mylar and Polycryo, and how much you’re willing to spring for Dyneema).
In his seminal guide Beyond Backpacking, lightweight guru Ray Jardine suggests tracing your tent’s perimeter directly onto a custom groundcloth and cutting an inch within the outline. That way runoff from the tent fly doesn’t get channeled underneath the tent. With Tyvek, a sharpie and scissors work just fine. This how-to offers photographic examples and some helpful tips, as does this similar post.
Depending on the Tyvek you have available, joining two smaller sheets side-by-side may be necessary for large footprints, though rolls do come as wide as nine feet. DuPont manufactures tape specifically for use with Tyvek, which is sold online and in hardware and home improvement stores. Other cheaper tapes can work, too, but my Tyvek tape jobs have held exceptionally. They also offer what duct tape never could: a further opportunity to rep that Tyvek logo on my gear.
Sizing a sheet for use with a tarp is less precise than with a tent, though it’s still important. The Tyvek may be the only protection between sleeping pad and ground. Because a flat tarp can be pitched in so many configurations with varying widths, I cut my groundcloth to fit how much space around my sleeping pad I think I’ll want on dry nights, when my tarp will be set up high and wide, if at all. For a more tightly pitched tarp, I just fold an edge or two of the Tyvek back underneath me so it doesn’t catch the rain. Of course, any excess can eventually be trimmed off.
When it’s very rainy, I’ll often stuff a few handfuls of leaves or pebbles under the uphill-facing edge of the Tyvek to raise it slightly. This half-hearted, faux bathtub floor maneuver prevents any trickles of fallen rain from crawling atop the sheet.
I once put holes and grommets into the corners of a Tyvek groundcloth to accommodate its staking down on gusty nights, as do many Tyvek users. Pre-fab grommet tabs and Tyvek loop tabs are easily found online to make this even simpler. On lightweight thru-hikes, I’ve chosen to omit the extra stakes this calls for with a tarp set-up. Placing my water bottles and shoes at the groundcloth’s corners does the trick in most conditions.
Barrier Against Snow
Some of my first experiences with Tyvek came while camping in deep snow, where keeping insulation completely dry was vital. Despite the cold, sitting or sleeping would often melt the top layer of snow ever so slightly. With a sheet of Tyvek underneath, among other things, the dreaded seep was kept firmly at bay. Furthermore, the material did not saturate and later freeze solid like a number of similar items I’ve used.
The Humble Tyvek Ass Pad
I’ve long admired the closed-cell foam butt pads some hikers bring for sitting on, though I’ve never carried one myself. What I really want from a butt pad is usually just a barrier from moisture, rather than cushioning or insulation. Enter the modest, your-butt-sized scrap of Tyvek: an easily cut three-season solution for those without a standalone groundcloth to repurpose for sitting. It’s much more packable, more versatile, and easier to justify for weight sticklers. Foam, of course, still has its place, especially in the cold.
If you’re into using signs for hitchhiking, Tyvek beats cardboard by a mile—particularly if you’re already carrying some. This is one of several specific advantages to Tyvek’s white hue, though most important is its ability to take sharpie ink just as well as paper does.
DIY Tyvek Projects
Protective Envelope for a Book
This involves little more than acquiring a Tyvek mailing envelope. Most common are those USPS priority mail packages, roughly 11.5x15in, though other shipping companies carry them, too, sometimes in different sizes. The best envelopes are used ones rescued from the trash bin.
You can trim one down to custom-fit your book, journal, Kindle, or another similarly shaped item that wants to stay dry and clean, keeping enough extra material to fold back over the envelope’s opening. Even if you don’t crop it, do slice off the top flap so the single-use adhesive strip doesn’t collect dirt or get stuck. Done!
My habit of using these has followed me into the front country and proved useful with my laptop, binders, folders, etc. It’s helpful for protecting pages, even when water damage is out of the picture. With all this, be prepared for everyone to ask you what you got in the mail every time you pull out your stuff.
Some folks just repurpose a letter-size Tyvek mailing envelope, but it’s not much harder to customize a sleeve to fit your own stake collection. This video shows a popular method, though other designs are easily found.
My current preference is actually to just fold up my groundcloth into a rectangle slightly wider than my longest stake and roll it up around the stakes into a protective “stake burrito” bound by a rubber band.
Before compiling this article, I had never considered a Tyvek stuff sack – and to be completely honest, I probably still won’t for future hikes. I’m impressed, though, by the ingenuity of several methods I’ve found online for turning mailing envelopes into durable, water-resistant, zero-cost drawstring sacks. This method for a simple, rectangular sack was by far the most commonly referenced resource for Tyvek stuff sacks I found on backpacking forums and blogs. This one demonstrates a cylindrical pattern. Ready-made Tyvek stuff sacks like these from TripTarp are also pretty inexpensive.
There is debate about whether even soft structure Tyvek is breathable enough to make a good bivy. The Ultralight Hiker’s blog, a gold mine for inventive Tyvek ideas, offers a model for a simple, rectangular bivy concept that can be unzipped into a large groundcloth or even transformed into a poncho-tarp. This lightweight hunting blog illustrates a bivy construction with a hard structure Tyvek bottom and a soft structure upper. And this YouTube video from a bushcraft channel demonstrates how to incorporate a footbox if desired. (Bushcrafters and survivalists appear to predominate the Tyvek camping R&D scene on YouTube.)
A number of websites offer ready-made Tyvek bivies. While I haven’t tested any myself, two distinct options are this simple $14 bivy from 3F UL Gear (sometimes labeled as Flame’s Creed), which I’ve found on several other small-scale outdoor sites, and this $170 “sleeping cover” from Terra Rosa Gear that adds a nylon mesh hood and a silpoly bottom.
