For The Love of Tents

A tent is a micro thin piece of fabric that somehow separates the user from the harsh world, and with enough thought can be a palace inside. There is always something about shaking out the tent body from my backpack, putting the poles in, then staking it out, that grounded me when backpacking. You could be so very tired, worn from the day. In a downpour. Or in a white out. Or a cloud of mosquitoes draining you.

But once you dart inside, and zip up the door, or drop the netting and hold it down….that little area of nylon is all yours. For me the world goes quiet.

Unload my backpack, take off my shoes. Roll out my sleeping pad to sit on, to stay warm.

Hang LED lights from the top of the tent inside if it is getting dark. Change into the spare clothing. Work on foot care.

I’ve owned a lot of tents over the years. I have had some really great ones. And I have had some spectacularly bad tents. That I froze in (all mesh), sweated in (air tight rainfly). I have laid on my back and watched squirrels run across the tent body, under the rain fly. I have woken up to marmots hitting my hip, because they smell salty trekking pole straps inside my tent. I’ve laid in my sleeping bag and listened to deer, raccoons and black bears shuffle by, in the cover of night. I used to offer to have my tent near the snorers. It would mask the shuffles of darkness and I’d drop off.

The best hacks over the years?

  • Carry an emergency mylar blanket. Unfold it, and line your tent floor with it. It blocks most of the heat sapping cold from the ground. I’d go up a few inches up the sides as well. The blankets are $1 or so, and I’d wrap it up in the tent body, and reuse it a few times till it fell apart. This works amazing on snow camping. If you wake up cold ever, just wrap the blanket around you, over your bag till you warm up.
  • Ditch the tent stuff sack and only use at home for storage. I carried trash sacks to separate the body and rainfly. This really helped if the rainfly was soaked overnight. Pack stayed dry, and you can fit in the parts of the tent easier into your backpack.
  • If you stupidly park your tent on an incline, jam your boots or shoes under the edge of your sleeping pad so you are less likely to slide downhill. Whichever direction that happens to be. I seem to have enjoyed every direction over the years.
  • Use your backpack as a base for a ‘pillow’. Your clothing in a stuff sack, or an actual hiking pillow won’t slide off if on your pack (pack face down).
  • In cold weather, put your empty pack under your feet (you can have it under or on top of your sleeping pad) to help insulate.
  • Never offer a spot in your tent to someone you don’t know well. This used to happen all the time on group trips, with a person who didn’t have gear. You just won’t sleep well and you have no privacy. Offer them your old 5 pound solo tent instead. Unless you are trying to get to know them….then ignore my advice.
  • Any tent can be set up inside to dry after trips. Use cord to tie to dining room chairs to set up non-freestanding tents. If the tent is wet, place towels under to catch.
  • If your sleeping bag turns into a python and is eating your legs in the middle of the night? Open it up and sleep with it over you, quilt style. Wear a hat to bed to stay warm, and if not quite warm, sleep on your jacket, under it all.
  • Trying to keep your tent clean as you go in and out? Easy. Pick up a plastic bubble wrap mailer from USPS, UPS, FedEx, and so on. Seal it. You now have a waterproof “step” to use to step onto as you put your shoes on. Also works as a great sit pad to keep your butt from freezing, wet or getting covered in tree sap.

My first backpacking tent was a tiny 1 man orange tent (there are 2 tents in the photo). It had zero breathability, and the interior was black. It was a sauna in summer. I didn’t care. I was backpacking.

I bought that tent at Target. There was a brief moment in the 1999-2003 period when Target carried actual real gear – that was full on copies of brand name gear. I had an imitation Mountainsmith Ghost backpack from them at one point.

Lake Minatour, Central Cascades, Washington State.

A year later I had upgraded to my first 2 man tent, also from the tail end of Target. It was khaki, and freestanding. I loved that tent. Ford and I spent many nights in it happily. (Middle tent)

Flapjack Lakes, Olympic National Park.

Kirk brought this “3” person Sierra Designs tent into our relationship. I used it for a few years. It was ‘well ventilated’ as it was nearly all mesh. We sometimes would sleep me, Kirk and Ford when he was little in it. It fit Kirk (who is 6’4″) but honestly was not my idea of a great tent. However, being that it wasn’t free standing, it was light for its size, so a big reason I hauled it.

And yes, that was the 2 person version in green.

Rest in peace Jeremy. We lost him nearly 10 years ago. He was one of my favorite hiking partners. He grew up on the coast in Moclips and was at peace in the woods. Never needed a tent. He’d throw a tiny tarp up if needed.

Alongside Lower Lena Lake, Olympic National Forest.

On the Hoh River, in Olympic National Park on a group trip. I don’t remember what tent I had that time.

The condom tent. I found it brand new, for $7, at an REI garage sale. They had found a pallet of them and tossed them on the floor. It was a 1.5 man tent. When my oldest son was young he and I fit in it perfectly. It went on many trips.

Gravel Lake, Pacific Crest Trail, Central Cascades, Washington State.

The Mother Ship. A non-freestanding 2 person tent from REI. It had great headspace in the center. Really light. I was always pushing boundaries with my gear. This was a 2 season tent and I had it in a snow storm in late June. We used it as Ford got bigger and needed actual room next to me.

Colchuck Lake, Central Cascades, Washington State.

The Quarter Dome, a freestanding tent REI made. Great tent but still heavy, as I got into the ultralight period of my hiking career.

Melekwa Lake, Central Cascades, Washington State.

The Escape Pod. The 1 man version of the Mother Ship. A couple of us had this tent. I always loved the window on the rain fly. You could watch the moon at night.

Spectacle Lake, Pacific Crest Trail, Central Cascades, Washington State.

Below Mount Rainier. Quarter Dome tent. (Yes. It is on a durable surface.)

In alpine at Mount Rainier National Park, in Seattle Park. Quarter Dome tent.

Tent tarp in Olympic National Park. Elkhorn on the Elwha River Trail. It was a prototype I got for a song. Super light. And an utter nightmare to put up. It used both trekking poles….which in theory worked if you had MALE poles and not shorter petite lady poles. I tried so hard one spring/summer to love it. It was never put up right and sagged by midnight. The front was a piece of mesh, that I’d cover with everything in my pack to keep out animals and bugs. I started to value the weight of a zipper…..

Backpacking in subzero temperatures in Eastern Washington. Not exactly winter friendly shelters, but the snow wasn’t heavy or even deep. The arid plains ensured that. Escape Pod for the win! With a Zero Degree sleeping bag I was fine.

Three tents above a lake. What more does one need?


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