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Article: 4 Season Camping (Written in 1998)

Patrick Smith

4 Season Camping (Written in 1998)

May as well start with summer.

Ah, summer. A time of mid-day warmth and mosquitoes in the high country. You’ll probably want to open both nylon doors and close the mosquito netting doors. Don’t worry about pitching the floorless tipi on wet ground. Either the sun’s warmth or the stove’s will soon dry the ground under the tipi. It’s pretty amazing, but it’s true. The I-beam pegs we provide- in 3 lengths- will anchor the tent in even the heaviest winds. (Except in deep tundra and deep sand- in which case you can snag a set of our optional SST pins.)

Stove? In the Summer? Ah, yes again. Mid-afternoon comes the rain. If you’re hanging out at camp, reading let’s say, or maybe writing an essay like this one, and you’re at 11,000 feet, you start up the stove!

Ok, time to talk about “staging”. It’s the term I use to describe flat-enough-places-to-organize-things-on. Your foam pad is one such place. It’s where you sit, lay out your personal items, etc. Now let’s say you’re going to bed- the foam pad staging area is about to be otherwise occupied, by you! I like my pocket notebook and mechanical pencil and a little headlamp to be handy- even in the middle of the night, in case I have a dream-inspired idea that begs to be recorded, else lost forever. And let’s say I’m camped on luscious, cushy, deep grass. Ah, yes! But might I literally “lose”, temporarily, my pencil in that grass? Not to worry, I “stage” that small item on the peg bag I carried in with the tipi. You have four bags with the typical tipi/stove combo: tent stuff sack, peg bag, stove bag, and stovepipe bag. You can use any or all of them to put items on if you’re on bare dirt, deep grass, or snow and are worried about that.

Let’s go back to that same summer afternoon in the high country. You’re not lounging in camp, you’re over a ridge fishing in the next drainage. You start back to camp when the rain, accompanied by hail, begins. You throw on a parka and trudge up and over the ridge, arriving at your tipi soaking wet and in a slashing hailstorm. You don’t stop to take off your boots and dripping parka. Instead, you rapidly unzip the tipi door that’s away from the wind and quickly walk inside, muddy boots and all, grab your firestarter and kindling from beneath the stove and fire it off. You huddle, drippingly, over the stove and put on a pot of coffee. You are literally draining cupsful of moisture off onto… absorbent earth! Not onto a tent floor where it runs beneath your pack, your sleeping bag, your foam pad, your spare shirt! As things warm up, you remove your sodden parka and hang it on the clothesline near the top of the tipi where it is very warm now. It drools, then drips, and soon dries, over the stove area, not over your foam pad “staging area”. You sit down on your bone dry foam pad, remove your wet boots, and hang them on the line too. You sit back and bask in warmth and wait for the coffee. You did not remove your boots outside the tent in slashing rain to avoid muddying, wetting a tent floor. You didn’t remove your drooling parka to avoid the same. You didn’t even bring a towel to “mop up” the inevitable puddles you’d have to deal with if you were in a “baggie” tent with hermetic floor and all the rest.

By living in harmony with the “earth” when you’re “out there”, you’re way ahead of the hassle game. Relax. Walk in and out of your home like a man. You’ll be drier, more comfortable and a whole lot less hassled than chasing moisture all over the place because you think you have to have an artificial floor. Let the earth be your floor. Let it do the work. And “stage” the stuff you really want to be on a flat, dry, smooth surface. You’ll never want to fight with an artificial floor again. We have never had a tipi user come back and ask for a floor.


