The Things We Carry
The 'umble Tarp
By Tamia Nelson
September 17, 2002
Camping out. There's not much poetry
in that familiar American phrase, is there? And the Brits are even worse.
They describe a night spent out-of-doors as "sleeping rough"! The French
look at things differently. They're not interested in roughing it.
Instead, a night camp is a camp à la belle étoile: a night
under the stars. Now there's romance for you!
Of course, romance and reality frequently diverge. Camping out is more
often prose than poetry. And the difference between "sleeping rough" and a
night à la belle étoile? In a word: shelter. The stars
make very good, if somewhat chilly, companions, but pouring rain will
dampen all but the most determined poet's ardor. On clear, crisp nights,
give me the stars, but when the cold autumn rains start to fall, gimme
My ideas about back-country shelter have undergone some changes over
the years. My first nights à la belle étoile were made
under the tutelage of my
bark-eater grandfather. Even at the height of blackfly season, a
surplus canvas "shelter half" was good enough for him and his pipe. I was
skeptical. The shelter half wasn't much to look atjust a rectangle
of canvas with two triangular end-flaps. Still, Grandad left me in no
doubt that this scrap of canvas ought to be good enough for me, too, and
with practice I learned to rig the thing well enough to provide protection
from rain and wind. I didn't smoke a pipe, however, and word of the free
lunch soon got round among the insect community. No matter. Grandad
regarded my vulnerability to insect bites as proof positive of the natural
inferiority of women. It was something I'd have to come to terms with if I
wanted to spend time out of doors, he said, and that was that. The red
welts which encircled my wrists, neck, and hairline were the price of
admission to a man's world.
I wasn't so sure. True, I didn't smoke a pipeand the stink of my
Grandad's ancient briar didn't encourage me to trybut that didn't
mean I wanted to set up as a universal blood donor for every broody
biting fly in the Adirondacks. There had to be a better way, I
decided, and I was determined to find it.
Several years passed, and I graduated from "camping out" to
mountaineering. I also got my first paying job. (I'd worked full-time in
my parent's diner since I was twelve, but since they were great believers
in the corrupting power of money, I never saw a cent in wages.) Now, for
the first time in my life, I had cash in the bank, and the climbing
catalogs were full of wonderful things to buy: gas stoves small enough to
fit in a rucksack pocket, freeze-dried beef stroganoff, andbest of
all"mountain tents," engineered confections of featherweight nylon,
guaranteed to withstand hurricane-force winds on exposed Himalayan ridges.
I couldn't believe my good fortune. Soon I had a mountain tent of my
own, a bright gold North Face VE-24. Gold was the right color, too: ounce
for ounce, the VE-24 cost about as much as bullion. I lived on peanut
butter sandwiches for months, but I figured it was worth it. I was ready
for the worst that Everest could throw at me.
Of course Everest was on the other side of the globe, and I didn't have
a ticket to Katmandu in my pocket. No problem, I thought. I was confident
that any tent that could conquer the world's highest peak could take
whatever the Adirondacks had to offer. And at first it looked like I was
right. Spring gales and late-season snowstorms? Piece of cake. The VE-24
shrugged them off. Biting flies? The no-see-um proof netting kept them at
a distance. Every night I was lulled to sleep by the impotent bizz of
Then summer came. Temperatures climbed into the high eighties and the
humidity more than kept pace. Soon the walls of my bomb-proof shelter
dripped with moisture. It turned out that the no-see-um proof netting was
air-tight, too. I no longer had a tent; I had a portable sauna. But when I
opened the netting to get some air into my stifling cell, the mosquitoes
swarmed in, as well. Just like the good old days with Grandad, I
grumbledthough at least my old shelter half was well-ventilated.
For the second time, I decided there had to be a better way.
It didn't take long to figure out what it might be. Shortly after I
discovered the sweaty delights of my portable sauna, I got a another
chance to live "under canvas," hiking and mountaineering in the North
Cascades. I climbed high during the day, but I slept low at night. I'd
left the VE-24 in New York. (My pack was almost too big to get on the bus
as it was!) So my only shelter was a nylon tarp. Happily, it proved more
than equal to the challenge: it was light, simple, and well-ventilated.
Best of all, the nighttime chill soon put paid to any biting flies. Here,
I thought, was the better way that I was looking for, at least when the
bugs didn't bite.
Then, within days of returning to New York from Washington, I swapped
my ice ax and climbing boots for a paddle and pacs. I was off to northern
Québec with Farwell. This time I took the VE-24. I'd heard about the
biting flies up North, and I was determined to be prepared.
The flies were bad, too. But the heat and humidity were even
worse. At first, we sweated through the nights. I'd brought my tent,
dammit, and I was going to use it! But after an exhausting day that ended
with a long portage through miles of logging slash, neither of us could
face the fiddly job of threading the poles through the sleeves to set up
the VE-24. Instead, we just draped Farwell's tarp over the upturned canoe,
pegged down the corners, and turned in. A squall line blew through in the
night, driving away the mosquitoes. The tarp stayed put, however. And we
had our first really good night's sleep in several weeks.
From that day on, the tarp was our primary shelterand more,
besides. We cooked under it. We ate under it. We waited out squalls under
it. We read and painted and
well, we did almost everything under it.
We still retreated to the VE-24 whenever the flies became unbearable, but
an August frost put an end to even this nuisance. I was hooked.
That was more than two decades ago. A lot of water's flowed under our
keel since then, and we've made hundreds of camps along the way. I still
haven't found a better all-round shelter than a tarp. We now own three.
Two are conventional nylon rectangles. The third is a Whelen tent, a sort
of improved canvas shelter half. It's heavy and bulkythough nowhere
near as heavy and bulky as such traditional canoe-country shelters as the
Baker tentbut it's my favorite for canoeing trips. We also have a
mosquito-bar: a coarse nylon-mesh net that hangs from loops sewn onto the
tarp and drapes over our sleeping bag. No-see-ums drift right through the
mesh, but it keeps out all the larger biting flies. More importantly, it
lets the breeze blow through. If I can breath, I can live with the
We still have a tent. I pensioned off the VE-24 some time back, and we
bought a modified 4-man Timberline. It's about as good as a tent can get:
roomy, sturdy, and stable. And though it, too, has no-see-um proof
netting, at least the windows are large. If the wind's blowing a gale, a
gentle zephyr squeezes through the mesh to take some of the steam out of
the sauna. It's not a tent for Everest, perhaps, but it's more than enough
for Farwell and me. We're not heading to the Himalaya any time soon.
For most times and most places, however, the 'umble tarp's the thing,
with or without a mosquito-bar to keep the bugs at a distance. Like Uriah
Heep, the "very 'umble person" in Charles Dickens' David
Copperfield, the tarp's not much to look at, butalso like
Uriahit's about as versatile as it can be. That's where the
comparison stops, however. Uriah's a villain, while the tarp's a
sure-enough working-class hero.
The 'umble tarp. Cheap, light, and almost indestructible. A jack of all
trades. Better yet, it's the only portable shelter that doesn't wall you
off from the outside world. That's the whole point of the exercise, isn't
it? Camping out isn't just sleeping rough. Remember the wise words of the
French: to sleep outside is to sleep à la belle étoile.
They have a point. When you make your bed beneath the blanket of the
heavens, you surely ought to see the stars. And with a tarp, you can.
Perhaps it's not so 'umble, after all.
Copyright © 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights