What is a tarpaulin?

A tarpaulin is a piece of material, usually canvas, which has been subjected to a treatment to make it either waterproof or at least water resistant. Heavy tarps are used in a myriad of situations; they are used as shelter on the one hand to paint drip cloths on the other. Tarpaulins, often simply called “tarps” can be purchased from just about any hardware store or DIY builders supply. Large tarps, those exceeding 24 foot square are available from custom manufacturers and supply houses.

Originally, heavy tarps were made from a material called palling. This is a heavy cloth; the original used was for shelter. The palling covers were used aboard sailing ships; the sailors covered the cloth with tar to make the palling waterproof. A combination of the words “tar” and “palling” gave us the new word, tarpaulin. Over time, may other materials have been used for the same purpose but the term tarpaulin has become synonymous with the product, not the material it is made from. Modern heavy tarps are made from polyethylene, a strong, manmade material which is naturally water proof; there is no need for any further treatment to the material.

Most people will be aware of large blue polyethylene tarps with rust resistant grommets at each corner and, depending on the size, along the sides as well. The grommets allow the tarp to be tied down with rope or bungee-cords. Although today’s polyethylene heavy tarps are most often bright blue, they can be purchased in other colors including green, black, silver as well as clear.

The classic use for a tarpaulin is as a ground sheet for camping. The tarp is placed on the ground and the tent is erected over it, thus providing protection to the occupants of the tent from stones, twigs, etc. Around a campsite, tarpaulins are used to cover the cooking area and if the camping trip includes hunting, a tarpaulin is a good surface to clean the game.

Around the house, heavy tarps have many uses, the list is virtually endless. They are used to cover the winter stockpile of fire-wood, lawn furniture, boats, BBQs and on-and-on.

When tarpaulins are used commercially, they are often used to cover tennis courts and baseball infields when it starts to rain during the event. Large flat bed trucks use heavy tarps to protect the load they are hauling from inclement weather and pilferage. There are special tarps that are lined with a fill of polyester which keeps loads either warm or cold.

Polyethylene is the most popular material anymore. The tarps produced from this material are available in different grades which make them suitable for light duty or heavy duty use. Polyethylene is rot resistant, mold and mildew resistant, long-lasting and tough.