A tent footprint is a piece of plastic that goes on the ground and protects your tent from being damaged. Damage to your tent can occur from sharp objects like sticks and rocks. Your tent can also break down over time due to your movement in and out of the tent that cause it to rub against the ground.
Tent Footprints - The Complete Guide
Tent footprints are designed with 1 goal in mind - to protect your tent from being damaged where it comes into contact with the ground. Despite it's simple mission, tent footprints have garnered a lot of debate over the years with some people arguing they're totally unnecessary while other people swear by them and use one everytime they go backpacking.
In this guide we'll break down the pros and cons of using a tent footprint and what your options are for making your own to save some money (much easier than it sounds!).
Most Popular All Purpose Tent Footprints (fit all tents)
What Tent Footprints Do and Do NOT Protect Against
A lot of beginner backpackers think that a tent footprint is made to provide additional waterproofing. This is not true and footprints can actually have a negative impact on waterproofing unless they're sized properly.
If your tent footprint is larger than the size of your tent floor, it can accumulate water that will pool up underneath your tent. If you have any flaws in your tent's waterproofing then this water will end up inside of your tent. Not good.
Another common assumption is that footprints are made to protect your tent from sharp objects like sticks or rocks. Most tents are made of Silnylon which is nylon treated with silicone for waterproofing. Nylon is an extremely delicate material and manufacturers have been pushing the limit on how thin they can make the nylon in order to reduce weight.
A tent footprint does protect the bottom of your tent from sharp objects but that usually isn't a big problem. Before you set up your tent you should always scan the area and remove anything that looks like it could damage your tent. This is something you can easily do and it only takes a few seconds.
The real reason to use a tent footprint is to protect against the long term wear and tear of friction. Yes, that's right, friction is the biggest threat to the longevity of your tent. But why?
Every time you are in your tent and you move around, even just adjusting your body on your sleeping pad during the middle of the night, you're also moving the bottom of your tent. During day to day hiking, you won't notice any issues with your tent; but over a longer time horizon, these movements cause the Silnylon to break down and eventually fail.
Silnylon can fail in two ways. One way is for the silicone coating to be worn off from the bottom of the tent which means your tent will not be waterproof. You won't even know about this until it rains one night and you have water coming into your tent through the floor.
The other way Silnylon can fail is if the wear and tear causes a visible hole in the floor. This will be much more obvious so you'd be able to do something about it if you noticed it before you went backpacking. But the end result is the same; a hole in the bottom of your tent means water will get in and you won't be able to stop it once you're out in the back country.
Do You Need To Use A Footprint?
We've covered the risks of not using a footprint already so you understand the consequences of going without a footprint. But to figure out if you should use a footprint, you have to weigh the likelihood of this failure.
For most people who only occasionally backpack, they probably won't ever put enough nights on their tent to cause the Silnylon to fail. If you go on a couple of hikes per year, that's probably less than 10 nights of use in a year. Over the course of 30 years that's 300 nights of use which is probably when you could expect to start seeing issues caused by normal wear and tear.
The bigger risk to tents is exposure to UV light. If you've ever left something in direct sunlight like a pop bottle that sits in your car for 6 months, you've seen the effects of UV light. The color on the pop bottle label will start to fade and if it's left long enough, it will start to fall apart.
The exact same thing happens to a tent that gets left out in the sun. Even if you're only using your tent to sleep in and not just hanging out in it during a sunny day, you still get exposure to UV light between the time you set up camp and the sunsets, and the time between sunrise and packing up your tent to hit the trail.
I would be much more concerned with UV light causing problems for my tent than I would be with the small amount of friction causing problems on the bottom of my tent.
So the likelihood of your tent failing due to wear and tear on the ground is really low; probably small enough that you can probably ignore it for the normal lifespan of a tent.
But if there's even a small chance of this happening, then shouldn't you use one? The tradeoff is additional weight and cost.
Pros of Using a Footprint
The benefits to using a footprint with your tent are pretty simple.
You'll protect your tent from holes and tears in the floor and you'll also protect it against long term wear and tear that could wear down the Silnylon fabric.
Depending on what kind of footprint you choose, you can also use it as a tarp/sun shade when you're at camp or eating. If you've ever been caught in a rain storm before while hiking then you know how great it is to have some type of shelter you can quickly rig up. A simple tarp is a lot easier to get set up in the rain than a full tent and rainfly.
Cons of Using a Footprint
The biggest drawback to using a footprint is the additional weight you have to carry. It's easy to say "Oh, it's ony a few ounces", but if you do that for every piece of gear, you'll find yourself hauling a 60 pound backpack before you know it.
There's also the issue of cost. If you want to buy the footprint that matches your tent, you'll be looking at spending at least $30-$40 for an OEM footprint.
Fortunately there are some DIY options that are really easy and only cost about $5 (or even free!) to make your own footprint.
Should You Buy The Footprint That Matches Your Tent?
Alright, if you want some more explanation, here's why. The tent footprints that are specifically made for your tent cost about 4x what a regular footprint will cost. Generic footprints are usually a square or rectangle so they're never the perfect size without some modification. But you don't need a tent specific footprint because you can either use a larger footprint or just cut it down to match the size of your tent.
Save your money and buy a generic footprint, or better yet, make your own! Here's how.
How To Make Your Own Tent Footprint
The easiest way to make your own footprint that perfectly fits your tent is to buy some plastic from Lowe's/Home Depot and just cut it down to match the size of your tent.
Another option is to find some Tyvek which is usually just thrown away at construction sites. You can snag a piece of that and cut it down to match your tent.
If you want step by step instructions to make your own footprint check out this video.