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The Practical Paddler

Deadmen — Silent Partners on Sandy Campsites

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

December 16, 2003

If you've been camping for many years, you've probably tried to stake a tent in sand at least once. Fun, wasn't it? It doesn't matter how long your stakes are and how hard you drive them. More often than not, they pull right out at the first gust of wind.

OK. That's the problem. What can you do about it? Avoid camping on sand? Bad idea. Some of the best camps are on sandy sites. And who'd turn down the chance to camp above the tide wrack on a sheltered beach? Anyway, the solution is easier than you might think. You just need a few deadmen on your side. No, I'm not suggesting that you hire a medium and contact the spirit world. The deadmen I'm talking about are anchors — anchors that hold well in unconsolidated materials like sand and snow. British climber Alan Blackshaw gives Antarctic explorers credit for developing the idea. After all, if you were headed to the Pole, you wouldn't want your dogs wandering off during the night, would you? But you won't find any trees to tie a dog to when you're camped on the windswept Antarctic massif. So the deadman was born.

Then, in the 1960s, mountaineers picked up the notion and flew with it — or, more accurately, they didn't fly with it. Until the deadman came along, belaying a climber in snow was a very iffy proposition. Ice-ax belays were the norm, but they offered little better odds than Russian roulette. If the ice-ax shaft didn't break — and that happened with depressing frequency until metal shafts became common — it simply pulled out. The result? A slide for life that all too often carried an unlucky climber over the edge.

The deadman put a stop to this. And it can help your tent stay put, too. The principle is…ahem…dead obvious to anyone who's ever had to shovel snow. When you first attack the towering snowbank that blocks your front door, the edge of the blade slides in almost effortlessly. So far, so good. Now lift. Arrgh! Not so easy, is it? Well, an ordinary aluminum wire tent stake is little more than an all-round edge. It relies on the tenacity of the soil to hold it in place. And loose sand doesn't offer much resistance. But the deadman, like the big blade of the snow shovel, has a lot of surface area. More surface area gives it more purchase. If you're shoveling snow, this extra purchase is bad news. It means you'll have to tilt the shovel a little to spill some of the load, or even take a smaller "bite" out the bank than you'd originally planned. If you're relying on a deadman to stake your tent, though, it just means you'll sleep more soundly.

How do you place a deadman in sand? Easy. Dig a shallow, T-shaped trench, with the leg of the T pointing at your tent. An entrenching tool or trowel makes the job easy. Then hammer the deadman into the sand at the top of the T, slanting it so that it makes a 45-degree angle with the attached guy line. (The guy line should run back toward the tent through the leg of the T.) Is the 45-degree angle important? Yes. You don't need a protractor, but a little attention to detail pays big dividends here. If the vertical angle is too great — 90 degrees or more, say — the deadman will probably pull out whenever a stiff breeze makes your tent flap. This is one time to ignore the dictates of common sense, by the way. My common sense tells me that a right angle is, well, the right angle for the job. But my common sense is wrong. In most cases, planting a deadman at right angles to the direction of pull makes the resulting anchor less secure, not more. (I'll talk about one important exception below.)

That little phrase "direction of pull" warrants careful attention, too. The angle that matters is the angle between the deadman and the guy line when the guy line is pulled taut by a flapping tent. This may be the same as the direction it takes when the wind is calm, of course. Then again, it may not. To be sure, you'll need to know how your tent behaves when the wind howls.

Once you've planted your deadman deep, bury it: refill the trench with sand. And just how deep is deep enough? That depends. A foot may be ample in some places, but two feet can be too little in others. The looser and drier the sand — and the stronger the likely winds — the deeper the deadman needs to be buried. Trial and error is your best guide here. You don't have to wait for the wind to blow a gale to put your efforts to the test, however. Just give the buried deadman a good, hard tug in the same direction that the wind load will come from. If it stays put, all is well. And if it doesn't? Bury it deeper.

Burying a Deadman

Sound good? I thought so. But you won't find deadmen in many outfitters' catalogs, and you certainly don't want to pay climbing hardware prices for a tent anchor. So you may have to make your own. Luckily, it's easy. Here's how.…

If money's tight, or if you're faced with an unplanned bivouac on a sandy site, you can improvise. A buried limb will often do the trick. Simply tie your guy line around the middle of a good-sized piece of driftwood or a deadfall and bury it. (A limb about as big around as your forearm and twice as long is ideal.) If the terrain doesn't permit you to sink this limb more or less vertically, at the prescribed 45-degree angle to the guy line — and it probably won't — then bury it horizontally in a shallow trench. Here's where common sense triumphs, at last. When you plant your deadman parallel to the surface of the ground, you want the guy line at right angles to the limb.

But what do you do where there's no driftwood to be had, and you can't find any deadfalls? Try packing a large stuff sack with rocks and burying that, instead. Even a sack filled with sand will work in a pinch. If you look hard, you'll find ready-made fabric "snow and sand anchors" in some outfitters' catalogs. Or you can sew your own. Ready-made or do-it-yourself — either one will hold far better in sand than the typical aluminum stake.

As good as they are, though, improvised deadmen usually won't measure up to the real thing. No problem. Every practical paddler can make a deadman to rival anything in the climbing catalogs, at a fraction of the price. An 8-inch by 10-inch piece of sheet aluminum is all you need. Bore two holes in the center for your guy line, dress the sharp edges with a file, and you're done. Want something a little fancier? Then fit a light aircraft-cable bridle to reduce chafe, and reinforce the top edge to take the brunt of the bashing. You can even rig a haul cord for quick and easy exhumation. That's all there is to it.

A Do-It-Yourself Deadman

You say you don't have any aluminum sheet lying around your house? Metal pie tins can be pressed into service, instead. (Watch out for sharp edges, though.) So can scrap pieces of exterior plywood, or even a robust plastic dinner plate. Chances are pretty good that you already have the makings of a dozen deadmen in your basement.

Do you really need a dozen? Probably not, but more is better. Use as many as you can, giving priority to the guy lines that take the greatest strain, particularly the end and corner guys on rectangular tents. You may even want to double up the anchors in some places. And please don't think that self-standing tents needn't be anchored. I've watched several beautifully-engineered domes sail away in storms, sometimes taking their occupants along for the ride. It's usually quite a trip.

Call me old-fashioned, but I'm not interested in logging frequent-flier miles in my sleeping bag. That's why I always anchor dome tents at every cardinal point of the compass.

* * *

It's true that dead men tell no tales, but they can still be pretty good company around camp. In fact, there's nothing like a silent chorus of deadmen to raise your spirits in a hard blow. Why not invite them along on your next trip to the beach and see for yourself?

Copyright 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.









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