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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Color Matters: Tents

But Does It Matter All That Much? Readers Weigh In on the Subject

By Tamia Nelson Now You See It, Now You Don't

October 28, 2014

Color matters. That was the premise underlying a recent column. And with the help of two of my own tents — a Eureka Apex and an Appy Trails Mark V — I put it to the test. The result confirmed what I'd long assumed to be true: The color of a tent or tarp determines how readily it can be seen by passersby. This is welcome news if you want to be noticed, obviously. But it's also an important consideration if you prefer keeping yourself to yourself.

That conclusion won't surprise most paddlers. But my earlier column also explored two larger questions: Why would you want to be seen? And conversely, when is it best to remain inconspicuous? The subject proved a popular one, and I soon found my virtual mailbox filled with thought‑provoking e‑mails. These were too good to keep to myself, and I asked my correspondents if they'd allow me to quote from their letters at length in a second article. Happily, permission to do just that was soon forthcoming. What follows is the result.

I'll begin at the beginning, with a letter from Jim Muller, who drew my attention to another article that addresses the same topic, though from …

A Broader Perspective

I was interested to see your recent "Color Matters" article. I had never given it much thought until I stumbled across "Tent Color Considerations," an article written by Oware [a manufacturer of shelters and other gear] a long time ago.

And the Oware article, which Jim reprints on his website, is well worth reading, since it weighs the pros and cons of the whole spectrum of available colors. Of course, this subject has engaged writers for years. In fact, Thomas Hiram Holding makes several references to fabric color when discussing "the great question of TENTS" in The Camper's Handbook, one of the first books to bring camping — canoe, bicycle, and pedestrian — out of the deep shadows of the North Woods and into the light of day. That said, Holding wasn't much concerned with whether or not he could be seen by fellow travelers. The remote lochs and rural byways where he camped were not yet overrun with holidaymakers. No, he was more interested in the permanence of the dyes used to color the natural fibers that went into the only fabrics then (1911) available. After all, he was a tailor by trade. And his conclusion? He favored a "rich khaki shade, … the must durable shade, next to red." Undyed white fabric he rejected out of hand. It was, he wrote, "objectionable and unpleasant … in the sun," not to mention "soon soiled." Contrast this damning indictment with the praise he heaped on khaki, which "does not show dirt, protects from the glare of the sun, and yet admits ample light."

Holding was obviously a man of strong feelings — and an unusual depth of experience. He paddled, sailed, cycled, and went on walking tours, all with equal pleasure. What he would have thought of today's rainbow palette of synthetic fabrics is anyone's guess.

But let's get back to the question of visibility. Most of the paddlers who wrote in response to my earlier column are united in their desire to lose themselves in the landscape. Which probably accounts for the growing popularity of tents overprinted with camouflage patterns. Once worn solely by hunters and combat infantrymen, camouflage gear is now seen — or rather, not seen — in family campgrounds (and supermarkets) everywhere. But …

Don't Sell Solid Colors Short

For one thing, camouflage patterns are highly environment and terrain specific. (The US Army's UCP, a recent attempt at producing a universal camouflage pattern, received less than glowing reviews.) For another, camouflage patterns are proprietary and used under license, adding many dollars to the price of any item of gear or clothing on which they're printed. Uncle Sam may not have to count the cost of the gear he buys, but most paddlers do.

The alternative? A well‑chosen solid color. Take a look at the photo at the head of this article. My green Appy Trails tent blends into the forest understory very well, and it would be even harder to spot if I'd tucked it further back in the woods. (Since I was shooting a photo, I didn't want my subject to be invisible, did I?) And green isn't the only choice — or even the best choice — for covert campers, as Rodney Wooten points out:

I am no expert camper, but I do like to be inconspicuous, and I keep that in mind when shopping for gear. Rather than green I like to find tents with dark tan or brown flies. They tend to blend in with the leaves under trees, and on sandy islands they blend in with the beach. Gray may work, too. And notice how many animals are tan. Tan also lights up somewhat golden in the sun. But shopping for tents by color is somewhat limiting, so perhaps a camo fly or net cover would work, though they may be heavy or bulky. For quick covert camping, an olive drab bivy or hammock would work.

