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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Secrets of the Sheltered Life

A Hint: It's How You Fold 'em

By Tamia Nelson

July 4, 2006

When I was a kid of four, my family moved from the Big City to an old farmhouse in northern New York. Worried that my wanderlust would carry me beyond the margins of the lawn into the surrounding "wilderness" of wooded hills, stony fields, and tiny streams, my mother took me for long walks around the farm and taught me what to do if I got lost. Job One was to find shelter from inclement weather, and she showed me how. Under her watchful eye, I crawled into hollows made by the low-hanging branches of spruce trees, burrowed below the leafy canes of blackberry bushes, and placed dead limbs against stone walls to create slanting roofs. My mother made a game of this, and in playing the game I learned a little something about the art of improvising shelter.

As I grew up and my horizons broadened, my interest in the subject deepened. I studied everything I could find on backcountry travel and survival. I pored over my brothers' Scout handbooks, read tattered military field manuals given to me by uncles recently returned from service overseas, and unearthed dusty volumes on wilderness camping in the dark recesses of the local library. I even clipped articles from back issues of Outdoor Life and Field and Stream. Nor did I have to go far in search of hands-on instruction. My maternal grandfather, an Adirondack guide of the old school, taught me how to build shelters ranging from simple lean-tos to elaborate shanties, all with no tool other than a sharp axe.

Times have changed, of course. The age of woodcraft is no more, and the days when adventurers like R.M. Patterson could hew a homestead in the wilderness at will are gone forever. To be sure, it never hurts to know how to make a tipi and bed from spruce poles, or build a windbreak from rocks quarried on a treeless summit, but modern gear eliminates the need for such feats of backcountry engineering. Moreover, nature is often less than kind, withholding her help just when you most need shelter. Not only that, but parks and reserves understandably prohibit all such campsite "improvements," except in dire emergencies.

Is this a problem? Not really. Just…

Carry Your Shelter With You

It doesn't have to be elaborate, and that's a good thing, because it's as important on a day trip as it is on a month-long expedition. The lessons I learned from my mother and grandfather have stayed with me. That's why I take my getaway pack along even on short paddles. It holds the gear I need to meet emergencies, including unanticipated overnight stays. After all, weather happens, and no forecast is 100 percent accurate. When the gentle breeze that cooled you as you loaded your boat at the put-in builds up into a Force 7 near gale in mid-lake, and waves start breaking over the gunwales of your little pack canoe, it's good to know that you have the means to wait out the blow ashore — even if it continues through the night. With this, and with the knowledge that you filed a float plan before you left home, you're ready for most things that nature and Nemesis can deal out. It's a comforting feeling.

Among the gear I have tucked away in my pack are a military-surplus poncho and a simple, rectangular nylon tarp. Each is useful in its own right, but the sum is more than the parts. To borrow a buzzword from contemporary ad-speak, tarp and poncho combine to form a synergistic shelter system. Yes, there are more elaborate tarps than my old-fashioned fabric rectangle, many of them boasting designed-in catenary curves and engineered poles. And they're beautiful to look at. But this beauty doesn't come cheap. Some designer tarps carry price tags like the works of art they resemble. Moreover, function doesn't always follow form, however seductive the curves. I remember watching one such soft sculpture take flight during a late-summer squall in northern Québec, despite the spider's web of guys that Farwell and I had been tripping over all evening long, as we stumbled around in the half-light, readying camp to meet the night. Luckily, our own plain-jane tarp remained earthbound, offering our companions a welcome refuge in which to enjoy what remained of their gourmet meal, augmented by bowls of the hot soup that had been simmering on our stove when the gust hit.

My conclusion? Whether we're talking soup or shelter, simple is good. But simple needn't mean spartan. All it takes to lift simple ingredients to the level of high art is…

A Little Imagination

You don't need to be an architect to build an adequate refuge from the worst of the weather, and you won't go far wrong if you begin by exploring the possibilities of the canoe (or kayak) shelter. It was good enough for the voyageurs, after all. Here's what it looked like:

Rest for the Weary

Simple, right? But you can do even better. Your tarp will usually keep the rain at bay, but there's still the wet ground to contend with. To defeat the rising damp, use your poncho as a groundsheet under your pad and sleeping bag. To avoid untimely (and unwelcome) breaches in your underarmor, however, clear the area beneath your bed of all twigs and sharp stones. This will spare your backside as well as your poncho. Of course, fastidious campers will shrink from using their raingear as a groundsheet, and not without reason. Any gear that's asked to do double duty is twice as likely to come to grief. Happily, military ponchos hold up pretty well in hard use, though it's worth bringing repair tape along on every trip. (A hint: You may want to pack a rain jacket and waterproof overalls, too. A poncho is not ideal raingear on a windy lake, and you have to be pretty tired of life to wear a poncho in serious rapids.)

You say you don't like the idea of relying on your boat for part of your shelter? Fair enough. It certainly doesn't make it any easier to take a quick paddle around the lake after dinner. What's the alternative? A little creative engineering, that's what. Begin by knotting guy lines to each grommet or loop on your tarp, then secure these guys to anything handy: trees, boulders, downed limbs, or aluminum pegs. Now adjust the length and tension of each of the guys with a tautline or trucker's hitch to eliminate sags. You can also use a staff or a pair of trekking poles to support your roof, and a walking stick or bo can be employed as a ridgepole. Since the possibilities are almost endless, you'll want to experiment in your backyard at home to see what works best for you. A few general principles are worth remembering, however. Pitch your tarp high for an airy refuge during the torrid heat of a sultry summer afternoon. Snug it down low in windstorms and heavy rains. And carry a light mosquito net in bug season.

Want a few ideas to start your creative juices flowing? Then put yourself in the picture below:

Hung Up on Tarps

You get the idea, I'm sure. And these are only a few of the many possibilities. Keep that business about synergy in mind, too. Use your poncho as a supplementary windbreak or roof extension, or employ it as an awning. (Tie off the neck to prevent leaks.) The poncho also makes a serviceable waterproof cover for sleeping bag, pack, or kayak cockpit.

One more thing: Work with nature, not against her. Pay particular attention to the two elements of wind and water. Take prevailing wind direction into account when siting your tarp, and be sure to pitch camp well above the strandline on any beach. Further inland, avoid camping in a dry wash or on the shoulder of a flashy stream, particularly if there's lightning in the hills. And whether you're camping in canyon country or on the seacoast, beware of cliffs and cutbanks. Tarps make great shelters, but even the best of them won't hold back the tide, let alone keep tons of slumping clay off your head.

Who knows when you might need shelter from the elements? Luckily, all you have to do to prepare for anything from a sudden storm to a worst-case-scenario capsize is to put a tarp and a poncho in your pack — a light burden, even on a day trip. And remember, too, that good field performance doesn't demand fancy catenary cuts or pricy name tags, just a couple of rectangles of waterproof fabric and the knack of folding 'em. That's the real secret of the sheltered life.

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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