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Generally, when people spend money on a product, they want it to last a long time.
Imagine having to buy a new phone every year instead of investing in a protective case.
Your tent is no different. There is no sense in having to buy one each spring before your first trip because your last one got a tear in it. (odds are in the floor)
A tent footprint is like a protective case for your tent. It sits between the tent’s floor and the ground, providing an additional layer of protection.
Whether it be a sharp rock or gritty sand, the tent floor is vulnerable to punctures and abrasion.
A tent footprint extends the life of your tent, while adding little additional weight.
What is a tent footprint?
A tent footprint is a piece of material that lies between the outside floor of your tent and the ground.
So it’s basically like having two floors? Yes…and no.
A footprint is not attached to your tent in any way, it is a completely separate piece of gear. Plus, since it is on the outside of your tent, you never see or feel it while inside.
Not a lot of tents come with their own footprint, but many have footprints available to buy that are specific to them. It is important to note that footprints are not just a one-size-fits-all piece of gear. They need to be made to the dimensions of each specific tent. (there is a very important reason why, that I’ll get into in just a bit)
Why do people use tent footprints?
The biggest reason to use a footprint is to make your tent floor more durable and last longer.
Whether it is a sharp rock or sand, tent floors are vulnerable to punctures and abrasions. And nothing ruins a trip quicker than finding a hole in your backpacking tent on the first day of a trip. (trust me)
Using a footprint adds another layer to the tent floor. Making it more resistant to abrasion (from sandy conditions or small pebbles) and puncture. (from rocks or tree roots)
On top of saving your tent from developing a hole, this can also preserve the life of your sleeping pad. (the next target when something has made a hole in your tent floor)
In addition to direct damage, a footprint can help keep your tent clean from things like dirt, tree sap, and other common forest debris. These pesky items can pile up on your tent, degrading the material over time and ruining your favorite tent.
Making sure your tent footprint is the right size
It may make sense to have a footprint that is bigger than your tent floor, and that extends beyond the corners of your tent on all sides.
However, that is exactly what you do NOT want.
When the footprint extends past the edges of your tent, it can easily gather water. This water will then pool up underneath your tent, creating a number of problems.
If there is enough water or the waterproof fabric on the bottom of your tent is worn down, you can get moisture inside your tent.
Also, if there are already any holes (even super small ones) you will be waking up in a nice and wet sleeping bag.
Most tent footprints that you buy from the manufacturer are already made to the right dimensions.
If you are making your own, I recommend making it 1 inch shorter than each side of your tent. (I.e., if your tent floor is 48″ x 84″, make your footprint 47″ x 83″)
This makes sure that the footprint will protect the bottom of your tent without risking water collection.
Factors to consider with tent footprints
Durability of tent floor
If you have a lightweight or ultralight tent, odds are the tent floor is not the most durable.
You do not want to have to buy a new tent every year, especially since it was probably a pretty expensive tent.
I always recommend folks with lightweight tents to use a tent footprint unless they are certain that they will be on super soft, plush ground.
Terrain you will be camping on + campsite selection
Knowing how to select a good spot to set up on your backpacking trip goes a long way in preserving your tent.
Knowing the terrain you will be camping on most of the time will also help you decide if a footprint is something you will absolutely need.
If you are always setting up on lush, soft grass fields, you can likely get by without a footprint. However, if you are going to constantly be set up on rocky terrain, your camping trip will be much more enjoyable if you have a tent footprint.
Regardless of the terrain you set up on, make sure to clear the spot of any rocks, sticks, or other obvious debris. This will ensure you are minimizing the risk of damage to your tent.
There are a lot of cheaper options, including some that are just a few dollars.
For example, Gossamer Gear sells a footprint (polycryo) for about $10 that you can use for any tent that has dimensions less than 72″ x 96″. This is the option I recommend for folks because it’s affordable, weighs only a few ounces, and will last you years.
Weight for footprints is generally not a big deal, unless you’re dealing with some hardcore ultralight backpackers.
Most footprints weigh less than 6 ounces and roll or fold down pretty small. So unless you are counting every ounce that goes into your backpack, weight should not be a determining factor with footprints.
Plenty of backpackers forgo paying for a tent footprint and opt to make their own. This can save some money and is pretty simple.
The most common materials folks will use are Tyvek (also known as house wrap) and plastic sheeting. (similar to the polycryo option from Gossamer Gear)
Tyvek footprints weigh a little more than polycryo and manufacturer-made footprints. (usually just waterproof nylon) Tyvek is a bit thicker, though, so it will last longer too.
Making your own is as easy as cutting down some plastic wrapping or Tyvek, remember to cut it 1″ shorter than the floor on each side. Some backpackers will also add grommets to each corner for the tent poles to sit in. Though this is not necessary, so don’t sweat it if you don’t have a grommet setting tool.
If you are going to be camping on rough or rocky terrain or want to maximize the lifespan of your tent, then yes you will need a tent footprint.
Most tents do not come with a footprint, but there are plenty of options for getting a tent footprint. (including some diy footprints)
Yes, you can easily make your own tent footprint with some supplies you can get at a hardware store. A DIY footprint is a great way to protect your tent while saving money. (or using items you already have)
You want your tent footprint to be just shorter than each side of your tent floor. If the footprint extends beyond the edge of the tent, it can collect water underneath your tent.
Most backpackers are stoked when they get a new tent, and ready to hit the trail the next chance they get. I mean who can say no to a backpacking trip anyway, let alone to break in new gear.
But, many people overlook a tent footprint and the longevity it can add to your tent. You would hate to get a rip in your tent within months of getting it? Plus, dealing with returns and product exchanges can be a headache.
Adding a footprint to your tent when you order it is a solid investment. But, sometimes they can be a bit on the pricey side, and there are many homemade options that are super easy to make.
I regularly use a footprint with my tents nowadays, and I recommend others do as well. You are already investing in a tent, you should do what you can to make it last as long as possible to make sure it is always ready for your next adventure!