What is a Tarp?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

A tarp, also known as a tarpaulin, is a water resistant cover that has a variety of uses. Typically made of canvas or flexible plastic, a tarp can serve as a cover or protected surface for many crafts and activities. Tarps are often available at home and garden stores or camping supply centers.

Hikers often carry tarps.
Hikers often carry tarps.

Although the history of the word is not certain, many believe that tarps were pieces of canvas or sailcloth used on ships that had been coated with tar to provide water resistance. By wrapping or covering goods with tarps, sailors could protect them from wind, rain, and storm damage. Some suggest that the reason sailors are referred to as “tars” is related to this practice.

A tarp may be used to carry raked leaves.
A tarp may be used to carry raked leaves.

Today, tarps are made of more user-friendly materials, and can be extremely useful in a variety of projects. If painting a room or interior, laying down a tarp can prevent paint spills and splatters from damaging floors. To hold the tarp in place, tape down with masking tape or weigh down with objects. Furnishings in the room can also be covered with tarps for protection, but it is often easier to simply move them out.

Tarps are endlessly useful to campers and backpackers. In addition to providing a cheap alternative to more expensive groundcloths, they can be tied over tents for extra rain protection. If hiking in the rain, a tarp can be tied over backpacks and camping equipment to prevent water from seeping through and soaking food, clothing, and equipment. A tarp can also make an excellent backyard tent for younger explorers, particularly when propped up with sticks.

Around the yard, a tarp is a multi-use tool that can help in many situations. Carrying raked leaves or debris to a dumpster is made considerably more easy if piled atop tarps that can be dragged. If installing a pond for a special event or for kid's play, a tarp is a cheap alternative to expensive pond liners. Simply dig a hole and line it with the tarp, weighing the material down with pebbles on the bottom and rocks around the exterior. The remaining material can be covered with moss, gravel, or more artfully placed rocks.

Tarps are frequently used to protect truck cargo from the elements. Many tarps feature embedded rings around the edges that allow for the tarp to be tied down and secured with rope. Some tarps are specially made for use with pick-up trucks, being easily attachable to certain features on the truck bed.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


Just as the article mentioned these waterproof tarps are a must have for people with flat bed trucks that are carrying cargo they want to keep dry.

When I drove a truck (which by the way if you are ever going to have a truck, do not get a bench seat - it is not comfortable, especially during long trips) I had a tarp keep my cargo dry from Kentucky to North Carolina even thought it rained most of the way.

The other must that I thought was better than rope to use with keeping the tarp down was bungee cords. These cords could easily hook on to the different hooks on the sides of the bed of the truck and they would give and tighten as the truck moved, whereas rope would give that elasticity.


@lighth0se33 - I have seen tarps as small as 4 feet by six feet at my nearby garden center. You should check at one near you, because they will be the most likely place to carry tarps designed specifically for covering plants.

Some rose bushes can grow to be immense if not pruned. I actually need a slightly larger tarp to cover mine. I recommend measuring the distance over and around your bushes before buying a tarp. They might need more coverage than you would expect.

Also, be sure to remove the tarps the following morning. A plant can easily suffocate when covered in the warm sunshine. You can cover them back up the next night.


Does anyone know what all sizes tarps come in? I need a small one, but all I’ve been able to find around my area are huge ones. I don’t want to end up paying a big price for a lot of unnecessary material.

Where I live, the weather varies dramatically from one day to the next. We will have a short cold spell where temperatures drop low enough to kill plants, but then, we might have a week of hot weather to follow. I need some tarps small enough to cover my rose bushes and chrysanthemums during the cold nights.


@StarJo - The great thing about tarp pool covers is that you can use them for other things once they start to develop tiny holes and can no longer serve their original purpose. I found a great use for mine once it got a few small tears and worn spots in it.

My dogs needed something to lie on in the winter. They sleep in the utility room outside, and though I close the door for warmth, the concrete floor is just too cold and bare.

I folded and crumpled up my used tarp and placed it on the floor. They loved it! They sleep on it every night, and I’ve even seen them drag it out in the sun to lay on in the daytime. That black surface acts like an electric blanket in the sunshine!


Every year, I buy a pool cover for my above ground pool. Really, it’s just a big tarp. It is black and looks somewhat like a trampoline mat, but it is as flexible as a sheet of plastic.

It has ringed holes through which I loop wire to secure it around the top of the pool. I have two people help me stretch it over the water and under the edges. Once we have it in place, we tighten the wire and clamp it down for the winter.

The tarp protects the pool from freezing, and it also blocks the sun from reaching the water, which could lead to algae growth. This way, I don’t have to add any chemicals to the pool while it’s not in use.


I always keep a couple of vinyl tarps in a big tub with all of my painting supplies. I have found this is the easiest way to make sure I don't get paint drippings on the floor when I am painting a room.

If I am painting a whole room, I will usually move all the furniture out of the way so I don't have to worry about that. I will lay down one big tarp, or several small ones so the entire floor is covered with tarps.

This way I can paint with confidence knowing that I won't be dripping paint on the floor or carpet. No matter how careful I think I am, I always get a few drips of paint.

When they fall on the tarp, they dry quickly and I don't have to worry about ruining my floor. When I am done painting, I just fold up the tarp, put it in the tub and it is ready to use to next time I need it.

I also always have this fear that the can of paint is going to get knocked over. This has never happened, but if it did, and I had a tarp down, I wouldn't have to worry so much about it completely ruining my floor.


We have several tarps of different sizes we keep in our garage or with our camping supplies. I don't go camping without taking tarps for extra protection over our tents.

I will usually lay a piece of plastic underneath the tent, but place a big tarp over the tent so if it rains, it will not saturate the tent.

Even though our tents are sprayed with a water repellent spray and they come with a small protective cover, I have learned this is not enough if you get much rain.

We camp for a week every year in the mountains, and a quick daily shower is one thing, but several days of rain is a completely different story.

I figure if I go to the trouble of putting the tarps over our tents, then it won't rain. If I don't take the time to do this, sure enough, it rains every time.

I never like it when it rains when I am camping, but if I can at least keep my tent dry, that really helps. The tarps make all the difference in keeping water from seeping inside the tent.

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