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Our Readers Write

How Dry (and Warm) Am I? A Room With a View

April 29, 2014

Food was the topic on readers' minds last time. This time it's shelter — though food hasn't been forgotten entirely, as the latest Alimentary piece on oatmeal proves. But spring is coming, and in spring the paddler's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of camp. And what is camp without shelter? A cold, damp, unwelcoming place, that's what.

Which isn't what readers of In the Same Boat are looking for, is it? The ice is going out of The River as we write this, and we can hear the rush of the quickening current without stirring from our desks. Good as it is to hear the music of the water at one's desk, however, it's better still to have a front‑row seat for the performance. And that means a riverside campsite. But camps don't spring full‑grown from the earth with the first spring rains. They need careful nurturing — all the right elements, each in its proper place.

Shelter is the first of those essential elements. Shelter keeps you dry when rain (or wet snow) is falling, warm when icy winds are blowing. And since wind and rain are paddlers' inseparable companions in the fickle springtime, we neglect shelter at our peril. Which is where you come in. Your letters on this vital subject are themselves the subject of the latest "Our Readers Write." So… Read. Write. Stay dry. Keep warm. And enjoy the music of the waters.

— Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest, In the Same Boat



A Soldier's Story

Tamia's omnibus shelter article, "Under Canvas," struck a chord with one paddler whose experiences in uniform helped shape his preferences today:

Dear Tamia,

Having spent a fair amount of time as a light infantryman, I have gleaned some insight on shelters for packing light. The Army's go‑to field shelter is definitely the poncho. However, the breathability of most ponchos makes them rather less than waterproof. My solution was, as you discussed, a tarp. Walmart conveniently carried an 8‑by‑10‑foot one in the appropriate camo pattern.

The only real variation I found from your suggestions was the use of bungee cords — which allows for quick set‑up — and some Army surplus shelter poles. These poles can be found at most surplus stores or online. Each segment is about a foot long, and the segments fit together. The top has a point that fits through the grommets on the tarp. I also had enough stakes to be able to set up the tarp in any of the configurations you showed, and I kept my poncho for use as a ground cloth. If I had room, I would substitute a military‑style emergency blanket, with one side covered in ripstop nylon.

Thanks for all your great advice.

Happy paddling,


Tamia replies:

I often shop for gear at military surplus outlets, Brian, but I've never come across the shelter poles you mention. I'll need to look again. They'd certainly make things easier when the trees don't cooperate, and the one‑foot length would fit easily in my (surplus) getaway pack. I do own a number of bungee cords, however — I use them to secure loads to bike panniers, racks, and trailers on amphibious treks. But having a former climber's fondness for ropecraft, I've never used bungees to guy a shelter. Still, I can see how a bungee loop might reduce flapping in gusts. Another thing for me to try.

I must say I'm a bit puzzled by your reference to "breathable" ponchos, however. All of mine are coated nylon. They're as waterproof as any tarp I own, and about as breathable as a plastic sheet. (Farwell even wired one over the end of a broken steam pipe to buy enough time to get to the main shutoff. It worked, though the resulting balloon looked like something from an old Looney Tunes cartoon.) That said, every one of these ponchos has developed pinholes over the years, becoming somewhat "breathable" in the process. Moreover, none is less than a decade old. Perhaps newer ponchos employ lighter or less waterproof coatings. That would explain the difference in our experience.

Anyway, there's no denying the tarp's versatility. This illustration from an early article only touches on a few of the many possibilities (as the next letter illustrates):


Know How to Fold Them


Under Canvas — The Real McCoy

Dear Tamia,

I loved your article on tarp‑tents and thought you might like to see the photo I took of a friend's tarp shelter when we were canoeing the Smith River in Montana in 2010:

Smith River Shelter

The shelter is canvas, and the fellow who used it also made all his own clothes and footgear from deerskins. He taught us all how to carve spoons, too, and rescued me from the middle of the river after the canoe a friend and I were paddling rolled over on a bend.

Stay dry, mostly!

Mary Manner

Tamia replies:

That's a favorite pitch of mine, as well, Mary. It offers good ventilation while effectively shedding rain and blocking wind. (Though you have to be prepared to move fast to shift the pitch if the wind changes direction.) And while all my tarps are now synthetic — either nylon or polyester — I have an old Whelen tent (a floorless tarp‑tent) made from canvas. It's no lightweight, to be sure, but it's a great shelter in the fall woods, particularly in places where it's possible to build a small fire at the mouth, just beyond the overhang.

Coming In Out of the Cold

Dear Tamia,

Reading your article on the art of sleeping warm in a summer‑weight bag gave me some good ideas.

Here in Arizona we can easily paddle and camp year‑around, though few realize that the temperature here does drop below freezing on winter nights, and it just warms up to the 40s when the sun comes out. Thus it is possible to be comfortable when winter camping if you plan ahead.

Being poor, and a fool, I believed the store when I told them that I wanted a 30‑degree Fahrenheit sleeping bag, rectangular so I could zip two together (for cuddling purposes). The store sold me a pair of 30‑degree bags. A shake‑down camping trip proved that 30 degrees means 30 degrees under perfect conditions. Which means on a thick sleeping pad over a rug in your living room. Once you get into the wild where there is wind and dampness and frozen ground, add 15 degrees to the minimum! My 30‑degree bag was useful only for 45 degrees.

