Last week I wrote about our little canoe trip and camp on the river Usk and since then I have had a few questions about the kit that we used ... and even more ribbing from those who know me better as I am a pretty determined hammock-camper (in fact, I even produced and sold 'Spotty Dog Hammocks') yet here we were, sleeping on the frozen ground underneath only half of a tent each!
This mickey-taking has prompted me to write this Blog entry in order compare the different methods of camping that I use on personal and professional trips ... and perhaps encourage you to try some of them!
The Mountain Tent:
Most usually I take a tent when undertaking multi-day expeditions in the mountains (although I have been known to go lighter-weight when the craziness takes me) and my 'go to' tent is my Mountain Equipment Dragonfly that is about ten years old and simply refuses to die. The Dragonfly is a 2-person, semi-geodesic, twin layer design that weighs in at roughly 2 kilograms. It has been a solid and reliable tent for me, In fact, the only drawback I can think of with the tent is that the porch is a bit tricky to get in and out of due to the position of the single zip on the left hand side of the opening. I have used it with a second person and had no real complaints, even with our rucksacks wedged between us and out of the weather! Mostly though I use it as a bit of a luxury space as a solo tent.
This tent, and many others just like it, have served me well all over the world and in different weathers and seasons. The tent is obviously an entirely closed in experience and provides full protection from the wind, rain, midges as well as privacy from other people. It is great to be able to lay kit and clothing out inside the tent, to be able to strip off and wash at the end of the day and there have been numerous occasions in which I have laid wrapped up in my sleeping bag as winds have shaken the tent, threatening to pull it from the ground; as lightning has lit the sky and tent as if it was daylight at 3am; as snow has fallen and rain has caused the streams to burst their banks.
I chose a tent with a high 'hydrostatic head' (which is essentially its water resistance) and camping, even on boggy ground, has always been a dry affair ... well, most usually a dry affair!! The outer 'flysheet' is sewn to the inner so the tent pitches as one which makes it a very swift affair, especially in poor weather and there are three vents spaced around the tent, as well as the main door and porch, which is very effective at preventing condensation building up.
The guylines and piping on the tent seams are reflective and the zip toggles are glow in the dark which are both really useful features ... in fact, these two subtle features have been a huge boost to my morale and spirit more than once when returning from night navigation in really terrible winter weather and in poor visibility when the light from our headtorches caught the guylines making the tent suddenly appear in front of us out of the gloom; all the other tents were basically invisible to us until we tripped over them!
The inner tent has four large 'dump' pockets sewn into the inner tent and has four clips sewn into the ceiling to attach a fabric 'gear attic', sadly this didn't come with the tent as standard and, although I think about how useful the gear loft would be every single time I lie in the tent, it's not been a big enough loss for me to actually go and buy one!
I really like my tent and I would only change it for a Terra Nova Laser which has a much bigger porch opening for the same sort of size and weight. There isn't much wrong with tent camping, especially if you have invested in a decent technical product in the first place but there a couple of obvious and more subtle issues to bear in mind.
There is a limited amount of space within the tent and the porch and it can be hard to store rucksacks out of the weather whilst also having space to organise and store kit, have space to 'live' cook and be able to get in and out of the tent without upsetting the whole affair. The space available to you is generally low and long and it is difficult to change your trousers without becoming a contortionist; washing without wetting your floor or sleeping bag is also a bit of an artform.
My particular tent is a pain to climb out of, especially with two in the tent and a porch full of kit; a wee-bottle is a very useful item to have with you to prevent any middle-of-the-night trips outside the tent (although this will also take your relationship with your tent-mate to a whole new level!).
I bought wisely, and not cheaply, and my tent is pretty waterproof but I find two issues still occur that jeopardise the dryness and effectiveness of my sleeping bag on multi-day trips.
Firstly, I find there is condensation underneath my sleeping mat and any bags or rucksacks heavy enough to press against the floor of the tent. Some of this is condensation and some of it is the tent tub getting older and less waterproof but it is an issue that requires the tent ventilating / airing every few days to resolve. To help prevent this I bought the 'footprint' for the tent which is just a groundsheet that matches the shape of the tent and goes between the floor and the tent tub to prevent the water passing through.
Secondly, I find that as soon as the tent has to be put away wet or in the rain then the tent (not just this one but any tent really) is effectively soaking wet for the remainder of the trip. To help mitigate this I have given up on the original tent bag and instead roll the wet tent up into a sealable Exped drybag that then goes into my rucksack. I also now use a bivvy bag as a matter of habit to try to protect my down sleeping bag. My sleeping bag is also stuffed into its own Exped drybag before going into my rucksack. There are tents that pitch with inner tent first and then the outer flysheet separately and by packing the outer separately the wetness may be limited, unless it happens to be raining at the time of striking camp or re-pitching and then wetness abounds!
My final dislike of camping wasn't really apparent until I moved to hammocking but ... it just isn't as comfortable sleeping on the floor! I use a good quality inflatable sleeping mat and a very lightweight bivvy RAB bag which, together with my down or synthetic sleeping bags, is always warm enough ... I am just never that comfortable sleeping on the floor!
The Hammock and Tarp:
I cannot remember where I first saw or bought a hammock but I do remember that as soon as I tried sleeping in one it was clear ... a bad night in a hammock is much better than a good night in a tent!
I now own a number of makes and styles of hammock (some bought and some home-made) and it has taken me a fair amount of time to decide on the length, style and suspension method that I'm happiest with. The same is true about finding my most favourite tarp size and shape but it has been a fantastic journey filled with lazy afternoons in the woodlands to find these things out!
Right now my personal hammock kit consists of either a Simply Light Designs ACU (American military camouflage) 11ft Hammock or my own Spotty Dog 11ft ripstop nylon hammock together with a UK Hammocks full length down underquilt and either a Tenth Wonder Tarp (as in these photo's) or a Tatonka 4x3m Polycotton Tarp over the top if it's windy or rainy. I am a softy and quite like something to snuggle under so I usually take a fleece blanket or a down quilt for inside the hammock too.
There is way to much information to cover about hammock camping and the different choices about equipment and suspension methods to cover in this (already quite long Blog) so I will leave that for now, other than providing the following links if you can't wait to find out more:
I love absolutely EVERY single thing about hammock camping. As soon as the tarp is pitched you have a sheltered (from rain or sun) area in which to sort and unpack kit which in turn gives the time to carefully pitch the rest of the equipment in poor weather without it all being exposed to the rain. I usually keep my tarp in an Exped drybag but often just leave it rolled up on the outside of my rucksack or inside the canoe as it just doesn't matter if it gets wet; the water runs off the tarp as soon as it is up and any wind helps to dry it off in super quick time!
As soon as the hammock is rigged beneath the tarp I have somewhere to organise my clothing and am able to stand up, sheltered from view by adjusting the angle of the tarp, where I can change, wash and sort myself with all the space I need. I can sit in the hammock as a very comfortable seat, sofa for two or chaise longue from which I can comfortably reach to cook on the ground, or sit and chat, read a book or drink beer while watching the world go by!
By using a down underquilt, or in warmer weather just a separate piece of ripstop nylon hung underneath (but right next to the hammock) the wind doesn't rob me of any warmth and I can combine the bottom quilt with a fleece blanket, quilt or sleeping bag on top of the hammock according to the season and temperatures. I have hammock camped in the middle of winter, in the snow and sub-zero temperatures and its been so warm that I've never needed to wear anything in bed!
In my humble opinion a gathered-end hammock of 11 or 12 feet in length is absolutely the best to have as provides enough material for you to lay horizontally across the centre-line giving an absolutely flat lay and allowing you to toss, turn, sleep on your front, your back or your side!
