Sewing a Tarp by Hand Is Like Walking across the Entire State of Washington on Foot

This is a picture of my tarp in my backyard during the seam-sealing.

When I started becoming concerned about the materials used in tents I eventually found myself falling into the blackhole which is known as ‘MYOG’ – Make Your Own Gear. I started working on a tarp, then quit that so I could make a quilt (which will get its own post), and after finishing the quilt went back to work on the tarp.

The thing is, at the time, I didn’t have a sewing machine (I happened to get a sewing machine just days after I finished the tarp, but oh well). So the tarp was sewn by hand.

Warning: sewing a tarp by hand TAKES FOREVER!!!!!!!!

To sew my tarp, I used the design described in The Ray-Way Tarp Book by Ray Jardine. Yep, it’s a Ray-Way tarp. I considered buying one of Ray Jardine’s tarp kits, but decided against it because a) it’s cheaper to buy the materials separately than to buy the kit and b) I wanted to use silpoly, and the kits come with silnylon.

Why silpoly? Because I made this tarp specifically with my Southern California PCT hike in mind. In Southern California, one often wants to take a siesta between 1 pm and 4 pm, yet it is sometimes difficult to find adequate shade. Thus, I want something which can provide shade, not just serve as a shelter from rain/snow (of course to use the tarp for shade I’d need a somewhat flat area which is free of thorny plants, but that is easier to find in the SoCal PCT than natural shade). Silnylon degrades relatively quickly when exposed to UV rays, so I would not want to leave it in the sun for hours. Silpoly degrades so slowly under UV exposure that it doesn’t matter, so it’s a much better material for a shade tarp. I know that the specific silpoly material I used is not the best for waterproofness, but I only need a tarp which can handle occasional rain/snow, not a tarp which can withstand several days of severe nonstop rain. Thus, silpoly wins.

Why the brown color? First of all, since it’s a dark color, it will provide more shade than a light color. Second, black stands out too much, whereas brown blends better into the scenery. Third, it does not look like a flower (unlike my palace which has orange panels that sometimes attract bees/hornets/hummingbirds). Finally, this color was on sale, so I saved a few dollars.

Did I mention that I sewed this by hand? I used backstitches for everything because the backstitch is the strongest of the hand-stitches. Maybe it’s even stronger than a machine straight stitch.

Another picture of my tarp in the backyard during the seam sealing.

What I found is that trying to sew a camping/backpacking tarp by hand is like trying to walk across the entire state of Washington by foot. First of all, using a sewing machine would have been way faster, just as pretty much any other common mode of transit (bike, train, bus, car, airplane, boat) would have been a much faster way to get from Oregon to British Columbia than travelling by foot. Sometimes, when sewing the tarp, I was overwhelmed by how much more sewing I had left ahead of me, just as at times I was overwhelmed by the idea of having to walk another 400 miles or whatever. Yet if you keep at it, one stitch at a time, or one step at a time, one will reach the goal. Just as I had to mentally break up my long walk across Washington into chunks (no, I’m not going all the way to Canada, I’m just going to that tiny town which is thirty miles ahead), I had to mentally break up the sewing into chunks (I’m just trying to sew this one seam, okay, not an entire tarp).

One advantage of making this tarp entirely by hand (well, okay, I didn’t make the materials by hand) is I will now be very skilled at repairing tarps (and tents, since the same skills I developed by making this tarp could also be used to repair a tent). I almost always carry a small sewing kit when I travel, which is all I need for a hand-sewn repair (unless it’s a repair which requires sealant, but the very small risk that I might need the sealant for a repair does not justify carrying it).

Of course, one major difference being going on a long walk and sewing a tarp is that sewing is a lot more monotonous. When I’m on a long walk, unless it’s a zero day, I’m somewhere different every day. Meanwhile, while sewing the tarp, I was sewing the same stitch over and over again, making the same type of seam, using the same materials. I would have been bored out of my mind – if I were not listening to interesting audio while I was sewing.

What did I listen to? A few different things. Sometimes I listened to a song or two (especially at the beginning of a sewing session), on Martin Luther King Jr. day I listened to a couple of MLK speeches, I listened to Bi Any Means Podcast #133: Atheism and Asexuality with Emily Karp, but mostly I binged on two podcasts – Sounds of the Trail and Trailside Radio. I managed to listen to the entire archive of both of those podcasts while I was sewing my tarp (and my quilt, but trust me, the quilt took a lot less time to sew), which gives you an idea of just how much time it takes to sew a tarp by hand. Those two podcasts were two of the best things I could have listened to during my sewing, since they talk a lot about what it is like to hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, and they reminded me why I was sewing my tarp.

