Monday, March 17, 2008

Thoughts on Tents



First the obvious: The main purpose of a tent is to keep precipitation off you and your stuff. After that, they can be divided into two types: Bug season and cold season. A tent suitable for one tends to be an abomination for the other.

For bug-season camping, I've settled on hammocks with mosquito netting and rain flies. Ultra-light, no worries about uneven or rocky ground, fast up and fast down. What's not to like? Only that the air circulating underneath makes them chilly in any season but summer. I used to use a Hennessy, and for the last couple years I've been using a Clark. 

For cold weather, after owning and using all kinds of modern high-tech designs and materials, I've settled on traditional canvas tents with fires or stoves inside. The mental image most people have of winter camping is that of crawling into a dark, dank nylon dome, trying to clean up the snow and mud from your boots, shivering all night, then waking up to a melting, dripping layer of frost on the ceiling. And that's an accurate image with nylon tents. They'd be very pleasantly surprised if they experienced a floorless canvas tent warmed by a portable woodstove. There's room to stand and stretch, even to hang drying clothes. In below-zero weather they're as warm as any house, with hot water for washing up and making tea, and no worries about spilling it. 

Tipi: If you're going to actually live in a tent in one place for an extended period, nothing beats the ambiance and comfort of a proper tipi. By "proper", I mean with an interior liner and a buried pipe to bring outside air to the fire. No guy lines to trip on, lots of head room, and a "wilderness TV" (fire) at the focal point. I have very fond memories of staying in one at a western ski area. Fatal flaw: It takes a pickup truck to transport one, and several people several frustrating hours to pitch it. 

Wall tents: Probably the most practical shelter for extended camping in one place. The floor space is all useable, there's plenty of headroom, and vertical doors keep out precipitation. The sides can be rolled up in hot weather. Disadvantages: Large footprint, guylines to trip on, up to seven long poles required, and they take a while to pitch. 

Very few modern people actually live in the woods. We're weekend campers. Even on extended trips, we're rarely in one place for more than a night or two. I don't enjoy making and breaking camp, so the ability to do it quickly has become perhaps the most important factor in how much I enjoy my outdoor time. Wedge and pyramid tents are appealing for that reason. 

Wedges: The archetypal tent, and maybe the best all-around. Goes up quickly with only two or three poles. Small footprint, no guy lines to trip over. Vertical doors keep out precipitation, and they can be tied open for ventilation, or to the poles for security in adverse weather. One side can be opened like a lean-to in good weather. Disadvantage: Not all the floor space is usable. Guylines halfway up the sides to pull them out can minimize that, but then of course you increase the tent's footprint and give yourself guylines to trip over. 

Pyramids: Probably the easiest tent of all to pitch - four pegs and a pole. Unfortunately, once you've set it up, you've seen it's best feature. Still, the fast set-up counts for a lot. If I could only have one tent, this would be it. A lantern hanging in the peak makes it a cozy place. The door can be opened wide to face a fire. Disadvantages: Very limited headroom, a pole in the middle of the living space, a slanted door that lets in weather, and not all the floor space is usable (although once again, guylines part way up the sides to pull them out can minimize that fault). 

Half-pyramids: Slightly more difficult to pitch, but with a vertical door. They don't accommodate stoves well, but reflect the heat of an outside fire nicely.

Best material: Egyptian cotton treated to resist mildew and flames is far and away the best tent material. Weight that compares with nylon, no condensation problems, and a translucent quality that lets the sun and moon in. Unfortunately, there's only one place I'm aware of that even has Egyptian cotton, and it's not easy to get a tent out of the guy. (Tentsmiths.com. If you get a chance to chat him up, it'll be an eduation.)

Cotton canvas treated to resist mildew and flames is a good second choice. The treatment adds a couple ounces per square yard of weight, but I think the increase in safety and durability makes it worth it. Cotton canvas is about twice as heavy and not as bright as Egyptian cotton, but half the cost. Not all canvas is created equal, though.
 
Whatever else you do, buy quality and only cry once.

1 comment:

Centuryhouse said...

Any advice on the best place / brand to buy for a floorless canvas tent?

Great write up btw...