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Under Canvas

A Guide to Tents and Other Backcountry Shelters

By Tamia Nelson Under Canvas

January 14, 2014

Not long ago, on a bitter cold morning, I walked down to The River. An icy wind flayed my face, while the snow underfoot squeaked with each step, as if in protest at my passing. It was a day calculated to remind any gyrovague just how vulnerable we humans are to the caprices of weather, how ill‑equipped to survive winter's assaults without the protective armor of our technology.

Caught out in a sudden winter storm, an arctic fox can curl up, tuck his nose beneath his bushy tail, turn his back to the wind — and survive. The ptarmigan, latterly his prey, is now his equal, and equally at home in the harsh land. Head nestled beneath wing, feathers fluffed, he lets the drifting snows entomb him. And yet, when the wind relents, he bursts forth from his icy sepulcher, alive and well. The fox, too, shakes himself free of the blanketing drift and continues on his way. For hunter and hunted alike, the never‑ending dance of life and death goes on.

We humans aren't so lucky. Should a naked ape be caught by the same storm, her prospects would be bleak indeed. She'd have no fur to speak of, no feathers, and little or no chance of keeping any flickering flame of life alive under the drifting snows. While clothes may not make the woman — don't tell this to the pretty young thing tottering down an icy sidewalk in stiletto heels, however! — they're sometimes all that stands between her and an untimely end. In other words, apart from clothes' obvious role in display, they're also a form of wearable shelter, one of the many protective envelopes we naked apes have devised over the millennia.

Of course, every living thing needs some sort of defense against the elements, and as the examples of the fox and ptarmigan remind us, wild, warm‑blooded creatures are no exception. They have their fur and their feathers, and when these aren't enough, they retire to their nests, their forms, and their dens. Which doubtlessly gave us humans a few ideas. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all, and our early ancestors knew a good thing when they saw it. The result? Every year, as days grew short and the snow drifted deep, they sought dens of their own, taking refuge from winter storms in caves and rock shelters (and occasionally having to dispute possession with a truculent bear).

Modern men and women are more fortunate. Not only can paddlers and hillwalkers clothe themselves in engineered fabrics that both repel moisture and retain body heat, but we have a wide selection of portable dens into which we can retreat when the weather is too much with us. And over the years, In the Same Boat has devoted a fair amount of space to discussing the numerous alternatives. In fact, we've written so many articles on the topic that finding any one of them among our 700‑odd collected columns can be quite a chore. So this week I'll be doing my best to bring order out of chaos.

The subject, then, is shelter. And I'll begin with shelter at its most basic:

The Tarp

Note that basic doesn't mean bad. Tarps have their limitations, but they have many virtues, too. No shelters are lighter, and none are cheaper. (Providing that you stop your ears to the siren songs of pricey designer tarps, that is.) Nor can any other shelter rival the tarp's versatility. Consider the many ways you can shape a refuge from these simple rectangles of fabric:


Know How to Fold Them


And those are just a sample of the possibilities. A few minutes' experimentation will add to the list, and the roster will grow even longer if you pair one tarp with another, whether the second is a "proper" tarp or a tarp‑like poncho. A pole or two — either purpose‑built or improvised (trekking poles and canoe poles fill the bill admirably, and paddles can be pressed into service in a hard chance) — multiply your options manyfold. Pitch a tarp high, and you have an airy sun shelter with a spectacular view of all that surrounds you. (Pitch it high enough, in fact, and you can suspend a hammock beneath it.) Pitch it low, and you can ride out all but the worst storms in snug comfort. Are biting flies a nuisance? Then drape a few ounces of mosquito netting under the tarp to keep them at bay.

What did I tell you? Versatility, thy name is tarp.

~ ~ ~

Learn the Secrets of the Sheltered Life: Read All About Tarps

Happy Campers

You may have noticed that a reference to the poncho crept into the text a couple of paragraphs back. Now it's time to put some flesh on this …

Bare‑Bones Shelter

A poncho is a boon to any naked ape. Why? Because it's a garment as well as a shelter. Or to put it another way, it's a tent that you can wear. Ponchos have history, too. Back during the Peninsular War, that bloody prelude to Napoleon's final defeat, when guerrilla first entered the world's vocabulary and shrapnel was still a new hazard on the battlefield, the Cazadores de Campo de Cariñena (a light infantry regiment that saw service at Saguntum in 1811) were "issued brown cloth for ponchos." Not much has changed. Ponchos are still being issued to the world's armies today.

