What is a Tarpaulin?

Mary McMahon

A tarpaulin is a piece of material which has been designed to treated to be waterproof or water resistant. Tarpaulins are used in a wide range of settings for everything from providing shelter from inclement weather to protecting flooring from paint drips. Many hardware stores sell tarpaulins or “tarps” as they are sometimes called, and it is also possible to purchase large sheets of tarpaulin material and cut them down into a specific desired size.

Man with a backpack
Man with a backpack

The term originates from palling, a type of heavy cloth which was once used to provide shelter. On ships, sailors covered their palling in tar to make it resilient and waterproof, and “tar palling” was born. Over time, other materials began to be used for much the same function, and they became known as tarpaulins. Most modern tarpaulins are made from synthetic materials like plastics, since plastics are typically cheap to produce and they are naturally waterproof without the need for additional treatment.

A typical tarpaulin is reasonably heavyweight, designed to resist high winds and airborne objects. Often, tarpaulins are produced in a woven pattern, which makes them coarse to the touch. They also typically have reinforced edges with grommets, making it easy for people to run rope through a tarpaulin to tie it to various objects. Tarps are often produced in bright colors like blue and orange, which makes them very easy to spot.

A classic use of a tarpaulin is in camping. Tarps can be set down under tents to provide groundcover, and people can also sleep in the open air on a tarpaulin. Tarpaulins are also used to make improvised shelters and tents, or to create a covered cooking area. When a camping trip includes hunting, a tarpaulin can be a good spot to process kills, keeping them out of the dirt and creating a tidy workspace.

Around the house, tarpaulins can cover woodpiles, farming equipment, and an assortment of other things. Tarps can also be used as an emergency stopgap to cover broken windows and damaged roofs, preventing water from getting inside until the situation can be addressed. Some people also use tarpaulins for things like lining the beds of trucks and cars to transport messy items like plants, or as drapes for painting projects.

Most tarpaulins are designed to last a very long time, if they are well cared for. However, if they are left in contact with the ground or exposed to sunlight for an extended period of time, they will start to break down. People who are concerned about waste may want to periodically check on their tarps to make sure that they are still in good shape; tarps can also be patched, if holes from wear start to appear.

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