A prismatic view of the best materials to make clear tarps

A prismatic view of the best materials to make clear tarps from for survival shelters, tarps made from these materials are the most effective in terms of water proofing and durability. 

The best tarps to make will be a multi-layered configuration of a minimum of three different tarps.

  • Poly tarps are the most common in tarps made for shelter building. The utility tarps or contractor’s tarps are 4×6′ rectangles of tough, waterproof plastic with grommets placed every few feet around the edges. Not only do they come in handy for building shelters, but they can be easily taken down once you are done to gather your fire wood and hunt. They are the cheapest option if you make them yourself, which you can do by buying a hundred feet of cordage and cutting up some cotton tarps available at any hardware store . If you’re using packaged tarps make sure that they have at least 6 layers. You will need 2 pack tarps per layer if making 3 layers for your tenting shelter.
  • Cotton tarps are the second option for tarps available; they’re cheaper than poly tarps and often times you can find them at your local thrift store. Cotton tarps have a low melting point which means that if you were to use them as part of a fire reflector or insulation inside your shelter they would begin to melt. They come with snaps on the corners like the poly tarps, but cotton tarps do not hold up as well and will wear and rot very quickly in wet weather. If using cotton tarps make sure there is at least 4 layers used on each side of your shelter.
  • Waterproofed canvas tarps made from heavy duty duck cloth offer some of the best clear tarp material available; they are very thick tarps and hold up well to all types of weather. If you can find tarps made from good materials they will be on the more expensive side of tarps, but if you want something that will last through your stay in the wilderness than canvas tarps are the way to go. They come with grommets on each corner and at intervals down each edge, which makes them easy to lash down or secure into position with rope or cordage.

Inexpensive clear tarp material found at any hardware store

Canvas tarps are often used by boaters for their boats because the tarps provide a tough waterproof barrier against rain and sun damage while still being breath enough for condensation not to build up. They are commonly made from vinyl coated nylon, but tarps can be made from other materials as well if you are looking to pay the extra money for them.

Materials not to use

  • Poly tarps are also often used by survivalists because they degrade faster than other tarps and can double as cordage or shelter support beams. The problem with poly tarps is that after time they become brittle and will crack under stress. This becomes a serious issue when you’re trying to lash down tarps over your head during bad weather. Also, tarps lower than 6-8 layers thick should be avoided because their waterproofing effectiveness fades fast once the first few layers dry out. Vinyl tarps are considered junk by most people who have experience using tarps for building shelters; they are too thin and rip easily.
  • Shelter tarps can be made from any number of materials, use your imagination to find something that will work if you do not have access to the tarps mentioned in this article. I’ve seen tarps made from old tires , woven tree bark, plastic sheets cut into panels , just about anything that’s waterproof and clear will work. If you make a shelter tarp out of material found in nature than expect it won’t last more than 3 seasons; even with protection tarps don’t last forever when exposed to the elements.
  • Boats tarps are often available at boating supply stores like West Marine. These tarps are very expensive tarps that are usually made from very tough materials that don’t tear or rip easily. If you can find tarps similar in size to the one I’m talking about than these tarps could be great for your shelter, but expect to pay 3-5 times more per square foot of tarp material compared to home improvement tarps.
  • Clear vinyl tarps provide some protection from the sun and rain, but their thinness doesn’t make them ideal for long term usage. They are waterproof enough for short term survival situations, which is why they are often stocked with people who camp out of their jeep. You can also buy clear vinyl tarps that have grommets along each edge if looking for an option with a little more durability.


Canvas tarps are the best choice by far if you can afford them, but they are also the most expensive option available. Heavy duty tarps made from tough materials will last longer and provide better water proofing than tarps that are low quality…which is why I recommend them for survivalists who want to stay alive.