My guyline system for tarps

Dave Cutherell of Gossamer Gear explains tarp basics during the 3-day Ultimate Hiking Course in Pisgah National Forest, May 2012.

Earlier this Spring I was in a local outdoor retail store and overheard a floor salesman explaining the pros and cons of a conventional double-wall tent. “It is heavier than other options,” he admitted to the prospective buyers, “but it’s incredibly easy and fast to set up.”

The salesman’s pitch embodies a common theme in gear selection: the battle of brain versus brawn.

Personally, I prefer brains: by learning a few skills and by understanding the limitations and optimal uses of my gear, I am able to carry less and lighter gear without sacrificing my comfort or safety. Many other backpackers seem to prefer brawn: they take heavy and extra gear to keep it “incredibly easy” (though this terminology probably isn’t how they describe carrying it.)

In this post I will share my preferred rigging system for tarps, which are the lightest and most versatile backpacking shelters available — but also impossible to set up without some “brains.”

Desirable characteristics in a rigging system

I’ve seen and experimented with many different rigging systems. What characteristics and features have proven to be most critical?

1. Adjustability

Most tarps have at least some degree of flexibility in their pitch, in terms of shape, ridgeline angles, and/or height off the ground. This flexibility enables tarps to be optimized for:

  • The local terrain, e.g. flat or uneven surfaces, hard or soft soils, and inconveniently located vegetation and rocks; and,
  • The current and expected weather, e.g. temperature, humidity, and wind speed and direction.

Non-adjustable rigging systems cannot take advantage of this flexibility, which explains why I use guylines (as opposed to just the stake-out loops) and why I do not install fixed knots at the end of my guylines.

Finally, adjustability is especially important with tarps made of silicone-impregnated nylon, which has natural stretch, particularly when wet. With adjustable rigging, stretch-caused sagging can easily be eliminated.

2. Dependability

 

A dependable guyline system is a prerequisite to pitch a tarp in locations like this open tundra meadow in Alaska's Kenai Peninsula.

 

In downpours, blizzards, and gusty storms — or a combination thereof — I must be confident that my rigging system will not fail. I have relied on this rigging system during at least 250 nights and it has earned my trust: the line has never snapped, and the knots have never slipped or become untied.

3. Speed

To cover many miles per day, it’s more important to hike more than to hike fast. To hike more hours per day, I have learned to maximize the efficiency of routine non-hiking tasks, like eating, peeing, taking photographs, and, of course, setting up and breaking down camp.

If miles are not important to you, the speed at which you can rig your tarp still should be: at some point you probably will have to set it up or break it down in inclement weather.

4. No fixed knots or hardware

Before I mastered my rigging system — which took all of 20 minutes — I first relied on end-of-line fixed loops, which greatly impaired adjustability while also instigating knots, before transitioning to line locks and tensioners, which were convenient but imperfect, as they:

  • Added weight,
  • Created an additional failure point,
  • Froze up during the winter and in wet-and-freezing conditions,
  • Instigated unintentional knotting, and
  • Required guyline of a specific width (e.g. 2mm) that could only be found at specialty outdoor retail stores with a climbing department.

Guyline cord & stakes

My preferred setup: conventional 2- or 3-mm reflective cord with a .5-oz aluminum Y-stake

My pick is standard 2mm to 3mm cord with a reflective sheath, such as Sterling GLOcord. It’s cheap, strong enough, and easy to handle — and it’s reflectivity is a major plus when I need to re-find my shelter in the dark.

Gram weenies might be tempted to use pure spectra cord, which has unparalleled strength for its weight. But this is a “stupid light” choice: the cord is expensive, prone to knotting, and hard to work with (because it’s very slippery). Cord featuring a spectra core with a nylon sheath is an improvement, but: it’s still expensive; the strength is overkill for all but the most extreme applications; and the weight savings are negligible.

The exact number and lengths of cord depend on the specific shelter. For example, for my 2-person A-frame tarp, I use six 4-foot lengths (for the four corners and the two mid-points) plus two 8-foot lengths (for each side of the ridgeline). For a solo mid tarp, I use just six 36-inch lengths.

The optimal number and lengths of cord for other shelters types and models may be different. In general, I avoid being stingy on the amount of cord I attach — an extra foot or two weighs very little but it adds tremendous flexibility.

I prefer aluminum Y-stakes, which cost just $1 each and can be found at any outdoor retail store; they are included with many shelters too. These stakes offer excellent holding power and can be pounded into the ground with a rock without bending. There are lighter options available — e.g. titanium skewer stakes and carbon fiber stake shafts with aluminum caps — but these too are “stupid light” choices: their holding power and durability is much compromised.

Step-by-step directions: the McCarthy hitch

To secure the tarp to an anchor point (e.g. stake or tree trunk) I prefer to use the McCarthy hitch, which is a simplified trucker’s hitch first showed to me by my friend Forrest McCarthy. If it has a real name, I don’t know what it is.