For those times when you want to be seen, a "space blanket"-- you are probably already carrying one -- can be put over the tent. Silver or orange side up, your choice.

Red is an interesting color in that it is easily seen in light but quickly goes to black in darkness -- something to think about when choosing a kayak or canoe color.

Notwithstanding Rodney's modest refusal to lay claim to special expertise, his points are all well‑taken, and his preference for "dark tan" tents parallels Thomas Hiram Holding's passion for khaki. (Holding was British, and the British Army khaki of the early 20th century was a dull brownish‑yellow or brown‑green color, pretty near to what I'd call "dark tan.") The suggestion that covert campers might wish to employ a fly with a camouflage pattern is also a very good one. I've rigged subdued "screening tarps" myself in the past, and I'm now making plans to sew several custom flysheets for my tents, in a variety of colors — a sort of chameleon approach to minimizing conspicuity.

Anyway, Rodney's observation that "shopping for tents by color is somewhat limiting" certainly hits home. Many contemporary tent‑makers have adopted the Model T approach to color choice: You can have any color you want so long as it's the one that they've chosen. Paddlers who are seamstresses (seamsters?) will have a ready response to this, but those canoeists and kayakers who regard sewing as a chore may be tempted to ask, …

Is Color Really the Most Important Consideration?

And Mike Jarosz has a ready answer:

I wanted to write you regarding your article on tent colors. As an introduction, I've been camping extensively since I was 11 (I'm 44 now), first as a Boy Scout, and now as a Scoutmaster for a troop of over 30 Scouts, three of whom are my own sons. We typically camp six times a year, including one week-long summer camp.

Tent color has always been a consideration when shopping for tent models, and I've probably bought and slept in more "fabric shelters" than I should admit. But tent color has become a very minor consideration for me when purchasing, primarily because manufacturers seldom offer more than a single color option for each tent model produced. So my selection process prioritizes other factors ahead of fabric color. Durability, manufacturer reputation, warranty, weather-worthiness, insect resistance, weight, vestibules, floor area, overall height (because dressing is easier in a taller tent), airflow -- all of these are more important considerations when investing in a piece of equipment you want to last for years (my oldest son's tent is seven years old and performs like it was just bought).

Boy Scouts of America recommends a natural color palette for tents, primarily for the reason of being less obtrusive for other users of the area. Then again, when camping in an area with 30 boys, you'll hear us -- and maybe smell us -- long before you'll see us!

No matter what color my tents have been, my enjoyment of a campout was more influenced by how well that tent provided shelter from the environment when it was time for bed. Maybe the manufacturers will notice and begin to offer models with a "high-viz" AND a "low-viz" option. Keep up the great work -- I appreciate the time investment it must take to put together articles with this kind of quality!

Need I add that Mike's analysis is right on the money? In choosing a tent, color is only one consideration among many, and it's seldom (if ever) the most important. Weatherproofing, ventilation, ease of set‑up, weight, durability — these are all of greater consequence to backcountry travelers. And though I've touched on each of them in earlier articles (see, for example, "In Search of the Ideal Tent"), the last word on the subject has yet to be written. I doubt it ever will be. But Mike's letter is as a good a summary as any I've seen.

We're back where we started, aren't we? Color matters. Sometimes, at any rate. We can all agree on that. But only you can decide when and how much.


A Home Away From Home


The color of your tent and tarp can make a difference when you want to be seen — or when you want to escape notice. But you wouldn't buy a house based solely on the color of the siding, would you? And a tent is your home from home in the backcountry. So a broader view of the subject is needed. And thanks to several keen‑eyed and knowledgeable readers, you now have it. Color matters. We all agree on that. But how much it matters… Well, that's your call.



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And an article from my own website:


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