To Tarp or Not to Tarp + Big Agnes Onyx UL Tarp Review

Share Facebook 0 Twitter Pinterest Google+

Tarping, the mustache of the backcountry camping world. There’s no denying that at one time it was a popular style. And for years after it was looked upon with misunderstanding and distaste. But, it’s back. And I assure you, it’s here to stay. In this review of the Big Agnes Onyx UL we discuss the ins and outs of tarp camping as well as the specifics of the tarp in question.

Many of you may be reading this and saying… Hey! I’ve been tarping for years and never quit. Well, I’m sorry to say, but you are the policemen and adult movie stars of the backcountry camping world.

Big Agnes Onyx UL Tarp Review, Bikepacking

To tarp or not to tarp

To some, the tarp might jog a few memories as the simple shelter pitched as a cub scout. To others this may conjure images of a giant blue tarp your father also used for yard work. However, modern backpacking tarps are but a distant relative. Tarps have come a long way and now feature built-in cord tensioning systems, struts, and advanced materials such as silnylon or cuben fiber. Tarps hold a few advantages over tents in a variety of settings. Weight and packing space are the most obvious. Tarp camping offers the experience of cowboy camping under the stars but with the benefit of being able to scoot only a couple of feet in retreat back under a shelter. There are usually a few chief concerns of newbie tarpers:

Will I stay dry? … Sort of.
Won’t I get bothered by bugs? … Probably.
Will the tarp hold up to wind? … Most likely.

Big Agnes Onyx UL Tarp Review

Staying Dry

Tarps can be quite water repellent depending upon the material and treatment applied. For instance the Big Agnes Onyx UL utilizes a silicone treated nylon ripstop (silnylon) with a polyurethane coating that repels water very nicely. In the right configuration (low and tight in foul weather) tarps can keep you relatively dry. Although there is always an open wall from which weather can enter during high winds.

Condensation is another factor not always considered. Temperature differences between the interior and exterior of the shelter attracts moisture and develops as dew on the interior. This happens more frequently with tarps than it does with tents. How to deal with dew, you ask? Using a ground sheet helps to block moisture transfer from the earth to the tarp. Also, increasing ventilation can help to decrease condensation. The good news, condensation normally develops on the tarp and not your sleeping bag, as long as you don’t touch the tarp you will stay mostly dry. Ground sheets also come in handy when the ground is already saturated, you picked a low tent site, or you’re looking to protect your inflatable pad from puncture.

  • Big Agnes Onyx UL Tarp Review, Bikepacking

Bugs

For many, the biggest concern is the proximity to local fauna, particularly insects. And for those folks, tarping might be a seasonal endeavor. If this is a concern, it might be important to identify your potential camping locations before purchasing a tarp. There are definitely ideal and less ideal places in which to use a tarp. Summer on the Huracan (located in Central Florida) is probably not the time nor the place for tarping. Unless of course you enjoy sporting a smattering of red dots on your forehead. When tarping in bug country, a common solution is the use of an interior bug net/liner or bivy sack (such as the Enlightened Equipment Recon or the Nemo Escape Pod that covers the face. That being said, there are plenty of locations where bugs are not an issue. Or only may be an issue on occasion during the night.

Weight/Packability

This is where tarps hold their largest advantage. The Onyx UL for instance weighs 14 oz with stakes and the included strut pole while a backpacking tent of the same cost may weigh somewhere close to 3-4lbs. Simply put, tarps use less materials to erect, and are thus lighter. Tents provide a few extra creature comforts, such as a floor and a mesh barrier between you and the bugs. Many tarpers will carry a bug net, ground sheet, or a bivy to compliment their tarp shelter; and still this often results in less weight and packing space than a tent. The more accessories you add to your tarp setup, obviously the larger and heavier it gets. Tarps are designed as minimalist shelters, why not get close to nature, that’s why you went bikepacking, correct?

Big Agnes Tarp

Setup

Tarps are usually more versatile than tents, especially the Onyx UL. It can be set up in a variety of manners thanks to its plethora of guy-out points. A-frame it over a couple of sleeping bags, string it between two trees, pitch it over a hammock with some extra cord, or span it out as an emergency rain shelter for an entire group during lunch. Tarp setup definitely takes some expertise and sometimes an extra hand if the wind picks up. Finding the right location to pitch your tent is critical, especially when stringing it between trees.