Perhaps the best thing about the hammock camping experience is being able to see all around you from in your bed. By altering the angle of the tarp, or removing it (partially or completely) in dry weather, you can create the perfect balance of protection and view. I have lain snuggled into my warm down paradise, swinging gently from side to side, and watched a fox and her cubs exploring in the dusklight as well as too many sunsets and sunrises to recount. I have lain in the warmth and dry while heaving rain has fallen all around me, feeling so much more in touch with nature than in any other camping set up.
I have set hammocks up for the night off bridges, telegraph poles and streetlamps, between two Land Rover Defenders, using rock climbing anchors, from playground frames, underground in caves, and, of course, between two trees. They are just so versatile and so adaptable ... and so supremely comfortable!
I am so fond of hammock camping that I have to work hard to recognise the 'cons' and be honest about them.
When suspended, the tarp and hammock lie parallel to each other, with one below the other, and this can cause a wind tunnel effect if you don't plan ahead when pitching them ... or if the wind changes during the night. This can be mitigated by choosing your anchor points carefully, choosing a sheltered campsite or by using an oversize tarp which allows the end corners to be drawn together and each end of the hammock creating a closed-in 'winter palace' during storms. Just as easily the tarp can be lifted by using sticks, walking poles or canoe paddles to create a 'porch'. Wow, this feels like a 'pro' really!!
There is the tiniest chance of the hammock or its suspension failing during the night and an even slimmer chance of you falling out of bed but this is easily managed by using reliable equipment and knots, choosing your trees carefully (including looking above you for any deadwood or branches that may blow down onto you during the night ... and finding a suitably clear place to camp, obviously ... and by only hanging your hammock as high as you are willing to fall. I have developed the habit of putting my rucksack / drybag / boots etc underneath my hammock where is sheltered and easily available to me throughout the night but has the added advantage of being a soft mass to hit if I ever fell. I have never ever fallen.
If there really are no trees or anchor points then you are pretty stuffed with just a hammock and quilts ... but ... you usually know where you are heading before you get there and that sort of unpleasant surprise can mostly be avoided. If I know there is a chance I won't be able to hammock in the middle of a multi-day trip then I simply add an inflatable sleeping mat to my kit and I can sleep on the floor underneath the tarp, using it set up like a tent! This is feeling like another 'pro'!!
A definite disadvantage of the hammock and tarp is in their construction from lightweight, ripstop nylon or polyester. For most aspects of camping these materials are the best choice except for when there is a fire anywhere nearby as the embers rising from the fire, as tiny as they may be, begin to drop as they lost heat but still have enough to melt holes in the tarp, hammock and underquilt. If I am planning a campfire then I have to strongly consider whether I risk taking my hammock kit too.
That said; I do love hammock camping ... and I guarantee that once you try it ... you will too!!
The Whelen Lean-to Shelter:
In 1925 the accomplished American soldier and outdoorsman, Col. Townsend Whelen, had developed a design for a 'hunters lean-to tent' and presented it to Abercrombie and Fitch who began to produce and market it. The 'Whelen Lean', as it is now better known, is constructed from mid-weight canvas or oilskin and comprises a large square back wall with triangle sidewall at each end, plus a short porch roof complete with sidewalls that creates a weather shield instead of a second, tent-like, side. Modern canvas treatments make the Lean-to a slightly heavier affair to carry but it's water- and weatherproofing is second to none.
My friend Ollie bought his Whelen Lean after seeing the Baker Tent and Whelen Lean to belonging to (and made by) Steven Le Say of Axe & Paddle Bushcraft. As soon as I saw Ollie's, and experienced the smell of every campfire it has had before it, I had to have one too! Mine was made for me by Angelika of the Red Tent Company in a rather subdued green waterproof and rotproof canvas.
So, knowing now that I don't favour ground camping unless it is absolutely unavoidable ... why do I love my Whelen? I don't entirely know ... but it has a lot going for it!
