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On $25 a Day or Less
HOW TO SEE THE WORLD
Art of Travel - European and World Backpacking


Chapter 18

Tents

I was determined, if not to camp out, at least to have the means of camping out in my possession;  for there is nothing more harassing to an easy mind than the necessity of reaching shelter by dusk, and the hospitality of a village inn is not always to be reckoned sure by those who trudge on foot. Robert Luis Stevenson, Scotland, from Travels with a Donkey, 1879

Experience  Cost  Care  Fire and CO  Snap-back  Site Selection  Glossary  Comparisons  Floating Grommets  Zipper Repair


WHILE ONLY ONE travel backpacker in twenty carries a tent or stove, that's still a million readers to satisfy, right?

Traveling by myself or with a girlfriend small tents have worked fine. Traveling with a guy for any length of time I would want a really big tent, or, preferably, for both of us to have our own. For couples on a camping tour a six to seven pounder should provide plenty of room. I would use my five-pound (2.25 kgs.) two-pole dome since that's what I have and it has worked well. I've also successfully used a four-pound tent for two months with a close companion.

For summer camping in Europe just about any two or three-pole nylon dome tent will work fine as long as it has a fly and you seal the seams. The better quality tents, however, are lighter, more durable, and sometimes more convenient.

Camping (with permission) next to a wine cellar Photo: After an afternoon and evening of revelry with the owner of this wine cellar, he offered my drunk travel-mate and very drunk me a convenient camping spot.

For spring and fall camping you should lean toward a better quality three-season tent. For winter and heavy-weather camping you will need a heavy-duty, four-season tent.

For the tropics a tent must have good ventilation--at least two large mesh windows to let air in and keep bugs out. Even more mesh is better, since inadequate ventilation means trying to sleep in a sauna. Hammocks are most used in these areas as they are the coolest way to sleep.

Most backpackers prefer freestanding tents because they are easier and faster to set up, and can be easily moved. Good freestanders can be ready for habitation in two or three minutes.

While solo campers may be tempted by tiny bivouac tents to save weight, one fellow who camped beside me was unhappy he couldn't even sit up in his. An extra pound is a fair tradeoff for the extra headroom and space if you expect more than a few nights of camping. You will need a peak height of at least thirty-six inches (ninety centimeters) to sit comfortably.

Carrying a too-large tent, however, is a drag, especially if you aren't using it all the time. When it's raining there is usually someplace nearby to hang out. Cafes, bars, and laundry rooms beat huddling in a tent any day. When wild camping you can stay dry underneath pine trees, even in heavy rain.1


How Much to Spend

Some name brand tents offer good value, but you don't have to spend a lot of money. If your budget is tight a simple two or three-pole dome tent from a discount store will keep you mostly dry if you seal the seams properly, which is necessary for any tent. Cool English LadsCost is about $40.

Pup tents--which are low with poles at either end--can really suck. They take forever to set up, blow down with light puffs of wind, and this one looks roomier than it really is. They often require thirty or more minutes of daily maintenance, and may be associated with a slight drowning risk.

On the other hand if you're a couple of lads with fifty quid between you, you've borrowed the thing from an old girlfriend, and you've hitchhiked to Amsterdam, that's cool!

 

 

 

Tent Care

My tent suffered more wear from a few weeks in Central America than five months in Europe. This was due to the high humidity and constant wet that enabled mold to readily grow. Mold especially attacks the plastic waterproof coating on tent floors. Always dry your tent before packing it away, or at first opportunity.

Ground cloths are thick plastic or coated nylon which some campers place under their tents to protect the floor. Others put it inside the tent. I consider ground cloths unnecessary weight and complexity. When my floor gets a hole I patch it with rubber cement, nylon tape, or duct tape. Punctures are rare since coated nylon tent floors are quite strong.

For the tropics a ground cloth might inhibit mold growth. If you do use one be certain it doesn't extend beyond the tent since that would catch rain and immediately create a silly surprise.


