Beyond the Pup Tent: 6 Unconventional Outdoor Shelters

by Darren Bush on July 28, 2011 · 28 comments

in Travel, Travel & Leisure


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Since the first dude crawled into a cave and grunted, “Dude, this rocks,” shelter has been one of the big three human needs along with food and clothing. These days we think shelter, and we think house, something fixed and immovable, but for most of our human history we were wanderers.  Portable shelters are part of our genotype.

From the felted yak fur gers of Mongolia and the huge tents of the Bedouin to the five-pound ultra-light pouches of modern backpackers, portable shelter has morphed into something very different.  At some point, people went from comfort to efficiency.

Don’t get me wrong. Super-light backpacking tents are awesome for tucking into your pack for a week-long trek into the mountains.  Five pounds can make a pretty cool portable cave for a few backpackers who drill holes in their toothbrushes and turn their socks inside out for two days of wear.  But for comfortable long-term shelter, crawling into a nylon igloo is pretty stifling. There are other options, many of them considered anachronisms, but they’re still relevant. Today we’re going to talk about a few of the more unconventional shelters a man can make in the outdoors. These aren’t survival shelters–that’s another topic for another time; these are shelters you might willingly choose to make for yourself.

Shelter Materials and Equipment

When it comes to making shelter, there are two types of things you need: things to make the shelter, and things to keep the shelter where you put it up.

Shelter Materials

Canvas

Canvas is often considered an anachronism, associated with leaky, musty army pup tents found in Grampa’s attic and set up hastily in the backyard.  The facts about canvas are much more subtle.

Canvas is durable.  It can take a lot of abuse, can be bone-dry, and is often a superior material.  Throw a log on the fire and send a bunch of sparks downwind into your ultralight tent and you’ll quickly see why.

The canvas used for shelters is often treated with fire resistant chemicals, so you can do more with a canvas shelter when it comes to heating, either with a campfire or a small, collapsible stove.

However, canvas is not light–at all.  Traveling with a canvas shelter usually means an ulterior method of propulsion, like a canoe, dogsled, pack horse, or toboggan.  They are most assuredly not for ultralight camping.

Synthetics

Nylon is a material, not a cloth.  The weaves and fabrics made of nylon number in the hundreds, and all nylon is certainly not created equal.  The coarser the weave, the more durable the fabric is against abrasion. Since most shelters do not require that sort of abrasion resistance, the heavier, courser weaves are almost never used except possibly as a reinforcement.

A wonderful discovery for the outdoor enthusiast showed up when I was a kid in Boy Scouts.  We had a lot of nylon gear, but if we accidentally sliced it, the tear would run like a three year-old’s nose in February.  The wonderful discovery was rip-stop nylon.  By weaving a heavier thread through the fabric, any tear would stop at that thread (hence the name).  Small tears are easy to patch.  Long rips, you’re toast.  Thanks, rip-stop.  You changed my world.

Another wonderful discovery is much more recent.  Ultralight nylon cloth was covered with a super-thin layer of silicone, and siliconized nylon was born.  At 1.1 to 1.9 ounces per square yard, it doesn’t take a genius to see that a nine by nine tarp would weigh well under a pound.  The upside: waterproof and super light.  The downside: sewing siliconized nylon is like sewing two lasagna noodles together after dipping them in olive oil.  The stuff is so slippery that all but the most skilled sewers can experience frustration.

Both canvas and synthetics have their time and place, and a smart outdoorsman uses both as appropriate.

Shelter Equipment

Stakes

With the kinds of unconventional shelters we’ll be discussing today, you need stakes and lots of ‘em.  The free-standing backpacking tent has a distinct advantage here, but that advantage is blown away quite literally.  It sucks to watch the drama unfold as a good gust of wind takes your tent down a hillside and over a cliff like a giant synthetic tumbleweed.

There are stakes for every sort of ground: snow and ice, sand and silt, rock and scree.  Snow stakes are large, flat-surfaced, and are designed to resist forces when they are fixed in place.  This is accomplished either by driving them down into crusty snow or burying them.  Snow stakes can be made of skis, shovels, trash can lids–basically anything that’s flat with a place to tie off.

