The Woman Who Went Up a Ridge and Came Down Again,
Having Learned How Not to Tie One On
By Tamia Nelson
June 10, 2014
Earlier this year, in the changeable time between the season of stillness and the season of spate, I spent several days surveying a couple of miles of The River, taking my departure from vantage points high on the enfolding ridges. Late March and early April are ideally suited to such work, since the undraped hills afford long, unobstructed vistas of both the valley and the quickening waters. These gave me the Big Picture at a glance.
But I wanted more. I needed to update my mental map of The River with a myriad of critical details, among them the locations of active cutbanks and any sweepers newly toppled by the snowmelt‑swollen waters. So I found myself yo‑yoing up and down steep slopes many times in the course of each day, and despite the lingering chill in the air, these early scouting forays proved to be a sweaty business. They weren't without incidental diversions, however. I also had eyes for changes on the land, including the spoor left behind by recent human visitors. And here I encountered a mystery. Several trees and stumps were encircled with girdles made up of many layers of duct tape. Closer inspection revealed that it wasn't just any old duct tape, either. It was the real thing: olive‑drab "100 mph" tape.
And with that observation, …
The Mystery of Duct Tape Ridge …
Was solved. Or pretty near. I didn't have to look far to find corroborating evidence. An empty MRE pouch, a discarded plastic spoon, and an orienteering target bearing a cryptic stencil completed the profile — that and earlier sightings of US Army ROTC cadets practicing map and compass work on these very slopes. Such encounters always prove instructive. Situational awareness obviously comes later in the ROTC curriculum than land navigation, since I invariably see the cadets long before they see me. And to judge from the amount of trash they scatter about, the leave‑no‑trace ethos doesn't figure in the curriculum at all. Here, for instance, is a typical example of the cadets' fieldcraft:
It's not what I'd call a tidy camp. But at least this cadet didn't feel it necessary to girdle the trees with duct tape. Those who followed after him did, though:
At first I was mystified by this. But closer examination revealed that the duct tape had been used to create anchor points for guylines:
The first pair of photos shows the tape as I found it; the second illustrates how the guylines were secured. (Their routing is shown by the yellow lines.) I can't say that I'm impressed. But then I've never found it necessary to use duct tape when pitching a poncho shelter, and given the cost of good‑quality tape, it's not an art I'm likely to cultivate. Cost doesn't enter into the ROTC instructors' calculations, I suppose.
Anyway, I did what I could to remove the duct tape from the trees, doing as little damage as possible in the process. And while I was occupied at this sticky task, it occurred to me that the duct tape lash‑points might have been a misguided attempt to protect the trees' bark from chafe. If so, however, the scheme fell well short of the intended aim. Removing the tape did far more injury to the bark than simply wrapping chute cord around the trunk would have done. And webbing slings — of the sort frequently employed in suspending hammocks — would have done even less damage.
The bottom line? Duct tape — good duct tape — is wonderfully versatile stuff, but it's not at its best as an anchor point for guylines.
What then is the best alternative? As I hiked back home with a pack full of gummy wodges of tape, it seemed to me that there was a need for …
A Guide to Tying One (or More) On
This isn't a subject that's likely to find its way onto the pages of the glamor mags in the outdoor trade, I admit. But if you've ever watched a companion's poorly anchored tent sail away into the chilly waters of a nearby bay, or had the kitchen tarp come down just as you were preparing to dish up supper, you'll understand the importance of good tie‑downs and anchors. Let's begin by listing the options (and no, you won't find duct tape among them):
- Local materials, quarried on‑site (sticks, limbs, stones)
- Commercially manufactured tent stakes and pegs
- Other gear re‑tasked to do the same job (paddles, boats, trekking poles, walking sticks, tripods, etc.)
- Terrain features (trees, shrubs, exposed roots, bedrock outcrops)
- Deadmen, both store‑bought and home‑made
The third option on this list ("Other gear") offers almost infinite scope for improvisation. At the very least, it warrants an article in its own right. But the remaining alternatives can be brought within the compass of the present column. And that's my plan, starting at …
The Ground Floor. Almost every tent, tarp, and tarp‑tent comes with a bag of wire (or plastic) pegs. Use them. Though it's sometimes possible to collect sticks or break off pieces from downed limbs to use as stakes, popular campsites will likely have been picked clean already, and any sites that haven't been scoured won't be improved by your scavenging. My advice? Limit your use of local materials to remote, little‑visited sites — their number grows smaller with every passing year — and true emergencies.
