19 November 2008
Note: Many of these articles are very old, and although the technical information is still relevant the equipment mentioned may not be (for example a Stormy cooker was state of that art in 1995, but not in 2021).
The trick to living comfortably in a tent with your partners is summed up in one word; consideration. No matter how big the tent seems it will soon shrink once you’re all squeezed inside for several days, whether that’s three people in a 3 person tent, or two in a family-sized Euro camping nylon hotel. The art is the art of getting on, which roughly means not getting on people’s nerves. This can be tricky, as slowly each person’s eccentricities manifest themselves, and slowly - if you’re not careful - your holiday turns into One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, as you feel your sanity ebb, all the while looked up in your polyester cell. The first rule is that everyone has their own space, and just like in prison, drinking from another man’s cup, or losing their spoon, will eventually lead to violence. This space is both physical and mental. First of all it’s best to work out who’s sleeping where, to begin with and mark out your boundaries. Generally, the people on the outside will be colder, and will have to be careful not to get damp bags by pressing against the inner, whereas the inside person will be warmer, but only due to the fact that they are squashed by their partners inching away from the walls!
Like in a prison a strict regime is vital for mental space. On many trips, we all knew when it was our turn to get inside and sort out our gear and get settled (it doesn’t work if everyone does it at once), and then once settled unless it’s your turn to cook then you are allowed to chill out until the first brew is done. Then comes making the tea, which ideally is by the same person so that the other can have an easy evening. Once the tea is finished let the others have their quiet time to think, read, have a gentle weep. One of the most important factors is staying within your boundaries, and ideally, this means being neat and tidy (often it’s about just keeping your mess out of other peoples tidiness in my case!). This is best achieved by having set places for everything and is made easier by storage space (tent loft, washing lines, lots pockets). Stuff sacks are also vital, and everyone should have a dedicated personal bag where they can keep stuff handy in the tent, often holding your book, spoon, mug, haemorrhoid cream etc. Lightweight waterproof stuff sacks are a great idea, especially for winter camping, as everything can be stored away safe from loss, moisture or spills (try and make sure bags are different colours to make ID easier). Multiple people living in 4 or 5 square metres can be tough and requires great patience, consideration, good humour and the ability to empathise with your tent mates, it can be hugely enjoyable.
Most large tents feature tabs for attaching a washing line. This works really well on hot days, as the radiation from the sun turns the tent into a greenhouse. In colder conditions the heat from bodies and a stove can also help to get rid of dampness, just be aware when boiling water, as it may make things worse. Although I doubt Shackalton had any, it is worth taking along a couple of cheap plastic washing pegs, as it allows you to keep items in position (a 2-week old sock in your soup is very unappetizing). Hanging lines can be made from 2 mm cord and left attached, but better and pegless methods are to use a loop of twisted thin bungee cord, with items being threaded in order to hold them in place. Another great little add on is to clip those tiny plastic accessory krabs (Black Diamond Jive wires) into the tabs, so you can clip of items that always get lost, like spoons (all spoons need a clip cord), sunglasses and mugs.
By far the most useful bit of gear for long term expedition camping is the humble large Tupperware box. This crush-proof box is used as the stove box, containing everything needed
in the kitchen its contents are as follows:
Stove (double-bagged in nylon and plastic bag if it’s a liquid fuel model)
Pan scrub (metal and sponge)
Spares kit for stove
Wooden stove base (goes on top)
Washing up liquid in a tiny Nalgene bottle
Plastic drainer (MSR)
The heat diffuser (outdoor pantry)
Note: Fuel should be kept separate
For extended trips, there are a couple of items you mustn’t leave home without, and for extreme expeditions doing so could prove very costly.
Small sponge: Weights nothing, but can be used to bail out spills, soak up condensation on the inner, and be used as a pillar if you have a very small head
Stiff Nylon brush: For winter camping this makes life much easier as it can be used to brush off ice and snow of boots, zippers and beards! It can also be useful for brushing the ice off the inside of the flysheet.
Tent repair kit: Your house is made of fabric, so taking a needle and thread is a no brainer. Go for strong thread and a selection of needles (get some sailing needles), plus a thimble (you can also drink out of it if you lose your cup!) and a large square of rip-stop fabric. A tube of seam grip is also highly useful and can form a very strong emergency repair when used in conjunction with gaffer tape (gaffer together rip, apply seam grip to the opposite side, and cover this with gaffer tape while it is still wet). Some people just take gaffer tape, but this won’t work in the cold.
Have you ever had to spend time stuck in a tent under the pounding sun? Well if you have you’ll know how hot it can get inside. The best way to elevate this is to cover the outside of the tent with your sleeping bags and sleeping mats. When doing so try and connect them all together (zip or tie them) and connect them to the tent in some way so that they can’t slip off or get blown away. And of course, this is a great way to dry damp bags…just get them inside before the afternoon storm!
A tent footprint is designed to protect your tents groundsheet, and maybe more importantly, keep it free of mud and dirt, which will often contaminate the flysheet when packed. It’s not necessary to buy dedicated footprints as they can easily made from plastic sheeting (DIY Store) or made up cheaply in half an hour with material bought from outdoor fabric mail-order companies (Pennine Outdoor or Point North). The footprint should be sized slightly small than the footprint of the tent so that water cannot pool under it, and should have some way of attaching all its corners to the ground when pitching in bad weather (loops of bungee work best).
For winter camping using a footprint made out of foam increases tent comfort massively, insulating the whole tent and its occupants from the ground. Companies like Exped sell thin EVA closed cell matting, but you can buy foil backed foam from big DIY shops which probably works equally well. This option is of course bulky, but when the bulk isn’t a problem it’s well worth the effort.
Many large tents are sold with the manufactures stock peg, usually, a small lightweight alloy affair designed to make the lightweight user happy (whether it works or not!). Large tents have large surface areas and so require far more beef in the peg department, primarily on all guy points. Big alloy channel pegs are well worth taking along for main guy points when the ground may be soft (Terra Nova‘s SOS for example), plus these can also be used in the snow by burring them sideways (with the guy larks footed to the middle). For harder ground long Easton Alloy pegs by companies like Terra Nova, North face and Outdoor designs work really well…and if weights, not an issue there’s nothing wrong with using a rubber hammer. Remember to keep an eye on all guy points when camping for long period in damp conditions, as tent pegs will loosen up. Finally don’t forget to add cord or bungee to all main anchor points so you can attach them to rocks, skis or tortoises.
Manufacturers have to cover themselves from liability by saying you shouldn’t cook inside a tent, but 70% of the time that’s you’re the only option. Cooking should take place on a ventilated porch, with an escape option if things go array! Stoves should be set solidly on the ground and primed with the utmost care (gas canisters may flare if knocked over, and poor priming of liquid fuel stove will cause a mini Pipper Alpha). When priming a stove the person with the most experience with the stove should be in charge of it, and they should attempt it in an open door if possible, and as far away from the tent walls as possible. A large pan should always be on hand to deflect the flames if they get too big and if in doubt turn off the stove and start again. The problems happen when the user is unfamiliar with the stove and pumps too much-unprimed fuel into the burner, causing very high flames, sometimes made worse by turning on the stove even further when nothing happens once turned off (there will always be a delay). When camping on snow dig a pit in the porch of the tent to sit the stove in, plus this allows the cook to sit more comfortably and makes getting in and out of the tent easier.
If at all possible filling fuel bottles should be done outside, and when changing gas canisters make sure there are no naked flames and the stove has cooled down.