There is a pleasure to be had in carrying a minimum of high-tech gear in the wilderness and relying on time-tested traditional methods for staying warm and dry. I rarely use a nylon tent for camping unless the bugs are atrocious or I’m visiting a national park.
Tarps, canvas tents, and cowboy bedrolls are a much better fit for me and allow for greater interaction with my surroundings. Below are a few items for the modern camper to consider for building a backwoods shelter when living under open skies.
🏕️ The Simple Tarp
There’s nothing like waking up to the eastern sky aglow under the comfort of a spacious tarp. I like having a square tarp rather than a rectangular shape as this allows me to set up a more symmetrical diamond shelter configuration. If I am in a static basecamp within a short walking distance of the truck, then a 10×12 canvas tarp by F&J Outdoors is used. If I am going to be on the move, then I bring a 10×10-foot nylon Aqua Quest tarp.
During the spring in northern Arizona, we can have sustained winds of 40 to 50 mph winds for a week straight. The advantage with canvas is that it holds up better under such brutal conditions. When I’m out in this weather, I situate my tarp leeward of a large juniper to help buffer the backwoods shelter. Each end of the tarp is secured with manila rope using bowlines on one end and taut line hitches on the anchor point.
Here in the rocky Southwest, it’s difficult to use stakes to secure anything so we usually employ dead-man anchors in the sand or just tie off corners to large rocks on the surface. I once lived in a tipi in the desert and had to use 36-inch rebar to stake it down!
Unless the wind or rain is significant, the diamond backwoods shelter configuration is my preferred. This enables me to have a small fire near the entrance (7 feet high), ample height to sit up inside, room for gear and space for my dogs to sleep beside me.
A must-read: How To Make a Tarp Shelter – 15 Updated Designs 2020
I usually have a 4-foot high center post on the inside with a few pegs for hanging clothes. Search online for some of the masterful tarp-rigging methods of the Bedouin to learn some ingenious ways of arranging a large tarp-home for an entire family.
If I’m in the forest, then I have a pine or leaf-bed at the back of the diamond backwoods shelter. This entails making a nest about two feet thick and as long and wide as my body. The bed is framed in by small diameter logs to prevent the debris from shifting out from under me while I sleep. If I am in the desert, then the bed is a pile of cottonwood bark in whatever thickness I can get.
Otherwise, I bring a Paco pad which is the type used by river guides. The cost is more but they will outlast everything else on the market. Paco pads are bulky and I only use them in a basecamp setting.
I will take a fire and lean-to combination any day over a debris-style backwoods shelter. You are going to want fire anyway for cooking, warmth, boiling water and working on carving skills in the evening not to mention camaraderie with friends. My preferred set up is a lean-to and trench fire with a knee-high rock reflector.
The lean-to I use is a modified version that differs from the parallel ridgepole design. It involves only one end tied to a support tree about shoulder height. The other end rests on the ground. The ridgepole is stout and around four feet longer than my height. I use two jam-knots to lash the elevated end in place and then place branches and debris on the back side to form a two foot thick wall.
The interior bedding consists of about 18- inches of debris with a retaining log to hold it all in place. On a side note, when I venture through the mountains around my home town, I can still find old Basque sheepherder encampments from the 1920s. These are U-shaped enclosures made of rocks piled just above knee height.
The configuration is roughly eight feet wide and 12 feet long. Some of the old sheepherders who still remain in these parts say they used them for a windbreak and fire reflector with up to four men sleeping around a central fire.
As our rainy season is short-lived, these rock shelters probably saw three-season use with the main focus on keeping the wind and cold at bay.
⛺ Canvas Wall Tent and Woodstove
For longer outings in cooler weather, I have an 8×10-foot canvas wall tent. I’ve lived in tipis and canvas pyramid tents before but prefer the spaciousness of a wall tent. This is luxury camping and there’s no limit to how you can outfit the interior.
As noted earlier, the sandy nature of our substrate in northern Arizona makes using stakes for anchoring a challenge so I use dead-man anchors instead for securing my wall tent. At our basecamp, I have permanent 7-foot Uchannel posts in the ground that are re-used each season.
The biggest problem with utilizing canvas tents and tarps long-term where I live is damage from UV rays. Our basecamp is at 6,500 feet and we’ve had canvas tipis crack from sun damage after only six months of use. It’s not a problem if you are going to be using your canvas a few times a year but if you live at elevation keep the denigrating effects of the sun in mind.
Regarding woodstoves, the Riley breakdown stove or the Four-Dog titanium stove are my tried and true “on the trail” stoves as they are lightweight and have superb craftsmanship. These stoves are for heating small spaces like a wall tent. Due to the small stove size I’ve chosen, they require frequent restocking but I only use them in the morning and evening.
💤 Sleeping Systems
Depending on the weather, I will either have a cowboy bedroll, a sleeping bag & bivy sack or a wool blanket/poncho combo. Which one is used is dependent on whether trekking is involved or I am staying in a static basecamp.
🤠 Cowboy Bedroll
Many of my ranching friends still use these when on round up and there’s something cool about this time-tested setup. Mine is a large canvas bedroll from the 1844 Helko Werk Company with a sleeve for a pad insert. On the inside, I have two to four Pendleton wool blankets. The bedroll is huge, even when rolled up, so don’t plan on walking too far with this arrangement.
Sleeping Bag & Bivy
I’ve used many sleeping bags over the years but like the Wiggy’s brand when space is not an issue. These bags retain their loft, have no baffles for cold spots and have outstanding workmanship (and are made in the US). Otherwise, a Kelty Cosmic down sleeping bag will suffice. Unless the emphasis is on going more primitively, I will bring a sleeping bag or cowboy bedroll. The time it takes to build a natural shelter is time I’d rather spend on hunting and foraging.
For the bivy, this is a military surplus model found online for around $50. My pillow is made from spare clothes tossed in a stuff sack or a mound of leaves.
🧶 Wool Blanket & Poncho
If we are heading out on a trek for a week or more in moderate weather, then I usually take a single Pendleton wool blanket. This can be used for a blanket pack, sleeping system, shade shelter and collecting debris for bedding. I have even strung up a wool blanket, using a series of rigger’s hitches, as an improvised hammock. When coupled with an Army surplus poncho, you can fashion a quickie burrito for staying warm and dry.
When I venture to the jungle or spend time in a forested setting, I pull out my ENO Hammock. I prefer a double size model which gives me a little more wiggle room. Before a trip, I spray my hammock with Permethrin, which is a topical insecticide that turns your hammock surface into a WMD weapon against mosquitos. There are ENO hammocks that have an insect shield treatment by default.
Recommended article: Survival Hammock Tips And Tricks That You Should Learn
This article was submitted by Robert Witasky.
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