Winter - Tarp vs Tent

8:03 p.m. on September 5, 2012 (EDT)
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Hi folks!

New guy here, but not a new camper.  Have tons of 3 season experience, but winter stuff was done under military conditions years ago (shelter halves, old GI bags) in the Alps and foothills.

I am gearing up for some winter woods wonderland trips close to home.  This will be close to safety with nothing extreme going on, just a chance to get out when the crowds are not there.  I expect temps in the 0 to 30 range with light to moderate snowfall.  (This is at or near sea level)

I have been using a Eureka Apex II for years and am very comfortable with it, but for winter use I can see how being able to stoke a controlled fire for reflected warmth, being able to heat my water for meals under shelter and so on would be a benefit so am considering going tarp.

I will be using my complete GI MSS, 2 blue foam mats and my old full size thermarest and will also have a nice wool blanket for any cool spots.  Some nice thermal (Merino) long johns will be my sleep suit of choice, along with nice socks and appropriate headgear and gloves.

Am I crazy for considering this setup?

Freeform suggestions are also welcome...

11:52 a.m. on September 6, 2012 (EDT)
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Fairfields,

Before the advent of small nylon tents, winter hunters and campers, and Native peoples have used lean-tos with a fire in front for thousands of years.

I have had great success in snow conditions with a nylon Whelen lean-to with a fire.  (google it) It is a real luxury to dry out socks, clothing and sit by a fire under winter conditions.  It also solves the long hours of darkness problem staring at blue nylon that can make those type of trips tedious in a tent.

Set up the lean-to with your back to the wind.  Bring lots of insulation.  I like to use a large dog to pull a small sled if I am on skiis to reduce the top-heaviness that is very noticeable in rough country.  Bring insulation for your dog to sleep on.  In cold conditions I zip my dog into a parka and she wakes up in it the next morning.

I love to watch the moon or a storm rolling in from the comfort of a lean-to.  It changes everything in the winter.

 

12:39 p.m. on September 6, 2012 (EDT)
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Thanks!

The Whelen is and old friend and what I had in mind unless it's storming heavily, at which point I would bring in the sides so as to have a sort of open ended tipi in which I could still gain from a more confined fire.

Overall, I think the open floor would be easier to deal with than a tub bottom.  Do you agree?

3:55 p.m. on September 6, 2012 (EDT)
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If venturing with a group and the trek is not demanding, I will frequently bring a 9’X12’ tarp to cook under, and get out of the rain/snow.  But I would not trust this type shelter to keep me dry, as the mountains I camp in tend to have shifting winds and frequently send the elements at you horizontally.  Ergo I advise relying on a four season tent to keep your sleeping space dry.

Regarding your current set up: ¾” of blue foam should suffice; I would not bring the thermarest, especially if it has no insulation (r-factor) rating.  Gloves should not be part of a conventional, planned, sleep set up.  If you are that chilled, this should serve to indicate you need a warmer bag.  Gear is only part of the solution to sleeping warm; make sure to stay well hydrated, and wear dry clothing articles to bed.  A bedtime snack will also help too, as digestion generates body heat.

As for the idea of placing a fire next to a tent; that sounds like a great way to damage the tent from blown embers and radiated heat.  Lastly I cannot understate the hazards of using a stove in a tent.  I have seen tent fires, as have others on this forum.  I have also read of fires on many mountaineering treks.  You will personally experience a stove event if you camp enough; it is only a matter of time.  Instead, buck up and cook in outside the tent in bad weather – I have done so in sub zero, 40 mph winds, at high altitude.  It may not be comfortable, but it is far safer than the consequences of a malfunctioning stove in a tent.  If it gets too wild outside to consider cooking, the wise alternative is planning for such contingencies, by bringing meals that do not require a stove.

Ed

1:42 p.m. on September 7, 2012 (EDT)
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Fairfields,

I am thrilled to hear that the Whelen "is an old friend."  You can sit by my fire any time.

A snow floor is fine.  Make sure you tamp in down.  A small shovel is handy for building furniture.

I hear lots of people rationalize why a tent is superior to a lean-to in winter.  The vast majority have never sat by a fire/lean-to combination which is one of the great ways to travel in snowy country.  Every once in  awhile you might get an ember hole in a lean-to which is easily repaired with contact cement.  I love canvas tents with wood stoves and have used them for 35 years without any problems.  I will be in a wall tent for a week deer hunting in late October in the Ruby Mtns of Nevada at over 8000 feet.  I have lived in the tent for as long as a month at a time in snowy conditons running tree planting crews.  During a snow storm it becomes the most popular place in camp.

In freezing rain and sleet I might go with a tent.  Any snow that happens to blow in a lean-to is not a problem, and this rarely happens.

 

4:37 p.m. on September 7, 2012 (EDT)
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ppine said:

..Any snow that happens to blow in a lean-to is not a problem, and this rarely happens.

 

Perhaps if there is no wind; otherwise this sounds like a good way to get all of your gear soaked or frozen solid. 

I really don't know how quite to address this statement.  Snow will blow into any recess that is not sealed.  How you keep drifting snow from collecting in an open sided lean-to structure is a feat I have yet to witness.  Drifting snow is a primary reason why lean-tos are rarely used as a primary shelter solution in modern day snow camping.  Good for cooking, yes - but not good for sleeping in the snow.  And I have never seen one used in modern times as a primary shelter on any mountaineering trip involving the prospect of falling snow.  Perhaps there is some secret how you ward off drifting, blowing snow, but I have yet to learn it.

