Cutting to the chase, a tent footprint is a groundsheet that you place underneath your tent, separating it from the cold ground.
To fully enjoy your camping experience, you need to have the proper gear. There’s no way around that. A tent, sleeping bag, and backpack are some fundamental camping items that you’ll need to get. But they’re not all that matters.
Another critical but often overlooked item is a tent footprint. A tent footprint is a separate groundsheet that is placed underneath the floor of your tent and that serves as a protective barrier between the tent and the ground. Footprints are commonly used with backpacking tents, which typically have thinner floors.
The main purpose of a tent footprint is to shield the tent floor from damage: footprints provide padding and abrasion resistance from rocks, sticks, twigs, and other hazards found on the ground, extending the life of your tent by preserving its floor.
Footprints are usually made from durable, waterproof fabrics such as polyurethane-coated nylon, polyethene plastic, polyester, or cuben fibre, and come in different sizes to match different tent dimensions. A properly fitting tent footprint should be slightly smaller than the tent floor size.
When setting up your tent, the footprint is the first thing you need to lay out. You stake down the corners just like you would a tent & then the tent itself is assembled directly on top of the footprint.
This creates a multi-layer buffer separating the tent floor from the external hazards on the ground. The lightweight and waterproof footprint takes the brunt of the abuse instead of your tent.
The Importance of Tent Footprints
Protecting the Tent Floor
As we’ve seen, tent footprints provide a protective barrier between your tent floor and the ground. They help safeguard it from wear and tear caused by rocks, sticks, roots, and other abrasive surfaces.
Without a footprint, direct contact with a thin tent floor on a rough surface can quickly lead to punctures, leaks, or tears, which can be difficult and expensive to repair. By preventing this damage, a footprint extends the usable life of your tent.
For lightweight backpacking tents especially, a footprint is almost essential to prolong the tent’s lifespan.
Moisture Barrier and Waterproofing
Tent footprints also function as an impenetrable moisture barrier between the wet ground and your tent floor.
Camping on damp ground can lead to a soggy tent bottom from moisture seeping through, which can cause discomfort and problems like mold or mildew.
An additional waterproof footprint enhances insulation and keeps ground moisture from permeating your tent, providing extra waterproofing protection compared to the tent floor alone.
Most tent footprints are made of water-resistant materials that block liquids from passing through, which is particularly useful when camping in rainy conditions. Trust us: the extra barrier makes a huge difference in keeping you dry.
Tent Floor vs. Tent Footprint
The primary role of a tent floor is to provide a waterproof, durable base that covers the whole tent and protects occupants from nature.
Tent floors need to withstand regular use on rocky terrain, dense forests, and other challenging environments and so are designed to be sufficiently waterproof and abrasion-resistant.
On the other hand, tent footprints serve as an additional protective layer on top of your floor. Confused? Let’s see if we can help.
The main differences between tent floors and tent footprints are:
Durability: tent floors are more durable since they form the bottom of the entire tent; however, footprints can be replaced more quickly if they become damaged
Waterproofing: both tent floors and footprints are waterproof, but the floor covers the entire tent, while the footprint protects only the floor
Purpose: while the tent floor is structural, the footprint is sacrificial protection
Footprints are normally several inches smaller than the actual tent size so that no water is pooled between the floor and the footprint.
The floor and the footprint work together to provide a multi-layered protection.
DIY vs. Store-Bought Tent Footprints
Benefits of Owning Your Tent Footprint
Buying and owning your own tent footprint from established brands is more expensive, but also more convenient and you can basically be sure of its quality. Store-bought footprints are designed to fit the exact dimensions of your tent floor (so you won’t have to worry too much about the dimensions), and the materials used are often more durable & waterproof than DIY options.
Finally, if you’re willing to spend some money on your own tent footprint, there won’t be any guessing or trial-and-error since you know exactly what you’re buying.
DIY Footprint Options
You don’t feel like spending too much on a footprint? That won’t be a problem. Buying an expensive tent footprint is not the only option if you’re going camping in the rain.
