Friday, January 15, 2016

Classic Backpacking Gear - Shelters

The next piece of gear I want to discuss in the context of Classic Backpacking is shelters. The amount written on the subject by authors of the time period is quite large, so here I will try to hit the main points they are making, in particular as it relates to traveling on foot.

When considering shelters during the period between 1880 and 1930, there are three aspects to discuss. The first is the material used in the shelters; the second is the waterproofing techniques for the shelter, and the third is the type of shelter, i.e. design of tent, tarp, etc.

Shelter Materials

I will start with the aspect that I consider most important, the shelter material. Shelter designs are numerous, and vary widely depending on the personal preferences of the author. I will mention the preferences of some of them as I go along. Lastly, I will discuss some of the common waterproofing methods.

I believe that we have a huge misconception when it comes to woodsmen of the time period between 1880 and 1930. Many seem to imagine a rugged woodsman who grew up in the wilderness, going into the woods with an axe, a canvas tarp, and a blanket; and more importantly, doing so because he knows through his vast experience that those tools are the best for the job. The reality appears to have been very far from this. Since this is a post about shelters, let’s discuss shelter realities.

First and foremost, not a single author I have read, from Sears (Nessmuk) to Kephart, used what today we would call canvas tarps or shelters. Canvas was just as heavy back then, as it is now. Accordingly, woodsmen traveling on foot were equally reluctant to use it for shelters.

As a bit of general background for people unfamiliar with canvas, it is a tightly woven material, typically made from cotton, but linen and hemp versions can also be found. Duck canvas is more tightly woven, double duck typically being preferred for shelter material. Canvas is usually referred to by weight: 10oz duck, 8oz duck, etc. The weight refers to the weight of the canvas per square yard. So, 8oz duck weighs 8oz per square yard of fabric. 10oz (10.10 oz) double duck, sometimes also called Army duck, is the material you typically see these days for use in tents. Some manufacturers offer lighter tents in 8oz or 7oz duck, but 10oz double duck is the most popular, in particular because it takes modern waterproofing treatments like Sunforger well.

So, when we read of woodsmen from the past using canvas, we usually assume that they were referring to what we think of as canvas, i.e. 10oz double duck. During the time period we are considering here however, they certainly didn’t use anything of the sort. A 10oz 8ftx6ft canvas tarp that was been waterproofed with paraffin will weigh about 6 1/4 pounds. The weight is just too much, especially if talking about more sizable shelters. The material that was actually in use by just about everyone from Sears (Nessmuk) to Kephart, was Egyptian cotton a/k/a balloon silk.

Formerly a man had to make a choice between canvas, which is heavy but fairly waterproof, and drill, which is light but flimsy. A seven by seven duck tent weighs fully twenty-five pounds when dry, and a great many more when wet. It will shed rain as long as you do not hit against it. A touch on the inside, however, will often start a trickle at the point of contact. Altogether it is unsatisfactory, and one does not wonder than many men prefer to knock together bark shelters. Nowadays, however, another and better material is to be had. It is the stuff balloons are made of, and is called balloon silk… A tent of the size mentioned, instead of weighing twenty-five pounds, pulls the scales down at about eight.” Stewart Edward White, Camp and Trail, 1911 p.79

The materials that are recommended (for an A frame tent) are placed in the order of lightness. 1. Japanese Silk 2. "Thintus" (very fine cotton) 3. Best Lawn, Egyptian (J. Goodman & Sons, 30, Glasshouse St.,W.) 4. Ordinary Lawn (Piatt & Co., St. Martin's Lane, W.C ) 5. Fine Unbleached Linen (edited).” Thomas Hiram Holding, The Camper’s Handbook, 1908 p.321

For a hunting- party of four men, I should consider a 7x9 Baker shelter-tent, weighing 12 pounds in balloon silk, to be a good investment. It has become standard for north woods and Canada hunting and fishing parties.”  Warren Hastings Miller, Camp Craft, 1915 p.31

This Egyptian cotton described as the preferred tent material by just about all of the authors that I have previously listed as my sources, appears to have been of very uniform quality. The weights listed be Sears (Nessmuk) match exactly the weight of the material listed by Kephart, 26 years later, as well as every author in between that time period. The weight given for the untreated Egyptian cotton material prior to any waterproofing treatment is 3 1/2 oz per square yard. In effect, we are talking about a modern bed sheet. In fact, most modern bed sheets are a bit thicker, coming in closer to 4 oz per square yard. The material is very thin, and in no way resembles what we typically call canvas.