Make no mistake, though: Ponchos aren't perfect. They're drafty — good in hot weather; not so good in cold — they often funnel water right into your boots, and they make great sails. (This is fine when the wind is at your back, but just how often does that happen?) On the other hand, they're also cheap, light, and versatile, easily pressed into service as a small but useful tarp. Which is why I have a poncho in my getaway pack. It came from a surplus outlet, replacing a hand‑me‑down from Farwell, whose last "liberated" poncho finally went West after only 30‑odd years of hard use. And it's done well by me in all seasons, sheltering me (and my camera) against chill breezes and swirling mist, …


A Room With a View


… while also keeping me safe and sane under the midday sun:


Just a Peak


Such versatility comes at a price, however. Stringing guys and finding props to support a tarp can sometimes be too much trouble for the hard‑pressed paddler. Which is why, on more than one occasion, when a good pitch eluded me, I've just rolled up in mine. This burrito‑wrap shelter, though it proved a trifle humid, was surprisingly warm. At least it was when I was dressed warmly. Still, a poncho may be all the shelter you need to fend off hypothermia when you're caught out by a change in the weather. What more could a go‑lighter ask of any garment?

~ ~ ~

Cover Your Assets Before It's Too Late: Check These Out

Happy Campers

In functional terms, tarps and ponchos are much of a muchness. Apart from the hole for your neck in the poncho — usually topped by a hood and easily tied off, in any case — only size sets the one apart from the other. And even this isn't always true. A large poncho can be bigger than a small tarp. But I've left out an important use that both tarp and poncho lend themselves to:

The Canoe Shelter

And now I'm using "canoe" as the Brits once used it (and many still do) — as a collective noun, identifying both open ("Canadian") canoes and kayaks. It's the simplest form of self‑supporting shelter, quickly and easily erected by any paddler. Here's one in use:

The Way It Was

The painting is a classic, one of Frances Anne Hopkins' mid‑19th‑century portraits of the Hudson's Bay Company's "servants." (As the wife of the secretary to Sir George Simpson, then governor of the HBC's Northern Department, Frances had many chances to sketch this and other scenes from life. In other words, she was no studio painter.) Of course, few paddlers who use the canoe shelter today will enjoy the four‑foot headroom afforded by a North Canoe, but in a pinch even a pack canoe can be made to serve. And the owner of a pack canoe will find the portages much easier than did the hapless voyageur, condemned to labor under one end of a 300‑pound canot du nord. That's a plus, surely.

Anyway, the mechanics of the canoe shelter are straightforward. Rest your canoe on one gunwale, placing it so that the upturned boat breaks the wind. Now drape a tarp or poncho over the hull — you'll probably want to prop a kayak upright before doing this, to maximize headroom — and stake down the corners, using guylines as needed to extend the pitch and make all taut. Then crawl beneath the newly created awning. Elapsed time? A few minutes at most. No wonder the canoe shelter appealed to voyageurs at the end of a typical 18‑hour day.

~ ~ ~

Canoe Do It, Too? Sure You Can! And Here's How…

Happy Campers

So far, so good. But what if you prefer a shelter with a predetermined shape, a shelter that doesn't demand custom fitting and endless messing about with guylines? Yes, I am exaggerating the difficulties of pitching a tarp here, but there's no denying that this endangered art requires some practice before it becomes second nature. And not every paddler is a would‑be roustabout. Nonetheless, the tarp's light weight and low cost are wonderfully compelling. It would be good if there were some middle ground between tarp (or poncho) and tent.

Happily, there is, and you won't be surprised to hear that it's called …

The Tarp‑Tent

Or it was. That name is seldom found in ad copy these days. Perhaps "tarp" suggests roughing it, a phrase not likely to receive warm endorsement from ad agency focus groups. In any event, whatever name the copywriters give these hybrid creatures — mostly they just call them "tents" — you'll know one when you see it. Tarp‑tents are single‑wall shelters, with no fly and (usually) no floor. They also dispense with netted windows. In fact, other than a rudimentary vent or two, it's rare to find one with any windows at all.

