Sheltering Your Assets
A Room With a View That You Can Wear on Your Back
By Tamia Nelson
August 11, 2009
The story goes something like this: You've set up camp on a northern lake in the shadow of a nearby mountain with a fire-scarred summit. You'd like to climb up and check out the view. Maybe you'll shoot some scenic panoramas, but what you really want to do is knock off a quick watercolor and make a few pencil sketches for your journal. Still, you hesitate. The weather's looking decidedly threatening. Clouds are moving in fast, and it's a safe bet that rain is in the offing. You don't mind getting soaked all that much, but it's no fun trying to sketch or paint in a rainstorm. So what's it going to be? Should you hunker down under your tarp in camp? Or take a chance and make a dash for the summit? Well, I've got some good news. You don't have to choose. You can head out on the climb in confidence. Just make certain you have all Ten Essentials in your pack—and be sure that these include a poncho.
Is this scenario too pat? Nope, it isn't. Can a poncho really make such a big difference? Yes, it can. A month ago I was faced with just this choice—stay under shelter or chance a soaking in pursuit of a few good photos. I chose to go. My favorite rucksack came along with me, and it carried all I needed to cope with anything from a summer shower to a worst-case scenario. Good thing it did, too. An hour later, the sky darkened dramatically, and it was obvious that a gully-washer was imminent. But I met the challenge easily by sheltering under…
It often seems that ponchos don't get no respect. At best, they're seen as cheap alternatives to "real" rain gear. Too bad. It is true that they have their limitations, of course. They're awkward—make that impossible—to swim in. You certainly won't want to wear a poncho when you're negotiating a rapids or beginning an exposed, open-water crossing. And ponchos make great sails, too. This is fine when the breeze is behind you, but it's not so good in a headwind. Even when you're walking down a portage trail, a gust can turn a poncho into a flapping, twisting nuisance—unless you tame the beast with a belt or waist drawstring, that is.
Now for the upside. Ponchos are cheap. Ponchos are light. And—most important of all—ponchos are versatile. They're the Swiss Army knives of outerwear. That said, it took me a while to learn to love them. Not until I started doing field surveys, working outdoors all day, every day, in all weathers, did I come to appreciate the poncho's many virtues. Ever since then, I've kept one in the battered old pack that houses my getaway kit. It's earned its weight many times, most recently when I was gathering material to illustrate an article in my Backcountry Photography series. I'd just made it to the stretch of The River that I wanted to shoot when the first big drops of rain plummeted down. No problem. I pulled my poncho from my pack and began…
It didn't take long, though it could have taken even less time than it did. In fact, setting up to wait out a cloudburst can be as simple as pulling the poncho over both yourself and your pack and hunkering down on your haunches, using the side-seam snaps to create a windproof envelope. Such minimalist shelter is pretty confining, however. It can also be pretty steamy. It's certainly not a long-term solution.
And it wasn't what I had in mind. I needed something roomier. A sort of improvised studio. Dry, but open to my surroundings. Then I'd be able to have a drink and get a bite to eat, make a few journal entries, and shoot the photos I'd come for—without getting soaked or risking a waterlogged camera.
So instead of hunkering down, I put my…
Into play. To begin with, I picked a spot with conveniently placed trees. Off came my pack and out came my poncho, along with the two hanks of nylon cord that I carry in my ditty bag.
First, I closed off the poncho's hood using the integral drawstring, before tying one of the hanks of cord to a corner grommet, leaving two long tails. I then strung one of the tails around a small yellow birch, placing the loop about five and one-half feet high and tying it in place with a couple of half hitches. Step One was complete. Elapsed time? About thirty seconds.
Next, I picked up one of the many finger-width branches that littered the ground, breaking off several three-inch lengths to use as toggles. (If I were traveling where the forest understory had been scoured clean of windfalls, I'd carry a few short lengths of dowel in my pack.) I stretched the second tail of cord along the poncho's hem, poked a loop through the grommet on the opposite corner, and secured it with one of my "found" toggles, pulling the line taut as I did so.
I then threaded the free end around a second tree and snugged it down using a trucker's hitch. As an afterthought—the poncho's hem was sagging a bit—I pushed one more loop of cord up through the central grommet, fixing it in place with another toggle. The result? One edge of the poncho was suspended between two trees, and Step Two was complete. Less than two minutes had passed.