  • Big Agnes Tarp

Pros of Tarping

  • Tarping can be lighter and cheaper; depending upon how many extras you carry (bug net, ground sheet, bivy, etc.)
  • Simplicity
  • Proximity to nature

Cons of Tarping

  • Setup takes some extra skill; and sometimes an extra hand.
  • Creepy crawlies
  • Condensation

The Big Agnes Onyx UL Tarp

The Big Agnes Onyx UL is the Swiss Army knife of backpacking tarps, with a multitude of configurations in a featherweight package. Its UL designation is derived from its ultralight design. Built from a strong but light silicone treated ripstop nylon (silnylon), this shelter is deserving of its name. The Onyx sports a variety of guy out points and laser-cut Hypalon tabs to allow for plenty of arrangement possibilities.

Big Agnes Onyx UL Tarp Review, Bikepacking

  • Big Agnes Onyx UL Tarp Review, Bikepacking
  • Big Agnes Onyx UL Tarp Review, Bikepacking

Build

The Onyx UL’s silnylon is coated with a 1200mm waterproof polyurethane coating, creating a highly waterproof fabric. After a couple of stormy nights under this tarp, I would only hesitate to use it in the worst of weather. And my only hesitation comes from the very nature of a tarp, requiring at least one side to always be open to the elements. At 72 sq. ft. this tarp is wide and long enough to tuck the sides down tight over two campers, protecting the sides from blowing rain. The included featherlite DAC pole can be used in a variety of ways. Either as a pole to keep the tarp erect or as a strut to widen the shelter to allow headroom for non-sleeping activities. The strut also helps during high winds to provide some extra lateral stability to the tarp. The laser cut Hypalon tabs fit the included pole famously, ensuring it will holdfast in even the worst of weather.

  • Big Agnes Onyx UL Tarp Review, Bikepacking
  • Big Agnes Onyx UL Tarp Review, Bikepacking

Big Agnes Onyx UL Tarp Review

With 24 supported guy-out points, this tarp has the potential to be bombproof. Typically I use eight of the points to pull the tarp taught. The nylon has a bit of stretch to it, permitting the guy-lines to be properly tightened. The tensioning system built into each of the lines is incredibly easy to use and doesn’t slip, a common problem with other systems. Big Agnes reports that they are using the latest high tenacity nylon on the market. High tenacity nylon is typically reserved for things like seatbelts. And although we would not recommend using your tarp as such, my tests indicate the fabric is quite strong.

The Onyx comes in a silnylon stuff sack complete with an internal pole sleeve enabling the complete system to be stuffed into a neat package. When packed on the outside of a handlebar roll, the tarp wastes zero packing space. Extras include eight lightweight J-stakes and four 48-inch guylines that can be cut to size.

  • Big Agnes Onyx UL Tarp Review, Bikepacking
  • Big Agnes Onyx UL Tarp Review, Bikepacking
  • Big Agnes Onyx UL Tarp Review, Bikepacking
  • Big Agnes Onyx UL Tarp Review, Bikepacking
  • Big Agnes Onyx UL Tarp Review, Bikepacking

In Use

The Onyx was designed as a backpacking tarp. Although backpacking and bikepacking have many similarities, one key difference is that bikepackers do not carry trekking poles which unfortunately, this shelter is based upon. The most marketed configuration of this tarp is constructed with trekking poles. Luckily this tarp can be pitched in a variety of configurations thanks to the many guy-out points. My favorite configuration is the A-frame style, but instead of using trekking poles, I tie off the middle to two well placed trees. This maximizes space and allows use of the included pole as a strut to create even more headroom under the tarp. If trees aren’t available I typically stake the back side down and use the pole to prop up the front, leaving the front as the only open side. Usually I’ll place the back of the tarp near a hillside so that when staking out the back, space is created between the top of my feet and the tarp.