Many people choose to make their own DIY footprints since they are a much cheaper alternative. Some common materials used are heavy-duty waterproof fabrics like polyurethane-coated nylon, a groundsheet-like piece of durable polyethene plastic, house wraps like Tyvek, or even just a basic ground cloth or tarp.
As with all things, DIY options have advantages and disadvantages when compared to buying a brand new tent footprint.
You can customize sizing
You can add your personal touch
Materials tend to be less durable and weather-resistant
DIY footprints need to be replaced more frequently
If you’re budget-conscious, then we recommend crafting your DIY footprint and seeing how it goes in your camping trip. You can always buy a new one if things don’t work out.
Key Considerations When Choosing a Tent Footprint
Size and Fit
When choosing a tent footprint, you need to get one slightly smaller than your tent to prevent water from accumulating. Spreading your tent footprint over the spot can help you make a much more accurate guess if your tent will fit compared to judging by eye alone.
If you insist on using a footprint of the same size or larger than your tent, it will likely lead to water pooling in between, which will ruin your day (or night).
For backpackers, the extra weight is also a key consideration when choosing a tent footprint: it will add weight, so getting one slightly smaller than your tent reduces the extra ounces carried.
Material and Durability
The ideal tent footprint provides a waterproof material but is not overly heavy-duty. Waterproof materials like polyethene plastic or polyurethane-coated nylon provide enough protection without added weight.
For mountainous areas, a more heavy-duty material may be preferable to withstand the rocky terrain.
Finally, remember that it pays to understand the quality and properties of the fabric: there’s no better way to ensure adequate waterproofing and durability when choosing a tent footprint.
Additional Benefits of Tent Footprints
Comfort and Insulation
Tent footprints can help prevent heat loss through the bottom of a tent, as the extra layer creates insulation against the cold ground.
Pro tip: using a tent footprint with a sleeping pad provides even more comfort and warmth by elevating you off the ground.
Keeping Your Camping Gear Clean
Tent footprints keep the bottom of your tent clean by protecting it from dirt, mud, and dampness.
For car camping especially, a cleaner tents results in less maintenance needed after each trip.
Common Misconceptions About Tent Footprints
A common misconception is that modern tents don’t require a tent footprint for protection.
While many modern tents are quite durable and waterproof, an extra layer still provides valuable insulation and prevents damage. Don’t be tricked: most tents, even high-tech ones, will definitely benefit from a footprint.
Another common myth is that a footprint’s extra layer adds too much bulk and weight. This doesn’t make much sense since tent footprints are made from lightweight materials (and add minimal ounces). The negligible additional weight is well worth the protection that a footprint provides between your tent and the ground.
Don’t let these misconceptions deter you from using a footprint as part of your camping gear.
We hope you now understand how and why a tent footprint is an indispensable piece of camping gear. Whether buying or DIY-ing your own, having a lightweight yet durable tent footprint in your pack will take your camping trip to the next level. The marginal extra weight is well worth it for shielding your tent floor from wear and tear.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do I Really Need a Tent Footprint for my Camping Tent?
Yes. A tent footprint provides extra protection between your tent and the ground, prolonging its lifespan. It’s a solid investment for safeguarding your tent.
How Does a Tent Footprint Help Ensure a Cozy Night’s Sleep?
A footprint acts as a barrier against the ground, providing insulation and retaining heat for a more cosy night’s sleep.
What Kind of Waterproof Barrier Does a Tent Footprint Provide?
Tent footprints are made from waterproof materials like polyethene plastic or polyurethane-coated nylon to create a waterproof barrier between your tent and wet ground. This keeps moisture from seeping into your tent.
Where Can I Find Materials to Make my Own Lower-Cost DIY Tent Footprint?
Common materials like durable polyethene plastic sheets from your local store can be used to make a DIY tent footprint.
Does a Tent Footprint Really Add More Weight?
While a tent footprint adds a bit of weight, quality footprints are made from lightweight materials. It’s really not that much extra weight and it’s super worth it.