Of materials preferable for use in light weight tent-making waterproofed balloon silk stands in a class by itself. Superseding the antiquated duck or flimsy drill tents it is one of the items which has done much to make tramping trips feasible and worth while. It is in reality not a silk at all but a closely woven cotton cloth with a weight of but 3 1/2 ounces per square yard (10 ounce duck waterproofed tips the scales at about 16 ounces). It is water proof, rot proof, mildew proof and exceedingly durable. A leanto for the bivouacker can then be kept down to three pounds.” Claude P. Fordyce, Touring Afoot, 1916 p.86

Tents that are to be carried on pack animals need to be of strong, heavy duck, or else carried in stout bags; otherwise they will be ruined by the sawing of lash ropes and snagging or rubbing against trees and rocks. For such work the best of army duck is none too good… Otherwise the most suitable material is very closely woven stuff made from Sea Island or Egyptian cotton, which has a long and strong fiber. A thin cloth of this kind is stout enough for most purposes, yet very light, and a tent made from it rolls up into a much smaller bundle than one of duck. It comes in various weights and fineness of texture. The standard grade of "balloon silk " runs about 3 1/2 oz. to the square yard in plain goods, and 5 oz. when waterproofed with paraffine. This trade name, by the way, is an absurdity: the stuff has no thread of silk in it, and the only ballooning it ever does is when a wind gets under it.”  Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol I, 1918 p.69

It should be noted that the weight of a 9ft x 7ft tarp made of Egyptian cotton as listed by Kephart (Camping and Woodcraft Vol II, p.105) exactly matches the weight given for a 9ft x 7ft tarp as listed by Nessmuk (Woodcraft, p.39), indicating the use of the exact same material. Some like Elmer Harry Kreps still used materials like drill (Camp and Trail Methods, p.89), which Stewart Edward White noted as outdated in his above quote a year later, but the consensus appears to have been that for a person traveling on foot, shelter was to be made of Egyptian cotton, which at the time appears to have been consistently 3 1/2 lb per square yard prior to waterproofing, and according to Kephart, approximately 5 oz per square yard after waterproofing. 

That is not to say that other options wouldn’t be period appropriate. Several of the above authors mention silk (actual silk, not balloon silk/Egyptian cotton) as tent material, although Kephart wrote that it is too weak for prolonged use. Actual canvas, both 10oz Army duck and lighter versions were certainly in wide use for shelters that were intended to be transported by pack train, cars, etc. It wouldn’t be out of the question for someone at the time to cut up a small tarp out of such material and use it for their shelter, whether it be cotton duck or linen. The preference however of these pioneers of backpacking seems to have been Egyptian cotton. 

Waterproofing Methods

Canvas type materials are still in use today. As such, manufacturers have developed modern waterproofing treatments for canvas. Some such treatments resemble the old methods, others do not. One can purchase canvas tarps and tents which look the part, but because they have been waterproofed in a modern way, wouldn’t be functionally equivalent to the materials available during the 1880 to 1930 period. The most popular modern waterproofing method for canvas is the Sunforger treatment. It is an excellent waterproofing method for canvas that hardly adds any weight to the material. Such canvas can also be purchased with fireproofing treatment. It is the material of choice for manufacturers like Tentsmiths. Unfortunately, the treatment is not period correct. A canvas tarp treated with period correct methods would be significantly heavier than its untreated version. So, let’s look at some of the available period correct methods:

Alum and Lime

George Washington Sears (Nessmuk) gives the following description: “The cloth does not even require hemming. It does, however, need a little water-proofing; for which the following receipt will answer very well, and add little or nothing to the weight: To 10 quarts of water add 10 ounces of lime, and 4 ounces of alum; let it stand until clear; fold the cloth snugly and put it in another vessel, pour the solution on it, let it soak for 12 hours; then rinse in luke-warm rain water, stretch and dry in the sun, and the shanty-tent is ready for use.” George Washington Sears, Woodcraft, 1892 p.35

However, Kephart later comments that he has had no luck with waterproofing a shelter with the method described by Nessmuk: “I have had no success with the alum and lime method mentioned by " Nessmuk."’ Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol I, 1918 p.73 I am more inclined to trust Kephart’s writing than Nessmuks.

Sears does however mention that the above method does not make the cloth flame/spark resistant: “Lastly, whatever cloth structure you may erect to use for a camp, do not fail to cover the roof with a screen of green boughs before building your camp- fire. Because, there will usually be one fellow in camp who has a penchant for feeding the fire with old mulchy deadwood and brush, for the fun of watching the blaze, and the sparks that are prone to fly upward; forgetting that the blazing cinders are also prone to drop downward on the roof of the tent, burning holes in it.” George Washington Sears, Woodcraft, 1892 p.39

These days it is often pontificated online that canvas is safe around fires. It is nothing of the sort. While wool resists sparks and flame, cotton canvas, unless it has received some fireproof treatment, is very vulnerable to sparks as well as to drying out and catching fire.

Paraffin or Wax

Waterproofing by paraffin is a most satisfactory process and the one most used by tent manufacturers… Simply put. into a tin vessel 3 pounds of paraffin shavings (ordinary paraffin of the stores) and two gallons of gasolene or turpentine. The receptacle, best with a closed top, is set in the sun or in a tub of boiling water and never near a flame. When a solution is effected out doors spread it on the stretched cloth by means of a brush, sponge or piece of cheesecloth. The gasolene evaporates leaving a thin coating of paraffin in the fibers of the cloth… To make it fire proof and rot proof as well as water repellent I would treat the cloth first to an alum and sugar of lead solution and then paraffin well as above.” Claude P. Fordyce, Touring Afoot ,1916 p.88

A similar paraffin treatment is proposed by Kephart as the most effective waterproofing option: “The cheapest, simplest, and, in some respects, the most satisfactory way is to get a cake or two of paraffine or cerasine, lay the tent on a table, rub the outer side with the wax until it has a good coating evenly distributed, then iron the cloth with a medium- hot flatiron, which melts the wax and runs it into every pore of the cloth. The more closely woven the cloth, the less wax and less total weight. Some prefer to treat the tent with a solution of paraffine. In this case, cut the wax into shavings so it will dissolve readily. Put 2 lbs. of the wax in 2 gallons of turpentine (for a 7x9 tent or thereabouts). Place the vessel in a tub of hot water until solution is completed. Meantime set up the tent true and taut. Then paint it with the hot solution, working rapidly, and using a stiff brush. Do this on a sunny morning and let tent stand until quite dry. The turpentine adds a certain elasticity to the wax; benzine does not.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol I, 1918 p.72

Paraffine is used either plain (in which case it is liable to crack or flake in cold weather) or combined with some elastic substance. The " mineral wax " called ozocerite or cerasine (often used as a substi tute for beeswax, and sold by dealers in crude drugs) is not so brittle as paraffine, adheres better, and, like paraffine, has no deleterious action on cloth, being chemically neutral… The plain wax process renders cloth quite water proof, but adds considerable weight, makes the stuff rather stiff, and increases its liability to catch afire when exposed close to a stove or camp-fire…” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol I, 1918 p.71

Undoubtedly, the paraffin method of waterproofing is not a particularly safe option. Heating up wax mixed with gasoline or turpentine is as close you can get to making home-made napalm without the ATF knocking on you door. Using your wife’s iron to melt wax onto a tarp will even more certainly lead to a swift death. The method however appears to have been the preferred one.