1. Attach the guyline to a stake-out loop using a bowline; other fixed loop knots would work too (e.g. the Figure 8) but the bowline consumes less cord and it creates a nice round loop. Unless you replace the guyline cord in the future and/or reconfigure your system, you will need to do this only once.

Cord attached to a tarp's corner loop with a bowline.

2. Run the guyline around the stake. The maximum distance between the shelter and the stake is a few inches less than half.

3. Run the guyline tip back to and through the bowline loop, then reverse its direction 180 degrees again back in the direction of the stake, thereby creating a 2:1 pulley. Tighten the guyline until the tarp is positioned and/or tensioned correctly.

Run the cord down to the stake, and then back towards the tarp and through the bowline loop.

4. To secure the guyline, pinch the 2:1 pulley so that it can’t slip, then tie it off with a slippery half hitch.

Tension the cord using the mechanical advantage, then tie if off with a slippery hitch.

5. To undo the system in the morning, simply pull on the guyline tail in order to remove the slippery half hitch, then unthread the system. Don’t forget your stake!

Tarp tied off to a nearby tree using the McCarthy hitch.

Step-by-step directions: the trucker’s hitch

The McCarthy hitch demands a lot of cord — about twice the distance between the tarp’s stake-out loop and the stake — so it is generally impractical for long guyline lengths, e.g. the ridgelines on an A-frame tarp. An alternative system is sometimes required too by the shorter guyline lengths, such as when a large rock is in the ideal stake position. In these instances, I use a trucker’s hitch with a slipped overhand loop.

Watch a good YouTube video of this knot.

1. Follow Step 1 from the McCarthy Hitch. Basically, tie the cord to the tarp with a bowline.

2. Run the guyline to the stake, then tie a slip loop into the cord between the tarp and the stake. This slip loop will serve the same function as the bowline loop in the McCarthy hitch.

Slip loop

3. Run the guyline tip around the stake and up to the slip loop, then reverse its direction 180 degrees again back towards the stake, thereby creating a 2:1 pulley. Tighten the guyline until the tarp is positioned and/or tensioned correctly.

Once you've installed the slip loop, run the cord around the anchor/stake and back to the slip loop. By threading the cord through the slip loop, you can create a 2:1 mechanical advantage.

4. To secure the guyline, pinch the 2:1 pulley so that it can’t slip, then tie it off with a slipper half hitch.

Tie off the trucker's hitch with a slippery hitch so that it can be easily undone in the morning. I don't tie off the knot more than this, but if you were really concerned you could add another slippery hitch.

5. To undo the system in the morning, simply pull on the guyline tail in order to remove the slippery half hitch, then unthread the system. Don’t forget your stake!

79 Responses to My guyline system for tarps

  1. adam June 20, 2012 at 12:53 pm #

    this is the setup we did every night on my Outward Bound trip in Pisgah, 1990. like you said, it’s minimalist, simple and pretty failure proof if you have the knowledge. thanks for publishing.

  2. Mike Clelland June 20, 2012 at 12:58 pm #

    This is one of the rare occasions where I can scream to the world – “I TAUGHT ANDREW SKURKA THAT COOL KNOT! ”

    Share the wisdom!

    • Andrew Skurka June 20, 2012 at 1:00 pm #

      You sure did.

      And then Forrest, at the end of a blizzard-filled day in the Alaska Range, says, “Don’t listen to Mike and his NOLS-ishness. Do it [this] way.”

    • Mike Clelland June 20, 2012 at 1:01 pm #

      What !?!?! Forest McCarthy? No way! Lets get the calendars out, I taught this knot in the picnic are of that funk hotel outside of Portland Oregon!

    • samh June 20, 2012 at 6:04 pm #

      I was totally going to call you out for “stealing” this from Mike, but I see he beat me to it! It’s a great technique and it’s what I use every time as well.

  3. David June 20, 2012 at 1:19 pm #

    Is that a SpinnShelter you are tying to? And if so what conditions do you generally recommend using it for? I’ve been searching to find a 4 season tarp + bivy (MLD UL Bivy) setup for overnight splitboarding but have had quite a bit of trouble researching if each tarp could withstand winter alpine conditions here in CO ;’\

    • Andrew Skurka June 20, 2012 at 1:25 pm #

      Yes, that is is a SpinnShelter, but I wouldn’t recommend it for winter use. Personally, my standard winter shelter is a mid, like the Mountain Laurel Designs SoloMid or GoLite Shrangri La 3 (which is best for two). I don’t use a bivy or even a groundsheet with it — you just need to stamp the snow down well, though this is sometimes hard if it’s really fluffy snow.

      • Joshua Stacy November 28, 2012 at 1:32 pm #

        Why would you not use the SpinnShelter in the winter?