Ed

5:19 p.m. on September 7, 2012 (EDT)
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In my three season tent, the biggest problem I've had is being too warm. I've never been too cold, even in an unexpected snowfall. In a four season tent, built for winter, you can have every assurance that you'll stay nice and warm. That's why every photo you'll see of people camping in COLD weather (-40°, for example) includes tents, not tarps or lean-tos.

You'll notice that while ppine talks about the joys of camping outside in a lean-to with a snow floor, he also points out that it was the canvas tent that was the most popular place to be on a cold night. Nothing there about sleeping in the snow. Besides, a canvas tent and cast-iron stove would obviously be too heavy for a backpacking trip anyway unless you want to use a dog team.

I can understand the romantic idea of sitting by a campfire in the snow, and a lean-to shelter would certainly reflect the heat. Certainly good as an emergency shelter or if the weather's not too cold, but overnight conditions can change rapidly in winter. If you're in a lean-to and the wind shifts, you lose the reflected heat from the fire. If the temperature drops more than expected, you can be in real trouble. If your gear gets wet in winter you're really screwed.

And yeah - tent or tarp fabric can melt and burn, and if it drips on you, whether burning or just melted, you'll lose some serious skin.

Not questioning your experience or your goal - I know people who go snowshoeing on those old cedar tennis rackets, wearing a wool coat made out of a Hudson Bay Blanket, and hauling a wooden sled with a canvas tent (and maybe even a cast-iron stove!). I'm sure they'd be perfectly happy with a wooden lean-to and a nice big campfire.

More power to them and to you, but if it was me, I'd prefer to be sleeping inside a double-walled shelter with a roof and a way to block out the snow and the wind.

Have you considered carrying a tent or a bivy sack to sleep in (or even just as a backup), and then trying out your lean-to/fire combination? You might be happy you carried that extra few pounds.

PS: The Thermarest Traillite has an R-value of 3.4, and my NeoAir has an R-value of 4.9.

5:47 p.m. on September 7, 2012 (EDT)
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You guys sound like a couple of old women.  For backpacking the nylon version weighs less than 6 pounds.   Set the lean-to with the back to the wind.  It is designed for a forest.  Use trees as a wind break.  Use trees for fuel.  For camping above treeline in exposed sites like for winter mountaineering it would be a poor choice.  For the woods it can't be beat.  I bet you have never tried one.  There is normally little hoizontal snow in a forest.

Sheet metal stoves are commonly used in canvas tents.  They weigh around 8-20 pounds plus, but now there are some tiny ones that weigh less.  Suitable for a boat trip, pulling on a light sled or tobaggan or on the back of a mule.

Having heat in a shelter changes everything in the winter.  If you don't like it don't use it.  But if you have never tried it, you don't know what you are talking about.

 

6:37 p.m. on September 7, 2012 (EDT)
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No need to get insulting, ppine. I was expressing a personal preference, and I think Ed was offering his considered opinions as well.

The OP Specifically asked "Am I crazy for considering this setup?". Neither of us said he was, and we didn't attack him personally him for asking. We just responded to his questions as best we could.

I've snowshoed in winter (and in a lot colder weather than 0°-30°F) and I've warmed up in front of a campfire in the snow. Having done that, I said (and you agreed) that a tent is a far more comfortable place to be.

"I have lived in the tent for as long as a month at a time in snowy conditions running tree planting crews.  During a snow storm it becomes the most popular place in camp." Maybe I missed something, but I didn't see you suggesting that a lean-to would be a nice place to live for any length of time.

Perhaps you could respond to the concerns about changing winds, dropping temperatures, wet gear, expeditions in really cold weather, or drifting snow.

8:38 p.m. on September 7, 2012 (EDT)
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I use a '4 season' tarp (tarp with doors on both ends)and a hammock all year long. Winter is my most active season and I have given my setup a real workout in some harsh winter conditions. There will always be tent people and tarp people, both work, and both have pros and cons. To me, the pros of a tarp outweigh the cons of a tent. Now at the same time I would not recommend a tarp for an exposed ridgeline in winter etc. In a forest, or other terrain feature that gives you some natural protection allows you to easily and effectively use a tarp in winter. If the wind is really whipping around and blowing snow then I just rig my tarp to the ground, tie the doors shut, and relax in my hammock. Space is not an issue either, I have ample room to do camp chores, cook, store gear etc. I can't say that I really have any desire to camp on a summit or exposed area during the winter, especially in a storm. So if that's your thing then get a good 4 season tent.

9:06 p.m. on September 7, 2012 (EDT)
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Thanks, Rambler. Some excellent points.

Question: When you say 4-seaspn tarp (ie: doors at both ends) what make and model are you using? That sounds like a good option since it offers real protection from the weather, and it sounds like it would make a good emergency shelter, too. My present siltarp can't really be closed up securely.

10:49 p.m. on September 7, 2012 (EDT)
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Personally, I use a tent.  It's amazing how much a candle lantern will warm up the inside, even when it's well below freezing.

8:41 a.m. on September 8, 2012 (EDT)
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As I said earlier...the trips will be at or near sea level, temps 0 to 30F, light to moderate snow in developed woods.  My choice is either my Eureka Apex II or a Whelen tarp setup.  I will have my full GI MSS for sleeping, augmented by proper clothing, a warm meal in my belly and many years of woods time.

Since I have now retired, I want to expand my woods time to winter as well.

For me, it seems to come down to trying to push a 3 season setup (tent) beyond it's design limits or trusting the MSS (augmented with a fleece liner and a wool blanket) to do it's job while enjoying the open camp benefits of the Whelen with a sheltered area for enjoying a small fire and overhead shelter from the weather.

It seems to me that I would only have to feel the cold twice a day...getting into and out of the MSS.

BTW...I'll leave my Lab at home with Mom...they are both wimps.

