Let’s face it, tents are expensive. You want your tent to last as long as possible, but spending another $40+ on something you just dropped hundreds on is not ideal. When it comes to deciding whether or not you should get (or make) a footprint, it’s important to consider things like what fabric your tent is made of, where you do most of your backpacking, and how important saving a few ounces is to you.
What Does A Footprint Do?
Despite popular belief, footprints do not add waterproofing to the bottom of your tent; the floors of almost all modern tents are already made of waterproof fabric like silnylon or dyneema. The main purposes of a footprint are to protect the floor of your tent from abrasive objects (like sticks, roots, and rocks), to keep your tent clean of mud and tree sap, and to help you determine a good spot to pitch your tent.
Abrasive Stuff – Little twigs and pebbles may not seem like a big deal, but repetitious abrasion on the same spot can eventually wear a hole in thin tent floor fabric. A footprint adds an extra layer of protection from abrasive objects and can extend the life of your tent. Carefully choosing a site and meticulously clearing debris away before pitching your tent will reduce the risk of mishaps.
Messy Stuff – We all expect our gear to get a little dirty when we take it outside, but having sticky tree sap all over the bottom of your tent can be a real nightmare. Footprints can take the brunt of the sap and berry stains to keep your tent looking and feeling pristine for longer.
Awkward Angles – Many of us have experienced this: you find the perfect spot to pitch your tent, like it’s practically designed just for your tent. You start unloading your pack and staking your tent out only to discover that there’s one root that, no matter how you angle your tent, will not allow you to fit in this space. Setting a footprint out first (especially if you need to fit multiple tents in the same site) takes most of the guesswork out of spatial planning.
Things To Consider Before You Buy
Fabric Denier – Denier describes the weight of the thread used to make a fabric weave; the higher the denier, the thicker the fabric. For example, the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL 2 has a 20-denier nylon floor and the MSR Hubba Hubba NX 2 has a 30-denier nylon floor, so the Hubba Hubba will have a thicker (and more durable) floor. If your tent is made from a low denier fabric, a footprint is something you’ll want to strongly consider purchasing or making to extend the durability of your tent floor. We generally skip the footprint for tents with a floor that is 30-denier or higher, but that’s ultimately a personal decision.
Terrain – You likely don’t need a footprint if most of your camping and backpacking is on soft sand or in lush grassy areas. Mountainous areas and dense forests, however, usually mean roots, sticks, and rocks everywhere, which can wear down the fabric of your tent over time. One perfectly positioned pebble or twig could be all it takes to put a hole in your floor. That said, If you do find yourself with a small hole or rip, we recommend repairing it with Tenacious Tape. T-tape is seriously strong and has kept some of our imperfect gear going for many years.
Weight – Footprints, because they are generally a higher denier fabric than the floor of your tent, can significantly increase the total weight of your shelter system. For example, the NEMO Hornet 2P has a packaged weight of 2 lbs. 6 oz., and the footprint adds an additional 6.9 oz. That means that when you add the manufacturer’s footprint, you are adding about 18% more weight to your tent in this case. If you’re an ultralight backpacker looking to cut ounces where you can, the manufacturer’s footprint is probably not worth it for you to carry. You can make your own lightweight groundsheet pretty easily out of Tyvek or Polycryo, more detail on that below.
Cost – A good lightweight tent will set you back hundreds of dollars and footprints are rarely included. Footprints generally run between $40 and $80 and can be hard to justify on top of the tent cost. You can make your own groundsheet for far less (more on that below), but it generally won’t last as long as the manufacturer’s footprint.
So, you would really like to use a footprint, but the cost and/or weight is just too much. Make your own! Making your own footprint costs significantly less and is almost always going to be lighter. Many backpackers opt to use Tyvek – yes, the house wrap – cut to shape as a groundsheet because it’s waterproof, cheap, and virtually indestructible. Polycryo (AKA poly/polycro) is another popular choice for budget-friendly DIY groundsheets. Polycryo is much lighter than Tyvek but not nearly as durable. Here’s how the approximate weights of the fabrics compare:
- PU Coated Nylon (common material for manufacturer footprints) – 1.9 oz./ sq. yd.
- Tyvek – 1.85 oz./ sq. yd.
- Polycryo – .55 oz./ sq. yd.
If you are going to cut your own footprint to shape, make sure you cut it about an inch shorter than your tent floor on all sides. If you have fabric sticking out from under your tent or too close to the edge of your tent floor, it can catch water and pool it up underneath your tent.
Tent footprints are certainly not necessary, but they can help extend the life of your tent. If you have an ultralight tent with a low denier floor, it might be worth it to shell out the extra dollars for a footprint or to make your own. Footprint or not, we always make sure to meticulously clear twigs, rocks, and pinecones from our campsites before pitching a tent to avoid any mishaps.
Keeping your gear in good shape is important, and we hope this guide helps you decide if you need a footprint for your tent or not. If you have a great footprint substitute or use that we missed, let us know in the comments below!
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