It should again be noted that both authors mention that a fabric treated in such a way is not flame resistant.

Alum and Sugar of Lead

For tents to be used in cold weather before an open fire, the following process is better: First soak the tent over night in water to rid it of sizing, and hang up to dry. Then get enough soft water to make the solutions (rain water is best; Some city waters will do, others are too hard). Have two tubs or wash-boilers big enough for the purpose. In one, dissolve alum in hot soft water, in the proportion of 1/4 lb. to the gallon. In the other, with the same amount of hot water, dissolve sugar of lead (lead acetate — a poison) in the same proportion. Let the solutions stand until clear; then add the sugar of lead solution to the alum liquor. Let stand about four hours, or until all the lead sulphate has precipitated. Then pour off the clear liquor from the dregs into the other tub, thoroughly work the tent in it with the hands until every part is quite penetrated, and let soak over night. In the morning, rinse well, stretch, and hang up to dry. A closely woven cloth should be used…” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol I, 1918 p.73

As quoted above, Fordyce also recommended the use of alum and sugar of lead, but only for its fireproofing characteristics. He still recommended treating the material with wax afterwards. To make it fire proof and rot proof as well as water repellent I would treat the cloth first to an alum and sugar of lead solution and then paraffin well as above.” Claude P. Fordyce, Touring Afoot ,1916 p.88

It should be noted that sugar of lead (lead acetate) is a poison. I think it may still be in use in textile manufacturing, but I’m not sure how one can actually get it, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it.

Oiled Cloth

For ground-sheets to use under bedding: get some of the best grade of boiled linseed oil of a reputable paint dealer. One quart will cover five or six square yards of heavy sheeting. Four it into a pan big enough to dip your hand into. Lay out the cloth and rub the oil into it between your palms, using just enough oil at a time to soak the cloth through, filling the pores, but leaving no surplus. Then stretch it in a barn or garret, or other dry shady place, for one week. Finish drying by hanging in the sunlight three or four days, first one side up, then the other.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol I, 1918 p.73

Cloth proofed with linseed or other drying oil is not strong enough for tenting (for its weight); it is sticky in hot weather, stiff in cold, and dangerously inflammable.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol I, 1918 p.71

There must have certainly been other methods for treating tent/tarp material, and Kephart does mention that each manufacturer makes their own, but the above are the most common ones that I have noticed.

Types of Shelters

As I mentioned earlier, the type of shelter recommended by each author changes based on their personal preferences. I will quickly touch on some of them.

The above is drawing of a four person tent used by Edward Whymper and his team when climbing in the Alps. I will save you the full description of the tent, but if interested you can read it in Scrambles Amongst the Alps by Edward Whymper, 1872 p.46-47.

The above A frame design continued to be a popular design during the period of 1880 through 1930. 

For three seasons I have come gradually to thinking that an A or wedge tent is about the proper thing. In event of that rain storm or those flies its advantages are obvious. When a cold snap comes along, you simply pull up the stakes along one side, tie the loops of that wall to the same stakes that hold down the other wall — and there is your lean-to all ready for the fire.” Stewart Edward White, Camp and Trail, 1911 p.84

Other authors had different preferences, usually changing with the season. A number of them preferred  tarp for warm weather, and some sort of more enclosed tent for winter. 