Ah, Autumn! In the high country it’s a mixed bag. Early on you’ll have crisp, sunny days with lots of hairy horseflies. May have to use the bug netting if you’re hanging in camp. May have snow, but not enough “base” to warrant SST pins- just scoop it off and pitch with standard pegs. You will definitely need to use the stove from late afternoon till bedtime and in the morning. In snow conditions the same benefits of absorbent earth as a “floor” apply as above. Usually, there are enough snow pockets around that you can camp anywhere you want, as far as water resources are concerned. Just take the tipi stuff sack and hike over to a patch, fill up the sack with snow and mosey back to camp where you can melt the snow in a pot on the stove, thus supplying all your water needs. Remember, you’ll be burning the stove anyway to stay warm and dry- why not “make water” at the same time? Strain it through a bandana to remove “floaties”. It’s a pretty cool situation- being able to camp wherever you want. A few snow-patches in the area means you’re not tethered to valleys. Camp up on ridges where the view is spectacular! You don’t even have to worry about bad bugs in the water!

Later in the season the ground may freeze. Snow depths are still not usually sufficient to warrant SST pegs- just scoop down to near ground level (remember that a bit of snow can be warmer because of its insulative value as compared to the frozen earth itself.) But, note: now is the time to start toting 40-penny nails, which pound into frozen earth a lot better than our regular tent pegs.

Speaking of 40-penny nails, there are some places in eastern Utah that have a “pan” of rock-hard soil about 2″ beneath the surface that refuses to accept any kind of tent peg. You Utahans probably know exactly what I’m talking about. Take nails, folks! You probably also know about the spots in the same region where the sand is so deep you’ll need our SST pins to pitch a tent. Right? Ok, we have ‘em. That’s among the places where we tested/developed them, in fact.


Ah, winter! How do I describe the joys of winter camping in our tipis? It’s like thumbing your nose at mother nature! I know that sounds disrespectful, but its so true! When its 10 below and blowing out, yet you’re in shirtsleeves inside- reading… chili simmering on the stove… wet duds drying on the clothesline up top… nobody within a jillion miles… what can I say? If you want to experience real freedom, which to me means responsible, sustainable living “out there”, this is it.

Winter is a time for 40-penny nails and SST pins. Use the nails on windswept spots where there’s not enough snow. I’ve used them in undergrowth- choked Labrador to pitch the tipi right on a frozen lake! (The locals assured me it couldn’t be done- the ice would just shatter and not accept the nail, or so they said. Well, they now have some of my tipis and are regularly doing the same thing!)

And of course in deep snow the SST pins are just phenomenal! The standard “solution” for tents on deep snow has been broad “flukes” or buried paraphernalia as “anchors”, usually somewhat distant from the tent. My experience with them, over many years, was that they broke away- taking a whole block of snow with them- in windy conditions. They were broad, but rather shallow. You’d also trip over the lines constantly when trying to round the tent.

My discovery of “pins”, as a better way, is vivid in memory. My old buddy, Bob Thorngren and I were wandering around on skis south of Rabbit Ears Pass in Northern Colorado. I think we were putting snowshoe rabbits in the pot as provisions. The snow was very deep and it was plenty windy up there. First night out we discovered we’d forgotten the snow flukes! We were perched in a little copse of spruce near timberline on about 5 feet of snow. What to do?

Well, we broke off a few of the lower branches of the nearby spruce trees, stripped the twigs off and slipped them down at an angle through the regular peg loops at the bottom edge of the tent and pitched it, went inside, started the stove, cooked some rabbit and coffee and waited to see how things worked out. The wind blew like blazes. Blizzard howled. The tipi sat like stone- sturdier than ever before with standard, heavy flukes. These thin (1/2″), long (30″ or so) spruce limbs held better than any expensive, heavy, official mountaineering device we’d ever used! Depth, not surface area, was the key. Our SST “pins” are the result, and you can use them where there aren’t any spruce boughs. They are far lighter, far cheaper, and far more effective than any other snow-anchoring system.

Let’s talk about preparing a tipi site on deep snow. First, find a spot you like and then trample it thoroughly with your skis or snowshoes on. We are assuming the snow is finally deep enough that you have to be on skis or snowshoes, here. Sidestepping works well. Then sidestep again going the other way. Pack out an area a bit larger than your tipi’s footprint. If you’re in powder snow country, like the Rockies, now go somewhere- skiing, hunting, whatever- and let the packed-down site “set-up” for an hour. Otherwise, it’ll be too soft to walk on as you pitch your tent.