11:24 a.m. on September 8, 2012 (EDT)
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Peter,

I apologize if I offended you.  There is a lot of great technology that has been around for a long time that few gearheads seem to be willing to consider.

When you have a shelter heated by a fire, and protected from the wind the potential problems you describe are of little consequence.  The colder the temperatures the more the lean-to makes sense.  A blue tarp can be rigged over the front if desired, but I have never seen the need to do that.  Please forget all about the idea, you are obviously a tent guy. Your idea of using a bivvy sack has some merit in severe conditions. 

 I believe many people are sold on tents because they sleep indoors in a room most of their lives and like the sense of enclosure.  I live in dry country and frequently sleep without any shelter.  "The best roof is the sky." C Fletcher.  Once you are comfortable sleeping without a shelter, a lean-to with a fire seems perfect.  It is warm, secure and has a great view.  Col Whelen was a minimalist and believed a shelter was not really necessary even in snow until the temperature got below zero.

3:50 p.m. on September 8, 2012 (EDT)
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the tarp sounds like it will be ok for the conditions you described. be sure to keep that fire going good! some warm long underwear too...and some warm gloves and hat. you should be ok- you sound like an experienced camper. have fun!

5:35 p.m. on September 8, 2012 (EDT)
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The tarp I use is the Warbonnet Superfly, sold by Warbonnet Outdoors, a small USA cottage industry.

9:20 p.m. on September 8, 2012 (EDT)
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I will be using a brown and green poly tarp from Farm & Fleet.  It's heavier (more tightly woven and stronger) than the blue, but still expendable if need be.  I'll double hang a reflective silver blanket under it.  I'll have my Merino watch cap, long johns, socks and light gloves on as well.  I figure the small bed of coals will be nice to fall asleep to and, as I am a warm sleeper, expect to wake around 3 to vent off some body heat from the MSS.

2:43 a.m. on September 9, 2012 (EDT)
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Fairfields, this is not a new debate. One site you should check out is www.wintertrekking.com a site dedicated to traditional old school deep winter camping, in the Northern US and Canada. Many of these campers use canvas tents with stoves because they are out in -30C weather or colder, what they call "hot tenting" or "hot camping". However, in warmer conditions, some use a Baker tent or similar design or cold camp using a modern tent or tarp.

My winter camping has been cold camping in a tent, either a TNF Mountain 25 or an EMS Pampero (similar design), but I see nothing inherently wrong about tarping in winter.  My winter camping has been in Yosemite or above Palm Springs in the Sierra Nevada. I've been snowed on a couple of times and appreciated being in a big sturdy shelter rather than exposed to the elements. 

I've also set up camp with no tent at all, just dug a trench and slept under the stars in good weather.  Some people hammock in winter. For a neat setup, go to YouTube and watch the videos put up by Shug Emery. He is a character, but his videos are well made and very informative. I think he's in the Midwest somewhere. He has a very neat hammock and tarp shelter setup he has made. Probably looks something like what Rambler has.

http://www.youtube.com/user/shugemery

Shug is a musician and used to be a circus clown (Barnum & Bailey, the real deal), so he has a lot of entertainment stuff on his channel as well, but don't let that put you off, he knows his stuff when it comes to camping.

9:34 a.m. on September 9, 2012 (EDT)
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Thanks...funny stuff, but no hammock for me as I broke my back 35 years ago and need a nice firm flat surface to sleep.

Plenty to look at at wintertrekking.


I'll be cold camp tarping.

1:34 p.m. on September 9, 2012 (EDT)
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Tom D,

Thanks for some great input.  I am a fan of Baker tents.  When I was a kid on hunting trips we used my grandfather's Baker that he bought after WWI.  We slept on a bed of straw.

There are now some really light tents like the Alaska Oven that are designed to be used with tiny sheet metal stoves.

12:43 p.m. on September 10, 2012 (EDT)
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ppine said:

 For backpacking the nylon version weighs less than 6 pounds.

I don't understand why you'd want to carry all that extra weight. For example, a Hilleberg Soulo and -20°F bag weigh in at only 7lbs. Better protection, less weight.

It sounds like a lovely romantic idea, but not very practical. As Tom says, "traditional old school deep winter camping". Might be nice if you have a sled or you want to tow a pulk, but kind of masochistic when there are other, better options available.

12:56 p.m. on September 10, 2012 (EDT)
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Fairfields, first and foremost welcome to Trailspace. Now onto your inquiry...

To me this is all relative to YOUR style of camping.

If you were pitching camp for multiple days in one spot then yes ppine's nylon -6lb suggestion would be a very solid option when used in combination with a pulk.

Now if your objective is to cover ground everyday, and then set camp every night I personally would go with a tent. 

Yes my opinion is a little biased here because I am a die hard tent guy. It is the best option for ME.

(btw, I am the owner of the Hille Soulo and -20 bag that Peter references above.) 

My 7lb reference was an estimate. It is a little over(not much though/a few ounces) and my bag is synthetic because I trek in wet conditions regularly.

It would not be hard to get under the 7lb mark with a good down bag(WM Puma, etc.)

My style may very well be different from yours as well as others because of my objectives. I am on the move daily while on trail, year round, and I set a new camp every night in all weather including snow(which is by far my favorite season, yeah I am weird like that.)

My typical trip is a week at the minimum. So to me the lightest weight with optimal performance is a must. 

I am really looking hard at one of these Dyneema tipis. A 5 man weighs in at 6lbs with a stove jack.

The 3 man I would suspect to weigh substantially less and would be the model I would go for. 

http://wyominglostandfound.com/dyneema.html 

Yes they start out at $999. So this is what I would refer to as an investment.