For a summer camp, however, I have finally come to prefer the simple lean-to or shed roof. It is the lightest, simplest and cheapest of all cloth devices for camping out, and I have found it sufficient for all weathers from June until the fall of the leaves. It is only a sheet of strong cotton cloth 9x7 feet, and soaked in lime and alum-water as the other…The one I have used for two seasons cost sixty cents, and weighs 2 1/4 pounds. It makes a good shelter for a party of three; and if it be found a little too breezy for cool nights, a sufficient wind break can be made by driving light stakes at the sides and weaving in a siding of hemlock boughs.” George Washington Sears, Woodcraft, 1892 p.38-39

As good a camp as I have ever tried — perhaps the best — is the "shanty tent," shown in the illustration. It is easily put up, is comfortable, neat, and absolutely rain-proof. Of course, it may be of any required size; but, for a party of two, the following dimensions and directions will be found all sufficient: Firstly, the roof. This is merely a sheet of strong cotton cloth 9 feet long by 4 or feet in width. The sides, of the same material, to be 4}4 feet deep at front, and 2 feet deep at the back. This gives 7 feet along the edge of the roof, leaving 2 feet for turning down at the back end of the shanty. It will be seen that the sides must be "cut bias," to compensate for the angle of the roof, otherwise the shanty will not be square and ship-shape when put up. No buttons, strings or loops. The cloth does not even require hemming. It does, however, need a little water-proofing; for which the following receipt will answer very well, and add little or nothing to the weight: To 10 quarts of water add 10 ounces of lime, and 4 ounces of alum; let it stand until clear; fold the cloth snugly and put it in another vessel, pour the solution on it, let it soak for 12 hours; then rinse in luke-warm rain water, stretch and dry in the sun, and the shanty-tent is ready for use. 

The above description of the shanty-tent may seem a trifle elaborate, but I hope it is plain. The affair weighs just three pounds, and it takes a skillful woods man about three hours of easy work to put it in the shape described. Leaving out some of the work, and only aiming to get it up in square shape as quickly as possible, I can put it up in an hour.” George Washington Sears, Woodcraft, 1892 p.34-35

I think it is very interesting that Sears (Nessmuk) considered it perfectly reasonable that it would take three (3) hours for a skilled woodsman to put up a tent. By today’s standards that is absolutely ridiculous. On a short winter day, combined with the time needed for collecting fire wood, setting up camp would have taken about half the day. Setting up camp was clearly a much more elaborate process back then, even for a person on the move.

Tent designs similar to the one above were popular with other woodsmen as well.

To me the open tent with the backlog fire is the acme of forest life. I have camped in teepee, wall-tent, A-tent, shack, shelter- tent, lean-to, leaf pile, canoe-tent, and Forester, but my pleasantest memories cluster around the open- tent camps with a bright camp-fire in front.” Warren Hastings Miller, Camp Craft, 1915 p.41

Like Sears (Nessmuk), Kephart preferred a tarp for warm weather and a tent for winter. 

Shelter cloth, 7x9 ft., waterproof 2lb 4oz.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol II, 1918 p.105

It is enough in most parts of our country, but warmer bedding would be required at high altitudes, and perhaps a closed tent, such as the "Compac" or one of the semi-pyramid type, weighing 3 1/2 to 4 pounds, instead of the one-pound shelter cloth.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol II, 1918 p.104

Elmer Harry Kreps seems to have preferred a small modified tarp year round. “For the trapper who is inclined to travel lightly, there is only one tent to use for the long line, where one seldom spends two nights in succession on the same camp site. That is the shelter tent or leanto…I prefer to make one for my own use, and have made and used several such. The illustration shows the style. A convenient size for one person is 5 x 7 feet ; for two it should be somewhat larger. Triangular corners are sewn to each end, and when the shelter is pitched at the proper angle these pieces effectually close the ends. It is best to have a ten inch sod cloth to prevent the wind from entering at the bottom.” Elmer Harry Kreps, Camp and Trail Methods, 1910 p.89

It should be made clear that the examples given here are intended for a person traveling on foot, carrying all of their gear on their back. Each author had their own preferences for larger and more elaborate shelters when it came to permanent camps or travel by pack train or other methods.

One other thing you may also notice when reading the books is that some of the authors refer to using “mackintosh” as flooring for their shelters. Macintosh is a rubber coated fabric patented by Charles Macintosh in 1823. It was a waterproof material that some of the authors used for shelter floors or rain protection, although none of them seem to have tried constructing shelters from it. 

Now, that I have given you a summary of the source materials on which I am relying, let me say a bit about my current choice of a Classic Backpacking shelter. 

In terms of design, I decided to go with a tarp for several reasons. For starters, I’ve decided to rely just on a blanket for warmth, am issue I will discuss in a later post. As a result, during winter I will need to use a fire to stay warm at least part of the night. Therefore, I need a shelter that is open on at least one side so that I can work with the fire. I could have constructed a shelter similar to that depicted by Kreps, but I chose not. One reason for not doing it is that I have to sew everything by hand, and I wasn’t looking forward to all that sewing. The other, and more important reason is that in my opinion leanto style shelters are useless in bad weather. They are nice when everything is calm and you have a nice fire in front, but if there is any significant rain or snow, they might as well not be there. See, rain and snow don’t fall at 90 degree angle to the ground. They move around and come in at different angles. If you are in a shelter where one side if open, you will spend a significant part of the night with rain or snow beating directly in your face. With a tarp like this one, I can pitch it into an A frame type tent and stay protected if the weather turned.

For the material, I made the same choice that all of the above authors made, Egyptian cotton. I simply went to Walmart and bought a Full size 600 thread count Egyptian cotton bed sheet, 86in x 96in (7ft 2in x 8ft). I also bought the pillow cases for the same set, to use as material for stuff sacks, etc. 

The material is as close to what was used by the likes of Kephart and Nessmuk as I can get. It is the same material (100% Egyptian cotton), although it is probably higher thread count than what they ha back then. It is also probably a bit thicker because when I do the math, the weight of the tarp ( with folded and finished edges, etc) is 4 1/2 oz per square yard, about an ounce more than the material used by the above authors. The total weight of the untreated tarp is 1lb 13.7 oz (29.7oz).  

For water treatment, I decided to turn it into oilcloth using boiled linseed oil. The process was clearly available at the time, and even earlier, although it was not preferred method listed by any of the authors. The reason why I chose this method is because it was the easiest and safest for me to do. I’ve used to ironing method to coat a tarp with wax before, and it’s a real pain. There is no way I am mixing molten wax with turpentine of gasoline, and I’m not using lead acetate, even if I could find it. That left me with oil cloth as the period correct method of waterproofing. 

I used a method I was familiar with. I mixed equal parts boiled linseed oil and mineral spirits. The mineral spirits just serves to thin out the linseed oil so that it is easier to apply. Because of that I didn’t bother to check whether the components of the mineral spirits were period correct. You can use other diluting agents if you wish. I got both from Home Depot. I applied the oil with a brush because I wanted to use just enough to coat the material without letting any of it pool. When I was done, I hung it up to dry.

After about six hours I flipped the tarp upside down so that the edge that was on the bottom would be on top. That way the oil would distribute more evenly and not pool along the bottom edge. After a day in the garage, I brought the tarp inside to dry completely as the garage was too cold to get it done. 

When drying the tarp, leave it spread out. Linseed oil produces heat when it dries, and if you have the tarp bundled up, you can actually get ignition, or damage the tarp.

I sewed loops made of cotton string on the corners and about every two feet. I’m still worried that the string will not be strong enough, but it has held so far. 

I made a stuff sack from part of one of the pillow cases and treated it the same way. That way when the tarp is wet I can keep the rest of my pack dry. 

After being treated, the tarp weight 3lb 0.8oz (48.8oz), a significant weight increase, but still very manageable and matches the weight increase listed by Kephart. It is light compared to my wax treated 10oz, 6ft x 8ft canvas tarp, which weights 6lb 5oz, and is about two and a half times the size. It is easy to see why canvas was rarely used even in the late 19th century by people traveling on foot. 

So, that’s what I use for now. It seems to be working well, and wasn’t a difficult project.  

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