Thursday, September 28, 2017

Tents – A Beginner’s Guide

My tent - circa mid-90's.  This 2-man tent was able to 'sleep' 7 people (uncomfortably of course), and 'housed' 11 people during a social gathering. 

One of the exciting aspects of going outdoors is camping out! 

In most social cultures like the one in the Philippines – camping is not just about erecting your tents, eating dried food, and saying good night.  It’s mostly a big social event.   Cooking and dining is ‘big deal’ compared to the simplified eat-your-freeze-dried routine. For most of us – we pre-cook and preserve the meat ready for a fast but tasty recipe.  Being a “rice-country”, a good partner dish is a must which also means cooking and dinner time is longer, noisier, more chaotic but more fun!

After dinner, there’s usually a gathering for an extended social affair -  exchanging horror stories, or singing, or endless bantering or joking.  Usually with bottles of booze to lighten everyone’s mood.  And sometimes, a good volume of booze even – turning the camp site into a party zone!

I strayed a bit.  Going back to my story objective – it’s evident that one of the most crucial equipment to have is a tent!  A good spacious tent to sleep after a good dinner and fun socials; a sturdy tent for rowdy or clumsy people; and perhaps a big tent for social gathering especially on wet and rainy nights.

Here’s a quick guide on what features or factors you may consider when acquiring a tent…

1.       Flysheet color!  Hahaha!  (Flysheet is the waterproof cover of a tent, like a roof).  In today’s social media savvy culture, posting pictures became a must. Sometimes safety margin is even challenged just to get a ‘wow’ picture that will get many Likes.  (Please don’t).  So, if you want a good camp picture – choose the right flysheet color.  Red or blue will be a good first choice.  Colors that ‘comes out’ providing good color contrast – works in most types of terrain.  Yellow or orange are good for snowy or green-grassy camp but will blend in with yellow/orange-dominated autumn or grassland setting.  In most cases, these 2 are very noticeable from a distance (thus, rescue scenario favored them). Camouflage or those with small print design – although cool and nice, may either conceal itself with the background or will just look weird.  Green will work on some terrain but will surely blend in with the greenery, if any.  While dark-shaded ones (navy blue, gray, black, etc.) will hide itself on darker terrain like volcanic rocky camps, or disappear when dark gray clouds hang in the horizon.

2.       Size!  In truth, you may need several to suit your changing needs, or simply compromise!  A good family tent (with 1-2 kids) could be a 4-man dome-shaped tent.  Couple’s tent – for cold, romantic nights, would be a 2-man tent.  Old A-frame types used to be a favorite - offering sufficient headroom. While 2-man tunnel tents or the likes will just be ‘enough’ with less room to wiggle.  If you’re fond of sleeping in big groups – there are tents that fit 6 or more!  I will not recommend a small, solo tent for many reasons. 

3.       Weight!  Today, with porters widely available in popular trails – this may not be an issue.  But if you plan to haul your tent through a dense jungle, or carry them for 4 hours or more in your trips – pick something light.  Modern tents usually are already made light.  The tent body and flysheet are modern poly-based, light-weight fabric.  (Unlike the old canvass or tarpaulin/ vinyl type used by the military or refugees).  The tent poles (the skeleton or frame that ‘shapes’ the tent), are now usually light-weight fiber-based.  The less the poles, the lighter –  more poles means heavier but the tent – sturdier. My old tent uses thick and relatively heavier aluminum. Old – yes, but stronger and will not splinter unlike the fiber-types.
Small, low-profile tents like this are good for windy, open-ground camping.  (Mt Pulag)

4.       Design and construction.  Shape included.  For most windy condition, the lower the profile the better the stability (but less room for movement).  Doesn’t matter what shape, consider the headroom (what you need or desire),  how many can fit, and how many entry-exit doors and windows.  Most tents have waterproof flooring (at least for the first few months or years), local versions may have built-in, protective plastic sheet.  Flysheet differs in size, those covering the entire tent body (my recommendation) are good for rainy and windy days, but could be very warm during summer time.  Some tents have mesh bodies, good for interior ventilation but bad when cold wind creeps between the flysheet and tent body.   Generally, a 3-season tent is for warm tropical climate, while a warmer 4-season tent is for cold and windy environment. Some tents are free-standing (my recommendation), while others (usually lighter ones) require support lines to ‘stand’.  How many doors?  2 is better than 1 for easy people and gear movement.  Small tents with low headroom would mostly have 1 door.  Interior pockets are nice-to-have, a small interior clothesline for big tents are also useful (DIY only).

