Making a Micro-Tarp

I’ve written elsewhere about my variable experience of bivvybagging; how I always seem to end up lying in water one way or another. How, as Ronald Turnbull says in The Book of the Bivvy, I’m either dry but cold or warm but wet. The worst problems arise when it rains and you have to put your head inside the bag, not least because it’s impossible to sleep with water pelting onto your eyeballs. The bag promptly fills with condensation and it cannot breathe because, in the rain, there’s no moisture differential across its membrane.

bivy bag bivouac at night

The joy of bivvying

Over on Twitter I noticed that to improve his bivy experience hiking guru Colin Ibbotson had made himself a nifty little tarp that covered his head, with hardly any bulk or weight. Further research turned up several YouTube videos of these so-called Micro-Tarps and eventually the fact that you can actually buy one, from BackpackingLight. “Well,” I thought, “my partner has a sewing machine, this looks like a pretty straightforward way to learn to use it”. I resolved to take my first and apparently unambitious step into the murky and seemingly quite laborious world of MYOG – Making Your Own Gear.

bivouac bivy bag camping

Good morning world. I seem to be lying in a puddle, with a carrier bag for a pillow. If only I had a micro-tarp…

Spoiler – in my opinion the asking price of £44.99 is more than reasonable for the labour involved in making one. If, like me, you’re inexperienced verging on downright incompetent in needlecraft, it’s an absolute bargain. Not realising this, I perversely persevered. Here’s a design that’s widely available online:design-original

This requires a piece of fabric 2.5 metres wide, a bit wasteful as silnylon seems to be made in a 1.5 metre width and sold by the metre. However applying just a little thought, and a pair of scissors, it seemed I could cut that shape from a shorter piece of fabric…design-twisted

Thank goodness for old-school paper and scissors. Here are the final dimensions for maximum economy, using a piece of ripstop silnylon 1.5 metres wide and 2 metres long. I got mine from Pennine Outdoor, it cost about £18 with the postage and a nice big reel of green thread.dimensions of a micro tarp for wild bivy camping

Spoiler – I think a slightly bigger tarp, as per the original design, might have given me better protection in really rough weather. Ah well.

Having recklessly and irreparably cut the fabric, it only remains to hem it all round, with nice strong double hems. You need LOTS of pins. At this point I received a stern lecture on the age and fragility of the sewing machine, also speed awareness training.

micro tarp bivy head cover fabric silnylon

Initial pinning of the silnylon, just to see the shape. You then need to trim it leaving enough margin for hems, I folded mine double. Poke in lots of pins, pointing inwards and perpendicular to the edges, not parallel to them like these.

Now use your silnylon trimmings to bodge on at each corner some grotty reinforcing patches with lots of random stitching, and some peg loops made from nylon tape salvaged from a useless rucksack that went in the bin (review elsewhere). I suppose you could make nice tidy reinforcing patches with pretty stitching if you prefer.

make your own bivy tarp

I’m really quite rubbish at sewing!

Now, in a mad delusion of grandeur, I blatantly copied the commercial design by adding a lifter loop that’s supposed to give you a bit more headroom. You’ll need to seal the stitching with Silnet, so it’s quite a bit of extra work for a small enhancement. Especially if, like me, you make a right pig’s ear of it and in fact while trying to bodge it on actually nick a hole in your tarp with your scissors, necesitating the sewing on and sealing of another patch!!

micro-tarp MYOG bivy

On balance I think this is a worthwhile enhancement, it did give me more space to hide from the rain and seemed to render the whole caboodle more stable.

micro-tarp-MYOG-Stuffsac-camping

Use another silnylon trimming to run up a little stuff sack, I would, just because you can and before the owner of the sewing machine comes home. With a couple of random bits of cord for guys (but no pegs) the whole thing weighs 175 g. Don’t commit to fixed guy lengths, flexibility is good. 

That’s about it. Now for the great moment when you rig it up in the garden, and even the cat laughs.

bivvy bag micro tarp home made from silnylon

It does take a bit of practice. You don’t need your front pole so high, for a start. It also looks alarmingly skimpy if you’re used to a tent. Appearances are in this case are not deceptive.

Bivy bag micro tarp MYOG

It isn’t exactly spacious!

Around this point you start to realise that from your first ever effort at Making Your Own Gear you have learnt a few lessons. One is that it probably takes a lot of experiment and evolution to arrive at a silnylon shape that pegs out without creasing. Respect to professional tent makers – did I mention you can buy one of these for £44.99? Another is that silnylon hems ruck when stretched if they aren’t more or less orthogonal to the weave.

silnylon-tarp-hem-good

You want the main hems that you’re going to be staring at for entertainment while lying under the thing in pouring rain to be in line with the weave, as near as possible, so they stay flat under tension.

silnylon-tarp-hem-bad

Where you’ve cut and hemmed your silnylon on the bias (whew – technical term!) the hems will ruck up under tension. The way to overcome this is to use a posh zigzag stitch, as seen in the hems of t-shirts, but my GF’s sewing machine is nearly as old and tired as her partner and sadly its zigzagerrator is banjaxed.

So – what’s it like in use? Well it very much depends of course on your bivy bag. Mine is rubbish. Even with my head covered, which I admit was transformational, I still woke up in a puddle after nights of heavy rain, that’s if I got any sleep at all for the general horror of the experience. Several mornings on the 17-day hike for which I made this tarp I had literally to wring out my sleeping bag, but that wasn’t the fault of the tarp, I’d have been far worse off without it. I think I need a better bag!

micro-tarp-bivy-dunes

In sand dunes – an excellent night. Very hard to pitch a tent here but a bivy doesn’t need flat ground and the tarp needs less tension so can just be tied to clumps of marram grass. Also a tent is quite visible and I’m not really supposed to be sleeping here – that Thermarest Neoair Xlite mat is annoyingly conspicuous!  (Note – NO silly camp fire, leave no trace). No actual rain but a heavy dew that would have been tiresome without the tarp. This is when a bivy-tarp combo excels – basically on a summer night in a dodgy location.

On just showery, breezy nights my tarp was brilliant. It keeps the wind off (as long as the wind doesn’t change!) You don’t have to worry about packing up and covering your gear, you can just strew it randomly around your head. Add a bit of Tyvek groundsheet and it’s positively luxurious. You can check your email and social, eat a pie or three or even make a brew in relative comfort, quite well protected from all but heavy windblown rain.

micro-tarp-bivy-dunes-sunset

In another sand dune – nice and discreet.

micro-tarp-bivy-seawall

On a sea wall, on a slope and among tall, thick vegetation; I could never have pitched a tent here. Light rain, hence I spent most of the night in a foetal position with my legs jammed against my trekking pole.

micro-tarp-bivy-swamp-sunset

From a micro-tarp you do get to see some pretty funky sunsets. Here I’m in a Lincolnshire roadside swamp, infested with slugs, hidden behind a pile of flytipping. Again it would have been impossible to pitch a tent here, and there was no official camping for miles around.

micro-tarp-bivy-canal-wet

By the Trent and Mersey canal, a terrible night, I misjudged the wind direction, heavy rain blew under the tarp all night and soaked me. I was rescued by a dog walking couple who took me home for breakfast!

micro-tarp-bivy-pub garden

A much better night in a pub garden, with permission and after an excellent dinner. This is the life!

As you can see, my micro-tarp experience has been mixed. However there’s one final tarp tip I’m keeping up my sleeve – you can pitch it in different configurations. In particular the triangular-ish shape is perfect for adding a roof to a summit wind shelter. Here I am (below) on the summit of Carnedd Llewelyn (1064 m). The micro-tarp kept the hail off brilliantly – this was in the middle of June, by the way, I wouldn’t just stroll up there for a random kip if I were you. In fact I had such a great night that my tarp is now officially known as the Carnedd Llewelyn Sheraton and just for that one experience it was well worth the small cost and moderate trouble of making.

bivvies on carnedd llewelyn

Keeping the hail off nicely. It was pretty breezy up there too.

micro-tarp-bivy-snowdonia-camping

The view from the Carnedd Llewelyn Sheraton. Good job I’d booked.

tarp-bivy-bag-carnedd-llewelyn

Snug as a bug, under my MYOG micro-tarp.

I just wish I had a better bivy bag. Mine is a Snugpak ‘Special Forces’, it’s pretty horrible. Any recommendations would be gratefully received, thanks.

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9 comments

    1. Thanks. I’ve been cautious about Alpkit since their trekking poles gave way on me but on the same hike as I used the tarp I carried an Alpkit Gourdon 30 litre rucksack and it was really excellent, so yes I might have another look at their bivy. Cheers.

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  1. Thanks, Andrew. An interesting read. My Rab Ascent bivvy has been fine so far, but I’ve only used it a few times. Looking forward to the write-up of these trips with the micro tarp.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Paul for your kind interest. I haven’t been very enthused about the blog this year (as you can see from the dates!) but I have plenty of photos from my cross-Britain this summer so might get round to it 😉

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      1. Yes, I can understand the motivation re blogging. I’ve been planning to blog about my walking adventures but procrastination invariably wins! My bivvy bag having served me well on the North Downs Way should get another airing on the Norfolk Coast Path later this month. Alas, I note that backpackinglight are out of stock of their micro tarp 😦

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      2. I live on the NCP, in fact my first two pictures of the tarp in use are on that very trail. Wild camping in Norfolk is a bit tricky but there are a few spots you can tuck away unofficially. Nice legit campsites at Stiffkey and Morston.

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      3. Andrew, thanks for the info about camping at Stiffkey. I took my tent and stayed there on Monday. I did get to use my bivvy: a couple of nights later, somewhere south of Sea Palling. Regards.

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  2. I love your blog. It makes me want to go hiking! but i think i’ll be staying at fairweather walker status for a while yet. Your tarp looks great. I wild camped a fair bit this summer. My tent is a bit larger (a good bit) but it withstood a few wild storms this year on the exposed west coast of Ireland. please keep writing (since I started paying for my WP site I seem to have dried up a bit. must get started again) Stephanie

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Stephanie, I’ll do my best. Good to hear from you 😉 A

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