When it comes to gear there are purchase and then there are investments.

...enough of my ramblings. :p 

In regards to your inquiry of whether or not a tarp would work...

Short answer yes. 

(I mean I have used butter knives to turn screws in a pinch. Was it the best option? It was at the time and it worked.)

Only you will know that for sure being you are the one utilizing the setup. 

Being there was a reference of being "close to safety" I would say give it a whirl. If it doesn't work out you can bail and modify your approach for the next trip.

In regards to the whole fire thing. Fires are great as long as you have a readily available fuel source at your disposal. You could very well find yourself in a pickle if ya get enough snowfall. 

Digging like a ground mole in the snow to find firewood can be a real pain in the rear end. Locating it in the first place can be an even bigger pain in the butt.

I have been in that scenario in the winter on more than one occasion. 

In regards to the Apex...

One thing that would worry me is the catenary cut of the fly when it comes to spindrift. 

Not sure if ya ever been in a snow storm inside of your tent but if ya haven't it is not fun. The catenary cut of the fly looks as though it drops right below the bottom of the upper mesh sections of the shelter. This would be of great concern to me.

Is it the Apex II or the XT version(vestibule?) This will also be a big difference maker in regards to protection.

Apex 2:

image.jpg

Apex 2 XT:

image.jpg

         (photos provided courtesy of eurekatent.com)


Also another concern is that fiberglass tent poles can become somewhat more subjective to breakage(brittle) in colder temps. 

12:16 a.m. on September 11, 2012 (EDT)
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XT...she buttons up pretty good.  I gave thought to the glass poles as well.  There's less to go wrong with a tarp...

Yes...a bailout would be possible.


Didn't get to my age without having to rely on backup plans at times, eh?

1:11 a.m. on September 11, 2012 (EDT)
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Didn't get to my age without having to rely on backup plans at times, eh?

 

Lol, yeah sometimes a backup plan becomes the only plan.

I personally never hit the trail without one.

2:02 a.m. on September 11, 2012 (EDT)
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Peter, I wouldn't be so quick to dis the old school campers. They do use pulks and snowshoes and pull a lot of gear. but for them, it is well worth it. Just ask them.

Here are the types of tent many of them use-

http://wintertrekking.com/equipment/hot-tenting/

This is not UL camping and no one pretends it is. I've pulled a sled myself with much less gear, but still more than I could possibly carry and was glad I did. I like comfort, I like being inside a tent and having what I want, not just what I need to survive. I'm not trying to prove anything to anyone, just have a few days outside and enjoy myself.

 

8:17 a.m. on September 11, 2012 (EDT)
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I have a tarp lean to on my property in nh. I spend many nights in it during the winter. It is in thick woods but it is also in a little dip in the ground. I carry a thin clear piece of plastic that fits over the open front. Its not very thick and it only lasts a couple of nights but with it sealing the front and the fires heat it gets very warm inside. Sometimes too warm. I only use it when I sleep or the wind is blowing the wrong way. I built it for the prevailing wind direction and having it in the dip almost negates the wind. You have to take more time to find the proper location, it is crucial that you pick the proper spot. If I am relaxing in the woods this is what I prefer, I even hang my hammock in it. if I am covering ground on a hike I use a tent. This is in nh at a little bit of altitude (1000/2000ft) so if you are in a less harsh enviroment it will work for you. I think having a way to close the front is a must if any foul weather is expected. The clear plastic works well as it lets some heat in and you get a greenhouse effect. As you said you are close to safety. If you are gonna try it, take a set of dry clothes in a waterproof bag that way if bad things happen you can be warm on your hike to safety.

3:39 p.m. on September 11, 2012 (EDT)
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Cooke custom sewing has an update for the canvas and nylong models of the Whelen lean-to.  They  have a version with modern materials that weighs 1 pound 8 ounces.

Some people have also made them out of visqueen and duct tape and many other materials in the 2-4 pound range.

1:40 p.m. on September 12, 2012 (EDT)
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No disrespect intended, Tom.

We all  have our preferences.

2:37 p.m. on September 14, 2012 (EDT)
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There is a huge psychological difference between spending the 14 hours of winter darkness enclosed in a tent, versus  sitting in front of a fire looking out into the woods.

2:56 p.m. on September 14, 2012 (EDT)
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ppine said:

There is a huge psychological difference between spending the 14 hours of winter darkness enclosed in a tent, versus  sitting in front of a fire looking out into the woods.

While I agree this is also somewhat dependent upon the person and their own personal outlook. I don't mind being in a tent for extended hours. I have done so on so many occasions I doubt I could count them. 

Their are pros and cons to each different approach. 

You like a tarp, I like my Hilleberg, Joe Shmo likes his bivy.

Is there a right or wrong?

Absolutely not. 

10:19 a.m. on September 15, 2012 (EDT)
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Sometimes, being snowed into a tent with a fire outside, with a pipe and a good book is *exactly* what I want.


Just say'in...

10:22 a.m. on September 15, 2012 (EDT)
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I like both. If im going out into the backcountry, I use my tent. It is much harder to find the proper lacation for a tarp lean to than a tent. If the weather is gonna be moderate or mild I take my hammock and tarp. I think the line between tents and tarps is blurring a little. Some of the hammock tarps should be called tents. The way they totally close on the ends makes them a tent. A tarp in my mind is a square or rectangle with grommets only not zippers or velcro. They all have their place, wouldnt it be boring if we all used ricks hille. No offense rick, I could see your post while typin. Thought it made a good example.

12:32 p.m. on September 15, 2012 (EDT)
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hotdogman said:

No offense rick, I could see your post while typin. Thought it made a good example.