Sand stakes are similar, but sand is so dense you don’t need anything so big.  Sand stakes work better as they increase in surface area, of course.  I made my own because I wanted something lightweight, and I wanted to be able to make various sizes: long for high tension lines, short for staking down a non-stressed tab.  I use these when pitching my lean-to on my favorite river.

We’ve all seen metal tent stakes.  Small aluminum spikes work fine when the ground is firm and subsurface rocks non-existent, but they will bend into a pretzel when you hit a rock but choose to keep pounding away. Good for ultralight, but worthless in many situations.  Steel stakes are better and are generally larger.

In many cases, the stakes that come with your tent are an afterthought, so consider replacing them before the trip.  There are good stakes with some better brand tents, like Mountain Hardwear or MSR.

Cordage

Darren’s Outdoor Law Number 43.2: You can never have enough rope.  43.1 is The more you need a piece of cordage, the less the odds you have it with you.  43.3 is You did read 43.2, didn’t you?

All tents need cordage to stake them out properly, and as with stakes, sometimes the cord included with your tent is awful, stiff nylon rope that takes a knot when you don’t want it, and won’t when you do. Do yourself a favor and toss it.  Now.

Good parachute cord is available in many sizes, colors, patterns, and materials.  The cord with reflective tape woven into the sheath if wonderful, especially if you’re walking around camp at night with a headlamp.

I have 100 feet of cord in my kit at any time, usually 50 feet of regular 4 or 5mm cord and 50 of 3mm reflective.

Unconventional Shelters

Now that you have the needed materials and equipment, what can you do with them? Well many things that a great deal of campers who’ve only used a regular tent don’t know about or have never tried, but are quite useful. Let’s take a look at a few.

The Tarp

The simplest shelter of all, the tarp is incredibly versatile when pitched as appropriate for the conditions.  The trick is to understand the weather patterns, prevailing winds, and the odds of inclement weather.

The most common and the simplest set-up is when you put all four corners of a tarp off the ground.  Take each corner and tie it off to a tree or other tall structure, or use poles to elevate the corners.   Raising the center of the tarp is necessary to allow the tarp to shed rain, or else raise one corner and lower the opposite to allow the tarp to drain.  Water will run down the line attached to the lowest corner, which is sorta cool if you’re trying to collect water.

The tarp can also be configured quickly in the case of inclement weather.  Sure, you can set up a tent, but in the ten minutes it takes to get the tent up, you’ll be cold, wet, and miserable.  Instead, you can get a tarp rigged up in a few minutes and remain dry while you do so. The fast way is to keep a line on one corner–tie that to a tree or something else taller.  Stake out the opposite corner tight, facing the wind, to make a ridge, and tack down the corners on each side of the ridge.

A quick pitch in case of inclement weather.

This fast pitch takes less than two minutes (I timed it this afternoon).  You can support the “roof” of your shelter with a canoe paddle. If you don’t have a paddle, use a trekking pole, or the high-tech solution, a stick.

A less secure but less claustrophobic pitch is to stake down one edge of the tarp to create a wall, then angle the tarp over another line or a branch. It’s more open and requires a little more room to set up, but it’s a standard, a portable front porch from which you can watch the world go by.  The higher the ridge line, the more headroom you have.  You’ll notice that I tied the ridge line off to a tree and our coach light.  Improvisation is the name of the tarp game.


Another common pitch out in the West is what I call the tent pitch.  It gets you out of sun and rain, but doesn’t do much for bugs.  Just throw a line between two trees, throw the tarp over and stake down the sides.  Voila, an instant A-frame.  Great where there are few bugs, or if you have a bug net, or if you don’t care about being a feeding station for whatever critter sucks blood in your area of the world.

If there are no trees, you can use poles or paddles or hiking staffs instead.

The Over the Canoe Pitch

One I use fairly often is the OTC (Over The Canoe) pitch.  Like the quick pitch for getting out of the weather quickly, this pitch is somewhat claustrophobic but is bomb-proof.  A canoe with with a lot of curvature in the shear line and higher stems is best.  Stick a paddle in the middle (your spare, most likely) to raise one side of the boat and throw the tarp over the whole thing.  You are out of the weather and ready for a nasty blow, and you’re out of the weather in the time it takes to drive four stakes.