I now turned my attention to making the windward edge of my shelter secure. I ran the second cord along the side opposite my "rooftree," but instead of beginning by knotting the line to a corner grommet, I used loops and toggles in both corners (plus the center grommet), leaving the free ends to serve as guylines. Step Three was done. The time? Three minutes and counting.
I was almost finished. I staked the two trailing ends of cord down using bits of broken branch (aluminum tent pegs would have worked as well), adding trucker's hitches to facilitate final tensioning, and Step Four was history. I still hadn't broken the four-minute barrier.
But my shelter was up. And not a moment too soon. The storm was about to begin in earnest. Luckily, there was nothing left to do but fine-tune my rig, taking up slack in the guylines and balancing the tension. This needed less than a minute more. Step Five. Mission accomplished.
It was time to take stock. The heavy rain hadn't yet begun, so I left the shelter of my improvised lean-to and scrounged a couple of downed limbs to serve as props for the sides. This not only made it easier for me to come and go, but it also tightened the overall pitch, eliminating sags where rainwater could pool. Now I was ready for (almost) anything. I settled in, but not before opening my compact umbrella to protect my pack, which I'd shoved to one side in order to make more room for my tripod and other photo gear.
As the rain began to beat down, I made a final improvement, placing a third prop under the tied-off hood of the poncho and creating a water-shedding peak in my new roof. Here's how it looked:
The upper edge of my poncho shelter was a little over five feet high; the lower edge came within about a foot of the ground. This worked well for me, but you're free to make whatever adjustments the terrain and weather demand. A higher pitch is airy but vulnerable to wind-driven rain and sudden gusts. Lower is better in a gale, even at the cost of claustrophobia. One more tip: If you're going to use a center prop often, pad the end that makes contact with the fabric. If you don't, you'll soon be patching a hole.
Let's recap. If you have a poncho in your pack when rain starts to fall, you're covered. But you've still got to do your part. And there's not a moment to be lost. This is where the Five-Step Strategy pays off:
- Tie a line to one corner
- Complete the "rooftree"
- Thread a second line along the windward edge
- Stake out
Fine-tuning comes last and should be tailored to expected conditions. Once you've got the height right, strive for a taut and balanced pitch. Then lean back and listen to the sound of raindrops falling on your roof.
Does this exhaust the possibilities? No! Poncho shelters are infinitely adaptable. There are as many ways to pitch them as there are paddlers. Here are just a few…
Variations on the Theme
The classic canoe shelter is perhaps the most obvious. It was good enough for the voyageurs, and it's still useful today. Fallen trees can also be pressed into service, as in this instance:
Need a pole? No downed limbs lying around? Use your paddle, instead. If you have a spare paddle as well—you do, don't you?—you've got the makings of a pup-tent-like A-frame shelter. Ponchos can also double as windbreaks in camp. (But if you have a wood fire, watch out for sparks!) The one thing a poncho won't do is protect you from bloodthirsty biting flies. For that you'll need a mosquito net. Or you'll have to wait for the first frost to put an end to airborne assaults for the year.
Of course, it's not always raining in Canoe Country, and the wind isn't invariably blowing a gale. We get our share of airless, sultry days, too. And that's when a sun shade is a very welcome addition to your kit, particularly if you'll be spending time on the beach. But you don't need to carry another piece of gear. Your poncho can do the job. Here's an example:
The roof is high, allowing any stray zephyr to waft through unimpeded, and the center prop is offset, maximizing the available space. There's a bonus, too: The poncho hood is left open to the prevailing breeze, serving the dual purpose of wind scoop and vent. It's little things like this that make the difference between roughing it and smoothing it. Me? I'll take smoothing it any day. What about you?
Outfitters' shelves overflow with brightly colored rainwear and meticulously engineered gear. So it's easy to overlook the utility of a dowdy castoff from Uncle Sam's bargain basement. But that's a mistake. I've been sheltering my assets under a poncho for a mighty long time, and I'm still discovering new uses for my old friend. You can, too. With just a poncho and a few lengths of cord, you can create a rough-and-ready refuge in minutes. It's a room with a view that you can wear on your back. Could any paddler ask for more?
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