        • Andrew Skurka November 28, 2012 at 1:57 pm #

          If your “winter” includes snow like mine does, then the SpinnShelter is not a winter-worthy shelter because it won’t support snow loads — the snow will collect atop the tarp and it’ll collapse. A pyramid-shaped tarp would be a better selection, among other types of winter shelters.

  4. Mike Clelland June 20, 2012 at 1:28 pm #

    David,

    I have a lot of tarp experience in the winter. There are lots of options, but the larger the tarp, the more options. Tarps are fine in heavy snow as long as you pitch them steep so the snow will slide off.

    The steeper the pitch, the smaller the interior.

    A mega-mid is totally fine for 2, and barely fine for 3.

    I have an old sil-nylon CAVE from golite (no longer made) and that is a dream in the winter for two. It is basically just a big rectangle of sil-nylon.

    Be careful of bivys in the winter. Some of the lightest can get frosty on the inside. Most winter sleeping bags have some sort of water repellant coating. If you are in Colorado, the snow is light and dry, so no need for a bivy at all!

    peace,
    Mike C!

  5. Mike Clelland June 20, 2012 at 1:29 pm #

    Andrew and I are agreeing and overlapping – repeatedly…

  6. David June 20, 2012 at 1:39 pm #

    Legit. Thanks fellas

  7. Willapa June 20, 2012 at 1:44 pm #

    In my opinion, the trucker’s hitch is one of the most versatile and useful “knots” around. I learned it over a decade ago for tying kayaks onto a trailer at the kayak shop where I used to work. It is quickly and easily tied, and is very secure and infinitely adjustable. Good one to know for sure.
    Good tip.

    • David Isaac June 22, 2012 at 1:53 pm #

      Here’s to the trucker’s hitch! Once you master it using a slippery half-hitch for the loop, try it using a half sheep shank instead. In essence, you just use a longer loop for the slippery half hitch and don’t pull the loop all the way through, then use the loop left hanging behind instead. The tension on the rope holds the loop in place, and when you release the tension, it just falls apart. I prefer this form with heavy/coarse ropes and higher tension where even a slippery half hitch can be hard to take out. I’m still experimenting to see if it has advantages for thin tarp lines.

      • Clinton September 19, 2013 at 11:37 am #

        I realise this is a super old post, but thought I’d comment because this is the first time I’ve seen anyone recommend a sheep shank for what is often called a truckers hitch. I think the sheep shank is the only way to go if applying a considerable load. The slippery half hitch jams up easily. If using a system like the one Andrew has detailed here (create a loop and bring the opposing end back through it and tension) an alpine butterfly is a better choice as it won’t jam up nearly as easily.

        Anyway, great post…

        • Jerry March 25, 2014 at 10:05 am #

          Sheep shank is not recommended for lines with not enough load but also not recommended for lines with very heavy loads. Taut line and truckers hitch will never fail you. Stick with what works. Sheep shank is used to take up excess slack in a rope. When I see a truck securing a heavy load with a sheep shank, I’ll apologize and switch to that.

  8. Mark Andrew June 20, 2012 at 5:36 pm #

    In Scouting, the Tenderfoot Scouts learn two knots that will serve them for life…the Half Hitch & the Taught-line Hitch…one reason is for this very purpose (another is to hang a clothes line).

    At the tarp end put two half hitches, at the stake loop the line and finish off with a taught-line hitch…doesn’t get easier….you probably can’t tension as tightly as with a trucker’s hitch, but you don’t often need that amount of tension to put up a tarp. – Mark

    • Andrew Skurka June 20, 2012 at 5:55 pm #

      Point made but the mechanical advantage of the two knots I demonstrated is really useful in getting a very taught pitch.

    • David Isaac June 22, 2012 at 2:04 pm #

      I used the taught-line hitch too…until now. Occasionally I have to stake so close to the tarp because of a rock or bush that there is not enough length to tighten the taught-line hitch. I see that the Clelland/McCarthy hitch will work down to a length of almost zero. Very cool!

  9. Sebastian Bönner June 21, 2012 at 2:01 am #

    I first learned about this knot nearly 25 years ago during my time in the boyscouts. But of course I forgot about I as I later used mostly traditional tents.
    During my time in the forces I was taught this knot again. And since then it became probaply one of my most used knots! (Especially as I learned about the benefits of ultralight hiking)

    Somehow my wife seems to be resistant to learn about knots. (But she’s really good at making fire!) That’s why I don’t remove the linelocs on our shelters and tarps. It’s really comfortable to
    me that it’s not always my turn to get up in the middle of the night to retension our guylines.
    But nontheless even with linelocs this knot can come in handy when one needs to attach additional length of rope to the guylines.
    If you’re interested here’s an old post with some pics taken during our honeymoon trip. The pictures show alternative options to tentstakes (all secured with a truckers hitch and some additional lenght of guyline):
    http://www.beuteltiere.org/2009/09/heringe-mal-anders.html

    I really like your article. For me it’s not only about some handy knots. For me it’s propbaply more about this “brain vs. brawn” thing. Hiking light is not so much about the gear, but about the skills you need to use your equipment efficiently!

    Thanks for this great article!

    Basti

  10. Bob June 21, 2012 at 4:38 pm #

    Andrew, thanks for posting this. Thought this was how it’s explained in your book, but I needed the pictures!

    • Andrew Skurka June 21, 2012 at 8:57 pm #

      Yep, this is how it’s explained in the book. I knew I needed pictures to full explain it but there just wasn’t enough room. Glad that bandwidth is essentially free.

  11. Michael Duke June 29, 2012 at 10:46 am #

    Great knot.

    You can also finish this knot with a taught-line hitch instead of the slippery knot. You get the mechanical 2:1 of the first slippery knot with the adjustability of the taught-line. If you loop the tag end of the taught-line, it unties very easily.

    • Andrew Skurka June 29, 2012 at 12:02 pm #

      Had to watch a taught-line hitch video to understand your suggestion. That definitely would be a good system. The advantage is that you don’t have to tie and re-tie the slippery knot to make adjustments — you just slide the taught-line up and down. The disadvantage is that it’s relatively complicated to untie (though still easy overall). All in all, it’s probably a wash.

      • Michael Duke June 29, 2012 at 2:24 pm #

        Andrew, I will attach a picture of what I mean with the looped end of the taught-line. I’ll attach it as my website on the form. It makes it really, really fast to untie.

        You just pull the tagged end.

      • John Jensen February 22, 2013 at 8:30 pm #

        I learned about an ‘adjustable knot’ from the bushcraft sites that’s, essentially, a taut-line hitch w/ a slippery hitch so it pulls apart as fast as the trucker’s. brilliant stuff, highly recommended.

      • Niles H. April 2, 2013 at 4:19 pm #

        You could avoid the tying and untying by having a small, separate-piece sliding Prusik or Klemheist permanently installed on the guyline (near where you would be tying the taut-line in Michael’s example). It would act in the same way, except it would be ready to go — no need to tie it. It would be able to provide additional mechanical advantage as well.

        There would also be no need to untie it — and this would make it faster when breaking camp.

        You could use the usual slippery half hitch to attach the end of the guyline to a small loop sticking out of the Prusik or Klemheist. It would be free to slide and reposition, when you wanted to adjust the tension; but it would grip and hold when released (just like the tautline in Michael’s example).

        In fact, it would be very much like taking Michael’s setup and cutting the line a few inches above the taut-line hitch. Then you’ve got a taut-line hitch that is just free and separate, and able to be moved up or down on the guyline, with a few inches of tail hanging off of it. Now tie a loop in the tail, and you can re-attach the severed line to the taut-line hitch using a slippery half hitch on the loop…. Now it’s working again, and it’s easier to break down and set up, and you can still adjust the tension without untying anything.

        There is an additional feature that makes the whole process even faster, smarter, and simpler; but I don’t want to make this too long or overwhelming for one reply. In the end though, the whole thing is really simple and streamlined.

        • Niles H. April 2, 2013 at 4:55 pm #

          This looks similar to John’s system below now that I understand it better. One possible added feature is a small and light, very basic aluminum hook attached near the tying end of the guyline using an Autoblock knot, allowing it to be repositioned easily.

          No tying or untying of any knots in the cold or with gloves. Very fast, simple, reliable.

  12. Ted Roth June 29, 2012 at 11:52 am #

    Excellent article … definitely going to switch over to your type of stakes, since mine are of the “gram weenie” variety. :o )

    Been using the trucker’s hitch you show for years, but will happily give the McCarthy hitch a try.

  13. Ross Ulibarri July 1, 2012 at 6:10 pm #

    Good info. But, what I like the most is the concept “stupid light.” What freedom to use stakes that hold, and line that can actually be untied by human fingers.

    • Andrew Skurka July 4, 2012 at 2:53 pm #

      Really glad you like this concept — I think it’s a powerful one. You’ll hear that “light is right” and that “lighter is better” but I don’t think it’s this absolute: when weight savings are taken to an extreme, sacrifices often must be made to comfort, safety, durability, reliability, user friendliness, and efficiency. So IMO those weights savings are not worth it.

  14. mlb July 9, 2012 at 6:37 pm #

    Anyone ever backpack with their dog?

    I’d like to go to a tarp/bivy setup (too chicken re: snakes, spiders, scorpions, other things that like warmth and could kill me in my sleep to just use a tarp). My concern is keeping the dog (50lbs) warm/safe/out of Santa Ana winds… Is there such a thing as a 1.5 person water resistant bivy?

