What Is a Tent Footprint (And Do You Need One)?

What is a tent footprint? In short, a tent footprint is a groundcloth that goes under your tent’s bathtub floor to protect it and keep it clean and dry. And yes, you do need one.

Why Do I Need a Footprint?

The ground and your tent bottom are mortal enemies—do not let them meet! The ground poses many dangers to your tent. Namely:

  1. Sharp sticks, vegetation, and rocks can tear your tent bottom.
  2. Over time, normal dirt and grit can wear away at your tent bottom.
  3. Water can seep into your tent and drench your things. This can be truly dangerous if you use down insulation.
  4. The ground can be quite cold, and an extra layer under your tent can keep you slightly warmer. You can also burrito yourself inside the footprint for extra warmth in a truly desperate situation.

Your footprint also works well as a clean surface to sit, reorganize gear, or cowboy camp. You should also use a footprint whenever you cowboy camp, especially if you use an inflatable sleeping pad. This will keep your things clean and help keep your pad from puncturing.

Especially when cowboy camping, it’s important to always use some sort of groundsheet or footprint. Photo via.

Ultralight/DIY Options

The official footprint that comes with a tent can be expensive and/or heavy. A Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL 2 footprint costs $70 and weighs six ounces. Many backpackers prefer to use Tyvek (the waterproof material used to cover houses under construction) or Polycro (the plastic used to seal drafty windows) instead.

An 8×10 sheet of Tyvek costs $15 and may be even cheaper if you go to the hardware store and have them cut you a sheet to your desired dimensions. It could be even cheaper if you stroll by a local construction site and grab some Tyvek scraps for free. An 8×10 sheet of Polycro costs $11. Both are tried and true options in ultralight DIY communities. Tyvek is more durable than Polycro, but it’s a smidge heavier. You can also get a premade DCF (Dyneema Composite Fabric) ground cloth. This DCF footprint is a bit heavier and about 12-20 times the price of Polycro, but less vulnerable to tearing.

READ NEXT – The Thru-Hiker’s Complete Guide to Tyvek

Some DIYers even insert grommets for tent poles in their Tyvek footprints. Photo via.

For both materials, you could just lay your tent on top and cut the material slightly smaller than the size of your tent bottom. If you cut it too big, tuck the edges in whenever you set up camp—otherwise, rain can pool on your footprint and eventually seep into your tent.

If you’re feeling fancy and you want to fit your poles into your footprint, there are instructions for DIY Tyvek footprints with grommets here and here.

READ NEXT – Three Fun (And Easy) DIY Gear Projects To Save You Money

 

what is a tent footprint

A tent set up on top of a Tyvek groundsheet. To make a DIY footprint, start with a piece of Tyvek larger than your tent, so you can trim it down. Photo via.

Granted, some hikers do choose to forego the footprint in the interest of saving weight and/or money. And some tents are marketed as not needing a tent because their bathtub floors are made with durable materials.

Even so, we still recommend that you use one: with so many ultralight and affordable options at your fingertips, why wouldn’t you? It’s an easy way to protect your much more expensive tent and sleeping pad. Plus, it pulls double duty as a clean place to organize your gear and an extra layer of warmth in dire situations.

Any footprint advice that we missed? Let us know below!

Featured image via.

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Comments 8

  • Mark Whitcombe : Nov 10th

    As a long-time wilderness canoeist, I learned over four decades ago to use cheap construction plastic, typically heavy 4-mil or heavier, to make an INSIDE-THE-TENT groundsheet. We cut a piece of this heavy construction plastic so that when placed inside the tent, it could be pulled up about 15 cm (6 inches) on each of the four sides to form a ‘boat’. Thus the sheet was somewhat larger than the floor of the tent. The actual floor of the tent could get punctured — and often was on rough wilderness tent sites — but the contents of the tent could be kept dry by judicial application of duct tape to seal off potential and actual leakage spots.
    Our original boat-shaped groundcloth survived well over two decades as we gradually transitioned to smaller and more compact tents. We just trimmed down the original.
    We initially used that large inner groundsheet to roll all the bedding and mattresses inside the tent, and then fold the tent down around that package, then fold the tent plus groundsheet plus bedding into a very tough plastic tarp which got fastened to an old aluminum pack frame. It was bulky, but not very heavy, and was almost always the favourite pack to carry for our campers. When done properly, the whole bulky pack could survive considerable time in the water. In fact, we’d demonstrate this to the campers we were with by taking our own such pack and deliberately throwing it into the water.
    As our techniques for lighter canoeing gear evolved, we reduce the overall complexity of the system, but have continued almost to this day with the same idea of an internal boat-shaped plastic groundsheet. I say “almost to this day”, because we now use hammocks while paddling. So much more comfortable than sleeping on rough ground!

    Reply
    • Mark Whitcombe : Nov 13th

      I should add that instead of using heavy construction plastic, you could choose the much lighter Tyvek. I would think that the heavier Tyvek would be more waterproof, though I have no personal experience using any form of the material.

      Reply
  • Stephen : Nov 10th

    Great post!! Thanks for sharing the different options and ideas. I have purchased a tent footprint for my Nemo Hornet 2P, but would have never thought to use Tyvex. I may switch it out now because it’s lighter. When’s your next thru hike?

    Reply
  • thetentman : Nov 11th

    As a former tent salesman, designer and seller I LOVE your posts. You understand. I wish you had been one of my customers. You get it.

    THANK YOU.

    Reply
  • Cosmo : Nov 11th

    For Tyvek, put your new footprint in the washing machine, it makes it less stiff and noisy. It does tend to get “hairy” and stuff will start to cling to the bottom. Pick one side for the bottom and use it that way all the time. Also, I use a small piece for a “doormat” just outside the tent to drop my shoes on when getting in and out–keeps my feet/socks off the mud/leaves. Pro tip–make sure the door mat is *inside* the drip line of your tent fly…otherwise, it’s a funnel.

    Reply
  • Missy Marlin : Nov 15th

    “And some tents are marketed as not needing a TENT because their bathtub floors are made with durable materials.”

    Anyway, word error aside, I love TYVEK as a footprint. I do want to mention that you should wash it a few times with some towels before using it or it will sound like you are sleeping on a bag of potato chips.

    Reply

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