Of course, all this quick set-up stuff means you keep your tarp on the top of your pack, not buried in the bottom under your sleeping bag.  You should be able to find it quickly, and with a few lines already attached, you can pitch it in minutes.

The Lean-To

The lean-to is basically a tarp on steroids.  While you can rig a tarp in a lean-to style and get close, a lean-to is its own creature.

A lean-to is a three-sided tent with a small flap that makes a little roof.  It can be pitched differently depending on the conditions.  It can be battened down tight for a blow or left open and airy for shade from the sun.  I believe it is the most versatile outdoor shelter available to humans.

The most famous lean-to is the Whelen, designed by Army Colonel Townsend Whelen.  Whelen asserted that the only two times a Whelen was inadequate was when the temperature hit 20 below or the bugs were especially heavy.  I must agree with the good colonel.

A few years ago I found myself on a late October solo canoe trip. The weather took a sudden turn for the worse, and I went from shirtsleeves to sleet blowing in my face and the winds building to over 30 miles an hour.  I pulled off the river onto a small island with a thicket of protective trees upwind of me and pitched my lean-to as quickly as I could.  It was a sandy island and I needed to use sand stakes, but I got it up and taut, back facing the howling wind.  A small fire of dry aspen stripped of its bark by considerate beavers cheered things up.  Inside the lean-to, all was calm and wondrous.  I pulled out my stove, fried up a lamb chop with some stewed dried apples, a nice bar of chocolate and a cup of tea, and I was in paradise.  If I stuck my hand above the ridgeline, I could feel the icy bullets smack into the back of my palm.

So you see, I’m partial.

With a Whelen, you can also stick a canoe up against the front for a little more shelter when it’s blowing like stink.  Despite my bias, canoes are not necessary, but they sure come in handy once in a while.

Lean-to tents are available in high-tech 1.1 ounce sil nylon, such as this one, complete with a bug net.

If you want the functionality of the lean-to and you travel to where you need a .410 to keep the mosquitoes at bay, consider a lean-to with bug netting.  Synthetics are very light, and the huge door makes for great ventilation.  If the weather threatens, batten down the hatches and ride it out.

The Big Gun – The Campfire Tent

The campfire tent is clearly not ultralight.  It has its place, and its place is in my canoe before May and after September, and often in-between.  It was modified from the original Baker tent design by the late (and great) Bill Mason, a modern day evangelist who was responsible in part for the resurgence of a generation of paddlers.  Built for him by a company in northern Ontario, the tent has become something of a legend in wilderness tripping circles for its versatility.

There is nothing lightweight about these tents.  If a modern backpacking tent is a youth hostel, the campfire tent is a 4-star hotel.  The ventilation, headroom, floor area, and the ability to heat it up in cold weather make this a shelter to live in.

The cotton canvas transmits light beautifully, and it will not leak once the fibers swell up. The old adage about not touching the canvas or it will leak is somewhat true, but mostly you forget about and live your life.  If you must poke something, de-lint your belly button.  Probably could use some attention.

Campfire tents are extremely versatile; you can open them up as wide as a screen porch or lock things down and insert a portable camp stove, turning your tent into a snug, cozy den no matter what temperature outside.

The downside is that set-up is more difficult and takes more time.  Since the walls are vertical, guy lines are critical to keeping the tent storm-worthy.  Site location is also critical, so don’t expect to set this tent up in a driving rain.  Jump under your tarp and wait it out.  In the meantime, figure out in your head how you’re going to set up your campfire tent in one of a thousand ways.

Why a giant tent?  In our climate (there is a fair amount of rain and snow), you can be storm-bound in a tent for days.  If you need to spend a few days laying over and waiting for the weather to clear, would you rather wait in a 4-star hotel with a view of the lake or a bunk bed in a youth hostel with a view of the inside of your tent?

