Some years ago, after a dangerous storm with winds up to 50 miles an hour, a teenager and I went out to fetch water on a popular lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Everywhere, wind and rain had wreaked havoc upon the land.
Clumps of uprooted vegetation floated aimlessly about and waist-thick trees were downed and scattered all around. From our vantage point, we could see three canoe camps and there was not a tent or tarp standing in any one of them. One site revealed a thin column of smoke, which suggested a barely sputtering blaze. In the others there was not so much as a whisper of flame. A laughably intricate network of ropes, pressured low by heavy piles of wet clothing was a universal phenomenon.
We filled the kettles with clean, cold water then cruised on back to our campsite where five teenagers were busily tending to chores. Daintily strung from a line near the crackling fire was the only wet gear in camp — a lumberjack red wool shirt and some bathing suits and towels. Held firm by a web of brightly colored parachute cords (for good visibility in failing light), the two low slung rain tarps had weathered the storm without pooling water. Everything beneath them was sunshine dry.
“Bomb-proofing” a canoe camp against the cruelties of nature is a function of skills not things.
Weathering The Storm
I pulled the canoe ashore and set the cocoa pot on the fire, then turned to a sandy-haired girl nearby: “You guys stay dry last night?” I asked.
“Yeah, except my wool jacket, which dumbo here (pointing to her freckle-faced friend) borrowed and left out all night!
“Don’t fight, children,” I teased. “We won’t blow this place till noon. By then, everything will be dry. Now if you guys wanna see a real mess, check out our neighbors around the bend.” “Yeah,” perked the boy who had joined me in the canoe — “we got us one bomb-proof canoe camp here!”
Surprisingly, “bomb-proofing” a canoe camp against the cruelties of nature is a function of skills not things. As the anecdote suggests, you don’t have to paddle far to find an inept bozo with high-tech gear and no savvy. So first learn the ropes, then attend to equipment. And commit these rules to practice:
Read some good books on canoeing and camping before your first trip. You can “do it wrong” for years and develop bad habits, which are hard to break — the reason why studying the ways of experts is so important at the start.
The best gear won’t keep you dry if it’s dripping wet! Don’t waste money on sophisticated waterproof packsacks, which will eventually tear and leak. Here’s how to waterproof any pack from the inside out:
You’ll need two pack liners, each of, which should be slightly wider than the pack and nearly twice as long. One liner should be an absolutely watertight 6-mil plastic bag, the other is best constructed of strong material that resists abrasion. The “abrasion liner” need not be waterproof — its sole purpose is to protect the plastic liner from being damaged when you stuff your gear.
You’ll find giant (36-inch x 60-inch) 6-mil poly bags at most industrial supply centers, and at many sporting goods retailers.
Here’s the packing procedure: place the plastic liner in the pack first, then nest the abrasion liner inside it. Note that the puncture-prone plastic bag is protectively sandwiched between the heavy pack cloth (outside) and fabric abrasion liner (inside).
Use this “twin bag sandwich method” to pack everything you want to keep dry.
For example, here’s how to waterproof your sleeping bag:
a) Put the sleeping bag into a stuff sack, which need not be waterproof.
b) Nest the stuff sack inside a waterproof plastic bag.
c) Hug the plastic bag to exhaust air, then twist, fold over and seal it with a loop of shock cord.
d) Place the sealed unit inside a second, slightly larger stuff sack, which need not be waterproof.
Under a protective tarp, you can stay dry, warm and comfortable in inclement weather.
Always use a waterproof groundcloth INSIDE your tent!
The best rain tent won’t keep you dry if it’s pitched in a low spot — a situation beyond your control with today’s “designated” campsites.
Cut a piece of plastic sheeting a foot larger all around than the tent floor (so it will “flow up the canopy sidewalls”) and place it inside your tent. The groundsheet will prevent water, which enters your tent through faulty seams and worn floor fabric from wetting your sleeping gear.
NEVER place the ground cloth beneath the tent floor as advised by some tent makers!
Flowing ground water will become trapped between the exterior plastic sheet and nylon floor and is pressure-wicked by body weight into the sleeping compartment. You’ll really have a sponge party if this happens!
You wouldn’t dream of pitching your tent on a concrete slab in heavy rain, so why accomplish the same thing by erecting it over non-porous plastic?
Cliff’s promise: use a plastic groundsheet inside your tent and you won’t get wet no matter how hard it rains!
The customary eight to 10 factory stake points may not be enough to keep your tent from collapsing in high winds.
The solution is to sew nylon “storm loops” to critical places such as the center sidewall and hem. The more stake points you have along the perimeter, the tighter your tent will stay in a storm. Most tents have only three or four stakes per side. Five is much better. A few minutes of sewing will correct the situation.