None taken at all. I am glad not everyone uses the same gear. Its nice to see the diversity as well as different approaches people take to get out there.

Let's face it if everyone used the same gear the conversations would be quite boring. There would be not only no real need for discussion but also not much need for a forum such as this.

I personally love gear choices. 

At the same time I love to see how other utilize the different gear even more. 

3:24 p.m. on September 15, 2012 (EDT)
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I've winter camped alone in Yosemite in my tent for a few days, then packed up and spent a couple more days with friends in a "cabin" at the Redwoods, a small community grandfathered into the park a while back. This "cabin" was really a 3 bedroom house with every amenity you could want. A nice way to wind up my trip. I've also spent time in mountain huts in NZ, which vary in size, but are nice because of the nasty weather down there. Far more accommodating than a tent or tarp.

3:53 p.m. on September 15, 2012 (EDT)
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Has anyone ever been in an igloo? we made one snowcamping one year and it was nice. insulated from the wind, cold, and noiseproof. the rangers went right by our camp and couldn't find us because we were all inside talking. they couldn't hear us. I've got a picture of it somewhere... 

5:38 p.m. on September 15, 2012 (EDT)
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Trailjester said:

Has anyone ever been in an igloo?

I prefer igloos, snow caves, and their variants when conditions permit, especially when base camping.  They are not always an option on longer trips, however, as the couple of hours required to set up these shelters and the energy required are often used just getting to camp.

Ed

6:21 p.m. on September 15, 2012 (EDT)
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ppine said:

You guys sound like a couple of old women... 

 I guess I need a Snicker's Bar...

..Sheet metal stoves are commonly used in canvas tents.  They weigh around 8-20 pounds plus, but now there are some tiny ones that weigh less.  Suitable for a boat trip, pulling on a light sled or tobaggan or on the back of a mule...

I am going out on a limb here, as assume the OP is addressing a tent he will carry, versus some other method of transport.  Hence the subject of cabin tents or wood fire stove tents is irrelevant in this context.  Nevertheless there are baker style tents light enough to carry, and tarps can be used in a pinch to emulate a baker tent configuration.

..Set the lean-to with the back to the wind.  It is designed for a forest.  Use trees as a wind break... 

I would not make such a shelter my primary go-to abode for snow hiking.  Even camped in trees the winds shift, making it a game of chance, whether or not you end up buried in spindrift the next morning.  For example: I just returned from back-to-back trips in the Sierras.  Both destines were base camps at 9700', lakeside, camped amid a conifer forest.  While the winds predominately were of the summit or valley type, depending on the time of day, nevertheless there were plenty of rogue shifts in direction, enough to blow lots of spindrift around, had it been snow season.  You can argue I didn't look hard enough for the perfect, protected location.  I will tell you sites level enough to pitch camp were limited to begin with, none of which were beyond the wind's reach.  Such trade offs are often the case when camping in mountainous terrain.

Baker tents and lean-tos may be great for gentle weather days or as kitchen shelter, but assuming you'll get bluebird weather conditions is akin to predicting when you can leave rain gear at home - and I have been stung too many times by that bet to know better.  Personally I prefer to sleep under the stars, thus have no bias regarding shelter types.  For me less is better.  But I always bring shelter robust enough to keep the seasonal elements at bay, including horrozontally blowing rain or snow.

Ed

12:17 a.m. on September 16, 2012 (EDT)
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Fairfields,

     Looks like you have received considerable response to your initial question. Bottom line is, it is all up to you! Have a great time and post back on your choice of actions. I'm curious as to what conditions you encounter and what you did to maximize your situation. Always one to learn more from others here!

                                The Schlock

3:26 a.m. on September 16, 2012 (EDT)
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There is a video on the PBS website called Christmas in Yellowstone mostly about photographer Tom Murphy. Clips from it are available on the site. Here is one of them-

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/christmas-in-yellowstone/video-winter-survival-gear/4455/

The program shows Murphy skiing around the park and setting up camp using just a tarp in bad weather. The clip doesn't show the whole scene of him in the storm, but he has a WM bag (you can see the label in one shot not in the clip) but I would not want to be out in a storm like he is with just his little tarp. I really don't see the point. I sat out a light storm (plenty of snow, little wind) in my tent in Yosemite reading a book and enjoying a snack, not bundled up in my bag fighting off being buried in snow. No thanks.

But, that's not to say my way is the only way. Hike your own hike is the usual saying. My only reservation is don't do something intentionally that leads to other people looking for you. You may be needlessly putting them in danger as well.

8:20 a.m. on September 16, 2012 (EDT)
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All these stories of spindrift and being buried in snow are enough to make everybody stay home. The op said the conditions would be light or no snow at sea level. I spend many nights in a tarp lean to in nh with lots of snow, but I have it set up in the perfect spot. I think a clear piece of plastic to cover the front when you go to bed makes it almost a tent. The clear plastic lets heat in and keeps snow and wind out. I have had temps in the high fifties inside when it was well below freezing. I like being close to the fire without worrying about my tent getting burned. As Ed said location is everything with a tarp, a tent just needs a flat spot.

8:26 a.m. on September 16, 2012 (EDT)
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On the igloo subject. I carry five pieces of cardboard that I have waterproofed with a silicone spray. I tape them together to make blocks for an igloo or a wind wall. They weigh almost nothing but they make igloo building much easier if you dont have crusty snow to cut into blocks. I have also made a shelter by bending small trees over and tying them to the base of others to make a domed structure. With a tarp over this then some snow it is very warm.

7:34 p.m. on September 17, 2012 (EDT)
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A tarp and fire in nasty weather?

I do it all the time...   