There is also the question of livability.  Homo sapiens, with a few exceptions, don’t like to be confined.  If you’re on the go and moving daily, perhaps this is too big of a project for you, but if you’re staying in place a few days here and there, it’s worth it.  There’s nothing as luxurious as watching a storm roll across the lake while playing cribbage with your partner or reading something by Calvin Rutstrum.  If you don’t know who CR is, you’re missing out.  But that’s for another day.

Resources:
Frost River – for the Whelen lean-to and Campfire Tent, made right here in the U.S. (in Minnesota).  My favorite shelter when there are no bugs.

Cooke Custom Sewing. For the best tarps in the outdoors, and for the super-light nylon Lean-To Plus with mosquito netting. For reference, the tarp in these pictures is a 10 x 10 1.1 ounce tarp that weighs just over a pound.  All of CCS’s stuff is also made in the U.S. (also Minnesota).  My favorite shelter when there are bugs.  Dan tests everything he makes.

Sterling Rope. Cool stuff about how cordage is made.

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Gary July 28, 2011 at 3:37 pm

I spent 4 days in the woods with a knife, a ball of twine, and a tarp. I made a wigwam frame and threw the tarp of the framework. It was spacious, warm, dry and comfortable. Bring in hot rocks from a fire if the night is really cool.

http://www.nativetech.org/wigwam/construction.html

2 David W. July 28, 2011 at 3:43 pm

I did six weeks in Central America with nothing but a backpack, a tarp, and a mosquito net. Oh yeah, and my surfboard. Some of the best travel of my life, though I often wonder what I was thinking.

3 Pat July 28, 2011 at 4:44 pm

For an ultralight shelter the tarp is the way to go, but my all time favorite is the Baker tent, very much like the Campfire tent. I worked as a summer camp staffer in my youth and spent many summers in south east Texas under canvas. I still love it. You put up a canvas tent right and it will survive a hurricane. Just trust me on that one ;)

4 Jamie July 28, 2011 at 5:19 pm

Before you have time to set up properly, And in a real pinch with a few mates, if weather hits hard and *fast* one of my favorites is for everyone to gather under an un-staked tarp, and sit on the edges from underneath using your heads to support it. Sure it’s a very short term solution, but in a pinch it’s worth a thought.

From underneath you can stake it down one corner at a time (assuming you have your packs under the tarp as well), and use your hiking pole, or framed pack to support the middle – this, while not so breathable, is another great reason why a tarp should be carried in lieu of a “proper” tent.

Of course this doesn’t really apply to most canvas, but if you’re carrying canvas you’re prepared to suffer from foul weather :-)

5 Mike July 28, 2011 at 5:29 pm

Even since I discovered ENO’s Hammock I haven’t ever used a tent again. Tents do provide shelter but you’re still stuck (A) looking for a place to set up and (B) sleeping on the ground. Enter in: the greatest invention in the history of anti-tents: Eagles Nest Outfitters hammocks. This is truly the best route to ultralight shelter.

6 Steve July 28, 2011 at 8:30 pm

I am also a tarp/hammock convert since I have been living in SE Asia the last three years. In the jungle there is often literally no open ground for a tent. It rains (ok it pours,Monsoon anyone?) almost every evening so with my tarp, hammock and mosquito net I’m off the wet ground, and snug from the rain and away from all the crawlies on the ground…(leeches ugh!).
Another advantage the tarp allows for much better ventilation in this hot HUMID environment. I times I have used a tent (car camping) it’s hot and stuffy.
After a couple of wet nights I got the hang of getting the tarp (7 x 10) configured even for the sideways rain we get here. Fire starting is a whole other matter…
I’m looking forward to getting back to the US and backpacking with my hammock!

7 dannyb278 July 28, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Tarps are the best. when serving as a scout in the army, a lot of guys stil used “shelter halfs” literally, half a tent. heavy, cumbersom and almsot uselsess. i used a 7×7 tarp folded up and attachedto my rucksack frame with bungy chords. instant tent. It rained for almost 7 days straight, and my stuf would keep pretty dry, while everyone else was swimming.

8 Stephen July 29, 2011 at 8:26 am

Awesome post. I love camping although I wish I could go more often. I am going in August and I can’t wait.

9 Mark July 29, 2011 at 8:27 am

My grandfather didn’t have a tent until I was 13 so tarp camping was all I knew. Then I had a family and a tent became “mandatory”. Now I camp with scouts and the adventure is back in camping. Some time ago I found this PDF while wandering the internet, http://www.w4ava.org/races/tarp-shelters.pdf. Ever since, that’s the way I’ve camped.

10 Paul July 29, 2011 at 8:55 am

Great article! I just have one question, what company makes the lean-to with bug net in the picture in the article, That thing rocks! Thanks and look forward to a response.

11 Robert Brown July 29, 2011 at 9:33 am

I second that-where can you find one with a bug net?

Bugs are a big thing in Alabama, even in early Fall when I like to ramble. I’m thinking of doing the Appalachian Trail and New England has a similar problem. I like versatility.

Speaking of, I’ve always sworn by a tarp. No matter how much time you have to set up, a good tarp will never let you down. Saved my bacon (literally) more than a few times.

12 Robert Brown July 29, 2011 at 9:34 am

Nevermind, you’ve got a link to a place with it on their front page haha!

13 Dennis July 29, 2011 at 2:10 pm

Cooke Custom Sewing makes the lean to w/ bug net. Comes in 3 sizes. All of Dan’s gear rocks. He also makes fantastic tarps for fair price.

14 Dave July 29, 2011 at 3:58 pm

I spent almost two of my first three years in the infantry sleeping under a poncho “hooch” in Hawaii’s mountains. As the usage of the poncho in that manner is virtually identical, I can attest to the versatility of the tarp as a shelter. Using four small bungee cords to secure the corners made setup remarkably fast and simple, but the poncho has the advantage of having an opening in the center. By pulling the neck drawstring tight and wrapping it around the hood, the hole is closed and the remaining cord can be used to secure the center to an overhanging limb or pole. That will pull the material tight and prevent pooling and leaks. (Like this: http://image60.webshots.com/160/0/50/19/487405019FQYqsG_ph.jpg )

Another advantage the military poncho has is that it has a line of snaps that can be used to attach additional ponchos for more coverage. If you’re traveling with a buddy, or just want more space, you can easily expand the shelter. (Like so: http://www.rsalazar.net/images/coyle07.jpg )

15 Allan Branson July 29, 2011 at 5:20 pm

I got my start with a tent, one of the standalone kinds. I just recently started using a Hennessy Hammock. It has a bug net, tarp shaped to fit over the hammock and a bag it goes in. I think that sleeping in a hammock, any kind…there are so many brands now, is way more comfy than the ground. Also, as the previous poster said, I can put camp anywhere I can hang. At two pounds, it is lighter than a lot of backpacking tents, and is very compact. Just my two cents.

16 Michael July 31, 2011 at 7:46 pm

Who makes an ultralite like the first one shown (with the man sitting beside his canoe)? I would like that has height, approximately 6 feet, a floor, and a screen door.

17 JT August 1, 2011 at 2:11 am

First comment on AoM. I went on a 5 day canoe trip with school about a month ago, two nights we camped on rocks, our pegs were useless so we improvised and used rugby ball sized rocks and tied our straps to the rocks or put the rocks on the corners of the tents

18 Kurt August 1, 2011 at 11:15 am

Great article Darren. I do have one comment I have to make, which should go into the article. That is that certain materials are good for certain types of weather. Canvas for instance, amazing in winter you never freeze in a canvas tent. Of course the flip side is staying in a canvas tent. As a Boy Scout myself, I’ve spent many summer camps roasting in canvas tents. It’s not fun. That’s why I was glad we used nylon tents last year at the National Jamboree, they were definitely worth the cash. I myself only own a nylon tent as I don’t usually go winter camping as much as a like. Well, thanks for the enjoyable read.
-Kurt

19 Emily August 2, 2011 at 4:49 pm

Great pictures and tips! I love camping. Next time I go I’ll be sure to keep this post in mind.