Tents, Cooking, Fire, and Carbon Monoxide

Never cook inside a tent. The combustion can poison your atmosphere, consume your oxygen, and sear your nostrils. You could pass out and never wake up. Spilled fuel forebodes a human torch. Leaking gas could concentrate and explode, prematurely ending your tour.

For extra safety I use a fry pan with a four-foot handle. While tent walls are treated for fire retardancy, it wears off, and that they are treated indicates the danger is no joke. Nylon is a flammable petroleum product, and deadly (in twenty minutes at just 3000 parts per million) combustion byproduct carbon monoxide is undetectable by human senses.


Snap-Back

When tensioning a tent pole during setup, grasp firmly with a stronger hand and work at arm's length to avoid rue-the-day syndrome. If a partner is involved, be certain all hands know the location and relative value of all eyes at the worksite. If coordination proves problematic, gracefully delegate other activity some meters distant.


Site Selection

Besides the common sense considerations of cover, shade, drainage, inclination, projectiles, and cost, beware moose runs.


Tent Glossary

Seam sealing
Seams on tents must be sealed with seam sealer ($4) to prevent water from seeping through thread holes in the fabric. Erect the tent and apply two coats to the underside of the fly, and two coats to both sides of the floor. Check walls for areas that need sealer. It's easier before the storm.
 Freestanding vs. not freestanding
A freestanding tent is a dome or modified dome design. After attaching poles the tent can be tossed back and forth with a travel buddy, which speeds set-up and site selection. A not-freestanding tent must be staked-out to take shape, which can be ludicrously time-consuming depending on terrain, atmospheric conditions, and/or fitness.
Fly
A coated nylon tarp which attaches over the main body of the tent to block rain. This allows air to circulate through the main body, which reduces condensation on the inner walls.
Ventilation
Air flow inside a tent must be sufficient to prevent condensation on inner walls, which could amount to a gallon of water from two heavy breathers. In the tropics maximum ventilation is essential.
Storm flaps
All four-season and some three-season tents have storm flaps zippered behind mesh windows to control air flow. A too-breezy tent on a cold night isn't much warmer than no tent, while a less-breezy tent on the same night may provide twenty degrees of comfort.
Vestibule
An area outside the entrance covered by the fly which is useful for storing shoes and gear, and for careful cooking in inclement weather. Not all tents have one.
No-see-um netting
Very fine mesh used on all good tents to allow air circulation, yet screens out very tiny biting insects such as black flies and no-see-ums.
Three-season tent
A tent designed to withstand relatively mild conditions. They have fewer poles (for less weight and strength), and use more no-see-um netting for better ventilation on warm nights. A three-season tent may flap incessantly or come apart in high winds, and may collapse under too much snow. Three-seasons are lighter, more compact, and cheaper than four-season tents. See The Amazing Floating Grommet Technique for quieting tents in high winds.
Four-season tent
Designed for winter/extreme condition use. They are warmer, have more fly coverage, more poles, less no-see-um netting, and usually two entrances in case one becomes blocked by an avalanche or grizzly bear. Four-season tents are overkill for most backpacker travelers.
Clips vs. sleeves
Many manufacturers slightly expedite set-up by using plastic clips to attach the tent body to the poles instead of sliding the poles through nylon sleeves sewn into the tent body.


Travel Tents Compared

The following are representative of the hundreds of good backpacker tents on the market. It's wise to set up a tent before you buy. Since the listed dimensions for three-pole domes and hoop tents are maximums, the square-foot measures are more relevant.

REI Half Dome
$125, 5 lbs. 13 oz. (2.65 kgs.) Freestanding, three-season. Floor area: 54x83 in. (137x211 cm.) or 34 sq. ft. (2.95 sq. m.), 6 sq. ft. vestibule. Peak height: 42 in. (122 cm.) Packed size: 6.5x30 in. (17x76 cm.) Two long and one short aluminum poles using sleeves. I used an earlier model on hitchhiking tours in Alaska, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. It was fine for two friendly people traveling light. Has zippered storm flaps to control ventilation. It seems to go on sale every year for 25% off. This design is available from most outdoor shops under the generic description "two-pole wedge, rectangular, or modified dome."
Tent without fly Left: Two-pole wedge dome without fly, two minutes into setup. Tent with fly
Right: Same tent ready for habitation two minutes later with fly installed and two stakes pushed into ground. Newer models have a longer fly which creates a nifty vestibule.