 


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9:39 a.m. on September 18, 2012 (EDT)
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My preference is for what most would call a tarp in winter... But the tarp I use is really more like a single-wall tent, and includes snow flaps, so it's draft-proof. Many Arctic travelers use similar shelters, though I'm probably going to invest eventually in a tipi with a stove jack and a lightweight stove for winter trekking. Tipis are technically tarps since they don't have floors, but they offer the needed protection and stability of a winter tent with less weight... Those Dyneema Tipis look interesting. It's too bad Dyneema is so expensive, because it's an amazing fabric. My backpack is made of Dyneema, and it doesn't show any wear or damage after 5 years of backpacking.

10:38 a.m. on September 18, 2012 (EDT)
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Bob and Tamerlin,

Thanks for chiming in.  Most people that don't like tarps have never tried one, especially not in snow with a fire.

The Yellowstone video showed some poor site selection, but the guy was happy since he had a serious s bag.

People have tramped around in winter on this continent for many centuries with nothing more than some wool blankets (or caribou, rabbit-skin robes) and an axe.  They were more comfortable than most people would like to admit.

 

9:18 p.m. on September 18, 2012 (EDT)
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ppine said:

..Most people that don't like tarps have never tried one, especially not in snow with a fire.

..People have tramped around in winter on this continent for many centuries with nothing more than some wool blankets (or caribou, rabbit-skin robes) and an axe.  They were more comfortable than most people would like to admit.

 

I would venture to say most of the people arguing against tarps and lean-tos in this thread have first hand experience with such shelter, or have done enough camping to realize the assumptions and short comings of these shelters.  I personally use a BD pyramid for winter ski treks and used similar designs on high altitude climbs.  I think the unfavorable opinions voiced on this thread are not addressing tarps per se; rather what shelter configuration one erects with a tarp.  I would venture to say most find a pyramid or teepee tarp configuration fine for snow camping, but would also state they require more finesse for comfort than site selection and orienting to the prevailing winds.  Instead, the resistance you observe herein is more related to notion of lean-tos as the shelter of choice for snowy conditions.  Simply put, there are better alternatives.

Mankind may have been using certain shelter systems for millennia, but there is a reason why we have created alternatives – mostly to obtain a better shelter solution.  Part of the reason lean–tos worked in the good old days was they were part of a system.  It just so happens thick fur hides dealt with spin drift better than wool blankets, not to mention down bags.  Often dogs were part of that system too.  Certainly you are not suggesting we complete our lean-to shelter system by donning buck skins, bringing along a couple of large dogs, and hike around with a big animal fur hide to keep warm in the winter?  While practitioners of these traditional ways often were warmer than we assume, it is the instances where these solutions and strategies were inadequate that makes us wary of these methods.  The OP may not be camping far from a car, so the worse he’ll experience is getting cold and wet.  But why advise a shelter that may not protect against conditions one should reasonably expect for the season?

Ed

2:22 p.m. on September 19, 2012 (EDT)
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EtdBob said:

A tarp and fire in nasty weather?

I do it all the time...   

I don't see any snow in those photos. It's all well and good to suggest something that will work okay in the circumstances you expect to run into, but I think it's always necessary to plan for the worst possible case.

The OP was talking about temps below freezing, and down to 0°F - that's not exactly a summer campout.

2:46 p.m. on September 19, 2012 (EDT)
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ppine said:

People have tramped around in winter on this continent for many centuries with nothing more than some wool blankets (or caribou, rabbit-skin robes) and an axe.  They were more comfortable than most people would like to admit.

 

I agree with whomeworry (well-said!). While I can understand that a tarp might provide decent shelter when erected properly, it's not the open-sided lean-to that was suggested.

A guy named Hobbes in 'The Leviathan' described life in more primitive times as "nasty, brutish and short". Just because it was possible to survive using primitive equipment doesn't mean it would have been a pleasant experience.

That's why the European woodsmen equipped with an axe and wool blanket made out better than the natives in fur clothing with flint knives, and why we use lightweight tents and down sleeping bags instead of those same wool blankets. And it's why the natives and the Europeans holed up in more substantial shelters than a lean-to in winter whenever they had the chance.

8:19 a.m. on September 21, 2012 (EDT)
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All good food for thought...thanks a bunch!


I consider my GI MSS a serious bag and it sounds like with proper preparation and site selection, it ought to work well.

I am very cold resistant (being a big guy helps at 6'3" and 260 pounds I tend to retain heat better than smaller folks) and grew up in heavy snow conditions.  I have a better idea now of what has been mentioned...basically, yes, the tarp idea would work just fine, but even being comfortable in the cold some shelter area would be nice so as to not simply spend time in a warm bivy or hunkered near a fire.


I will work out the details as the snow nears...thanks for all of your input!

2:59 p.m. on September 21, 2012 (EDT)
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Whome,

Be careful what you assume.  I used to hang around a lot with buckskinners in Colorado and Wyoming and have camped in the snow with them many times.  We wore buckskins and slept with dogs often.  I have had winter tent parties for 35 years sometimes in several feet of snow and below zero temperatures.  None of the buckskinners ever wanted to go home, so we just let them roll out their bedrolls. 

5:49 p.m. on September 21, 2012 (EDT)
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ppine said:

..Be careful what you assume.  I used to hang around a lot with buckskinners..  ..None of the buckskinners ever wanted to go home, so we just let them roll out their bedrolls. 

 Not sure what assumptions you refer to.