5.       Floor layer and support. Not part of the tent but you should have a ground sheet made of waterproof material used as external-bottom layer, big enough to protect the entire tent floor.  Too big will catch rain and too small will expose parts of the tent floor.  This is especially important for rugged campground with exposed little twigs or thorny grass.  Pegs or stakes are also a must.  Usually comes with a tent.  But different terrain might require you to vary your pegs.  Thin (5mm) are good for solid ground, thick or cross-type are good for sandy terrain, 2-flat-sided for snow (or sand), and of course - dry, hard pieces of wooden sticks (5-10mm) can substitute your metal or plastic pegs.  Acquire pieces of strings to secure your tent and flysheet.  Either staked on the ground, or tied to strong bushes or rocks.
Hilleberg Keron (tunnel-type) tent - during my Antarctica trip. One of the most spacious tents that I've used; vestibule is large to store big bags and gears.

6.       Vestibule?  This is a tent extension, outside the tent body but covered by the extended flysheet. Big 4-season tents typically include one.  Useful for storing dirty boots, smelly socks, cooking set, backpacks and extra gears.  Sharp objects are better stored away from tents (trekking poles, machete, etc.).  This is not common for tropical warm climate, but a good added uses are – cook area during rainy nights, or place where you damp your wet gears.  DIY version is simply putting an extra ‘tarp’ over and on the side of the tent (door side). 

7.       Price you can afford!  Tents are expensive, like 300$ and up.  Most tents that I’ve use in expeditions are The North Face – sturdy, reliable, a bit heavy, and pricey (the one I used in Everest was like 500$).  My tropical tent is a Eureka A-frame type, cost me almost 200$ I think.  Cheap brands sold in hardware stores may cost to 100$ or even below – but will surely not last long.  A good-enough brand somewhere in between should be Ok.  Other desired features that are not included can simply be added by some other means. One can even make or acquire his/her own flysheet of varying colors; a locally made ‘emergency shelter’ (tarp) costs 20$ or less. 

Using tents properly is for another post.  But just a quick guide and reminder…

Camp in safe places – use common sense.  Avoid landslide area, cliff, falling object threat (rocks, coconuts), dangerous wildlife or big game area, waterway or very near the waterline, among other things.

Get sleeping comfort by camping in an almost flat ground, preferably a bit inclined or gently sloping - for a good water run-off during rainy nights.  Bring a closed-cell mat or sleeping pad (ex. rubber/silicon-based) as cold ground will make your sleep cold and uncomfortable and/or make you sick.
Do not cook inside the tent as carbon monoxide poisoning is a real possibility.  Plus, you can accidentally burn down your tent.  Or tent mates!
The North Face tent - at Everest's camp3.  Choose the best for extreme conditions.

For windy place, use natural barriers like bush or rock but avoid trees where branches or parts of it can fall.  When none is available, orient your tent headwind offering the best aerodynamic profile – while ensuring that the tent body and the flysheet are properly secured by lines and pegs.  Sandy or rocky campsite may require big rocks as line anchors.

Take good care of it…  Store dry in a cool dry place preferably uncompressed, use soap and not detergent, keep away from saltwater,  re-coat the flysheet with polyurethane every few years, protect the poles from splintering – broken poles are usually the start of the tent’s end. 

Tents are initially just a piece of equipment.  If it lasts long enough, it will be a part of you, your story and memory of your great outdoor adventures.  The memories of good, old friends, of your kids growing up, of difficult or challenging climbs, of unique places and campsites; of laughter, drunkenness, craziness and perhaps – special moments in your life.
My tent, still standing after 25 years!  Here I'm using a tempo-shelter as cover, as my old flysheet is no longer waterproof.  (Sep2017 Mt Apo)

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