Often referred to as a “rain kilt” by men afraid of the word “skirt,” these practical garments are lighter, more breathable, and more comfortable than rain pants for warm-weather hiking. They can be paired with waterproof gaiters for below-the-knee protection and can be made from almost anything. My own mother hiked the Vermont Long Trail in a skirt cut from an old shower curtain.
Tyvek, of course, is a prime suspect for an affordable DIY rain skirt. This how-to demonstrates the easiest method for skirt construction, using a Tyvek rectangle in a simple “wrap” style that some liken to a sarong. Only slightly more involved is the method described in this DIY article, which relies on a trapezoid. For a more tailored shape and a method to create an adjustable waistband, check out this detailed instructable.
While a number of lightweight backpacking gear companies carry some kind of rain skirt, 3F UL Gear carries the only pre-made Tyvek skirt I’ve encountered. For some reason, I find the 10-second video included in the product photos to be oddly entertaining.
Hooded Jacket and Chaps
Comprehensive rain gear is tough to achieve with Tyvek. This how-to from Gossamer Gear’s blog offers a method for turning a set of Tyvek coveralls into an improved wind and water-resistant getup that’s suitable for milder backcountry environments. For a multitude of reasons, Tyvek coveralls alone are a poor solution for staying dry on trail. If anyone reading this has personal experience with a hard structure Tyvek poncho or pack cover, I’d love to hear about it.
Tarp or Tarp-Tent
I’ve encountered much skepticism about the wisdom of using soft structure Tyvek for a tarp or tarp-tent, and I’ll admit, I share that skepticism. Shelters that rely on it are best for blocking wind and light precipitation in generally dry environments. Interestingly, Locus Gear sells a couple of shelters made mostly from soft structure Tyvek with a UV-resistant coating.
Slightly more common, though still firmly in weirdo territory, is using hard structure Tyvek for a tarp or tarp-tent body. The benefits of this undertaking will have less appeal to the fast-and-light backpacking crowd. Hard structure Tyvek’s modest weight starts to look a little less modest when you’re carrying a roof’s worth of material. The durability that makes hard structure perfect for groundcloths becomes less important when the material is moved overhead. Not much beats Tyvek’s price, though silnylon is practically a bargain compared to ultralight materials.
Backpacker offers some brief advice on how to turn Tyvek into a tarp, and further details can be found in this instructable. The Ultralight Hiker blog suggests several tarp-like Tyvek shelter designs, including this A-frame version suitable for backpackers.
Where do I get Tyvek?
Short answer: on the internet (I mean, what did you expect?). Tyvek can also be found in home improvement stores, but usually only in quantities that would be absurd for a backpacker’s purposes. The classic method is to ask a builder or contractor for any spare “ends.”
A simple search on Amazon, eBay, Etsy, or other similar e-commerce sites will garner a variety of options. You’ll also find prefab Tyvek gear, including pre-cut groundcloths with stake-able corners and prepared DIY project kits. The market for this stuff has been around for quite a while and shows no signs of decline despite advances in other materials.
A number of small-scale gear companies have added Tyvek in backpacker-friendly quantities to their online catalogs.
Tyvek by the Sheet (Footprint Size)
Tyvek by the Foot
- Arrowhead Equipment
- Quest Outfitters
- Gear To Go Outfitters
- LowerGear Outdoors
Other Common Questions
Can I make my Tyvek less noisy?
Hard structure Tyvek is hardly the only piece of gear with a reputation for crinkling loudly at night. Much like noisy sleeping pads, and unlike some other nontraditional groundcloth materials, Tyvek will gradually decrease in noisiness with use. To fast track the process, and to make hard structure Tyvek more malleable and packable, you can send it through the washing machine—without detergent—up to a few times without any loss in water resistance. Five or ten minutes of vigorous crumpling achieves the same without any waste of water.
DIY backpacking gear forums are full of warnings to never, ever put Tyvek through a drier. Perhaps the best reason not to is the energy savings of a good ol’ hang-dry. My groundcloth withstood a warm tumble alongside other clothing without noticeable shrinkage. According to DuPont, Tyvek won’t shrink below 220°F, and won’t melt until 275°F. Some users, however, still report minor shrinkage from laundering.
Can I sew Tyvek?
Yes, although many DIYers advocate sealing seams with Tyvek tape whether you sew or not. HammockForums.net offers helpful and concise guidelines for sewing both hard and soft structure varieties. DuPont also includes detailed information on sewing in its Tyvek user manual. Most importantly, it is best to use a small needle, as needle holes will remain after sewing, and to not stitch too densely, which could compromise strength.
Can I glue Tyvek?
Yes. DuPont has specific recommendations for sealing and gluing. TLDR: fast-drying water-based adhesives are best, and natural adhesives are generally preferred over synthetic. This converting guide from DuPont is another helpful source for working with Tyvek.
Will my Tyvek wear out?
Very well worn sheets can begin to break down and entrap grit among loosening fibers, which becomes a real nuisance. Unless you send a Tyvek sheet through the wash with detergent, this probably won’t happen for a long time. I’ve met many thru-hikers who successfully use the same Tyvek groundcloth for several thousand miles.
Does Tyvek make me look more stylish in the backcountry?
For real-deal material specifics, there’s no substitute for the Tyvek Users Manual referenced in sections above. This FAQ page also contains a wealth of information, as do a variety of other links found on the official DuPont Tyvek site.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.