Camping Tips – Tents: Your Best Friend, Your Worst Enemy

No piece of camping equipment has turned more people into incoherent obscenity spewing rage monsters than the tent.

Frustrating though they may be, however, they’re an absolutely necessary part of the camping experience. (For one thing, camping without a tent isn’t camping at all. It’s a “wilderness experience,” and too many of those and you turn into one of those people who wears a bandanna on their head all the time and gets a backpack with a built in canteen, and who wants to be that guy?)

Having considerable experience with tents of all shapes and sizes, I’m here to help. Let’s walk through the process together.

1. Selecting a Tent – When browsing the store, be it a specialty camping store or a Wal-Mart, all of the options can be a bit daunting. A-frame, dome, cabin, and other types, all with their own advantages and pitfalls. In the end, your selection should come down to two things, weight and size.

Here’s a rule of thumb as to whether or not you should care how much your tent weighs: If a cooler is prominently involved in your camping plans, go nuts. Compared to that case of beer you’re probably also bringing, no tent’s going to feel that heavy.

If you’re more ambitious and plan on hiking to your campsite with gear, look for the cheapest one with a smiling backpacker on the the box. Then spend the extra 50 bucks for the one lighter than that one. Your back will appreciate it.

The more common tent buying mistake has to do with getting the size wrong. Remember that when a tent says it’s for three people, that’s not including gear. Or largish sleeping bags. Or any presumption of personal space. In fact, where it says the number of people it’s for just add the words, “assuming the availability of a sufficient amount of Crisco and biblical familiarity among the occupants.” (It’s for this reason that two-man tents can not legally be sold in Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and the territory of Guam.)

So, if you’re planing on four in your tent, get a six-man. For six, an eight-person. For two, a three-person. (Even you’re planning on going camping with your significant other, get the three-person. Even newlyweds occasionally need a break.)

2. Establish Dominance – Once you’ve got the proper tent, you can’t just stash it in a closet and expect it to be ready to go when you need it. Tents can be very difficult to deal with if they sense weakness.

The day after buying a new tent, I like to throw it in the passenger seat of the car and go on a drive to some isolate area, saying thing under my breath like, “Maybe I should have gone with A-frame…” Every couple of minutes I’ll glance over at the tent and quickly look away, while chewing worryingly at my lip.

Eventually, I’ll pull over at a secluded spot, tell the tent “If that’s going to be your attitude, this just isn’t going to work,” toss it out of the car, and drive off. Don’t worry, I circle back in a couple of minutes and pick it up. Its will is usually broken by then, and I’m not cruel.

3. Setting it Up – So you’re at your campsite, getting ready to set your new tent up for the first time. Before doing that, it’s important to build a nice fire. (For fire building tips, see this.) Once the you’ve got your fire going, you can proceed.

Now get out the tent instructions. Throw them in the fire. They would have only caused you pain.

That tent instructions are spectacularly useless is actually by design.

A quick history lesson: In 1959 the National Camping Association, nearly bankrupted by America’s new love of television, signed a lucrative deal with B.F. Skinner’s Society of Behavioral Psychologists. In return for the funding, the NCA agreed to make all tent instructions part of a decades long experiment on relationship stressors in wilderness environments. As part of the research, every first year psychology graduate student must do at least two months of field work hiding outside popular camp grounds with nothing but a pair of binoculars, a clip board, and a ghillie suit, taking notes on people struggling with their camp set up.

The best method, then, for tent setup is trial and error. If after the first attempt your tent looks like an arthritic porcupine with a pituitary condition, you probably didn’t do it right. But you have learned what not to do next time!

Keep at it! And if, after darkness has fallen, your kids are audibly yawning, and your significant other is cataloging your flaws, and you’re on your 15th attempt and the last tent pole that’s clearly supposed to go in that grommet there won’t reach dammit, well, there’s no shame in sleeping in one’s car.

Happy camping!

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Camping Tips – Tents: Your Best Friend, Your Worst Enemy

In Which I Learn about Fire and Hubris

Last weekend I took my lovely wife, our nieces, age 15 and 9, and nephew, 11, camping in the Catskills. (“Camping,” in this instance, meaning “backing the car up to a spot, complete with fire pit and picnic table, that was reserved online and setting up the tent about ten feet away.”)

After having the kids help out with setting up the tent, and feeling quite uncle-like in the process, it was time to get the fire started.

As I knelt down at the fire pit, I thought to myself, “Hold on, my oldest niece is in a New York Public High School, surely she’s got some experience with starting fires. And, by asking her to start ours I can get some serious ‘I trust you and think you’re capable’ points and then, when it doesn’t start, I’ll get a generous heap of ‘I am a wilderness master Eagle Scout’ points.’ Win win.”

So I asked my niece if she knew how to start a fire and if she’d like to put that knowledge to use. I busied myself with other tasks while she went about her business, though from the corner of my eye I thought I could see a great deal of paper being tossed in along with a suspiciously large amount of wood.

She called us over when it was ready for a match. I was delighted. The pit was filled with a solid foot and a half of variously sized wood haphazardly stacked. Clumps of ripped up paper bags were randomly distributed through the mess. It looked as if a very large, very drunk, bird had quickly tried to build a nest. In the dark.

As she got ready to light it, I offered, “You know, in the Boy Scouts we’d only get one match to start a fire…” and readied my most humble “oh well, I guess I’ve got to step in” expression for when nothing happened.

You know where this is going.

Damn thing went up like a Roman candle. Serves me right.

In Which I Learn about Fire and Hubris