Religiously using a ground sheet or, in backpacking lingo, a ‘footprint’ is one of the simplest ways to ensure the longevity of your tent or shelter, because it takes the brunt of the wear and tear on your floor. Rolling around at night and moving in your shelter causes friction with the ground. This can lead to abrasion and microtears, reducing weather-proofness over time.
As a bonus, the extra material of a ground sheet can add the tiniest smidgeon of insulation against the ground. In cold temperatures, every little bit counts.
So, how do you select a footprint? Many lightweight tents don’t come with an included footprint, so us ultralighters have to get creative — because, ironically enough, ultralight shelters need to be treated especially gingerly since they’re made out of delicate materials (and sometimes come floor-less).
Backpackers and long-distance hikers have long made their own DIY ground sheets from Tyvek and/or Polycro. While definitely more cost effective than purchasing a standalone tent footprint, Tyvek and Polycro are most often sold in rolls and/or kits, meaning a single hiker has to purchase more than they need.
Six Moon Designs has removed the headache of pooling friends and searching hardware stores with the release of its pre-cut Tyvek and Polycro shelter floors. The question now becomes: which material is best for you?
- 4 - 7 oz
- 0.5 millimeters / 0.02 inches thick
GGG Price: $14 - $16 (small and large)
Most often used for home insulation, Tyvek is popular with backpackers because it’s very lightweight yet strong, puncture-resistant and waterproof. In addition to ground sheets, MYOG-ers (Make Your Own Gear-ers) have also adopted the material for DIY tarps.
While it isn’t as light as polycro, it’s still lighter than many brand name footprints.
One thing to note about Tyvek is that it is a bit crinkly, and can be hard to fold, as well as loud when rolling around at night. One way to compensate for this is to wash it before use, as it softens the material up. Packing ear plugs is never a bad idea either.
- 1 - 2 oz
- 0.7 millimeters / 0.03 inches
- GGG Price: $11 - $13 (small and large)
Polycryo (or Polycro) is a thin insulating film often used for covering windows. Backpackers have been using this ultralight material for years.
While it’s extremely lightweight and still protects your tent, it’s not nearly as durable as Tyvek. Polycro requires extra care; you’ll want to make sure you’re not setting up on or near any sharp rocks that could cause a puncture.
Another benefit of Polycro is that it packs down incredibly small, and can easily be folded into your tent bag or a very small stuff sack.
I Tried Both, Here’s What I Thought
After a few trips to compare the two footprint options, I now prefer Tyvek. I will happily carry a couple of extra ounces in exchange for ease of use.
The real difference I noticed is that it’s much easier to set up a Tyvek footprint. Because Polycro is so light, it’s difficult to lay it down flat. When I was by myself, I had to carefully place rocks on each corner to hold it down before setting my tent up. On the other hand, Tyvek easily unfolds and stays in place while you pitch your shelter.
However, if I’m planning on cowboy camping, I’ll choose the polycro. Without having to worry about the polycro bunching up and shifting under my tent, it’s a great material for sleeping right under the stars.
A Few Tent Footprint Pro Tips
Where to Find Tyvek and Polycro
Both of these materials can be bought in bulk from hardware stores like Home Depot. However, this means you’ll have to cut it yourself and will end up with plenty of extra material. Though it’s a bit more expensive, I highly recommend buying the pre-cut footprint sizes available here on Garage Grown Gear. They’re both still less than half the cost of a typical brand-name footprint, and come in a few different size options.
Katie is a freelance writer based in Salt Lake City, Utah. When she's not behind her laptop, you can find her guzzling instant coffee in the backcountry or developing a new and expensive outdoor hobby. To see her adventures and occasional long rambles, follow her on Instagram @katelyn_ali