As for camping in buckskins, and all: you have experienced good fortune, not having been snowed out of your lean-tos.  Trust me, unless you have magic powers to control wind direction, spin drift will find its way to any unsealed space, and with lean-tos that is basically the entire shelter space.  I have no idea what weather conditions your retro mountain men slept in, nor can I speak for their motives to overnight if they were exposed to significant weather.  But I have been on trips where it got so rough – folks got frost bite - we would have gone home, if not for the fact that conditions precluded safe travel.  Yea, I can just see swapping a snow cave for a lean-to in those situations…

Ed

8:29 a.m. on September 22, 2012 (EDT)
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ps: and FWIW...My Black Lab thinks she *needs* to curl next to me to sleep inside a 70* house.  My last dog was a Giant Alaskan malamute (212#) that refused to come inside during the winter.  *They* make their own camps too.

10:59 a.m. on September 22, 2012 (EDT)
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Whomeworry,

I spent a career working in places like Wyo and Alaska.  We checked each other for frostbite all the time in winter.  I have have never "gone home" from a job or a trip for fun. either.

I am definitely "suggesting that we live in lean-tos, don buckskins, and invite large dogs, and use animal furs."  The old ways are the best ways.

11:18 a.m. on September 22, 2012 (EDT)
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Fairfields said:

My last dog was a Giant Alaskan malamute (212#) that refused to come inside during the winter.  *They* make their own camps too.

My Husky was the same way. Also loved to dig holes.(old pic.)
sasha.jpg
...Man do I miss her. I need to get another dog. 

11:41 a.m. on September 22, 2012 (EDT)
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ppine said:

I am definitely "suggesting that we live in lean-tos, don buckskins, and invite large dogs, and use animal furs."  The old ways are the best ways.

You left out the key words "for you" in the statement above. Once again it is impossible to suggest what is the best approach for another individual when you are:

  • not that individual
  • not frequenting the exact area
  • not subjecting yourself to the exact conditions that the op is going to experience in that area

Another question I have is how effective is a lean-to when one does not have the ability to make a fire because everything is soaked from days of previous rain?

In a scenario such as this you would lose the ability to have the shelter reflect heat back to you.

This is what works "for me."

Feb-2012-LHHT-006.jpg

Now mind you no snow was in the weather report when I arrived for this trip. A ranger pulled up when I was getting dropped off and told me there was a pretty good "surprise" storm moving in. He asked if I was prepared for it and I told I should be fine. The ground was bare, everything was wet and there was minimal wind(as seen below.)

Feb-2012-LHHT-003.jpg

I would refer to it as more of a breeze if anything.

Well as the night progressed the winds picked up dramatically, temps plummeted, and the snow came.

If you look closely at the first picture(the next morning after my arrival) you will not only notice the snow on the sidewall of the outer tent but the build up near the base of the tent on that end as well.

This was caused by the wind blowing from that direction.

So with that being said. What would I have done at 3am in a lean-to if my shelter was pitched in the wrong direction? Ate spindrift sandwiches for the remainder of the evening then woke up to looking like Frosty the Snowman? Got up at 3am and repitched my shelter to negate the wind?

The snow came down for the next few days:

Feb-2012-LHHT-012.jpg

(horizontal snowfall anyone?)

Feb-2012-LHHT-015.jpg

You say "the old ways are the best ways?" 

Sorry, but I have to 100% disagree with that statement.

It might very well be the best way for you but I am going to go out on a limb and say it is not the best approach for everyone. 

As Ed stated above:

"Mankind may have been using certain shelter systems for millennia, but there is a reason why we have created alternatives – mostly to obtain a better shelter solution."

(On a side note I would also like to point out that the inside of my tent is typically 15-20 degrees warmer than the outside when buttoned up. It is a solo tent and holds the heat that my body generates a bit.) 

The amount of heat one finds in a shelter will be dependent upon how large the shelter is and how many bodies are in said shelter. 

If I was solo in say a 3 man tent the heat generated by my body would not heat the interior of the tent as well because there is a much larger area of interior volume compared to a tent such as my one person shelter.

The only heat source I have at night is myself. My sleeping bag(here) does not provide heat. It just retains the heat my body generates and insulates me. 

Now some may say that a tent retaining heat is no big deal. Well, from my own personal experiences for me it is. 

W/o an external heat source(ie a fire) there really isn't much benefit to a lean-to in harsh conditions other than overhead protection when one accounts for changing weather patterns, shifting winds, horizontal rain, sleet, so on and so forth. 

On a typical lean-to set there are 3 open voids which equates to 3 different ways nasty weather can effect not only me but also the gear I am using.

So this gives me a 1 in 4(25%) chance of getting it right for the weather I may or may not encounter for the remainder of my slumber/trip.

Of course one could account for this a bit dependent upon pitch(implementing sidewalls into the pitch.)

On the flipside it doesn't matter how I pitch my tent being I am fully covered from every direction. 

(I have used a lean-to shelter in milder conditions on quite a few occasions over the years btw.)

Remember, Mother Nature could care less who you are or what gear you have.

When meandering around the bc you are at her mercy.

If you are out there enough you will realize that she typically shows none when you are lacking something gear wise that you actually need or when you are unprepared for the conditions you may encounter.

 

10:13 p.m. on September 22, 2012 (EDT)
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ppine said:

We checked each other for frostbite all the time in winter. 

How do you check each other's toes. Having had that experience a few years ago, I know how easy it is to get frostbite without knowing.


I am definitely "suggesting that we live in lean-tos, don buckskins, and invite large dogs, and use animal furs."  The old ways are the best ways.

I can't believe I'm actually seeing a suggestion like this, especially here. While people survived some pretty terrible conditions (and still do) it's just foolish to place yourself in danger unnecessarily.

Let's all go back to a time when, in the North American bush, the average lifespan was down to around 40, many women died in childbirth, and easily preventable diseases like rickets, polio and scurvy killed people all the time. And where you couldn't call for help if something went wrong, and where hunters and trappers often disappeared in the winter.