  • Big Agnes Onyx UL Tarp Review, Bikepacking
  • Big Agnes Onyx UL Tarp Review, Bikepacking

I quite enjoy the simplicity of tarping and hesitate to add extras into this shelter system. However a ground sheet is usually the one extra I’m willing to carry. Whether setting up on wet ground or preventing a puncture to my inflatable sleeping pad, it’s worth the extra weight/space. Speaking of extras, it would sometimes be nice to have two poles (or even three). An extra pole would make this setup much friendlier to bikepackers (because of the lack of trekking poles). Surely Big Agnes would be willing to sell additional poles if you contact them. Be warned that the other tarp poles listed on their site will not fit into the hypalon tabs of the Onyx.

Pros

  • Lightweight – The silnylon is light and waterproof.
  • Minimalist – It’s simple but you can still add extra’s if you like.
  • Versatility – Can be setup in a variety of configurations.

Cons

  • Designed based upon trekking poles – An additional DAC featherlite pole would be nice.
  • Slow to dry – As noted on other Big Agnes UL series. Condensation buildup does not help.
  • Not for every occasion – As with most tarps.

Big Agnes Onyx UL Tarp Review, Bikepacking

WRAP UP

I’ve used the Onyx UL in a variety of conditions, in storms and clear weather. When setup correctly for the particular occasion the Onyx doesn’t disappoint. The variety of guy-out points make this tarp applicable for most topographies as long as you’ve the creativity to boot. The strut is the tarps most notable feature, providing ample headroom for sitting upright for two campers.

Tarping isn’t for everyone or every occasion. I’ve had a couple sleepless nights swatting no-see-ems. I’ve learned when and where the tarp is most appropriate, which is a skill in its own right. This is a great minimalist shelter to add to your quiver. I for one would hesitate to have this as my only shelter. Especially if I planned on using it in a variety of settings, unless of course you have the adequate extra’s like a bug net, ground sheet, and/or bivy.

Tech Specs

  • Trail Weight (without pole) 10oz / 283g
  • Packed Weight (with pole) 14oz / 397g
  • Packed Size 3″ x 14.5″ / 8 x 37cm
  • Tyvek groundsheet 200g
  • Floor Area 72 sqft / 6.7 sqm
  • Price $279.95
  • Contact BigAgnes.com
  • Zach

    I have loved every piece of Big Agnes gear I purchased and never once felt I was overpaying, but $289 for a ~8×8 tarp is steep. I’m sure it’s bomber proof like most of their gear but tarps are relatively easy to make on your own and at $289 you are entering the custom order from a boutique dealer price range. On a different note, really glad to see a review for a tarp on here!

  • http://www.bikepacking.com Logan Watts

    As mentioned on FB, for argument sake… although the Onyx definitely isn’t cheap, it does have some nice features over other UL tarps—the horizontal strut (unique and adds headroom) and guy lines, etc. I’ve also beat/used the hell out of a Fly Creek tent only to be amazed by the durability of the rain fly (same material as used in this tarp I believe) …

  • Stephane Bertox
  • Colt Fetters

    Unfortunately the Onyx was a bit too narrow to make this maneuver, however hard I tried.

  • Scott Gater

    You can always buy poles from this fellow
    http://www.bearbonesbikepacking.co.uk/shop/
    He does great work and it top notch to work with

  • dexey

    I bikepack to be close to nature but that wouldn’t include sleeping with it! :0)

  • Randy

    OH MY GOD LOOK AT THAT DOG! IS THAT REAL?

  • Randy

    I agree. It looks really nice, but it seems pricey for a tarp. Has anyone ever used the tarps/rain flies that ENO sells to accompany their hammocks?

  • fauxpho

    I agree with comments about the pricing. As just one example of the competition, the MSR Thru-Hiker 70 is a very similar material and nearly identical size, comes with adjustable guy lines and stakes (though no pole) and retails at $179.
    Also agree that its good to see a tarp review here. I find the combination of a tarp with an oversized, ultralight, bug-proof but not waterproof bivy sack (I use the Katabatic Bristlecone) to be extremely versatile. Many nights you can ignore the tarp, but to the opposite extreme I’ve sheltered 6 people during heavy rain sitting at a picnic table in a campground cooking dinner, dry, warm and social thanks to a 14 ounce tarp.
    That said, there is still something to be said for the determinism of a tent ;)

  • Max

    Has no one heared of Ray Jardine? He is a legendary back packer that has been advoctating the tarp for decades and even sells a DIY kit for a modest price on his web site! It’s nuts how all these journalists and tent companies act like they came up with a new concept and the prices they charge are tripple for what you can do with Ray’s kit or even getting the material yourself.