REI Trail Dome
$160, 7 lbs. 5 oz. (3.33 kgs.) Freestanding, 3 season. Floor area: 83 (max.) x93 in. (210x236 cm.) or 39 sq. ft. (3.7 sq. m.) 7 sq. ft. vestibule. Peak height: 53 in. (134 cm.) Packed size: 7x27 in. (18x69 cm.) Three long and one short aluminum poles using sleeves. Storm flaps. This is a traditional three-pole strong dome design. Every outdoor shop will have a tent of this type. Spacious for two.
Sierra Designs Bike Light
No longer made, 3 lbs. 11 oz. (1.67 kgs.) Freestanding, 2 season. Floor area: 47x79 in. (120x200 cm.) or 26 sq. ft. (2.34 sq. m.) Handy 3 sq. ft. (0.27 sq. m.) vestibule. Peak height: 36 in. (91 cm.) Packed size: 5x17 in. (13x43 cm.) This was my first quality tent. While quite small, it's roomy enough for one medium guy and pack, and great fun for one medium guy and one medium gal with covered packs stacked under the vestibule. I got it on sale for $119 from a really cool local independent outdoor retailer.
Sierra Designs Clip Flashlight 2
$170, 3 lbs. 13 oz. (1.73 kgs.) Not freestanding, three-season. Floor area: 59 (max.) x89 in. (150x225 cm.) or 32 + 5.5 sq. ft. vestibule (2.88 + 0.5 sq. m.) Peak height: 43 in. (110 cm.) Packed size: 5x17 in. (13x43 cm.) Two aluminum poles with clips. Requires nine stakes to take shape, which is a bummer in bad weather or on Gibraltar. I would hate this tent. Nevertheless, the Clip Flashlight has been very popular for many years, since this "tunnel" or "hoop" design provides maximum space for the weight.
Sierra Designs Meteor Light
$250, 5 lbs. 13 oz. (2.6 kgs.) Freestanding, three-season. Floor area: 60x96 in. (152x244 cm.) or 40 + 6.5 sq. ft. vestibule (3.6 + 0.6 sq. m.) Peak height: 46 in. (117 cm.) Packed size: 6.5x20 in. (17x51 cm.) Three aluminum poles with clips and sleeves. Has large no-see-um skypanel. Kept me and a buddy dry in a rainforest. Plenty of room for two.
The North Face Lunar Light
$240, 5 lbs. 2 oz. (2.3 kgs.) Freestanding, three-season. Floor area: 54x84 in. (137x213 cm.) or 28 + 7 sq. ft. vestibule (2.5 + 0.63 sq. m.) Peak height: 43 in. (109 cm.) Packed size: 7x21 in. (18x53 cm.) Three long aluminum poles using clips. Two poles are permanently connected to the tent body to speed set-up.
The North Face VE-25
$650, 10 lbs. 2 oz. (4.6 kgs.) Freestanding, four-season/expedition. Floor area: 104x84 in. (264x213 cm.) or 47 sq. ft. + two vestibules totaling 16 sq. ft. (4.2 + 1.4 sq. m.) Peak height:  49 in. (124 cm.) Packed size: 9x26 in. (23x66 cm.) Five aluminum poles using sleeves. Two entrances plus numerous lashing points in case of mighty blizzard. For twenty years the VE-25 has been the classic expedition tent for extreme weather, altitude, and the Himalayans.
Eureka Clip Timberlite 2
$170, 4 lbs. 11 oz. (2.1 kgs.) Freestanding, three-season. Floor area: 54x92 in. (137x234 cm.) or 31 sq. ft., no vestibule (2.8 sq. m.) Peak height: 38 in. (97 cm.)   Packed size: 6x15 in. (15x38 cm.) Two long and one short aluminum poles using clips. Has an A-frame design.
Eureka Gossamer
$130, 2 lbs. 14 oz. (1.3 kgs.) Not freestanding, three-season. Floor area: 32x96 in. (81x244 cm.) or 21 + 1.5 sq. ft. vestibule (1.9 + 0.14 sq. m.) Peak height: 26 in. (66 cm.) Packed size: 5x18 in. (13x46 cm.) Two aluminum poles using sleeves. Essentially a large bivy sac for ultralight solo travelers, but an extra pound could make a real tent.
Black Diamond Megamid
