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Making a cheap tent work

I will be referring to Roger Caffin in this article. He does an excellent how-to-camp web page, and you can find it in my Links section. If you want to look up what he says, rather than take my word for it, the link is repeated here, for convenience.

Roger Caffin's bushwalking FAQ

Choosing a tent

Roger will tell you it is perfectly possible to have good fun in a cheap tent, and by that I mean one in the 30-40 Australian Dollar range. He does emphasize, however, that You Get What You Pay For. If you are into serious camping, advises Rodger, something more exotic is justified, and that means between 500-1000 Australian Dollars.

The logic behind this appears irrefutable, but I do not agree. Many of us are in the position of having more time than money. An unlucky few have neither, and for the people in that category, I'm sorry but I cannot help.

If you choose your cheap tent with care, and are prepared to put time into modifying it, until it really works, you can end up with a tent superior to the exotic and costly models. It will burden your pack slightly more, but any superlight sacrifices strength, and I would rather have the strength, thank you. Sooner or later, it will blow, and snow. If I had to carry even a superlight camping gear assembly on my back, I would have given up camping years ago, or stayed within a short walk of the car. I use a light wheelbarrow/sledge all year round, which means my back never carries more than a couple of hefty sleeping bags, plus a snack, water and a cheap anorak.

In these days of a widening gap between rich and poor, the latter are getting understandably discontented with the situation. If you choose to camp in a piece of costume jewellery, set off with titanium accessories, in my no doubt unfair judgement, you are conspicuously displaying wealth. I couldn't care less, but others may be tempted to level the social score. A well-used, modified plain-jane tent is to any other eye a piece of rubbish. Unless it looks bad enough for Rangers to invoke the Litter Act, it is unlikely to go walking while you are not around.

I have used a variety of tents, modified and original, and would until recently have packed, for example, a ridge tent with an extended fly, if I expected a good soaking. My now ancient Bergans Ignell (which did cost!) would be carried for high winds and snow. Over the past eighteen months I have finally got One Cheap Tent modified sufficiently that it now goes with me everywhere, winter and summer, and the rest just take up space.

One Cheap Tent

The photos show a classic 'Wedge Dome' tent. This is a shape and not a brand. Notice the poles are inside sewn sleeves. The flysheet covers the whole tent.

I assume you are sleeping either one or two people in a two-man tent. Quality always drops when a design stays on the market for a while, so a good wedge dome is not as easy to find as it was. It is a relatively high, skinny two man tent with a pair of crossing fibreglass poles. The design began with the doors in the tent side, before they made a sensible move to the end. The sewn sleeves have been replaced, on some newer models, with multiple little plastic whatsits, and this variety is worse than useless. There is now a type with a nylon pocket-handkerchief slung over the top ventilator, rather than a full fly. Don't buy it. I will assume that after much hunting, you have paid about $40 Australian for the right thing. The Spring catalogues used to be filled with them.

Faults with the One Cheap Tent

The fibreglass poles, held together with elastic, will give you a hard time putting up the tent, and a worse time taking it down. The problem is common to all tents of this type, and fixable.

On a fine night, I don't even bother with the fly, or pegging the tent down, since it is not going anywhere with all the gear on the groundsheet. Watching shooting-stars through the top mesh is a good feeling. If bad weather threatens, or the first drops of rain wake me up, the fly is thrown over and pegged down. After that the humidity soars inside, and the condensation starts. This is fixable too.

Rain not only brings condensation, but the fly leaks as well. Costly tents are seam-sealed. Seam-sealing is easy enough to do, but takes time.

In high winds, the inadequately-rigid tent really does bounce around. The modified flysheet deals with any reasonable wind, and I will cover a set of storm guys for the unreasonable variety.

The only really good thing about the unmodified tent is what it does in heavy snowstorms. Just when the snow load gets to danger levels, it collapses gracefully, without damage, and wakes you up. Out you go once more, to dig it out with the snow-shovel. If two feet of snow overnight looks likely, the tent can be returned to the unmodified state, ready for the onslaught. Snow caves? - you must be joking.

The poles

We have all dreamed of dressing-up a tent with a set of alloy beauties, just like the Real Tents. Reading Roger on alloy poles is sobering. Only one brand is worth buying, and they have the market by the throat. Cost alone rules them out, so carry the extra ounces of a fibreglass set. Unique fibreglass advantages will be covered later.

Just because your pole set comes with elastic down the middle, it does not mean this is the best way of doing things. You will need a roll of red insulating tape, and a roll of yellow. Assemble one of your elastic-cored pole sets, and put a yellow band of tape on each fibreglass tube length. Put two bands on the tube lengths at the ends of the set. Pull the set apart so the elastic is visible, cut it, and throw the wretched stuff away. Repeat with the other pole set, and the red tape. I had 14 tubes when I had finished, half red-banded, and half yellow. I count them each time I pack or unpack.

When putting up the tent, divide the poles into red and yellow. I slip three yellow into the sleeve on one side, three into the other, then combine them so the poles push into one located end. I repeat for the red set. I add the last yellow, bend the poles into the hoop shape, then pop the last yellow end into the corner eyelet. I then repeat for the red. This procedure is faster than using an elastic-cored set. Pulling the tent down is no longer a pantomime. I just release the red and yellow ends, and pull poles out willy-nilly, counting of course to 14. The difference between this, and trying to wrestle out the normal tied-together set, is significant. There is much less stress on the poles and the tent, as well.

