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Article: Testing Shelters

Testing Shelters

It was twenty below inside my new Stephenson tent. I had been using the cutting edge Model 2R since summer. This, instead of my long practice of lean-to shelters with a fire out front. Military shelter half, tarp, that sort of thing. But this was January of 1972, and the Backpacking craze was accelerating. New gear was hitting the growing market. The New Thing in shelters was nylon mini-tents that were designed to perform like yet-to-be invented Baggies. The new tents purported to bring the world of sheltering from the elements into a New Era of protection. They amounted to hermetically sealed cocoons that shut those inside off from any contact with such nasties as wind, precipitation, insects and well, the earth itself. All featured sewn-in floors.

I certainly had been missing the warmth of my customary open fire in the front of my wilderness abode; missed the dual warmth and cooking ability of my “old” system. Especially as the months moved from summer into winter. But I was a year-round wilderness sojourner, and was determined to give the new tents a thorough test all the way through the calendar. Was I missing out on the New Thing? I had to find out. I also finally had the money to buy into the proliferating New Gear. The newfangled Stephenson had cost an arm and a leg; I HAD to use the damn thing, didn't I?

But it was twenty frigid degrees below zero INSIDE my expensive new envelope-style super tent. So I was trying to function from the inside of my expensive new down sleeping bag. Whilst wearing mittens. I still had to eat though. So I deployed my new Svea123 white gas stove for heating my vittles. On the nylon floor. Primed the little bugger with one hand outside its mitten, and fired her off. So far so good. Hand back inside the mitten, place the snow-filled pot on the stove. The warmth from the stove feels wonderful. My hands, now without the mittens, gratefully curve around the little Svea. (I remember wishing fervently that I could run that Svea full time...but that wish for sustained heat was years in the future.)

Suddenly, a gout of pencil-thin yellow flame erupted from the stove! The line of fire was several feet long! And it was torching a hole in the side of my wonder tent! (The so-called safety pressure valve on the stove had blown-—to this day I don't know why.) And I was trapped in a nylon envelope with no access to anything non-flammable; even the earth itself was blocked by that nylon floor! The door to the tent was zipped completely shut, and was several feet away....and I'm further trapped inside my sleeping bag! This situation is looking grimmer by the second.

So I stuffed my hands back in those mittens, scooped up the now flaming ball of stove, and shoved the whole mess out the new hole in my super tent. Out into the extinguishing snow outside. 
Yes, I survived. I'm still here, obviously. My Stephenson super tent had a life with me of approximately seven months. Of course I patched it...the damn thing was too expensive to just chuck. But I had seen the light as regards sealed envelope shelters. And went back to my tarps-with-glorious-fire under the eaves out front. 

EXCEPT for one more lapse of sanity.

Let's peg the year at around 1982, or perhaps ‘83. Mountainsmith was rolling along; Lumbar Packs were conquering the world. A new craze was afoot-—ultralight backpacking (yes, it goes back that far). The Bivy Sack was new on the scene-—augmenting the popular minimalist approach to set new records for pack hermetically sealable tents. To a large extent, Competition had set in...who could go lightest. And farthest quickest Don't thrive in the majesty of Being out there...compete out there. And of course most folks had been convinced that Death awaited anyone who dared not being in an “envelope” of some sort. 20th century hygiene hysteria was paramount. It trumped accepting the natural world on earthy terms...snuggling into it. Rather, one endured in it-—skimming over it, recording camera in hand Cool, man But clean and safe from any possible organic contamination 

So I built myself a bivy. From that Canadian cloth. It was thoroughly up to date, even ahead of its time. Had the spiffiest hoop-like “front” area-—for attenuating claustrophobia-—and etc., the works so to speak. Even the obligatory mosquito netting. I packed it into my Ultralight Lumbar Pack and set out for a three day ramble. Total pack weight: thirteen pounds. None of it on my shoulders. So far so good. 

I tolerated the first night. Had an open fire, then retired to the bivy. Not pleasant at all struggling out to pee in the middle of the night, but this was summer at ten thousand feet so not too bad. No rain.

On day two the rain commenced. And the misery set in. There was no shelter from the storm except for that bivy. Not under tree boughs-—the whole world was dripping wet. My rain gear was minimalist too of course, and vintage 1980’s. It couldn't stand up to prolonged wind and rain out by a fire. Sure, I've always been able to keep a fire going even in rain, but the rain gear eventually gave up. Besides, an open fire inevitably puts holes in that expensive rain gear, NOT an economically viable thing. Into the bivy was the only option.

I spent fourteen hours in that cocoon Except for peeing, and therefor getting wet. That trip was my first, and last, adventure with the vaunted Bivy Sack Phenomenon. I joyously retreated to my Tarp/Fire comfort and security. And languished there for several years, until I figured out how to “bring the fire inside”.

Most of you readers know how that was achieved, know about my tipis and stoves. 
We will put that development under a microscope soon here on the blog. I think next time, though, we might discuss the history, the roots, of portable shelters in general terms. I'll include winter shelters, in which I've had an abundance of experience. 

See you soon around the stove....

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