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Smoothing It Made Easy

Exploring Camp Comfort, Room by Room: The Living Room

By Tamia Nelson Comfort Paddlers

July 8, 2014

Last week we began our tour of Camp Comfort, in the company of Luci and George, a hard‑charging couple who've decided to shift down and explore the pleasures of life in the slow lane. We started out in the bedroom, but it's now morning in Canoe Country. A new day has dawned. We've had our breakfast, and we'll soon be doing what we came to do: swim, fish, paint, or just watch the wind play over the water. First, though, we're going to settle down with a cup of hot coffee in Camp Comfort's …

Alfresco Living Room

This is really a pretty big deal. For much of human history, most people lived out their lives in one room. Sometimes it was a big room — big enough to accommodate a king and all his household, including his personal guard. Sometimes it was a small room, in which a peasant farmer, his wife, and their children jostled for space with the family livestock. But by the 19th century, things had started to change, even for folks with no claims to "gentle" breeding. All but the most modest homes now boasted rooms just for sleeping, along with a special place for eating and another room for that happy collage of purposeful activity and fruitful inaction that we call "living."

It was a good idea then, and it's a good idea now. And there's no reason why a backcountry camp shouldn't emulate this sensible scheme, too. In fact, there are very good reasons to separate cooking (and eating) areas from sleeping areas, for instance. Can you say "hungry bears"? Of course, the separation of sleeping quarters from your camp's living room is more or less arbitrary. If there's an icy wind driving a swirling mist through camp, you may opt to spend the day huddled cozily (or companionably) in your sleeping bag. But if the sun is shining and you don't have plans to put beaucoup miles under your keel, you'll want to make the most of the day, and that means getting out and about as soon as the sun clears the horizon.

Camp Comfort's living room accommodates that wish. It offers …

Shelter from Showers  Yes, I know I said that the sun was shining, but Canoe Country weather is variable, and even sunny days are often punctuated by brief, hard showers. A well‑pitched tarp gives you a place to sit out such a shower in comfort, while still affording you a panoramic view of the play of light and shadow on mountaintop or forest canopy. Few pleasures can compare to watching a summer storm roll across a lake from under an impervious canopy whose sides are open to the wider world. In the aftermath of the storm's passage, colors are more vivid, smells more intense, and — like as not — the formerly stagnant, sultry air is now wonderfully cool and refreshing. And once the sun comes out again, brassy and hot, you'll find that your rain shelter is a good sun shelter, too. Win‑win. Who'd argue with that?

So Camp Comfort's living room is a tarp. Or two tarps if the party is a large one. Very large tarps can be awkward to set up. They're also the wind's playthings. On most sites, therefore, it's better to have two smaller tarps than one large one. (The dividing line between small and large comes somewhere around 12 feet by 12. Smaller is "small." Larger is "large.") But even small tarps require careful placement. There's an art to pitching a tarp, in fact, and you'll want to master that art before you arrive at your put‑in. Don't forget to bring plenty of nylon cord for guylines, too, along with some webbing bridles to protect any trees you choose to use as anchors. And give some thought to poles. While it's possible to pitch a tarp without poles on many Canoe Country sites, poles always make the job much easier and the resulting living room more habitable. They're usually worth their weight.

Ah, you say, that all sounds mighty fine. But …

What About the Bugs?  Indeed. A tarp offers no refuge from the relentless, probing assaults of mosquitos and blackflies. And these inescapable companions can drive even stoic paddlers to near madness (or tears) in no time. Luckily, there's a solution: a mosquito bar, suspended from the tarp's peak or ridge. You'll find countless choices on outfitters' websites. Pick the one that suits the size of your party (and the depth of your purse). There are three cautions to heed, however: First, sparks from a wood fire will make a bug net look like it's been hit by a blast of birdshot. They won't do a nylon or polyester tarp much good, either. So if you must build a fire, locate it downwind — and then pray that the wind doesn't shift. Second, a lot of mosquito bars are made from no‑see‑um proof netting. This ultra‑fine mesh will indeed keep midges at bay, but it does a pretty good job of keeping air out, too, and it does nothing for the view. I'd opt for coarser mesh, especially as midges are usually nighttime raiders. Lastly, high winds will make it almost impossible to keep a mosquito bar properly draped. But then high winds also ground most biting flies. My answer to this dilemma? I just take the bar down in the gales. Then I put it up again when the wind abates. Problem solved.

