What Is a Tent Footprint and Do You Need One?

Camping & Hiking Expert Brent K. details what tent footprints are good for, who should consider using one, and the different options when choosing a footprint!

A tent is set up with rocks and mountains in the background.

Photo by Clarisse Meyer 

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You’ve just spent hundreds of dollars on a new backpacking shelter. Do you really need to drop an extra $30-50 on a tent footprint, aka a groundsheet? It’s a highly debated topic that depends on several factors, such as your tent’s durability and waterproofing, your camping environment, and your priorities.

For some, it’s protecting their expensive investment, and for others, about having the lightest pack weight possible. In this article, we'll go over what a tent footprint is and how to determine if one is right for you.

What Is a Tent Footprint?

A tent footprint is a protective piece of material you lay down on the ground before pitching your tent. Its primary function is to act as a barrier to punctures, abrasion, and moisture. They are usually made of nylon or polyester and are much more durable than the floor of your tent, especially if it's ultralight.

Why Do I Need One?

A yellow and grey tent is set up on a patch of dirt. There are mountains surrounding it.

Photo by Kevin Payan

Protect Your Tent

Each time you pitch your tent, you expose it to abrasive materials such as gritty sand, dirt, and tiny rocks. These seemingly natural and inoffensive objects are nature's sandpaper.

As you move your tent around or roll around in your sleep, the floor rubs against these materials, slowly weakening the fabric and eventually causing a hole. The thinner and more lightweight your tent is, the quicker it happens. Although a footprint adds a few ounces to your pack weight, it significantly extends the life of your tent.

Moisture Barrier

The other reason to use a footprint is it gives ground moisture an extra barrier to cross before making it inside your tent and soaking your gear. Even if it’s not actively raining, if you’re camping in a damp environment like the Pacific Northwest, the water saturating the soil quickly makes its way through your tent floor as the weight of your body pushes against the ground.

Most tent manufacturers make footprints that match the dimensions of your tent floor perfectly. But if your footprint is slightly larger, simply tuck the excess material underneath the sides of your tent. If the footprint extends into the tent’s vestibule or beyond, it can collect rain or ground moisture and funnel water underneath your floor, defeating its purpose.

Bonus Factors

Since it is another piece of material between you and the ground, a footprint provides a modicum of extra ground insulation, making your camping more comfortable. It can also serve as a dirt barrier to cowboy camp on or to catch your explosion of gear and food when you stop for lunch or to camp.

Why Wouldn’t I Want One?

A tent is set up in a mountainous area with a lot of grass surrounding it.

Photo by Alessandro Capuzzi

The only downside to using a footprint is the added weight to your pack. Ultralight long-distance backpackers might be more inclined to shed every ounce possible from their pack and be a little pickier about their campsite instead.

What to Consider When Buying / Using a Footprint

Durability Ratings

Tent specifications usually include a fabric durability rating known as a denier count. It refers to the thickness of the threads that make up the fabric. The higher the denier count, the more durable (and heavier) the fabric will be. For example, the Marmot Tungsten has a floor fabric made of 68-denier polyester, which is much tougher and more abrasion resistant than the 15-Denier Nylon floor on the Nemo Hornet.

The Hornet is a lighter tent but more vulnerable to abrasion and punctures. Nemo makes a 75-denier nylon footprint for the Hornet, which only increases your pack weight by 6.8oz. A 15-denier floor on top of a 75-denier footprint provides more durability than a 68-denier floor and remains significantly lighter overall. A win-win if you ask me!

Waterproofing

A tent with a footprint in the rain.

Photo by Christopher Porter

Fabrics also have a metric to determine how easily water passes through the threads. It’s known as hydrostatic head or simply mm. A higher number means more pressure is required to squeeze water through the fabric, thus making it more waterproof.

The Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2 Bikepack has a floor with a waterproof rating of 1200mm while the North Face Stormbreak 2’s floor is significantly more waterproof with a rating of 3000mm.

Campsite Selection

Ultimately, the higher the denier-count and waterproof rating a tent floor fabric has, the less need for a footprint. However, terrain and campsite selection also factor into the equation. Campsites with a high frequency of use are usually packed down and have gritty, sandy surfaces.

Some campgrounds even require you to set up your tent on a designated tent platform filled with stone dust for better drainage. While these sites are convenient and flat, they expose your tent floor to more abrasion and warrant the use of a footprint. Areas with drier climates have sandier soil as well.

If you don't want to use a footprint, seek wilder campsites. Look for beds of leaves, grass, pine needles, and mossy ground with good drainage. Clear the tent site of all twigs, rocks, pinecones, etc. It's a good idea to get down on the ground and crawl around a bit before you pitch your delicate tent to make sure there aren't any pokies hiding beneath the surface. That said, I recommend always using a footprint. Spending around $40 dollars is a small price to protect a $500 investment.

Alternatives

Do you need to purchase the footprint sold by the tent manufacturer? No, you don't. But they are convenient, cut to the exact size of your tent, and come with tent pole loops, hooks, and guy lines.

However, they are the most expensive footprint option by far. If you're a budget-minded backpacker, a piece of Tyvek wrap insulation, a shower curtain, or a piece of thin polycryo plastic gets the job done just as effectively. If car camping or weight isn't a concern, you can use a cheap tarp from the hardware store.

Patching

I know there are reckless folks out there that refuse to use a ground cloth of any kind. Luckily, there are products on the market that do a phenomenal job of repairing tent floors. Tenacious Tape is an outdoor industry-specific tape that is super sticky, flexible, and lightweight. It's incredibly tear-resistant too, so you need scissors to cut it.

Cut a piece of Tenacious Tape roughly two to three times the size of the hole. Round corners are better than sharp ones. Pull the fabric taut and place the tape over the hole. Do the same on both sides of the fabric. While it patches up any breaches in the tent's floor, it won’t keep your fabric from thinning after weeks of sleeping on abrasive ground.

Like most backpacking equipment, your choice of tent footprint is personal. It depends on your priorities and goals, and you shouldn't let anyone else decide if one is right for you. If you want to chat with an actual human about hiking or camping gear, please reach out to myself or one of our other Camping and Hiking Experts here on Curated!

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Written By
The wilderness is my home, my vacation spot, and my church. It's where I feel the most in tune and the most like myself. If I can help even a handful of people get out into nature and experience the blissful oneness that I've experienced out there, I'll feel fulfilled as a hiking and camping expert....

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