Tarpaulins have multiple uses, including as shelter from the elements, i.e., wind, rain, or sunlight, a ground sheet or a fly in camping, a drop sheet for painting, for protecting the pitch of cricket field, and for protecting objects, such as unenclosed road or rail goods carrying vehicles or wood piles.
It is also used on outdoor market stalls to provide some protection from the elements of nature. Tarpaulins are also used for advertisement printing, most notably for billboards. Perforated tarpaulins are typically used for large-medium advertising, or for protection on scaffoldings, the aim of the perforations (from 20% to 70%) is to reduce wind vulnerability
Polyethylene tarpaulins have also proven to be a popular source when an inexpensive, water resistant fabric is needed.
Tarps can be classified based on a diversity of factors, such as material type (polyethylene, canvas, vinyl, etc.), thickness, which is generally measured in millimeters or generalized into categories (such as "regular duty", "heavy duty", "super- heavy duty", etc.), and grommet strength (simple vs. reinforced), among others.
Tarps can also be classified by size—a common determining factor for consumers in acquiring tarps—and measured in width by length. Actual tarp sizes are generally about three to five percent smaller than the advertised size.(Thus, a tarp advertised as 20 ft. × 20 ft. will actually measure about 19 ft. × 19 ft.) Some other factors that may influence a purchase decision include color often they come in blue, green, black, or silver, grommet type (aluminum, stainless steel, etc.), and grommet-to-grommet distance.