$170, 3 lbs. 6 oz. (1.5 kgs.) Not freestanding, three-season. Covered area: 9x9 ft. (2.75x2.75 m.) or 81 sq. ft. (7.3 sq. m.) Peak height: 6 ft. (1.83 m.) Pack size: 5x18 in. (13x46 cm.) This tarp tent is supported at center by one aluminum pole underneath or an overhead line, plus five stakes at the corners. Has room for three plus packs and a bicycle or two, but can take a while to setup, has no floor, and offers less mosquito protection than enclosed tents. Otherwise it's great.
Homemade Tarp Tent
$25, 1 lb. 8 oz. (680 g.) Use a thin (approximately 2 oz. per square yard of material (50 g./sq. m.)) 10x10 ft. (3x3 m.) coated nylon tarp and The Amazing Floating Grommet Technique. In the field make attachment points for overhead branches and staking by pressing a rock or other small object (preferably smooth and round) against the tarp from the underside and then looping the rock and tarp from the outside with 1/8 inch (3 mm.) braided nylon cord. This allows complete flexibility of attachment points and is much stronger than grommets, which pull out.
This technique is also useful for stabilizing and quieting any tent buffeted by winds. Sierra Designs Grip Clips use the same principle and work well, but require space, mass, and $12.
Discount Store two- or three-pole dome
$40 to $70, 5 to 8 lbs. (2.3 to 3.6 kgs.) Freestanding, three-season. Poles are fiberglass, which is strong and flexible, but twice as heavy as aluminum. The fly should extend at least half-way down the tent walls. Check the stitching before leaving the store. An old three-pole cheapie worked fine on my first tour from Scotland to Greece, and was easy to sell for 2000 drachma when it become superfluous due to perfect weather. Note that two-pole domes should be relatively small like the Half Dome described above, as large (three person) two-pole domes are seriously unstable in moderate wind due to large surface area and weak structure.
Bivy sack
$80 to $200, 18 to 30 oz. (510 to 850 g.) Surrounds your sleeping bag to repel weather. Usually made with a coated nylon bottom and a GoreTex or otherwise breathable top. Extra nylon provides a cover over your head. Bivy sacks are for extra-hard campers.


Zipper Repair

A zipper on my tent door failed on my last European tour, and I promptly mangled it beyond repair because I didn't know how to fix it. I could have saved $45 from having the entire zipper replaced, and slept warmer for a few weeks.

The most likely zipper failure is as the slider wears it will not press the coils together tightly enough, resulting in the coils separating behind the slider as it's pulled along. You can probably make a fix by borrowing a pair of needle-nose pliers from a native, moving the zip to the start position, and then gently squeezing on the wing of the zipper a little at a time until it works again. If you squeeze too hard the slider will be permanently locked in place, which was my foolish result.


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Notes

1. But not necessarily voltage-free. Lightning is a real hazard in Texas, Florida, Mongolia, under any thundercloud. Avoid being near or being a high spot. Remove self from water. If hair stands on end you have 0.02 seconds to leap into an automobile and roll up all the windows. Otherwise cover head and crouch on one heel. Victims often survive since the charge is briefer than the warning. Resuscitate. You can be struck twice. back