However, after SEWING FOREVER, I did the seam sealing, and then my tarp was finally finished. Even though I did not quite follow the instructions (there was no way I was going to be able to do the seam sealing in a place without wind, for example), the sealing turned out okay. That said, if I ever make another tarp or a tent, I’m going to choose fabrics which are compatible with seam tape, since I think I’d rather iron on seam tape than mess with silicone sealant again.

The final weight (including guylines and seam sealing) is 15 oz. / 0.43 kg. Yes, I made it a 2-person tarp, because my experience with camping is that, even as a solo person, it’s better to use a 2-person shelter, and it’s only a few extra ounces.

Before taking this tarp out on a long trip, I wanted to test it. So I did. On the night of February 28, I went out to Point Reyes, hiked to Glen Camp, and spent the night there. It was perfect timing, since that was the rainiest night we’ve had all year so far, in was about 40-42 degrees F / 5 degrees Celsius, I was in a forest miles from the nearest parking lot (or house), and I was the only human at the campground, and I was WARM AND DRY HA HA HA HA HA HA!!!! There is something very satisfying about being in a shelter you made yourself, cloaked with a quilt you sewed yourself, on a cold and rainy night, and it being enough. That said, since I was in the forest and not at one of the ocean-side campgrounds, I did not have a problem with wind – that could have ruined my night.

Sadly, my camera malfunctioned, which is why I don’t have any photos of my tarp at Point Reyes. Oh well, I have the memories. And if you want a video of a different Ray-Way Tarp in the rain, there is this video.

This is what my tarp looks like from below, in my backyard (when I’m in the backcountry and not in my backyard, I’ll be more careful to pitch it in places where I won’t be disturbing tender green plants).

One of the various reasons I want to at least try using a tarp for a while is that a lot of people say that it changes one’s relationship with the environment. A tent seals one off from the environment, whereas a tarp lets the environment in. Tents hide you (and provide privacy!) while not letting you see what’s around you, whereas tarps do the opposite. Do not get me wrong, I like the sealing effect of tents, if I’ve been in the backcountry for days I like being able to withdraw into my own cocoon and and take a break from being ‘outside’. It can be an important psychological comfort. But I think I’m ready to live without that comfort, at least in areas which do not have bug problems. I definitely felt the effect of still having a decent view of the (dark) forest while I was under my tarp, and I’m glad I tested it on a night when I had the campground to myself and privacy was not an issue (it is very rare to be alone at local campgrounds, so on future local camping trips I will probably still use my Taiwanese tent).

While I was hiking back to the bus stop at Point Reyes, I met various people going the other way (including one guy who was going to stay overnight at Glen Camp). They noted that I had gone camping on a particularly rainy night, and I said that I did it to test my new ‘tent’. One conversation went like this:

Person: So you could return it if it didn’t work.
Me: Actually, I can’t return it because I made it.
Person: ???!!!!
Me: I mean, because I made it myself, I couldn’t read online reviews to find out whether or not it works in the rain. And there’s no warranty. Though I can repair it myself.
Person: Wow.

One of the park rangers asked me to email pictures because she had never even heard of anyone making their own camping shelter before. I ate lunch at the Kule Loklo, where I met another park ranger. She was also impressed that I had made my own tarp and was ‘self-reliant’. I replied that I wasn’t as self-reliant as the Miwok people had been before Europeans came, and the ranger replied ‘very few people in the modern world are as self-reliant as they were’.

At the time this post is scheduled for publication, I’m hopefully in the middle of my Southern California Pacific Crest Trail hike, with this very tarp. I probably will only deal with rain/snow for a few nights at most, and will be using this tarp for shade more than anything else, but who knows. Actually, I got a chance to test the tarp in a snowstorm and I am not hiking at the time this post is published.

This is also the 500th post published on this blog. Writing 500 blog posts definitely takes way more time than even sewing a tarp by hand, though at least I spread the blog-writing time out over years.

6 thoughts on “Sewing a Tarp by Hand Is Like Walking across the Entire State of Washington on Foot

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