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The Things We Carry

The 'umble Tarp

By Tamia Nelson

September 17, 2002

Camping out. There's not much poetry in that familiar American phrase, is there? And the Brits are even worse. They describe a night spent out-of-doors as "sleeping rough"! The French look at things differently. They're not interested in roughing it. Instead, a night camp is a camp à la belle étoile: a night under the stars. Now there's romance for you!

Of course, romance and reality frequently diverge. Camping out is more often prose than poetry. And the difference between "sleeping rough" and a night à la belle étoile? In a word: shelter. The stars make very good, if somewhat chilly, companions, but pouring rain will dampen all but the most determined poet's ardor. On clear, crisp nights, give me the stars, but when the cold autumn rains start to fall, gimme shelter!

My ideas about back-country shelter have undergone some changes over the years. My first nights à la belle étoile were made under the tutelage of my bark-eater grandfather. Even at the height of blackfly season, a surplus canvas "shelter half" was good enough for him and his pipe. I was skeptical. The shelter half wasn't much to look at—just a rectangle of canvas with two triangular end-flaps. Still, Grandad left me in no doubt that this scrap of canvas ought to be good enough for me, too, and with practice I learned to rig the thing well enough to provide protection from rain and wind. I didn't smoke a pipe, however, and word of the free lunch soon got round among the insect community. No matter. Grandad regarded my vulnerability to insect bites as proof positive of the natural inferiority of women. It was something I'd have to come to terms with if I wanted to spend time out of doors, he said, and that was that. The red welts which encircled my wrists, neck, and hairline were the price of admission to a man's world.

I wasn't so sure. True, I didn't smoke a pipe—and the stink of my Grandad's ancient briar didn't encourage me to try—but that didn't mean I wanted to set up as a universal blood donor for every broody biting fly in the Adirondacks. There had to be a better way, I decided, and I was determined to find it.

Several years passed, and I graduated from "camping out" to mountaineering. I also got my first paying job. (I'd worked full-time in my parent's diner since I was twelve, but since they were great believers in the corrupting power of money, I never saw a cent in wages.) Now, for the first time in my life, I had cash in the bank, and the climbing catalogs were full of wonderful things to buy: gas stoves small enough to fit in a rucksack pocket, freeze-dried beef stroganoff, and—best of all—"mountain tents," engineered confections of featherweight nylon, guaranteed to withstand hurricane-force winds on exposed Himalayan ridges.

I couldn't believe my good fortune. Soon I had a mountain tent of my own, a bright gold North Face VE-24. Gold was the right color, too: ounce for ounce, the VE-24 cost about as much as bullion. I lived on peanut butter sandwiches for months, but I figured it was worth it. I was ready for the worst that Everest could throw at me.

Of course Everest was on the other side of the globe, and I didn't have a ticket to Katmandu in my pocket. No problem, I thought. I was confident that any tent that could conquer the world's highest peak could take whatever the Adirondacks had to offer. And at first it looked like I was right. Spring gales and late-season snowstorms? Piece of cake. The VE-24 shrugged them off. Biting flies? The no-see-um proof netting kept them at a distance. Every night I was lulled to sleep by the impotent bizz of frustrated mosquitoes.

Then summer came. Temperatures climbed into the high eighties and the humidity more than kept pace. Soon the walls of my bomb-proof shelter dripped with moisture. It turned out that the no-see-um proof netting was air-tight, too. I no longer had a tent; I had a portable sauna. But when I opened the netting to get some air into my stifling cell, the mosquitoes swarmed in, as well. Just like the good old days with Grandad, I grumbled—though at least my old shelter half was well-ventilated.

For the second time, I decided there had to be a better way.

It didn't take long to figure out what it might be. Shortly after I discovered the sweaty delights of my portable sauna, I got a another chance to live "under canvas," hiking and mountaineering in the North Cascades. I climbed high during the day, but I slept low at night. I'd left the VE-24 in New York. (My pack was almost too big to get on the bus as it was!) So my only shelter was a nylon tarp. Happily, it proved more than equal to the challenge: it was light, simple, and well-ventilated. Best of all, the nighttime chill soon put paid to any biting flies. Here, I thought, was the better way that I was looking for, at least when the bugs didn't bite.

Then, within days of returning to New York from Washington, I swapped my ice ax and climbing boots for a paddle and pacs. I was off to northern Québec with Farwell. This time I took the VE-24. I'd heard about the biting flies up North, and I was determined to be prepared.

The flies were bad, too. But the heat and humidity were even worse. At first, we sweated through the nights. I'd brought my tent, dammit, and I was going to use it! But after an exhausting day that ended with a long portage through miles of logging slash, neither of us could face the fiddly job of threading the poles through the sleeves to set up the VE-24. Instead, we just draped Farwell's tarp over the upturned canoe, pegged down the corners, and turned in. A squall line blew through in the night, driving away the mosquitoes. The tarp stayed put, however. And we had our first really good night's sleep in several weeks.

From that day on, the tarp was our primary shelter—and more, besides. We cooked under it. We ate under it. We waited out squalls under it. We read and painted and…well, we did almost everything under it. We still retreated to the VE-24 whenever the flies became unbearable, but an August frost put an end to even this nuisance. I was hooked.

That was more than two decades ago. A lot of water's flowed under our keel since then, and we've made hundreds of camps along the way. I still haven't found a better all-round shelter than a tarp. We now own three. Two are conventional nylon rectangles. The third is a Whelen tent, a sort of improved canvas shelter half. It's heavy and bulky—though nowhere near as heavy and bulky as such traditional canoe-country shelters as the Baker tent—but it's my favorite for canoeing trips. We also have a mosquito-bar: a coarse nylon-mesh net that hangs from loops sewn onto the tarp and drapes over our sleeping bag. No-see-ums drift right through the mesh, but it keeps out all the larger biting flies. More importantly, it lets the breeze blow through. If I can breath, I can live with the punkies.

We still have a tent. I pensioned off the VE-24 some time back, and we bought a modified 4-man Timberline. It's about as good as a tent can get: roomy, sturdy, and stable. And though it, too, has no-see-um proof netting, at least the windows are large. If the wind's blowing a gale, a gentle zephyr squeezes through the mesh to take some of the steam out of the sauna. It's not a tent for Everest, perhaps, but it's more than enough for Farwell and me. We're not heading to the Himalaya any time soon.

For most times and most places, however, the 'umble tarp's the thing, with or without a mosquito-bar to keep the bugs at a distance. Like Uriah Heep, the "very 'umble person" in Charles Dickens' David Copperfield, the tarp's not much to look at, but—also like Uriah—it's about as versatile as it can be. That's where the comparison stops, however. Uriah's a villain, while the tarp's a sure-enough working-class hero.

The 'umble tarp. Cheap, light, and almost indestructible. A jack of all trades. Better yet, it's the only portable shelter that doesn't wall you off from the outside world. That's the whole point of the exercise, isn't it? Camping out isn't just sleeping rough. Remember the wise words of the French: to sleep outside is to sleep à la belle étoile. They have a point. When you make your bed beneath the blanket of the heavens, you surely ought to see the stars. And with a tarp, you can. Perhaps it's not so 'umble, after all.

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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