It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been camping, buying a new tent can be a tricky process. They all look the same and it doesn’t seem like there’s much of a difference between models, but every tent’s just a little bit different. Even experienced campers and backpackers have a hard time combing through technical specks and trying to find the subtle difference between designs. If you found this post, you’re probably wondering a simple question. Do all tents have floors?
Most modern tents have a waterproof “bathtub floor” that runs a few inches up the wall of the tent. Bathtub floors keep pooling water out of the tent and help keep insects/animals away from the sleeping area. There are also floorless tents and tarp style tents without floors, but they’re mostly used by the ultralight backpacking community to cut down weight. You should still use a tarp or ground cloth with a floorless tent to keep your sleep system and gear off the ground, but you’re still removing a few pounds of weight.
Let’s clarify the above statement for a minute. Most tents have bathtub floors, but there are some exceptions. Floorless tents are really popular in the ultralight and hunting communities. So if a tents marketed as ultralight or a hunting tent, you might want to check to make sure it has a floor.
While there’s definitely a place for floorless models, most people should buy a tent that has a traditional bathtub floor. In the rest of this post I’ll explain a few ways to protect your tent floor while keeping the inside of your tent dry, and give a brief explanation of why some people choose floorless models.
Why Do Most Tents Have Floors?
As I mentioned above, the vast majority of tents have some type of floor or tent base. There are five major reasons why you would want a tent floor. The floor protects your gear from water, keeps insects/animals out, and makes it easier to setup camp.
- Floors Keep Water Out Of The Tent: Tent floors keep outside water out of the tent. Tent floors are made out of a thick waterproof fabric that runs a few inches up the tent wall. This keeps pooling water out of the tent, protects your gear against mud, and keeps flowing rain runoff from rushing through the sides of the tent. Just remember that a waterproof floor doesn’t drain. So if you bring wet gear in the tent there won’t be anywhere for the water to go. So keep wet gear outside in the tent vestibule instead of tracking it in the tent.
- Increases Insulation: Tent floors won’t add a lot of insulation to your tent, but it’s another layer between your body and the cold ground. It’s subtle but it’s like comparing the difference between leaning up against a cold object in a shirt or doing the same thing shirtless. Adding a tent footprint (aka ground cloth) or tarp will also help with insulation (and protect the floor), but make sure it’s a few inches narrower than the outside walls of your tent. Tent footprints are reasonably priced so they’re definitely worth looking into. Just make sure it’s slightly smaller than the tent floor so water won’t get trapped and pool up around the edges of your tent.
- Protects Your Gear: There’s no easy way to stay ahead of the weather. A sunny forecast can turn into rain in an instant. A tent floor will help keep your sleep system and the rest of your gear dry and keep it up out of the mud.
- Easier To Setup Camp: You can deal with water issues with a floorless tent or tarp tent, but it requires planning out your campsite and predicting the flow of running water. You have to setup camp on flat ground away from hills that may divert water into camp. This isn’t an issue with a regular bathtub tent floor. Just setup camp anywhere you find flat open space without lots of debris to clear out.
- Keeps Animals, Snakes, and Insects Out: This is a big one for me. I’m a grown man that’s afraid of creepy crawlies, snakes, and I really don’t like rodents all that much either. A floor will keep out the small stuff like like ants, spiders, ticks, mosquitoes, chiggers, etc. and help deter snakes. If there’s food in your tent there’s no way to keep out rodents, but bigger animals like racoons/possums/skunks will have a much harder time getting in.
Protecting Your Tent Floor
There’s not a huge market for floorless tents, so it’s safe to assume that whichever tent you buy will have a floor. A tents floor is by far the most likely part of your tent to get damaged. They use thick fabric, but you’re constantly walking on it and you never know when a stick, stone, pine needle, etc. will poke a hole through the floor.
So how do you protect your tent floor from damage? There are two primary methods: use a tent footprint (aka ground cloth) or tarp under your tent, and make sure the ground is clear from debris. Clearing away stick, stones, etc. will solve most problems, but you always end up missing something.
That’s why spending a few bucks on a tent footprint or tarp is always a good idea. Tents can be ridiculously expensive! Is it worth damaging your most expensive piece of camping gear to save a few bucks on a tent footprint? You might want to check out my other post explaining why you should use a tent footprint for more info.
A tent footprint is a simple concept. It’s a piece of lightweight cloth that goes under your tent to protect the floor from punctures and keep mud/water off the tent. Footprints make cleanup so much easier since you won’t have to setup the tent to clean it. Just lay out the waterproof footprint and hose it down.
There are a bunch of cheap tent footprints on Amazon and they’re all basically the same. Just make sure you buy a footprint that’s a few inches smaller than the outside edges of your tent so water doesn’t pool up around the edge. You can also use a tarp as a tent footprint if you’re having a hard time finding one to fit your tent. Cut it down to size and install grommets in the corner with loops running to your tent stakes.
Why Would Anybody Want A Tent Without A Floor?
There are a few major reasons why people decide to go without a tent floor. They’re trying to cut down weight, minimize damage to their tent, or they’re backpacking through snow/mud and don’t want to bring it into the tent. Floorless tents are really popular in the ultralight and hunting communities.