The two ends of any pole set are always in the same place, of course, but with loose poles, the rest are never in the same place twice. Assuming the top of the arch is the point of maximum stress, this means all poles take the worst load once in a while, rather than it falling on the same pole each time.

Pole testing

Alloy poles are wonders of high-tensile metallurgy. From what I know of material properties, once they decide to fail, a crack will propagate, or a tube will kink, and they will go, just like that.

Fibreglass poles are different. A few of the most strained glass fibres break first, and the process is more gradual, until the pole section loses strength, and finally breaks. Any pole, in which a few fibres have failed, can be identified by holding the pole close to the ear, and flexing it gently in a quiet room. You can hear the broken fibres rubbing. I was sold a defective set once, and it was most obvious. Since the poles can be checked one by one, I take a minute or two to test them, ready for the next trip. You cannot do this with an elastic-cored set. Pre-testing is sufficient advantage not to bother with aluminium poles.

Seam sealing

One of the most profitable industries on Earth, is the selling of what we Chemists call 'jollop'. This is a blend of common materials, in a neat little tube or tin, sold for a specific purpose, at a stratospheric price. Small containers of tent seam sealer come into this category. Mix shellite (non-automotive petrol or gasoline) with about ten or twenty per cent of automotive acrylic lacquer thinner, or acetone. Stir this liquid into ordinary impact adhesive, sold for sticking down bench laminate, or PVC floor tiles. This will thin out the adhesive, until it can be painted on as seam sealer. Use a brush, and generously cover the outside of all the seams on your flysheet. The dried adhesive will fill all the stitching holes, and the generally messy appearance of the sealed flysheet will deter even desperate thieves.

Improving the ventilation

The first stage is easy. The second takes work.

The two doors in the end of the tent have loops on them so they can be pegged-down. Make up an adjustable guy-rope from thin nylon braid, and attach this by the 'end through loop' method, to the loop on the door you do not intend to use as an exit. I am assuming the weather looks bad, and the flysheet is on. Zip the door up from outside the tent, then peg out the new guy rope. When the guy is tightened the doors lift up and away from the tent, and the door loops are about eight inches above the ground. You can now unzip the door, get inside, and zip up again. You have greatly increased ventilation under the door, and with the mesh inside uncovered, the airflow though the tent increases without draughts.

This arrangement can be used in the pouring rain without trouble, and keeps internal condensation under control. Since the door inner is no longer in contact with the mesh, any condensation runs down onto the ground rather than migrating onto the mesh, and dripping into the tent. This simple mod will make a wedge dome habitable in rain. In light or moderate snowfall, the snow that slips off the tent will take much longer to fill in the widened air-gap. The unmodified tent will only ventilate for a few minutes, before snow blocks the airspace under the door.

To really boost ventilation, and stiffen the whole tent, the second stage is required. Sew triangular guy rope attachment points, half-way along the bottom edge of the remaining three sides of the fly. Fit similar guy ropes to the one now mounted on the door, to these three points. You can now use a single tent peg at each corner to peg down the groundsheet and the fly. Now peg out and adjust the three new guys plus the one you fitted to the door. The fly changes shape, the tent goes rigid, and you have large ventilators at ground level, under all four sides of the tent fly.

This is a close-up of a sewn-on attachment point.

The tent is now as dry inside, during persistent rain, as my old ridge tent/extended fly combination. Strong winds no longer biff it around, either. Snow resistance to moderate falls is enhanced, as much more slides off, but the tent is more rigid, so at least theoretically more liable to loading damage. If you are in for a blizzard, it might be worth slackening all guys off, apart from the door one, and using the periodically collapsing tent to your advantage.

Making a storm guy set

In the exotic adventure magazines, you often see photos of wedge domes, with high tech names emblazoned on them, anchored most of the way up the Matterhorn, or in similar locations. These tents are invariably fitted with storm guys. I do not have personal experience, but assume it blows up there. My storm guys fasten to the corner poles, about two-thirds of the way up each side. Early trials were in the centre of Caulfield Racecourse (Google if you like) in a storm, but since then I have been in storms wild enough to give me a good scare with the guys set. Not only did they save my bacon, but I got some sleep as well.

Classic storm guys connect to sewn-on points on the external fly. If the wind is really wild, you are likely to be inside your tent, rather than strolling or skiing around. A buffeted tent is being slowly abraded, from cloth friction, and if it is not raining or snowing as well, less damage goes on if you can keep the fly off the tent. My modified storm guys can be used with or without the fly, and require no fastening points on the tent.

The tent end of a modified storm guy finishes in a flap of nylon seat-belt webbing. This flap wraps around the fibreglass pole, and a triangular-type bulldog clip, from office suppliers, is clipped over the flap. The clips I used were 15 mm wide across the back. The folded flap prevents the clip from damaging the pole, and if the clip is located just above an alloy sleeve, where two poles join, the assembly resists extreme tugging on the storm guy. The four guys can be pegged out as usual. If a gust is strong enough to dislodge a clip, you are probably safer removing the poles from the pegged-down tent, and lying flat inside, with the tent over your head. With luck the wind will die down before the rain comes.