20 Jon August 2, 2011 at 5:58 pm

Hennessey Hammock. 3 months backpacking across in Guat Honduras and Nicaragua. Less than a pound and you dont look like a wierdo creating these rediculous shelters that attract more attention then you want. Most of the time you can just ask if you can set up you hammock on ppl property and never use a hostel

21 Glenn August 7, 2011 at 4:31 pm

My Father, Glenn, makes these type of tents (Baker Tents, “Diamon Fly”, “Hunter”, Cowboy TPees, etc.) He makes them for reinactors all over the US.
Really enjoyed your blog and site!

22 Patrick August 15, 2011 at 4:34 am

Another option not mentioned here–great for -extremely- fast setup and maximum portability… but dismal if you’re going to be doing anything in it beyond sleeping: the “tarp taco”. Just lay a tarp out, plop yourself down on one half, fold the other half on top of you, and fasten it (e.g., bungee or rope through the grommets).

This approach is well-suited to summer camping in much of the western U.S. where rains tend to be brief, bugs don’t tend to be a problem, etc. 95% of the time, you don’t need shelter. For the 5% of the time that you -do-, well, just flip that other half of the tarp over.

23 Erik Teichmann August 18, 2011 at 10:59 am

Another quick tip, if you don’t have a canoe paddle, trekking pole, or other stick: Place a small rock on the underside of the tarp where you’d like the shelter to be supported. Then, from the outside, knot a line around the rock and tie the other end off to another tree.

24 Xenophon August 20, 2011 at 3:17 pm

I’ve slept in a Bill Mason canvas tent, and they are an incredibly nice tent. The problem is they are heavy, but if you do the radiant heat wood stack in front, you can sleep with the front open when the temperature is well below freezing.

25 Le Loup August 23, 2011 at 9:56 pm

Canvas has long been associated with travelling light. It is used for making lean-tos & is very versatile. Light canvas IS light, & it is waterproof. It is also used for making oilcloth. I only travel on foot, & I carry my oilcloth everywhere. I have been camping under such canvas for many years, mostly in winter.
Regards, Le Loup.

26 Justin July 1, 2013 at 12:22 pm

A high tent pitch and a hammock underneath will keep you off the heat-sucking ground, as comfortable as any mattress, and ward away back pain. Throw a bug net over the rope and under the tarp keeps the bugs out of the picture.

27 Peter September 11, 2013 at 11:18 pm

I’d have to disagree about roasting in Boy Scout tents! The beauty of the canvas wall tent is its versatility and that is what kept the men comfortable throughout the Civil War. At Chicago Area Council’s Camp Owasippe, the oldest Scout camp in the U.S., we sleep in canvas wall tents, with old cots and mosquito nets. My Scouts tend to want to close the tent completely. This invites spiders and harvestmen to crawl up the sides, so that by evening the tent is swarming with them. One morning a boy didn’t hang his net right and in the morning there was a black furry spider about two inches long inside the net! (No, guys, it is not a black widow or a brown recluse, jeez!) I keep the two sides rolled up and the doors as well, so it’s just like a tarp configuration, just four to six guy lines and two poles supporting. Nothing can crawl up a rope, and critters can escape, and the air flows wonderfully. If it starts pouring, I will drop the flaps. I’m protected by the mosquito net and comfortable on the cot.

28 Adam October 28, 2013 at 6:17 am

I’ve backpacked across the US and around the world for the past thirty years. I enjoy all forms of outdoor shelter, though I’ve been taking out my tent less and less, opting instead for a tarp, especially now that it’s cooler. Its versatility and weight can’t be beat. I’m still trying to get the hammock thing down — I haven’t yet had the watershed moment others have. For its versatility and weight its great, though there are conditions where its not feasible or legal. Too many ‘hangers’ are rather rebellious and don’t care if they hang from softwoods or in protected areas. Also, unless you can find somewhere to hang from, beach camping can be problematic.

All backpacking/portable shelters have their place. I enjoy the NJ Pine Barrens. Dispersed/backcountry camping isn’t allowed and there are no trees to hang from (legally.) There are also lots of bugs. In this scenario, I’ll bring my tent. It has the best insect protection of all my shelter systems, and sleeping on a six inch bed of pine needles over a base of sugar sand ain’t a bad way to spend a few hours.

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