Luckily, commercial stakes are light and reasonably efficient, even if the bewildering variety of types can befuddle any paddler who isn't a structural engineer at heart. For simplicity's sake, therefore, I'll confine my remarks to wire and plastic pegs. They're certainly not the best choice for every ground, but they are light, cheap, and versatile. You'll still have to make some hard choices, however. Aluminum wire pegs are bendy, steel wire is heavy (not to mention rust‑prone), and plastic pegs are, well, plastic. And what if none of these appeals? Then you can find pegs made from titanium or carbon‑fiber. I wouldn't bother. In fact, I'm usually content to rely on the stakes provided by the manufacturers of my tents and tarps, though I always add to their number. If the wind is stronger than a zephyr, or if you manage to leave one or more stakes behind when you break camp, you'll be glad you brought some extras. My rule of thumb? Carry half again as many stakes as the maximum number recommended by the manufacturer for a "storm pitch." The extra weight — a few ounces at most — won't wear you down, and the cost will be negligible (unless you insist on titanium or carbon‑fiber, that is).
The photo below shows a selection of stakes from our own collection. Except for the yellow plastic pair at the top, they're much of a muchness, fabricated from aluminum (on the left) or steel (on the right) wire. All are around seven inches in length. Still, there are some important differences, and the ones in the lower left are my favorites — made from heavy‑gauge aluminum wire, they're both light and stiff, and the blunted points strike just the right balance between ease of insertion and the likelihood of friendly fire damage to tents and clothes, should the stakes ever get loose in the pack. That said, every peg in the picture can do the job.
Placement matters, and it matters a lot. Stakes hold best when they're driven into the ground right up to their necks, and angled so that the pull of the guyline comes at 90 degrees. Longer stakes make better anchors, of course, but Canoe Country soils are often too sparse to warrant going longer than seven inches or so. In other words, you may find that the terrain drives a …
Very Hard Bargain, Indeed. You can't pound stakes into bedrock, after all, and even ordinarily stony soils can transform the seemingly simple job of placing a wire stake into mission impossible. In this unequal contest, the terrain always has the home court advantage, but if you use your loaf — thank you, Pop Larkin! — you can usually win through. Often you can exploit fissures in rock, using your stakes as climbers once used pitons (and now use chocks). And sometimes a few minutes' patient probing will disclose a stone‑free passage in otherwise impenetrable soil. But now and then you'll just have to choke up, making the best of a shallow placement by moving the guyline as low as it can go on the pin, as in this example:
A simple prusik hitch helps keep the guyline from riding up, and you can increase the friction at will by doubling and redoubling the turns. I recommend a minimum of two turns, twice the number shown in the photo below:
You could also use a clove hitch, I suppose, but I wouldn't. The prusik will give better service, particularly in gusty winds, when the clove hitch is likely to come undone.
If your stakes keep their grip through a blowy night — and if you exercise care in placing them, they likely will — your next time of trial will come when you have to remove them. And while you might reasonably conclude that anything that was hard to push in should come out easily, this isn't always the case. There's an art to …
Pulling Stubborn Stakes. Not surprisingly, paddlers seeking an easy way out can buy a tool to assist them. (It looks a lot like a longshoreman's hook, though I doubt it would prove as handy in a fight.) Since I try not to cumber myself with single‑use implements, however, I've never bothered with a stake extractor. Instead, I just employ a spare stake as a hook to lever its stubborn sister out of the ground, and when that doesn't work, I grab the attached guy and use it to worry the stake loose, aping the side‑to‑side motion that a dentist employes when extracting a molar. It may take a few minutes, but it works. I almost never have to dig up a stake.
But what about those times when you can't manage to drive a single stake into the ground? What then? Well, you can always …
Rock 'em or Chock 'em. It's easy to loop a guyline around a large rock, make it fast, and use the rock as an anchor. Don't let the apparent simplicity of this scheme fool you, though. It's much harder to ensure that the loop won't slip off in the middle of the night. So you'd better choose your rock with care and then ensnare it in multiple crisscrossing loops. It doesn't hurt to cross your fingers, too.
Another approach, and one which I've already hinted at, is to use what devotees of clean climbing call chocks, odd‑shaped toggles that can be jammed into natural rock fissures. If the terrain cooperates, the same approach can be made to work with guylines. Loop the end of the guy around a chock, place the chock in a crack or in the gap between two rocks, and tighten away.