Floorless tents significantly cut down weight and most of their problems can be minimized with intelligent site selection. Choosing flat open ground with no signs of pooling or running water solves 99% of the problem. With an ultralight bug shelter bivy you can deal with the insects, snakes and animals issue.
A tents floor, zipper, and poles are the primary weak point on most designs. With a floorless tent you don’t have to worry about damaging the floor and they’re expensive so they usually have sturdy zippers. So the aluminum poles are the only thing that can get damaged and those are easy enough to replace/repair.
I ended up switching over to a floorless tent after I started taking my dog on backpacking trips. She kept tearing through the tent floor with her claws. I tried clipping her nails and setting down tarps inside the tent, but she kept tearing up the floor. It took a while, but I ended up buying a large quilt to go on the ground and trained her to relax so she wouldn’t be walking around all night and I was able to go back to using my regular tent.
Another major advantage is you don’t have to worry about tracking in mud/snow and getting the inside of your floor wet. You setup the far side of your floorless tent as the dry area and put a small tarp under your sleeping bag and the door side is left open as a wet area. You can track mud, water, snow into the tent, and bring wet gear inside without worrying about soaking the waterproof floor. Everything stays on the ground so the water has somewhere to drain.
How Do I Know If My Tent Has A Floor?
The vast majority of tents come with a floor, so it’s safe to assume any tent you purchase will have one. Some ultralight models get rid of the floor to cut down weight so watch out for tents marketed towards the ultralight community.
Most tents have what’s commonly referred to as a “bathtub floor”. Look at the back wall on the picture above and notice how the waterproof floor runs about 10″ up the sidewall. It’s almost shaped like a short above ground swimming pool liner.
The idea behind bathtub floors is simple enough. Bathtub floors are made out of thick waterproof material that curves upward at the sides like a bathtub. The waterproof material keeps water from soaking up through the floor and the tall sides prevent pooling and flowing water from working through and soaking your tents walls.
Taller bathtub floor sides help with waterproofing, but they also increase the overall trail weight of your tent. Most backpacking tents have waterproof floors that only run a few inches up the side wall to cut down weight. Traditional camping tents can have a waterproof layer that runs about 10″ up the sidewall since they’re focused on comfort instead of weight reduction.
Do I Need A Bathtub Tent Floor?
You technically don’t need a bathtub tent floor, but it will cut back the amount of water that leaks into your tent. Water won’t leak through the floor so it doesn’t matter where you setup the tent. Grass doesn’t have to be perfectly dry and you don’t have to worry about avoid mud and water runoff.
This cuts a lot of the work out of finding a site for your tent. You can set the tent up wherever you can find flat open ground. Just make sure you clear out sticks and stones so you don’t end up with a punctured floor. Even if you puncture the floor, just slap on a piece of Tenacious Tape and you’re good to go.
Tent Floors Can Be Heavy
Tent floors can add a lot of weight to the tent which is why a lot of people look for tents without floors. The floor is usually heavier than the sidewall, door, roof, and rainfly combined. Most ultralight tents fall in the 1-2 lb range so they need to find a way to cut out weight without sacrificing comfort. That usually means the floor has to go and they use a light tarp covering a portion of the ground to get their sleeping gear and pack up off the ground.
Tent floors need to be able to withstand more abuse than the sidewalls. You’re constantly walking on the floor and there’s sticks, stones, pine needles, etc. that can come up and puncture the floor. So it needs to be made out of a thicker material than the walls. That’s great for keeping out water and preventing damage, but the thick material adds a lot of weight to the tent.
The floor accounts for about 2/3 of the fabric weight of your tent. Without a tent floor you can easily cut your trail weight down into the under 2lb range with most of that weight coming from the tent poles. You can cut the weight down even further with a trekking pole tent or tarp style shelter.
It might seem strange, but expensive tent models tend to use thinner/weaker material in the tent floor to cut down weight. On expensive models you start going from thicker 75 denier fabric down to lighter 65/70 denier fabric. There’s a slight decrease in floor durability, but a significant decrease in weight. They can cut 1lb out of the overall trail weight with an barely noticeable change in durability.
Water Can’t Drain Through The Tent Floor
Think about this for a minute. Waterproof floors are designed to keep water from entering into the tent, but what happens to all the water that you bring inside? All the water that gets brought into your tent with wet shoes, pack, clothes, etc. just pools up and gets trapped on top of your tent floor.
That’s why you should always keep your wet gear outside the tent under the vestibule. It’s covered up so you won’t have to worry about rain and there’s no floor so there’s somewhere for the water to drain. Bringing wet gear into your tent is a recipe for another major problem.
Bringing wet gear inside your tent will cause a serious condensation problem. The water will start to evaporate into the air and you’ll end up with condensation on your tent walls and over all your gear. Ventilation will slightly help with condensation, but it won’t be able to overcome a soaking wet pack and drenched shoes/clothes. You expel water vapor as you breathe so there’s no way to completely eliminate condensation, but keeping wet gear outside will really help.