  • Phil

    Has anyone experience with the tarp over bike setup in strong winds? I kind of feel that this isn’t holding up very well and I wouldn’t want to have my bike falling down on me during the night. I made some U-shaped pegs for that or tried to strap it down more. But I havent quite got the hang of it yet. Also I’d love to use the bike as a “pole” so not to have it in my sleeping area (see picture) but I could not figure out a good configuration either. Does anybody have a good idea for that?

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/b179fbae8e65716b6f0ab5deb5d643d70c77a9720fd96875463c36faa19bb6f5.jpg

  • fauxpho

    I’ve taken off both wheels and used one at each end fo the tarp, creating a “tube tent” that is extremely resilient to wind and heavy rain. The downside is that ingress/egress is quite difficult; can’t avoid crawling on hands and knees. But it works great if you’re pinned in bad weather for a night and are without poles or good natural tie-off points.

  • David Sadler

    What handlebar pouch do you have there? Been looking for one like that, but can’t seem to find any companies that make them. Thanks!

  • Farneybuster

    Looks like an oveja negra

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    In all fairness, no one is ‘acting’ like the cane up with something new. Big Agnes did add a few features beyond a typical tarp; does that justify the price? I think that is up to the consumer. As far as journalists go, Colt is simply describing what the pros and cons based on his experience… for folks new to the concept.

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    I stick with a tent myself, but the new Enlightened Equipment Recon Bivy is interesting too for such pairings…

  • Tim Jessop

    Let me get this straight.. Tarp with pole 14 oz. price $270.. . Tyvek ground sheet 7.14 oz. price, about 20 cents per yard, $15.00 .. Bivy sak to protect you from bugs, 10-14 oz. $100-$150.00.. That adds up to 31.14 oz and nearly $400.00 in cost.. REI 1/4 dome 1 weighs 26 oz. fly foot print configuration and 41 oz. for the whole set up at a cost of $279.00.. While it is true, the 1/4 dome 1, weighs 15 oz. more, the cost, pack-ability, and overall, multi functionality, are worth considering before buying a limited use camping item.. I chose the 1/4 dome 1 as an example, of low cost, functionality.. However, there are 2 person tents, especially those made by Big Agnes ( Copper Spur HV UL 2, $449.00 and 44 oz. trail weight ), that would seem to make camping with a tarp, obsolete.. After all, who can afford a single use, 2 1/2 season, camping shelter system, that barely keeps the rain off, at a cost of nearly $400.00..??

  • SpanishFly

    For cheapos like me, I’d recommend DD UL Tarp (bit heavier, but in 1/4 price of that gizmo).

  • SpanishFly

    DD UL tarp – 65 E.

  • Colt Fetters

    You are correct, it’s Oveja Negra’s Lunchbox

  • Colt Fetters

    While I don’t disagree with you, the tarp can function with or without the ground cloth or the bivy, making it a bit more versatile. In the right environments you can take out just the tarp itself and be happy with the weight/space savings.

  • http://www.jelliottlein.com John Elliott Lein

    As with bikes, there are so many variations and options for shelters today. My current favorite compromise is the TarpTent. This US-made, small business but pro-level gear is essentially a UL tarp combined with bug net and bathtub-style ground sheet.

    For example, the 1-person ProTrail weighs 26 oz total (plus 5 oz for poles to replace trekking poles), rolls up to 12″x4″, and can be compressed into a stuff sack. It costs $225.

    I have the Rainshadow 2 that fits 3 people (tested, confirmed), weighs 43 oz, and rolls to 18″x4″ (non-stuffable) for $285.

    I don’t have a link to the company other than being a satisfied customer. I love the simplicity, and the feeling of sleeping with more openness in the woods, but I also like the built-in floor and bug net. Also as much as I like Big Agnes products (our car camping family tent is one of theirs) I like to support smaller businesses. https://www.tarptent.com/allproducts.html

Share This

others did. Support us and pass it along...

Follow Us

and join the conversation.
art