I think what I'm hearing here is a highly romanticized, idealistic version of  what 'life in the olden days' was all about, without any basis in fact. I hear the same thing from European tourists, who base their knowledge of the mountains on pulp-fiction novels written by hacks like Karl May, a German writer similar to Louse L'Amour.

9:35 a.m. on September 23, 2012 (EDT)
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Wow, this topic is getting alot of action!

A Lean-to can work well in winter, but IMO this is more regarding a permenant structure, or a very well constructed/pitched temporary one(tarp).


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Ahhhhhhh! A charging husky! run for your lives!

 

These are all permenant lean-to's, none of them had snow actually inside them other than what we tracked in on our feet, and this is the middle of the winter and lots of significant snowfall and high winds. Spindrift didn't magically swoop in and 'get us' either. It all has to do with proper construction, which involves orienting the lean to according to the prevailing winds. Winds can whip around and swirl a bit in a storm certainly, but generally speaking wind is pretty much within the same cardinal direction Ex: NW N NE, so if your prevailing winds are generally northerly in direction they arn't going to magically start coming from the oppossite direction.

If I am out in winter with my tarp I do not pitch it in a lean-to. I batten down the hatches and pitch it like an A frame tent. A tarp IMO doesn't give enough shelter area to be set back far enough to avoid potential blowing wind/rain/snow in really bad circumstances. However, this is all dependant on pitch, and taking advantage of terrian features etc. Have I used a tarp in a lean-to pitch in winter? Yes. Did I survive? I think so. Would I do it again? Eh, probably not, but purely because I prefer an A frame pitch in winter, not because the lean-to pitch is useless or somehow flawed. If you have snow on the ground already you can completely seal the tarp lean-to on all sides pitched to the ground(obviously not the open side). This goes with any tarp pitch, you can really seal it if you already have snow on the ground. this is what I do when i pitch A frame in the middle of the winter, and it works like a champ. If there is no snow on the ground already but I am expecting it, I just pitch to the ground and don't worry about it. If you pitched it correctly nothing significant will come in from the areas pitched to the ground. If you pitch it in a leanto, you might get some in the open side in theory, but none from the ground sides, and I have yet to see any significant amount enter a lean-to pitched tarp that is pitched well.

I use a hammock, so really have no concern if a a little spindrift gets in, as it doesn't affect me at all. But I have yet to see any amount get in that would be of even slight concern in my A frame pitch.

11:15 a.m. on September 23, 2012 (EDT)
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Ken,

We have those here on the trail as well.

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Typically what some folks do is wrap a tarp around the back of the chimney and then attach it to both sides of the shelter using biners which seals off the entry points to the elements.

There are large eyelets built into the shelter for this sole purpose.

When ya do this combined with a fire even in late winter when the temps are at their coldest you can easily get the inside of these shelters warm enough to wear shorts(70s-80s.) 

11:40 a.m. on September 23, 2012 (EDT)
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The great thing about this site is getting to hear opinions from people all over the world. We all have different climates and external influences that shape our ideologies. What Etdbob describes as "nasty weather" in his photo looks like summer in Northern Ontario ;)

Thats what makes it interesting, there is no 'right' answer.

However, sweeping statements like "the old ways are the best ways" undermines any advances the outdoor industry has made. Now I'm not saying the old ways are bad. There are plenty of circumstances I would agree with you- traditional wooden snowshoes for example, merino wool (people are talking about it like its a space age new fabric).

In this case the OP is asking for advice for a close to home shelter. Not deep BC + lower danger level = time to try it out. I say go for it. Only way you're going to learn what works for you is by trying it!

12:25 p.m. on September 23, 2012 (EDT)
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The pic and description rick gave is kinda what I do. My fire is on the outside, but I use clear plastic for the front. I dont put the front on unless it gets really windy. I guess everyone is different, a properly done lean to can work extremely well in winter storms. If you use a rope for your support between trees you can raise and lower your height. Start at just over six feet so you can stand, if it gets bad or at bedtime lower it to three feet. Then you can stake down the front with the slack you created. You dont have to touch the back or sides and you have pretty much made a pup tent. When the storm passes or its morning just rehang it where you started. This is very easy to do, and makes a tarp very versatile. Dont get me wrong I love my tents, but in nh it is sometimes hard to find a tent site. My hammock and a lean to are much easier. Ive taken my tent and been very frustrated spending an hour lookin tent site, passing many suitable tarp spots.

8:25 p.m. on September 23, 2012 (EDT)
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I think that is typically refered to as the 'Mors Super shelter', well at least one of the main principles anyways. The clear plastic works surprisingly well, I have used it numerous times with great success. Works really good with a long fire in front of it.

2:07 p.m. on September 29, 2012 (EDT)
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Go tent not tarp

11:29 p.m. on October 2, 2012 (EDT)
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Try as I might, I just can't get used to tarps.  I may keep trying, but to date I always sleep better in a tent.  I've used tarps both summer and winter and I just don't sleep as well under a tarp and don't know why.  Perhaps if I did it often enough I'd get used to it, I think breezes wake me up too easily.

1:00 p.m. on October 5, 2012 (EDT)
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Alan,

You have identified an important aspect of tarps that upsets some people.  We spend our lives sleeping indoors in rooms with walls and a roof.  They are secure.  By contrast a tarp is open and unsecure.  Try this experiment.  Take a walk in the woods by yourself and take a nap out away from any trails.  Once you are used to that experience a tarp seems very cozy and secure.

10:31 a.m. on October 10, 2012 (EDT)
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What Callahan said.

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