The bottom line? A tarp‑tent is a sort of preconfigured tarp. And why would you want one? Because tarp‑tents are (1) light, (2) cheap (at least when compared to full‑fledged tents of comparable size), and (3) easy to set up, particularly if the tarp‑tent in question comes with poles, as many do. Will a tarp‑tent suit you? It may — if you're not troubled by biting flies (or are willing to carry a separate mosquito net), and if you prize simple, lightweight shelter.

Now that I think of it, this describes a lot of paddlers I know.

~ ~ ~

Is There a Tarp‑Tent in Your Future? Read This and Find Out

Happy Campers

At last we come to the genuine article: the modern three‑ or four‑season tent, the preferred home from home for legions of paddlers, hillwalkers, and climbers. If you've got the cash — and you probably do; many good tents are surprisingly cheap — there are scores (hundreds?) of companies who will be happy to sell you a light, weatherproof, insect‑proof …

Womb With a View

And I've chosen my words advisedly. There's probably no better feeling in the world than wakening to the crash of thunder or the roar of a gale, only to drift back to sleep, untroubled by care, confident that your shelter is proof against just about anything nature can throw at you. This is as close as an adult can get to the protected life of the womb. (There are exceptions, of course. No tent, however well‑engineered and womb‑like, is proof against lightning strikes, falling trees, avalanches, flash floods, or hungry bears. But you knew that, didn't you?)

The problem lies in deciding which one to buy. Between us, Farwell and I have owned, or at least used, something like a dozen tents, not counting such things as Whelen tents (actually, an early example of tarp‑tent), shelter halves (ditto), and jungle hammocks (a thing altogether sui generis*). And while none has been without its faults, each one has served us well. May you have similar good fortune.

~ ~ ~

Gimme Shelter! Help on Choosing a Tent

Happy Campers

That's it for hardware. Or are tents "software"? After all, they're mostly fabric, and that's not very hard. But whatever label you choose to pin on them, there's more to surviving in style than buying the right kit. A poorly chosen site can make even a good tent look bad. So here are some …

Insights on Siting

It's easy to get it wrong. Pitch your tent below the wrack line on a beach on the windward side of an island when there's a gale in the offing, for instance. Or nestle down for the night a few feet from a flashy stream when you can hear thunder in the surrounding hills. Or pick a site under a lone pine just as lightning illuminates the sky above. Or… Well, I don't have to say more, do I? You get the picture.

An ideal site is …

  • Safe from rising water and falling trees.
  • Sheltered from the prevailing winds,
  • Yet open to a biting‑fly‑dispelling breeze.
  • Close (though not too close) to a spring or stream. (This is especially important for sea kayakers, who can't drink the water they paddle in.)
  • Level,
  • Yet not low‑lying and damp.
  • Light during the day.
  • Dark during the night (not usually a problem, unless you're camping in an RV park or in the far North in high summer).
  • Big enough for your party,
  • Yet not so big that the Gasoline Valley Snowmobile Club will choose it for their annual watercross regatta.
  • Not located on a bear superhighway (or an ATV trail).
  • Possessed of a spectacular view.

Let me know when you find it. Ideal sites are few and far between, and the best that most of us can hope for, most of the time, is a safe and reasonably comfortable place to spend the night before moving on. But isn't that enough?

~ ~ ~

Tips on Site Selection


On Golden Pond


We all need shelter from life's storms. Which is why tents — their virtues and their shortcomings — are such a popular topic of conversation around the campfire. But there's a lot more to the shelter scene than pricey pleasure domes. And that's why Farwell and I have devoted thousands of words to exploring the many alternatives. It's not always easy to find the column you're looking for in the maze of 700‑plus articles in the archives, though.

Until today, that is. Now I've laid down a thread to guide you through the labyrinth. I hope it helps.

Is this the last word on the subject? No way! The fireside chats will continue as long as the flames flicker. And if you've got something to add, don't keep it to yourself. Just drop us a line.

* Farwell, who successfully evaded contact with any classical language when in school, long thought that this Latin tag referred to "a philanthropic pig." Or so he says. Credat Judaeus Apella, non ego.



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