The Whelen Lean-to shares a strength of the hammock in terms of its exposure to, and view of, the nature and environment around it. It has superb weather protection and is made from materials that really don't mind (or impact your kit and experience) if they are wet or dry ... in fact this is so true that Ollie keeps his Whelen rolled up and simply wedged into the front of his canoe! It is super-simple to put up and takes very little time at all, with it not really mattering about the canvas or rope being on wet ground as you do so. Eight tent pegs, 4 guylines (left attached to the shelter all the time) and a trio of poles (or saw to cut them in-situ) is all that is needed to create a really solid shelter.
When pitching the Whelen it is possible to suspend it on a rope between two trees / anchors or, where there are none available, it can be pitched freestanding by using three poles together with its guy-lines. As it is being set-up, the Lean-to can be adjusted to give height enough to stand up in with a narrower sleeping space or a lower height but much wider footprint giving greater protection from driving rain. The front porch can be tightened down as the weather dictates or it can be raised by using a branch or canoe paddle to increase the light and widen the footprint it covers.
It is a marvellously social affair; whether with two of you sharing the space, sat under its surprisingly effective shelter or with two (or more) shelters set up facing each other and a campfire between them. Greater than this social aspect is the unavoidable connection the canvas and woodsmoke creates with the outsdoorsmen, the Voyageurs, mountain men and intrepid women who camped in the same way all over the North America wilderness in the 19th Century.
Perhaps the biggest 'pro' of the Whelen Lean-to is the way its design catches the heat of a campfire ... although this may also be a weakness as it really needs a fire to viably camp in colder weather. With a well constructed fire at the front of the shelter, the smoke rises away while the heat is reflected by the rear wall and captured in the roof space and porch filling the tent with warmth that lasts for hours after the fire has died down. On our canoe trip last week we camped in the snow at roughly 0 degrees Centigrade and the heat from the fire remained in my Whelen from 11pm when I fell asleep until 4am when I woke briefly, tucked myself in and fell asleep again!
My Whelen (and I imagine all others) are pretty heavy bits of kit. The canvas plus the guylines, pegs etc make it a fairly big package to carry and it certainly isn't lightweight or backpackable with much else in your rucksack! There is no protection from the ground which requires another groundsheet to lie under your sleeping bag and sleeping mat.
I worry about embers from the fire damaging my more modern camping materials (like my nylon sleeping bag or a bivvy bag) so I use a separate canvas sheet as a cowboy-style bedroll which envelopes my sleeping bag and mat although I will soon be upgrading this arrangement to a purpose made canvas bedroll made from the same water-, fire- and rotproof canvas as the Whelen.
The Whelen Lean-to is not the most campsite friendly option ... even though it can be set-up with poles rather than trees, the need for a fire can be a drawback on many sites and the lack of privacy and security is definitely a limitation. For the backcountry and wild camping though, it is absolutely perfect!
The options for camping are all 'horses for courses' and each has advantages and limitations that the another doesn't ... but I definitely have my favourites!
Most of my camping will continue to be with my hammocks, I just find it so comfortable, so convenient and so adaptable. I have slept in sub-zero temperatures and I have hung off canoe trailers ... what I have never ever had is a bad nights sleep in a hammock, unless the tossing and turning, dead arm and sweatiness of sleeping, trapped in a sleeping bag, on the ground!
The Whelen Lean-to is my new 'go to' shelter for bushcraft and wild camping trips where I know I can have a fire each night. It gives so many of the strengths of hammock camping but with a more useful sheltered space underneath for camp tasks like creating a fire with bowdrill or for campfire cooking. In time my canvas bedroll will be tweaked and will probably just use woollen blankets which are more spacious and versatile (although bigger and heavier) than my sleeping bag and I just feel the whole set up is more robust for a woodland, bushcraft outing.
I don't think anything will entirely replace hammock camping, for me, as the pinnacle of comfort outdoors ... but to prove it I run regular CampCraft and Bushcraft days (and expeditions) where you can try the hammock and Whelen for yourself! Get in touch through the Blog, Facebook or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org