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Color Matters: Tents

To Be Seen, or Not to Be Seen — That Is the Question

By Tamia Nelson Spot the Difference?

August 12, 2014

All canoeing and kayaking excursions, even spur-of-the-moment weekends, require some preparation. At the very least, you need to be sure you bring maps, food, and paddles. (I've been on several group trips where at least one participant left his paddles behind in the garage.) Amphibious treks are no exception. In fact, they involve a bit more work, since you'll be hauling a bagged boat in a trailer behind your bike. The extra weight takes its toll. You soon learn to pay as much attention to the gradient of the roads leading to the put‑in as you do to the drop on the river. And if you'll be spending more than a day going out or coming back, you'll also need a place to sleep.

This means camping. Luckily, public land isn't hard to find in northern New York, where most of my amphibious treks take place. But established campgrounds are few and far between, and I find the USD15‑20 that the state charges for a few square yards of gravel (and access to a dribbling tap yielding only rusty water) to be a mite exorbitant, even without the nonstop partying that is the hallmark of many neighboring campers' wilderness experience. So I prefer informal camping on state or county forest land. But although this is legal in many places — if it isn't, I go somewhere else — I don't like to advertise my presence, particularly as I'm often bedding down within a few score yards of a public highway. And this consideration continues to weigh heavily even when I reach my put‑in. After all, on well‑traveled waterways I don't want to dispel my fellow canoeists' happy illusion that they're paddling through an area where, to borrow the words of the Wilderness Act of 1964, "the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man."

The upshot? Anytime I'm camping where I can expect passers‑by, I try to blend into the scenery. This influences my choice of shelter. My Eureka Apex tent is wonderfully light and easy to set up, but the golden‑yellow fly can't be said to be inconspicuous. That's why I now turn more and more often to a recent purchase: the Appy Trails Mark V, a forest‑green tarp‑tent. But does color really make a difference? I decided to put this to the test. The question before the house, then, was …

Does Color Matter?

And I approached it empirically, pitching both the Apex and the Appy Trails at the edge of a second‑growth woodland that fronts a sandy beach. It was midmorning on a sunny day in June, though a veil of cirrus attenuated the light. You can see the setup in the photo below. The Apex is on the left; the Appy Trails, on the right. A camouflage boonie hat and an olive drab rucksack rest on the ground in front of the Apex, not far from a collection of brightly colored stuff sacks and a folded Tyvek groundsheet.

The Contenders

Even when viewed up‑close, it's clear that the Appy Trails is less conspicuous than its neighbor, despite the tarp‑tent's higher peak. But how would the Appy Trails fare when the tents were backlit? To find out, I walked into the woods to shoot a second photo:

Silhouette View

The result? Both tents are visible, silhouetted against a rather milky sky, but once again the golden‑yellow fly of the Apex stands out, first among equals. Now it only remained to see how things looked from the beach, with the tents framed by the dark woods:

Green Scene

Advantage Appy. And this time it's no contest. The Apex clamors for attention, while the Appy Trails hovers shyly in the background, where it's unlikely to catch the eye of any but the most observant passer‑by.

My conclusion? Color really does make a difference. If you want to be seen, go for the gold. But if you're hoping to escape attention, think green. Note, however, that the tables will be turned in fall. Then, the Appy Trails' green canopy will stand in sharp contrast to the russet and gold leaves of the autumn woods, something that can't be said of the golden‑yellow Apex.

Autumn Gold

That answers the first question before the house. When you want your camp to be inconspicuous, the color of your shelter matters. But however much you value privacy, there will still be times when you want to be noticed. What then? To be seen, or not to be seen? Which is the better course? And when? These questions, too, deserve consideration. Let's weigh the pros and cons, beginning with the …

Reasons You Might Not Want to Be Seen

And we'll start with the obvious:

I want to be alone!  I led off with this, didn't I? When you're covert camping on public land — don't confuse this with the legally dubious practice of "commando camping" — you aren't at home to company. Solo paddlers, especially women traveling alone, often prize their solitude. And maintaining a low profile helps them preserve the privacy they seek.

Of course, there are other reasons not to draw attention to yourself, and here's a second one we've already alluded to: An inconspicuous camp can be …

A kindness to strangers.  Many canoeists and kayakers cherish the notion that they're traversing a wilderness in which man is an infrequent visitor. The fact that this is demonstrably false in most instances is of no consequence. The illusion is the important thing. Ensuring that your camp blends into the surroundings costs you nothing, but it helps to keep others' dreams alive.

So much for considering the feelings of fellow visitors to wild places. But what about the permanent residents? Catching glimpses of wild creatures going about their daily business undisturbed by human presence is one of the pleasures of backcountry travel. And your chances of doing so are much improved if you …

Make an effort to be a good house guest.  Whenever you're in the backcountry, you're a guest in someone else's home. And since you value your hosts' good opinion of you, you won't want to put your feet on the furniture, criticize the cooking, or monopolize the bathroom. In other words, you'll do your best to fit in. Choosing an inconspicuous shelter is one way to do just that. You'll get a bonus, too: A well‑chosen tent can also serve as a blind for wildlife photography.

OK. That disposes of the argument for reticence. What about …

The Case for Conspicuity?

There are times when you'll want to be seen, after all. And one of those times is …

When things go terribly wrong.  If you're hurt or sick or hopelessly lost, you'll probably do whatever you can to get help. But even though an alphabet soup of electronic shout‑boxes now makes summoning assistance much easier — PLBs (personal locator beacons) and EPIRBs (emergency position indicating radio beacons) are probably the best known of these — a campsite can be hard to spot, especially during adverse weather. That's when you'll be glad your golden‑yellow fly stands out in an otherwise murky green scene. And while we're on the subject, the advent of the cheap PLB hasn't made leaving a float plan with someone you trust any less desirable. Electronics have been known to fail just when they're most needed.

It's also worth noting that a conspicuous camp can help you if you wander off for a few hours' fishing or painting (or even a few minutes, to answer a call of nature) and then find yourself a bit uncertain about where you left your tent. It happens to the best of us, and that's when you need something to …

Show you the way to go home.  Can you see the red tarp which marks my camp in the picture below?

At Home in the Hills

This is a digitized copy of a photo I shot in the North Cascades, and though the image quality has suffered in translation, the red tarp in the foreground is hard to miss. Our exhausted climbing party, trudging back from a snow‑covered peak just before night descended on the mountains, found it a very welcome sight, indeed. (Can you spot the green tarp in the picture? If not, you're in good company. We couldn't see it either.)

Finally, there's the feel‑good factor to consider. A green tent does nothing to brighten a dark day. Contrast this with …

The warm glow of a golden dome.  No, it's not Kubla Khan's "stately pleasure‑dome." But it is your home from home. And we can all use a little light in our lives, can't we?

Light Fantastic

To be seen, or not to be seen — that is often the question when considering which backcountry shelter to bring on a trip. And now you've had a chance to weigh the arguments on either side. The decision is yours to make, of course, but one thing's for sure: color really matters.



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