Tarpaulin vs. Tarps: Understanding the Difference

Melting snowfall leads to the discovery that your roof is leaking. You’re tired of your outdoor furniture getting wet when it rains. Your children love their sandbox, but it’s in the sun and you want to protect them. These are all great reasons to need a protective cover, but you have no idea how to get started. Tarpaulin and tarps come up in searches, but aren’t they the same thing? What are the differences?

While they might seem identical at first glance, tarps and tarpaulins have distinct differences. Join us as we explain how they differ, and how to choose the best protective covering for your needs.

It All Comes Down to the Material

The biggest difference between tarps and tarpaulins is the material used. Look at the definitions of each as given in Merriam-Webster and Collins Dictionary.

  • Tarp: “A piece of material used especially for protecting exposed objects or areas.”
  • Tarpaulin: “A fabric made of canvas or similar material coated with tar, wax, paint, or some other waterproof substance.”

Tarp is usually lighter and not coated, while tarpaulin is heavier and often made from canvas or another thick material that’s been treated with a waterproof coating. 

As an added benefit, the coating on canvas tarpaulins may contain a fire retardant that keeps sparks from turning into flames. Canvas tarpaulins are breathable, which prevents condensation from forming on the bottom side. They’re heavy and don’t wear out quickly. 

A vinyl tarpaulin is also thick and coated in flexible vinyl to create a waterproof surface. Water is not getting through that vinyl coating. A slip-and-slide is a vinyl tarp, and it takes a lot of abuse yet it doesn’t rip and allow water to seep through.

On the other side of that coin, you have a polypropylene tarp, aka a poly tarp, that’s affordable and very lightweight, but it’s not going to last as long. Instead of having a canvas tarp that’s coated in wax, oil, or paint, it’s woven from strands of plastic. It resists water, but it’s not going to stay waterproof in days or weeks of heavy rain. At some point, the moisture can seep through tiny holes.

Mesh tarps are another option. Instead of plastic strands, it’s a mesh material like plastic window screening. It may keep out some larger pieces of debris like leaves or pine needles, but it’s not going to keep out rain. It will, however, provide fantastic shade and UV protection on an outdoor patio or screened-in deck.

Consider Strength and Durability When Purchasing a Tarp or Tarpaulin

The weight of a tarp or tarpaulin is directly linked to its durability and strength. Tarpaulins are made from heavier materials, so they weigh more. That also increases the durability. It’s heavier, so wind gusts aren’t going to move it as much. 

Lighter tarps like a low-cost blue tarp are more prone to tearing if there are strong wind gusts or weight from a lot of snow or ice. They aren’t the best choice for covering a load of gravel when you’re driving home on the interstate. 

Are Waterproof or Water-Resistant Qualities Preferred?

When it comes to being waterproof, vinyl and Iron Horse tarpaulins are ideal. They will not let water through. Sure, they’re going to cost more, but they will keep water off your valuable equipment, building materials, or home interior in the case of a leaking roof. 

You may see some people cover a roof leak with a blue, green, or brown tarp, but water may still seep through. As water gets through the plywood and into the insulation, it leads to the risk of mold and mildew forming in the insulation and possibly the ceilings. Your health isn’t worth the risk.

Regular tarps, however, are fantastic for protecting the yard when you’re moving lawn clippings to a compost pile. You can lay them out on a driveway or patio to contain a load of bark mulch you’re having delivered. When it’s done, rinse them off, dry them out, and fold them up until you need them again.

How Much Can You Spend?

The price plays a critical role in any purchasing decision. Heavier tarpaulins do cost more because of the materials and coating. However, they often last much longer, so you’re not replacing them as often. 

While regular tarps are less expensive initially, they usually end up ripped and torn within a year. You’re spending a lot of money replacing them each year. Plus, that tarp ends up in the landfill where it can take decades to break down. When it comes to the environment, the longer you can get a tarp to last, the better it is.

Do You Need Additional Features or Benefits?

Are there other features you should consider? Do you need the tarp to have grommets? If so, how far apart do you need them to be? Some tarps and tarpaulins may only space them every 18 to 24 inches rather than every 12 inches, is that good enough? If not, a custom tarp or tarpaulin may be better.

If a protective material is going to spend a lot of time in the sun, UV coatings are essential to prevent sun damage. Does it need to be mildew or mold-resistant? These are all additional benefits to consider.

Ask Yourself These Questions

Before you start shopping, make sure you’ve carefully considered your options. Make sure you ask yourself these questions and use the answers as your guide to choosing a tarp or tarpaulin.

What Is Your Budget?

How much are you comfortable spending? As you calculate that amount, consider how quickly you might need to replace a protective cover if you purchase a cheaper option. 

What Are You Doing With the Tarp or Tarpaulin?

What are you doing with the protective cover? Is it being used to protect outdoor furniture during the winter? Are you covering a play area from the intense sun? Are you creating a roof over a caged area to shade your chickens on a hot summer’s day? You have to consider what you need the tarp for to determine what qualities it needs.

How Durable Does It Need to Be?

Once you know what it’s being used for, you can determine how durable it needs to be. Mils is a measurement that determines thickness. You might find the thickness listed as how many ounces of weight per square foot or yard. Use those measurements to get a protective cover that matches your needs.

Is Water-Resistant Enough or Does It Need to Be Waterproof?

Water resistance isn’t the same as waterproof. Water resistance means it will resist water for a while, but it can’t keep it out. A windbreaker is water resistant. If you’re outside in the rain, how long before the rain is soaking through your windbreaker? Compare that to a raincoat. That’s a good example of water-resistant vs. waterproof.

How Much Weight or Wind Force Will the Tarp/Tarpaulin Be Exposed To?

Finally, what amount of weight or wind is the tarp or tarpaulin facing during daily use? It needs to be able to withstand this force.

Work With an Expert

When you carefully analyze your answers and prices at Chicago Canvas & Supply, you’ll find the ideal tarp or tarpaulin for your needs. You might still be stuck as some projects suit more than one type of tarp or canvas cover. If you’re unable to make a decision, ask our experts for guidance.

Not only can we help you choose the best tarp or tarpaulin, but we can also assist you with sizing. Our tarp and canvas products come in cut sizes rather than finish sizes. A cut size is measured before hems, seams, and grommets are added. You don’t want to end up with a tarp or tarpaulin that’s too small for your needs. Always triple-check your measurements and ask us how much extra you should add to ensure your final choice is large enough.