Incidentally, if you’ve brought along a mountaineering style, lightweight, snow shovel, you can make a very level site just about anywhere in deep snow!

Once you’ve pitched your tipi, lay in a wood supply (you can also do this while waiting for the site to “harden). Use dead, dry limbs. If you have to break some off their trunks try to fetch them from many different trees spread out over an area. This will keep the area more natural-looking.

Put some of the wood just inside one or both tipi doors (the tipi is oval-shaped in part so that you can do this without infringing on living space inside.) Put your kindling supply under the stove, being careful that no pieces actually touch the stove bottom. This is also a good place to dry wet wood.

Fire up the stove, scoop up a pot of snow, and start melting it. Make a pot of coffee. If you have a warming tray you can put the coffeepot on it in order to keep it just the right temperature. The tray is also important for long-term simmered dishes such as chili or rabbit stew.


The new lightweight backpacking lanterns work great. I like a lot of light for reading, serious stove-top cooking, or working on design projects, so traditional candle lanterns are not my choice. I’ve also used the little 4 AA fluorescent lights – just be aware that you must run the stove as these don’t work at full brightness unless the tent temperature is close to normal room temperature at home.

Can you really do that? Absolutely. I have pegged out thermometers when taking snow baths inside my 8-man tipi. It was so hot in there I was able to just air-dry in a very short time. The outside temperature was zero degrees and blowing. (Use a lot of dry, small wood to achieve sauna temperatures.)

With a snow floor you can walk in and out with your boots on. You can dump coffee next to the stove, and if you spill anything, it is of no consequence as compared to the disaster of doing so in a floored tent. If you brought a shovel, you can even sculpt your home a bit. For example, you can excavate a foot-room circle around the stove/center pole. This will allow your party to sit on their foam pads with their feet down in this well instead of sitting cross-legged. Or dig a hole for the beer and fresh meat storage. Or fill in the scoop holes you’ve been using for snow melting whilst tipi-bound during a blizzard.

Morning routine.

Whoever is designated as stove-starter pokes one arm out of the sleeping bag, places a pile of kindling in the stove, puts a bit of firestarter beneath it, grabs the butane lighter and fires off the kindling. All with one arm, mind you. Then the arm goes back in the bag. As the kindling takes hold, the arm comes back out and places the real fire sticks on and around the kindling. Arm goes back inside bag. Oops! Arm goes back outside bag and moves coffeepot off warming tray and onto top of stove at the “sweet spot” for a fast boil. Then arm goes back in the bag for the last time. A few minutes later, the coffee is made, the tipi is at room temperature, everybody can sit up, pull their bags down to waist-level and pour a cup of coffee in bed, so-to-speak. What happens next is up to you. You can have a leisurely breakfast and just hang out. Or you can dress in cozy warmth, putting on warmed-up duds, and head out. Whatever happens next, though, will be done in all-enveloping warmth. It’s a fantastic way to start a winter day in the backcountry!


Ah, Spring! Like Autumn, Spring in the high country is a bit of a mixed bag. The snow will be getting firmer – easier for tent pitching without having to let the snow “set-up” so long after packing it down. In late Spring you will be able to find snowless spots for pitching right on the ground. Chances are it’ll be pretty soggy; you’ll want to use more of the longer pegs we supply. After a couple of hours of stove burning the ground will dry out inside the tipi. Spring is a time of beautiful warm days and cold nights. It is also a time of major blizzards with prodigious snowfalls. Be prepared. If you didn’t get in on skis or snowshoes you might want to bring a lightweight set of the latter, just in case. Post-holing out, on foot, thru thigh-deep new snow is a recipe for exhaustion and hypothermia. If you can afford the time you’d be better off to stoke up the stove and wait a couple of days ’til things firm up. If late enough in the season, the ticks will be coming out. Take bug dope.

I hope this “essay” has given you a better idea of what our tipis and stoves are about! Again, contact us anytime.

From the Tarryall Range, Colorado

Patrick Smith

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