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Seeking shelter from the storm

Spring is right around the corner and soon we’ll be dragging out that gear and equipment we stashed in the attic, particularly that “150-year-old” tent.

Stowed somewhere in there with the cookware, back pack, and sleeping bag is likely a small tent which is the result of fifteen decades of change and improvement to arrive at the packable tents we have today. Such portable, lightweight, waterproof and insect proof tents are so readily available and inexpensive that we take for granted just how they came to be.

The requirement for portable tents has been around for thousands of years, most notably for military forces, wether they were for Roman soldiers conquering Europe, European soldiers exploring the Americas, American soldiers warring between the States, or US Army soldiers returning to help liberate Europe. Tents both large and small were typically made of heavy material often treated with natural oils, tar or some chemical concoction to make the cloth more waterproof. That was considered state of the art up until the time of the American Civil War.

Starting in the 1870s great strides were made, first in adding improved features, and then cutting down on the weight and bulk of tents. Military planners, timber cruisers, mountain climbers and explorers began experimenting with new designs and materials made of tightly woven long fiber cotton that was commonly referred to as balloon cotton, sailcloth, or Egyptian cotton. These were special fabrics of a very tight weave, pretty good at that time in keeping out rain and especially so when the fabric was soaked in a waterproofing solution.

In the 1880s mountaineering was becoming a popular recreational pursuit in Europe where most hardy climbers had to resort to Civil War-era canvas shelter halves that could be put together to create military two-man “wedge” type tents, usually carried in by team or packed in on horses. The first person to make significant improvements to that old standard military design was Mr. Edward Whymper who was also the first man to scale the Matterhorn.

What he was after was a completely-closed portable tent for use during summer months in the high country. To the standard canvas tent he added a sewn-in floor, a door sill and a door flap made from mesh netting to keep out insects. In addition to the standard supports, ridge pole and guy ropes he attached tie points to the sides of the tent that could be used to pull the sides outward instead of sagging in. This new overall tent design was can be considered the grandfather of modern day pack tents. And, while the Whymper tent was a great improvement it was still too heavy for one man to pack along with all the other gear and equipment.

Enter another mountain climber of the late 1800s, Fred Mummery, who came up with his own design for a small wedge-shaped tent known as the “Mummery.” It was 6 feet long and 4 feet wide, but instead of using heavy canvas Mummery’s tent was uniquely made of lightweight silk impregnated with oil to make it water repellant. To save weight the Mummery tent had no floor, but instead relied on a sewn-in sod cloth around the edges. The Mummery weighed in at only 3 pounds and became very popular with backpackers worldwide until the advent of modern fabrics such as nylon in the 1930s. Now almost any backpack, clothing, tent, poncho, or tarp can be made of lightweight, waterproof nylon.

For much of the year I rely on a 9′ x 9′ rip-stop nylon tarp very similar in weight and feel to the nylon parachute material we used for making a one-man shelter in Air Force survival school. Nylon holds up well, resisting rot and shrinkage, and dries quickly. My tarp has grommets on the corners and sides so I can arrange a shelter however I want; draped over a ridge line like a tent, suspended over a hammock, or tied against trees like a lean-to. I complete my shelter using a small tarp or plastic sheet as a ground cloth.

Now is the time to check out that gear and get ready for outdoor adventure. Learn more about outdoor skills and wilderness survival at www.mountaineerwilderness.com.

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