And what can you use for a chock? Well, climbers can just dip into their bag of tricks, but the rest of us will have to make do with pebbles — doable, but fussy — or tent stakes. The photos below will give you some idea how they should be placed:
It's not readily apparent here, but the flanking rocks both overhang the stake, and the direction of pull is such that the anchor should hold in all but the strongest winds. And if that isn't enough, you can improve matters by placing a third rock over the gap between the other two. But beware of chafe. As more than a few mountaineers have had cause to regret, it doesn't take much to fray nylon line, and a frayed line is sure to fail, sooner or later.
Enough about ironmongery (aluminumongery?). Let's take a little time to …
Hug the Trees. After all, as the ROTC rangers of Duct Tape Ridge understood all too well, trees are natural anchors. All you need to do the job right is (1) plenty of strong cord and (2) a working knowledge of a few good knots. Loop your guylines around convenient trees, tie them off, take up the slack — if you use a tautline hitch or trucker's hitch you can leave the patent tensioners on the shelf — and enjoy your new home from home, free from worry and care. What more could any paddler ask?
But it's not always this easy, is it? Sometimes the trees don't cooperate. That's when it pays to have 50 or 100 feet of extra line in your pack. Or maybe you're concerned that your guylines will damage the bark of the trees you're tying off to. This is a real problem if the trees are young and small and you expect high winds. But the answer isn't duct tape. It's webbing. Or the commercial sleeves sold to hammock campers. Or what sailors call baggywrinkle, soft stuff wrapped around a line to protect sails from chafe. Of course, you're hoping to protect trees, not sails, but the principle is the same. Precut sections of aquarium tubing, either split lengthwise or threaded over the line in advance of need, will serve admirably, as will a few scraps torn from old t‑shirts. (We have several bags of these, and we find new uses for them every week.)
Use what you have, in other words. What you use isn't important. It's the how that counts. This is what you want to avoid:
Though in these instances, the damage was compounded by some heedless camper's failure to remove a line when breaking camp. Don't make the same mistake. No‑trace means leaving your campsite as you found it — unless you found it fouled with garbage left by some earlier camper. I can think of no good reason to leave other people's trash where it lies. In fact, it's best if you don't. If weight and space permit, put it in your pack and haul it out.
There's one other anchor worth mentioning, a last resort when you camp on soil so loose that no stake will hold, and neither trees nor rocks avail — a beach campsite, for instance. That's where you'll want to …
Bury the Deadmen. And no, this has nothing to do with your response to the forthcoming zombie apocalypse. Since I've already treated the subject at some length, however, I'll be brief. Deadmen are broad platters to which guylines are tied. You can bury them or heap sand on them, as you wish. The result is the same either way. And while you can buy readymade deadmen, there's really no need. Few DIY projects are easier. In a pinch, you can even bury a sand‑filled sack. What could be simpler?
Finally, I think I should add a few parting words about that sine qua non of campsite rigging:
The Knot. Or more properly, knots, since no single knot is suited to every need. But rest easy: You won't have to commit all 600‑odd pages of the Ashley Book of Knots to memory. Mastering five knots should be enough to start with; five more will see you through most every contingency short of signing articles to serve aboard a full‑rigged ship. I suppose I also ought to say something about tensioners and slides and such — those clever gizmos designed to make knot‑tying unnecessary. OK. I will. They're a snare and a delusion, and if you feel you must have them, you probably ought to trade in your pack canoe for a cruise‑ship ticket. There. I've said it. And if you want to know the buttress of reasons supporting this intemperate outburst, you'll find it in an earlier column.
Seriously, though… By all means use tensioners if you find them convenient. But do the trees a favor. Leave the duct tape on the roll.
Duct tape is great stuff. But it has no business serving as an anchor for your tarp or tent. Then again, who'd want to bother wrapping trees in tape when nylon cord and wire pegs will do the job more efficiently — and much more effectively? Who, indeed? Nobody who reads In the Same Boat, I'll bet. We've learned how to tie one on the right way, after all.
Related Articles From In the Same Boat
- "Under Canvas: A Guide to Backcountry Shelters"
- "Deadmen — Silent Partners on Sandy Campsites"
- "Your Flexible Friend — A Fabric Deadman Anyone Can Make"
- "The Deadmen of Georgian Bay"
- "Ropework for Paddlers"
- "Never Tie a Knot Again? Not on Your Life! And Here Are Six of the Best"
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