Wherever possible, attach storm lines to the metal framework of the tent, not the nylon fly. It’s a real advantage if you can locate storm loops in such a way that you can Velcro them to nearby poles. This procedure transfers all the wind stress to the metal frame.
Double stake your tent on rock, mud or sand. Two stakes per loop — each through a separate hole, and at a different angle — doubles the surface area and holding power.
Don’t leave home without a generously-sized nylon rain tarp. A 10-foot by 12-foot nylon tarp, with enough cord and stakes to rig it, will provide a dry place to cook and make repairs.
The alternative to a tarp is to dog house it in your tent until the storm lifts.
Ideally, you should have one rain fly for every five people in your crew. Rig one tarp lean-to style (open front, back staked down) and “float” another one overhead to provide a horizontal awning. If you leave an air space between the overlapped portions of the two tarps, smoke from a backlogged fire will be drawn out through the hole rather than into the shelter.
Tip: for greater versatility, sew five storm-loops to the outside face of your tarp.
A hand-axe and saw are essential for making fire when the woods are soaked from a weeklong rain.
Tarps are a great place to keep equipment because it will stay dry and they can serve as a roof for your camp kitchen.
If you’re tripping in the heart of Canada where dead, downed wood is everywhere, you can probably eliminate the axe. But it’s a must if you camp along frequented routes where all the good wood has been picked over and fire-making means splitting a chunk of log to get at the dry heartwood inside.
Here’s the most effective way to use these tools.
1. Saw off a foot-long chunk of dead, downed log and stand the section on end.
2. Gently set the blade of the axe in the end grain and firmly grasp the handle while a friend pounds the head on through with a chunk of log.
Since the axe is used only for splitting, never for chopping, there is no danger of cut feet or hands!
To safely split fine kindling, set the wood to be split upright on a log and hold it steady with a stick. Now, come down lightly with the axe. If you miss your target, you won’t cut yourself!
In severe weather this is the only practical way to make and maintain fire. Large axes are just extra weight on most canoe trips. Any tool that’s used for chopping can slip. And cut! The hand-axe is completely safe when used in the prescribed manner.
A dry place to sit, out of the weather, adds elegance to a rainy day camp.
Under the protective tarp, you can prepare Chinese stir-fry for your crew, while all around the rain falls in sheets and the wind howls bloody murder. Comfortably seated on a generous square of closed-cell foam, you are dry, warm and in command!
Now that you’ve got the tools and tricks to laugh at any storm, let’s summarize with this scenario: It’s nearly dark and drizzling liquid ice balls when you find a suitable campsite.
Having just waded through shallows, you and your friends are wet from the knees down and impatient to change clothes. Hurriedly, you pull the dripping, wet packs out of your canoe and begin the age-old process of erecting shelter and making fire.
You ask John and Martha to gather wood while you and Sue erect the rain tarp — a simple procedure, which takes five minutes. Then you clear a space to contain the fire, which will soon be ready.
“No dry wood,” calls Bill, disappointedly.
“Just bring me a log and I’ll show you what to do,” comes your confident reply.
Soon, your friends arrive with a deadwood bole (treetrunk) and you show them how to split it safely and make fine kindling. Ten minutes later, a cheery fire throws blazing heat deep into the nylon lean-to where everyone and everything is congregated.
Putting up a line will help dry wet clothes and gear.
Warmed by the work and flush of heat, you decide to postpone changing boots and pants till the tent is up — a chore that you and your partner have mastered in just three minutes. You gaze skyward as the final stake is set and observe black cumulonimbus clouds building near the horizon.
Stormproofing The Tent
Determinedly, you go to work to storm-proof your tent: first you string twin guylines off each peak, then cinch out the sidewalls with brightly colored parachute cord you brought along for the occasion. Next, you place a plastic groundcloth inside the tent, followed by your dry foam pad and sleeping bag. Back home, your friends chided you for making such a fetish out of “sandwich packing” all your gear. Now, they’re all envious that you’re the only one who has dry clothes.
Just before the storm arrives, you bank the fire with several layers of wood so it will continue to burn in the heavy rain, then you drop the open end of the tarp to shoulder height so it won’t be torn away by a gust of wind.
As the sleaze builds to short-lived hail, you smugly crawl beneath the tarp and retire to your sitting pad and packsack backrest. Then you pump some air into the cold steel tank of the PEAK 1 stove and put the kettle on to boil. Casually, you check your watch and call, “Bring your cups: hot-buttered rum for everyone in five minutes!”
Assured that all is ready, you lounge contentedly and marvel at the weather and your wonderful, “bomb-proof” canoe camp!