You may think that a tarp is one of the most unsexiest things you ever buy. After all, it’s difficult to get excited about a large piece of cloth, right? Well, take your phone or computer to a place where you won’t be disturbed for a while, because you’re about to get aroused.

The little secret is that tarps play many different roles these days. Some go on top of you. Others go beneath you. Some tarps even help you clean up.

Short for tarpaulin—originally a canvas that was treated with tar in order to make it water-resistant—tarps today are made from various materials, depending on the purposes for which they’re designed. Here are three different types of tarps. One may be a perfect fit for you. Then again, you may want all three, and nobody would blame you.

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Even though some tarps are made to be waterproof, others are made to be absorbent. That’s because when you’re painting a room and you want to protect the floor from drips and splatters, a waterproof tarp will simply let the paint pool up. You’ll step on it when it’s wet and track it elsewhere in the house. That paint will take a long time to dry and may run off of the waterproof tarp as you remove it from the floor. An absorbent drop cloth tarp, as its name suggests, absorbs the paint drips and splatters. It’s thick, so the paint won’t run through to the other side (unless you pour an entire can of paint on it). An absorbent drop cloth will also trap dirt and dust, which can then be shaken out. If you need to cover furniture during a home improvement project or when you’re away for a long period of time, an absorbent drop cloth tarp is your best choice. Make sure the one you get is washable so you can get the dust and grime out of it before reuse. That way, no one will be the wiser.


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Keeping away water, whether it’s in the form of rain, dew, or moisture on the ground, is paramount to having a successful camping trip. That’s why a totally waterproof tarp has saved so many camping trips. You can use one as a ground cloth beneath a tent, so it acts as a moisture barrier between the ground and your tent floor. You can use one as a rain fly over your tent, your dining area, or your hammock (which will also provide shade). Or, you can use it simply as a place to drop your gear and stretch out after a long hike. Invest in a tarp that’s made for the purpose—lightweight so it’s easily packable, with plenty of attachment points for stakes, ropes, or whatever you want to use to hold it down.

General purpose tarps come in various sizes, from card table to baseball infield, and are used to cover anything under the sun (or potentially in the rain) because they’re resistant to UV light. Boats, trailers, mowers, patio furniture, grills and smokers, cars and bicycles, leaky roofs, firewood—the list goes on and on. Always get a tarp that’s bigger than the object you want to cover, so you’ll be able to cinch it down tight and keep it from blowing away. Standing inside on a day when the rain is pouring and the wind is howling and looking out to see your tarp protecting your hard-earned possession, is an immensely satisfying feeling.