    Weight wise I’m up against a 2lb 2oz 2-man tent carried by me or the 3lb 3oz 3-man tent carried between two people (depending on the trip and who is coming).

    Thanks.

    • Andrew Skurka July 9, 2012 at 7:54 pm #

      I don’t think a bivy is the best solution for you — I just can’t imagine a dog wanting to be enclosed in something like that. I’d look into a tarp + nest, like the GoLite Shrangri La 2 or Mountain Laurel Designs DuoMid.

      • mlb July 10, 2012 at 5:21 pm #

        Thanks Andrew.

    • William June 20, 2013 at 5:36 pm #

      I backpack with my dog *always* and I use a tent. We tried it with a tarp, but with the bears, skunks, porqupines, etc., I needed to keep her leashed to the pole, and she was restless and fidgety all night, so sleep was a challenge.

      My personal feeling is that a tarp+bivvy or nest == a very poorly designed double wall tent, whereas most UL tents are very well designed. Most of them allow you to use just the fly if you want, and I prefer a free standing design to an elaborately tied down design. I use a Big Agnes Seedpod, which I think is light enough, and definitely big enough for me and my 50# dog. It’s a one-person tent.

      I think if I didn’t have the dog, I might try a tarp again (as a tarp) but if I want a double wall setup, I would go with a (well designed) tent.

      One complaint I have read about freestanding tents is that you would have to use the footprint with the fly, but I think if you are clever, you could rig a system with some cord to hold the poles at the correct position. If you’re really clever, you could figure out a way to incorporate your trekking poles into the design for a minute reduction in weight.

      To get closer to the topic, I just watched a video that used a tautline hitch for the guylines. The hitch had a loop in the knot making it easy to untie. He used a clove hitch for the ground stakes.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_YDuvbSPCOc

  15. Tjaard July 13, 2012 at 4:46 pm #

    What don’t you like about carbon stakes?
    To me they seem plenty strong, and with their large diameter, the holding power doesn’t seem that much less than a Y stake, and at about half the weight or less, you could easily bring a few extra for very sandy soil.

    They also are a lot nicer on the hands then Y stakes.

    • Andrew Skurka July 14, 2012 at 12:31 pm #

      I prefer aluminum Y- and V-stakes because I can pound them into the ground with a rock without fear of bending or shattering them. If the ground is so soft that I don’t need a rock (e.g. if it’s water-logged or sandy) then I seriously question whether the stakes would hold when the shelter is stressed by tension or wind.

  16. Tom Andrews July 13, 2012 at 9:41 pm #

    Hi Andrew, Really enjoyed your talk in Boulder, CO! I look forward to trying your knots. However, I am having trouble visualizing how they would work better than my long-term method of just making a loop with a couple of half hitches that I can then loop around a rock or stake, or freshly tie for a tree, root, or branch. I can then use almost the full length of my line (often 8-10 ft of triptease) to get to that secure tree or huge rock or to find the right place to place a stake. Admittedly I have to untie some of the half hitches, but this only takes a minute or two and provides some boomer holding power in a big wind with my tarp (6 oz cuben fiber). I find this security and flexibility more important than the tiny amount of time lost or the occasional struggle with cold fingers on tight knots. But hey, I might change my mind when I give your system a try. Cheers, Tom

    • Andrew Skurka July 14, 2012 at 12:35 pm #

      Give my system a try and see what you think. It’s equally secure and flexible as the system you described, but if I understand your system correctly it sounds like mine has less fuss. At the end of the day, both our systems are better than fixed loops and plastic hardware, so if you like your system stick with it.

  17. Jeremy Young September 23, 2012 at 8:41 am #

    This is a great guyline system. I am now using it on all my pitches. Where do you get aluminum y-stakes for $1 each? I have looked at several places and none of them have the type of aluminum stakes shown in the photo above or for that low of a price.

  18. Johnny Spaceboots October 9, 2012 at 7:31 pm #

    I just finished adding lines to my tarp for an upcoming trip. I spent some time practicing the truckers hitch with two stakes stuck between my couch cushions with great success.

    Thanks for posting this up Andrew

    http://spacebootsarego.tumblr.com/post/33270150635/new-guylines-on-my-tarp

    John

  19. Andy Duncan October 12, 2012 at 12:27 am #

    Thank you for this helpful article! I have been using the taught line hitch for years, but it does not do well with short guy line lengths and is limited to only a 50% change in length.

    I tried setting up my tarp using the McCarthy hitch and truckers hitch and they work much better.

    It’s finally possible to tighten up short lines as much as needed. There are no problems with untangling twisted/knotted guy lines while setting up. Getting that ‘perfect’ pitch is faster and easier.

    Maybe best is the weight savings from not using line locks on my Solomid.

    Thanks for another tool to be more “Smart Light”.

    Andy~

    • Don October 22, 2012 at 9:59 pm #

      Hey, everyone. It’s “taut” (as in tight), not “taught” (as in teached).

