In the first installment of this series, I discussed the events that led me to ditch my tent in favor of sleeping under a backpacking tarp. In Part 2 I talked about buying that first tarp, what it was like to sleep under it, and some of the advantages it had over a tent. In the most recent chapter, I explained my rationale for making my own tarp, and some of the considerations that went into its design. Now I will talk about my first two trips out with this tarp and some of the future changes I plan on making.
First Time Out with my Backpacking Tarp
Location: Harriman State Park Weather: 40-50 degrees, clear sky, light wind. This Christmas, my friend called me and asked if I wanted to go camping the next day. Of course I did, I always want to go camping! Before going to bed, I pulled my “go-gear” out of its bin and stuffed it into my pack, along with my newly completed MYOG backpacking tarp. The next day we left town around 1pm and arrived at the Tiorati Circle Parking Lot in Harriman State Park an hour later. It was a beautiful day, with temperatures in the fifties even as the sun got lower in the winter sky. From Tiorati Circle, it was less than an hour of leisurely walking to Fingerboard shelter on the Appalachian Trail. Arriving at the shelter, we found it occupied by a large group of hikers. They pointed us towards a tent site a few hundred yards away, so we moved on. Once in the site, I found myself a raised area that was partly from the wind by the hillside. I cleared it of twigs and branches and got to work putting up my tarp. I staked out the back corners, then erected my trekking pole under the front apex before guying out the fore and aft ridgelines. Finally, I staked out the front two corners and walked around the tarp tightening everything up. Because it was warm and there was very little wind, I left a large gap around the edges for plenty of ventilation. With my poncho spread out underneath, I inflated my Therm-A-Rest Neo Air Xtherm and fluffed up my 15 degree Sierra Designs sleeping bag. After dinner and relaxing around the fire, I tucked myself in for the long night. There was a very brief wind storm, during which my tarp held up just fine. Otherwise, the night went without incident. I would have liked some rain or snow to make things a little more exciting, I can’t control he weather.
Second Night Out with my Backpacking Tarp
Location: Boy Scout Camp Turrell, Cuddebackville, NY Weather: 8-15 degrees, clear skies, strong winds gusting to 40mph My second opportunity to test my tarp came about a month after the first. This time I was headed out on a trip with my old Boy Scout troop, planned months ahead of time. It was our annual winter camping trip to Camp Turrell in Cuddebackville, NY. I planned to sleep outside while the troop stayed in a cabin. We arrived at Turrell around 8:00PM and the temperature was around 15 degrees Fahrenheit with winds gusting up to 40 mph. The ground was completely covered with fresh snow, so I donned my snow shoes and used them to smooth out an area of snow for my shelter. After clearing an adequate area, I got to work putting up the tarp. With the strong wind blowing and the ground frozen, it was difficult work. Eventually I managed to hammer enough tent stakes into the ground to support the tarp. I pitched it with the windward edge tight to the ground for extra weather protection. With the tarp up, I spread out my poncho, slid my air pad into my MLD Superlight Bivy, and pulled out my sleeping bag to stuff inside. If you’ve never seen one, a bivy is a lightweight sack that encloses you, your ground pad, and your sleeping bag. Its purpose is to add wind and moisture protection. Its a good thing I had it, because my sleeping bag zipper chose this night to fail! No matter, I stuffed the bag into the sack and used it as a quilt. I was freezing cold at that point, but warmed up surprisingly quickly when I crawled inside. That night was a bit scary. The winds blew hard, constantly caving in the walls of my tarp. There were times when I thought the tarp would rip out of the ground and blow away, but it held on all night. When I woke up in the morning, I looked around for my weather station, and found that the overnight low had been 8 degrees Fahrenheit. In the morning, I wanted to demonstrate the tarp to the scouts, but couldn’t get the stakes out of the ground. Eventually I got most of them out, but tore three titanium stakes in half! The second night I slept in a lean-to shelter. Note: there are no pictures because it was too cold to use my camera.
Lessons Learned and Future Modifications
The biggest lesson I learned from this second test was that I need to add extra tie down points along the edge of my tarp. Most backpacking tarps have several grommets or loops along each edge, but I hadn’t put any on mine. This worked fine during the first test when the hills protected me from the wind, proved a weakness during the second test. The second lesson I learned is that if I want to continue camping under a tarp or other non-self-standing shelters, I need an alternative to traditional tent stakes. If the snow had been very deep, I could have buried my snow shoes and other objects to make anchors. In this case, however, there was just a thin layer of fluff on top of a rock solid ground. Go Back to Part 1: Why not a Tent? Go Back to Part 2: Why a Tarp? Go Back to Part 3: Making the Tarp