How to survive on the Colorado River trip where the water freezes overnight? A few things came to mind:

  1. I had noticed that while in the Air Force, my buddy Doug never wore a fatigue jacket no matter how cold the temperature. When I asked why, he showed me that his wife had sewn a fleece lining into his winter uniforms, and that kept him warm without the bulk. So I purchased a fleece bag liner for my sleeping bag. The advantage is that it's easier to wash a liner than a bag, and now I have a combination set — bag, or liner, or both (depending on the temperature) — that covers pretty much all the weather I will find myself enduring.

  2. I found at a yard sale for a couple bucks a Grabber Outdoors All Weather Blanket. These are those aluminum survival blankets that have a red backing to them. I laid the blanket on my rug, set my tent over the blanket, traced the tent floor, added a couple inches for a hem and attacked the blanket with scissors, needle and thread. Yes, I can sew! I may be a man who cannot cook, but I CAN sew. The result was a backed aluminum blanket that fits the floor of my tent.

    In the summer I place the blanket inside my tent, shiny side down to cool the inside. In the winter the blanket goes inside, shiny side up as a moisture barrier and to reflect body heat back into the tent. Frankly, I find that unless I put a blue foam pad under my air mattress, the dead air inside the mattress sucks body heat away. This re‑sewn aluminum blanket solves that problem. And as I buy them all the time at yard sales, if it lasts only a season, so what? I have a box of them.

  3. Most body heat is shed through your head, feet and hands. So I wear wool socks, wool gloves (that followed me home from the Air Force), and a "stupid wool hat" that my daughter knitted for me. It has ear flaps and a chin tie so wearing that keeps me warm.

There it is: how I manage to stay warm when camping in the cold.

Rick Johnson

Tamia replies:

I've seldom read a better summary of the ways to improve the performance of a marginal sleeping bag, Rick. Liner, tent floor "blanket," supplementary foam pad, warm clothing top‑to‑toe… It's all there. And no, I'm not surprised that you can sew. Farwell can, too, though it's been a while since I've seen him demonstrate his skill. I can see no reason why the ability to sew a straight seam shouldn't be numbered among the manly arts. After all, generations of mariners lived or died by their facility with a needle and palm.

Why Two Into One Does Go

Dear Tamia,

"The Art of Sleeping Warm in a Summer‑Weight Bag" was another helpful article. And thorough.

We are Florida Panhandle kayakers, and we drive, tent camp, and paddle to get to our home near Waterton Lakes in Alberta, Canada. Going to Alberta in early June, rain is more likely to be the fair‑weather spoiler. Returning in late September, it's the cold which can make for a sleepless night unless prepared.

We cannot carry two sets of sleeping bags when we're camping while paddling, so we've discovered that zipping 20‑degree and 40‑degree bags which have compatible zippers together on an insulated sleeping pad allows us a choice of covers.

Like most of life's lessons, we learned about the variability of weather by experience, during September outings in the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. On one trip we only had our 40‑degree bags, and the temperature in South Dakota dropped to below freezing. We wore layers of merino wool and synthetics, but that did not prevent a sleepless night. There was hard frost on the ground in the morning, but the sun later created a beautiful paddling day. We hastened the next traveling day to buy a cheap, futon‑heavy sleeping bag at Walmart to use for the rest of the trip through Wisconsin and Michigan.

While rectangular sleeping bags are heavier than mummy bags made of the same quality of material, we prefer to sleep as we do in our bed at home — together. This September, while camping and paddling in Voyageurs National Park, we carried both a 20‑degree and a 40‑degree bag, but it was warm enough for us to sleep on the 20‑degree side and use the 40‑degree side for the cover.

Because we often paddle‑camp (there's no alternative at Voyageurs), we chose synthetic materials rather than down. In Florida, in the winter, we use our 40‑degree bags. Even though the sleeping bags are wrapped in plastic bags and put in watertight compartments, they could get wet (a failure to dog down the hatch properly, for instance). Since our multi‑day trips are sometimes on rivers, spending an extra day in a camp area to dry a down sleeping bag would throw the schedule off for the outfitter to pick us up (and cell phones don't often connect where we paddle).

Properly prepared to spend a good night's sleep, we prefer fall camping to early summer with its good chance of rain. There is something about the cry of a loon which seems so much more haunting in the fall than in the summer.

Thanks again.

Marylyn Feaver

Tamia replies:

I, too, have found experience to be the best teacher, Marylyn. And we've also mated bags with different temperature ratings and flipped the resulting double bag as needed to match conditions. It's a simple solution to a common problem — and best of all, it works.

Tenting Tonight


That's it. Marylyn has the last word — and our heartfelt thanks, into the bargain. Of course, our thanks also go out to the other paddlers who've contributed to this edition of "Our Readers Write." By the time it goes online, many of you will be back on the water, I'm sure, but send us a note whenever you can. Comment, criticism, or helpful hint — it makes no difference. All are welcome. We can't do this without you, can we?



Referenced Articles From In the Same Boat
Plus Some Others of Interest


And if you want to know more about what's been on other paddlers' minds over the years, be sure to check out the "Our Readers Write" Archive, a index with links to all 53 earlier editions of this quarterly feature from In the Same Boat.


A little fine print: Although we often ask, just to be sure, we'll assume that it's OK to reprint any letter you send us, unless you tell us otherwise. (Just put "Not for Publication" at the head of your letter. That's all it takes.) We'll never put your e‑mail address online unless you specifically ask us to, however. We also edit letters occasionally for length or clarity, and we add links to articles or other resources wherever and whenever appropriate.

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