      -Don-

  20. Dave November 1, 2012 at 11:30 am #

    Great info. Trucker’s hitch is by far one of my favorite tools in the arsenal. Currently working on making the transition from solo tent to tarp and am surprised by the lack of quality videos on youtube on the topic of setting them up and discussing their versatility. Any chance of you putting together something that shows some detail about how different set ups work? Thanks for all the info and the great book. Cheers.

    • Andrew Skurka November 1, 2012 at 1:29 pm #

      Good pitching instructions — by which I mean more than just written instructions — should be the responsibility of the manufacturer. Look, for example, at Warbonnet’s videos.

      Even so, I would like to do something like this, so stay tuned.

      • Dave November 1, 2012 at 2:20 pm #

        Will do. Thanks for the tip. I haven’t purchased a tarp yet, as I’m still researching. With winter coming, I’ll probably stick to the tent for the wind and rain (I live in Bellingham, WA, near Mt. Baker in the Cascades), and have the tarp ready and practiced for Spring/Summer mastery. I’m even considering making my own tarp. Not sure. Thus the research.

  21. ronda November 12, 2012 at 9:53 pm #

    Too cool, I used your instructions to use the trucker’s hitch with a slipped overhand loop on this past weekend’s camp to secure my SL2 fly to trees instead of using the poles. The tension stayed tight through rain and sun and with one pull the wet cord came undone with ease. Thanks for such a timely post – I may become a tarper yet!

  22. Edwin Williams January 20, 2013 at 9:47 pm #

    Read, marked, re-read and shared your book. I have lightened up and used the skills in your book to help my son’s Boy Scout Troop lighten up. I got a bivy and tarp for Christmas. I read your article on the tarp guy line system. Could you provide any tarp set up instructions or tips? Thank you.

    • Andrew Skurka January 21, 2013 at 2:08 pm #

      The best way to set up a tarp depends on the specific tarp, and there are too many scenarios to cover in a Comments section. The easiest tarps are those with a rectangular or square footprint, e.g. pyramids. Stake the corners at 90-degree angles, pitch the mid, and tighten. Rectangular tarps, A-frames, and tarptents are usually more complicated.

  23. Pierre February 12, 2013 at 12:47 pm #

    My current tarp set up uses prussik knots tied at the tarp tabs so I can adjust the guyline lengths from underneath the tarp.

    I will try now a a variant of your system, just reversed: one fixed loop that is used to loop on the stake, and do the pulley on the tarp side.

    Expected advantage is that the guylines will not be permanently attached to the tarp, so
    a/ I can have guylines of different length and pick where to use them
    b/ I can fold the tarp and keep the guylines apart (probably all put in one bundle and kept in a 8 knot, or wrapped around something.)

    And if I need to adjust tension during the night, I do it closer from the tarp, hopefully from beneath it

  24. John February 16, 2013 at 1:35 am #

    I use a prussik knot (loop?) to secure my guy lines. I make a few extra loops in case I lose one. Wrap the loop on the main part of the guy line and tie the end of the guy line to the loop. Retensioning is as simple as sliding the prussik along the guy line.

    • John February 16, 2013 at 1:36 am #

      Of course, I didn’t see Pierre’s post right above mine made 3 days prior before responding. D’OH!

  25. Patty Laushman February 18, 2013 at 7:32 pm #

    I tried this system out on a Colorado Mountain Club winter camping school overnight and it worked out fantastic. Despite freezing temperatures and blowing snow, I was able to rig the entire system with my overmitts on. In the morning, since I used sticks for stakes, dismantling the system was as simple as pulling the cord and yanking the other end upwards, which unthreaded the cord from around the stick left buried in the snow. Prior to this experience, it just seemed like a good idea. Now, I am definitely a believer!

    • Andrew Skurka February 18, 2013 at 7:48 pm #

      This system’s advantages in the winter is even more profound, since as you said you can leave the deadman anchors buried, instead of having to chisel out stakes from consolidated snow.

  26. Larry Green March 1, 2013 at 10:27 pm #

    I love how well laid out and presented your post is. You’re very detail-oriented and communicate very effectively with your supporting photos and captions. (I try to do the same thing.) I tied the version of the trucker’s hitch you’re using and it works good for tarps and tent guy lines, which is what your posting about. For heavier applications, like securing large structures to an anchor, my choice is a butterfly knot when making a fixed loop in the “rope tackle.” It puts much less stress on the line. http://scoutpioneering.com/2013/01/03/rope-tackle/ http://scoutpioneering.com/2013/01/03/rope-tackle/

    Really nice website!

  27. Larry Green March 1, 2013 at 10:30 pm #

    Actually, I wanted to include this link for the Butterfly Knot, which you might already know: http://scoutpioneering.com/2013/02/17/favorite-pioneering-knots-butterfly-knot/

  28. Niles April 1, 2013 at 6:23 pm #

    Enjoyed your book and this article. Thanks for sharing them.

    Please let me know if any of the following variations on your system have any appeal:

    (1) Install a unidirectional slide-and-grip knot (a Klemheist or another in that group of knots, or a simple tautline) at each stakeout loop, and run each guyline through the knot, leaving a short (guyline) tail on the medial or tarp side. Use rest of system as usual. This gives the option of making adjustments from inside, and without tying and untying. Just hold the tail of the guyline with one hand and slide the knot forward with the other. You can stay inside in inclement weather. The unidirectional knots would be better than an unnecessarily bidirectional prusik knot (which would have unnecessary and wasted extra friction in both directions when adjusting). If done right, it only needs to be tied once. Then it’s there.

    (2) Install similar knot on other side of guyline, but in middle and free to move along guyline. Instead of tying to the bowline loop, go through the bowline as usual, but tie instead to (a small loop on) the slide-grip knot, which you slide into position nearby. Now you retain the 2:1 mechanical advantage, but can adjust simply by sliding. Can do from inside if positioned properly. Tie once, leave on. Can bypass the slide-grip’s loop and tie directly to bowline in very tight situations. Can also use the extra mechanical advantage (4:1?) when first tying to the slide-grip’s loop, or later.

    (3) Combine 1 and 2.

    (4) Install very small, smooth, light hooks on ends of guylines, mounted on reliable permanently installed slide-grip knots. Use in place of slippery half hitch. Better in some conditions, and quicker.

    Each slide-grip would require only a few inches (maybe four or so) of small-diameter cord. If selected well and tied properly, the knots should be plenty durable. Some of these knots are very reliable and are used to support humans in serious climbing and arborists’ applications — so need to be good.

    If you haven’t tried a really good unidirectional slide-grip, be ready to fall in love. These things are hella cool.

  29. Scott May 3, 2013 at 12:12 am #

    Great to see that trucker’s hitch being used. I’ve used it for years and love it. Always wondered why it wasn’t more popular.The big advantages—in my opinion—over the tautline hitch are ease of tying/untying and the leverage it gives to get the tarp taut using any thickness of guyline. As for carbon fibre stakes with aluminium heads…have you ever tried getting one out of the ground once the head has pulled out? I have and it’s a waste of time. I now use great big alloy ones for the ridgeline and titanium for the guys. As Andrew suggests, light and unreliable is not a good plan.

  30. Fred June 4, 2013 at 10:14 pm #

    I’ve used an illustrated how-to book for years covering knot / hitch tying and never thought to apply it to tarp guylines (I normally use nite ize or dutchware). I went through the book again after this article … Andrew’s techniques are in the book but some with different names (and illustrated with thick ropes). Trying Andrew’s way out for the past 2 days in my yard with various tarps and cording, I gotta say learning these techniques is worth the time invested. I am curious about the 2.75mm sterling glocord, I can’t find anywhere (including their site) what it weighs. Anyone know?

    • Fred June 11, 2013 at 2:34 pm #

      I bought some of the 2.75mm Sterling glocord to check it out. I like it. It weighs about 2.6oz per 50 feet. I also like the Lawson glowire. It is also made in USA, has 2.38mm diameter, costs $13.50 per 50′ and weighs 1.6oz per 50′.

  31. Nick June 28, 2013 at 12:15 am #

    Could you please tell me the style and make of your tarp?

    • Art July 30, 2013 at 8:23 am #

      I believe Andrew is using Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Tarp with the Mountain Laurel Designs Superlight Bivy.

  32. Art July 30, 2013 at 8:22 am #

    Is there a reason to use sterling cord over 550 paracord? weight?

  33. Eric August 8, 2013 at 6:39 pm #

    Hey, thanks for the article!

    How many stakes do carry? Six (one for each corner of the tarp and one on each ridgeline)? Or do you cheat down a couple if you know you’re camping in the woods?

    • Andrew Skurka August 9, 2013 at 10:07 am #

      For an A-frame tarp, I usually carry eight stakes. For a pyramid, usually six. IMHO it’s not worth using sticks as stakes, unless you’re in a pinch — it may take a while to find good sticks, and their shape is not nearly as trust-worthy as a Y-shaped stake.

  34. David September 5, 2013 at 3:39 pm #

    Am I missing something? I was doing this at 9 years old in Cub Scouts. Why suddenly is everything A.S. describes treated like outdoor gospel?

  35. Bob Zook September 12, 2013 at 11:45 am #

    Nice post.
    My only comment would be that tieing the line to the tarp is an unnecessary rigidity. If you want your system to stay truly deployment flexible you need a mechanism that allows you to easily remove the lines from the tarp. Using a figure eight knot then girth hitching the line to the tarp allows you to move your different length lines around to any location on the tarp. another point is that the figure eight knot wont untie its self as the bowline is known to do. For additional clarity the girth hitch is tied by putting a figure eight loop in the end of your line then threading the long tail through the tarp and back through the figure eight loop and pulling it tight. Its an under utilized and completely reversible line anchoring system.