Speaking of nighttime raiders, you'll probably want to sit up late in your living room from time to time, whether you're swapping stories, planning the next day's adventures, or tying a few flies to match the hatch. And though the summer sun lingers long in Canoe Country from May till August, there'll still be times when you'll need to …

Light Up the Night  Lanterns — gas, gasoline, or battery — are common catalog fare, and I have many fond memories of talking late into the night with my grandfather while seated in the golden circle of light thrown by a gently hissing Coleman lantern. Atmospherics aside, however, I find that a headlamp does a better job of illuminating whatever it is that needs seeing, whether it's a map, the display of an e‑book reader, or a blister requiring urgent attention. And AAA cells take up a lot less space in a pack than fuel canisters. (You can even get a solar charger for the cells.) Of course, in Comfort Camp, there's room for both. You can eat your cake and have it, too.

Hmm … In discussing the pros and cons of lanterns, we've moved away from the subject of the living room proper (tarp and mosquito bar) to the no less important topic of …

Living Room Furniture

Back in the day, campers took pride in their ability to manufacture camp furnishings from materials drawn from (in Nessmuk's happy phrase) "the closet of the woods." But those days are long gone. Such "improvements" are frowned on everywhere. In fact, they're illegal in many parks, and rightly so. Yet few backcountry camps come ready furnished with picnic tables and benches, and even when these amenities are provided, they're often badly placed or in poor repair — certainly not up to Camp Comfort standards.

Happily, though, the catalogs offer the comfort‑seeking camper many choices, from self‑inflating sitzpads to full‑blown chaises lawns … er, longues. These are worth thoughtful consideration. I can remember having a lot of fun at the expense of a paddling companion who brought an old‑style, aluminum‑framed folding lawn chair on a trip through the James Bay Lowlands. He struggled with it over the portages, to be sure, but after I'd spent a couple of weeks eating my dinner while squatting in string‑bog ooze, only to see him sitting pretty, his (dry) rump cradled well above the morass into which I was slowly sinking, I knew who would have the last laugh.

Learn from my folly. A comfortable seat goes a long way toward making a backcountry camp into a home from home. Unless you're determined to travel fast and far, therefore, don't begrudge the few pounds a folding chair adds to your load. Are you still having second thoughts? Then take another look at hammocks. They make just as good lounge chairs as they do beds, and some weigh no more than a half‑filled water bottle. They won't take up any more space in your pack, either.

And what's a chair without a table to sit at? The sound of one hand clapping? Well, I'll leave that vexed question to the philosophers, but if you find life easier when you've got a place to put your plate, park your elbows (I won't tell mother), or deal Texas hold 'em, you'll find what you need at many outfitters. Some of these portable tables fold. Some roll up. But none is exactly lightweight. No matter. Camp Comfort wouldn't be properly furnished without a table under the living room tarp, would it? Of course not.

Now that we're all seated, I'll bet there's one question on everybody's mind: What's for dinner? And to answer that we'll need to leave the living room and saunter over to Camp Comfort's kitchen. Which is exactly what we'll do next week. See you then!

Happy Campers


Even hard chargers like to take it easy now and then, and what better way to take it easy than to paddle out to a beautiful spot, set up camp, and kick back for a weekend? Or a week. It takes a different mindset than going far and fast, of course. Which is why I've organized this tour of Camp Comfort. Last week, we got peek at the bedroom. This week we moved into the living room. And next week? We're headed out to the kitchen. Hope to see you there!



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