    • Andrew Skurka September 17, 2013 at 8:25 am #

      With a rectangular tarp or poncho/tarp, I would tend to agree with you here — it’s convenient to have a system that allows you to quickly swap guylines between tie-out points, like via girth hitches. When I used a poncho/tarp more often I did exactly this, so I could quickly transform it from tarp to poncho, or vice versa, without re-tying lines.

      However, it’s unnecessary with any fixed-shape tarp — including all mids, catenary cut A-frames, and probably most hammock tarps — since these shelters do not offer the pitching flexibility that would warrant a completely different length guyline. For example, with my A-frame tarp I have 4-foot lengths on the sides and 8-foot lengths on the ridgeline. If it’s a nice night I may use all of the length, whereas on a storm night I may only use half of it — an easy adjustment to make without swapping lengths.

  36. Toronto|Alex November 10, 2013 at 4:08 pm #

    Hi there,

    I just finished reading the book and enjoyed it. I feel silly because I have no clue how to tie the slippery hitch. I get the part about doubling the rope back into the bowline and using it as a pulley, but from that point I am lost. Is there a video or more pictures somewhere I can look at. I don’t know anybody that I could ask either. I’ve looked up clove hitch and slippery hitch and can do the knots. I just don’t know how to tie it in this scenario.

    • Andrew Skurka November 11, 2013 at 9:49 am #

      This post really does need a video, sorry about that.

      To make the slipper half-hitch…
      After you loop your sharp end through the bowline loop (or slip loop, if you are using the truckers hitch) pull the sharp end towards the stake/anchor until it is sufficiently taught. Now, pinch the pivot so it won’t slip, and lay the sharp end at a ~90-degree angle across the taught section. Next, take a bite out of the sharp end and pull it through the loop. Pull the bite towards your pinched pivot, making sure that the tail does not come through the loop; otherwise it is no longer a slippery half-hitch.

      Also, watch this video starting at 1:52: http://youtu.be/w9YVoZMndbc. However, he pulls the tail through, ending up with a knot that must be untied, versus a slip knot that can just be pulled.

      • WhitbyAlex December 30, 2013 at 2:58 pm #

        Thank you! I’ve already convinced other people to buy your book!

  37. ozzie November 28, 2013 at 10:32 pm #

    It looks like a trucker hitch with the tie-off on the hitch. If you use tie-off near the stake by putting a slip-loop in a rolling hitch around the base of the stake, the taunt will be tighter.

  38. Kolby December 8, 2013 at 9:43 pm #

    Andrew,
    A neophyte question here. I’m considering a more minamilist shelter but wondering if this would be wise for warmer months in the northeast, where the threat of deer ticks with Lyme is high. I would assume camping on the open ground would increase risk.
    Thx

    • Andrew Skurka December 11, 2013 at 12:43 pm #

      I would use a tarp on such trips, but not just a tarp. If you were to include a bivy or bug nest, you’d get a lot more comfort (some some safety) for not much weight. My pick for such trips would be a tarp and hammock, which will get you off the ground, away from not only deer ticks but also from ground water, understory vegetation, rocks and roots, and hard-packed campsites.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Knots vs. Hardware | The Ultimate Hang - May 16, 2013

    [...] more easily get a line tight. (A simpler variant is what ultra hiker Andrew Skurka calls the “McCarthey Hitch,” using a loop already tied in the line or the tarp as the pulley [...]

  2. John Muir Trail Basic Needs: Shelter | fordsbasement - August 15, 2013

    [...] I only needed to use them partially once, and it worked okay. Since then I’ve discovered the guyline system that Andrew Skurka has developed. You need to know your knots, but it’s convenient and [...]

  3. Why Do I (Want to) Know These Knots? | Note to Self - October 11, 2013

    [...] can find lots of vociferous debate on this topic! Other things you might see suggested are Blake’s hitch, Prusik or maybe a variety of Trucker’s Hitches. I’m [...]

  4. Ride high, sleep high | Trails and Tours - Bikepacking - December 15, 2013

    [...] and even snow. Heavy-duty shelters spell heavy pounds. But how light can we sanely go – and what must we know to go [...]

  5. Setting up the tarp: knots, guylines, and poles, oh my - alice hikes - April 9, 2014

    [...] Using recommendations from a few experienced tarp users, I tied bowlines to create a fixed loop at the end of each guyline, then hitched those loops to the tie-outs. I used taut-line hitches to pull the guys nice and snug; the one time I ran the line back up through the tie-out before tying the taut-line hitch (making a pulley), it was even easier to adjust. [...]

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