Saturday, August 24, 2013

Update and Improvements to My Favorite DIY Shelter

For about half a year now (and currently), the most popular post on my blog is My Favorite DIY/MYOG Camping Shelter.  So I thought it would be good to write another post that focuses on this fairly easy and very cheap project, and one that can be very useful for a variety of reasons.  

These shelters are a great solution for someone looking for an affordable yet decent backpacking/camping shelter for themselves, or as a loaner/gift to a friend or family member that travels with them.  Also great for parents that want to set up a functional play tent in their backyard, and when the kids break it (which they most likely will, just like they will probably break a store-bought tent or tarp), no big deal.  Used with care, I have been able to re-use these shelters many times.  

Not your best option for a thru-hike (unless you make several and have them in your bounce-box, perhaps), but a great alternative for section hikers and weekend trips.  Hard to give an estimate how many nights one of these shelters will last, but I would say at least 10 nights used with care and under normal circumstances.  I still have my Deluxe Hobo Tent, and have used it out in the field half a dozen times or so, as well as set it up in my backyard a handful of times as well.

In the winter when I go backpacking, I usually go to trail shelters and just leave my tarp/tent at home; but when I do decide to bring a shelter with me for whatever reason, my go-to winter shelter is either the Deluxe Hobo Shelter or Hobo Tarp with a rope and rocks as ground anchors.  Keeps the snow from blowing on me and the wind from chilling me, easy to set up (especially when the ground is frozen and you have to fuss around more with stakes), and sheds snow well and is strong because of its shape and good distribution of weight on the tarp.

Also great to have to add a large "patio" type area to a tent when car or luxury camping when it rains.  You can pitch a tarp in front of the door of your tent, plus a bit higher up, and you have a nice rain-free area to cook, hang out, and have extra dry space.  Good for festival camping too.  Easy to repair with a little duct tape.  The list of uses and pros goes on and on--but yes of course it is not the strongest or more durable material, nor is it meant to be.

Over the past few years I have made many shelters--for myself and for friends--out of that 20m roll of clear plastic sheeting I bought, which includes the Deluxe Hobo Tent featured in my report.  If you can't find a roll of plastic like the one pictured below, I have heard good things about Tyvek, which you can also buy in big rolls for relatively low cost.  Or you can buy a roll of big garbage bags and tape them together--a little extra work, but very cheap and easy to find.

While making all these shelters, I have since come up with some nice improvements to the design, and decided to document them as an addition to my previous post.  As luck would have it, the roll of plastic was down to just enough to make one last Hobo Tarp.

I mentioned in the other post that you can also make a good tarp shelter with just the plastic--no need for space blanket or doors.  I usually use a Hobo Tarp in favor of my Deluxe Hobo Tent, actually.  The tarp version is lighter--between roughly 250-350g/8.5-12.5oz, depending on length and options included--a 2.5mx2m with six tie outs weighed 280g, for example. It's also easier to make and set up, and can be coupled with a bivy or net tent for a more flexible shelter system.  I also don't rely on campfires for warmth as much as I used to, which is where the Deluxe Hobo Tent really shines.

How you plan on setting up this tarp also dictates how much work you need to put into one as you make it.  I will start with the most basic tarp, which has, well, nothing added onto it.  It's just a sheet of plastic.  But it can still work as an effective shelter from rain, snow, and wind.  Measure it to a length that you prefer, cut it, and you are done.  The one below is 2.3m long by 2m wide, or about 7.5ft by 6.5ft.

To set it up, you need a rope or thick piece of string (like paracord) to tie a ridge line.  I don't recommend using thin string, as it will cut into the plastic if there is a lot of tension on the tarp, and will cause problems or damage.  After you tie a rope between two trees, throw the tarp over it, and you can anchor it with some rocks or logs.  You can save some weight with no additions to the tarp plus no tent stakes, but bringing a rope may negate this savings (though I was able to still save about 50g with a thin rope similar to paracord).

But what if you prefer tie outs to anchor your tarp?  Say you live someplace that does not have that many rocks and sticks around to use, or you don't feel like having to find them every time to set your shelter up.  No problem.  With a rope and some tent stakes you can not only set up the shelter a bit easier, it will also be a bit bigger from the added space gained from not having to anchor things on top of the tarp to the ground.  If you add guy lines to the tie outs, you can add even more space to the inside of your shelter.  Anchoring the tarp directly to the ground with rocks can be a bit cramped inside the tarp for some people.

Here is how you make some tie outs.  You will need some strong string, duct tape, clear packing tape, and scissors--that's it.  Cut a piece of string, its length will determine how big a tie out you will have.  I used a piece roughly the length of my hand, around 15cm/6in.  Then tie the string into a loop, and make sure to test that the loop is held fast by your knot of choice.  

Next, take a strip of duct tape and tape the loop to the tarp with the loop in the center of the strip of tape.  Finally, reinforce the duct tape on both sides of the tarp with some clear packing tape.  The more tape of each kind you use, the stronger the tie-out ought to be, but I have found that the small-ish pieces of tape pictured below to be enough for normal conditions.  For this tarp, I added six tie outs: one in each corner, and two on the sides.  You can put as many tie outs as you like, of course, and add guy lines if so desired.  I usually just stake the tie outs directly to the ground.

The reason why I use clear tape on top of duct tape is because I have found duct tape can come loose on its own, especially with time and normal wear and abrasion.  Clear tape, while not as strong as duct tape, sticks and stays in place better than duct tape from my experiences, and is smooth and resists wear and abrasion better.  By using both, you get the best of both kinds of tape.

 But what if you don't want to bring an extra rope, or don't like to tie ridge lines, or maybe you use trekking poles and would rather use them to set up your tarp?  Then you are going to need two more tie outs in the center of your tarps.  These tie outs need to be stronger than the other ones, as there will be more stress on these areas when setting up the tarp because this is where the tarp is being held up.  A ridge line will spread out the tension across the center of the tarp, so the two center tie outs need extra support.

First put a few small (matchbox sized) patches of tape in the general area (and on both sides) of where you are adding the center tie outs.  This will help strengthen the location of the tie outs.  Then add a long piece of duct tape, about 15-20cm/6-8in across the edge of the tarp halfway, and then fold the tape under so that it sticks to both sides of the plastic.  Now add the tie out loop as before, only this time make sure to make a large enough string loop that you can fit an entire width of duct tape through.  Reinforce with clear tape on top of the duct tape as needed.

To pitch a Hobo Tarp that has ridge line tie outs requires a bit more fussing around, but it's not that big a deal if you have experience with tarps or take the time to set it up a few times (like in your backyard) before going out into the field with it.  You can either use two trekking poles to hold the tarp up, or attach each end to anchor points (like two trees, or one tree and one trekking pole, or a boulder and a bush, etc.).  Regardless of how you pitch it, you are going to need guy lines on both sides to either stake into the ground or wrap around/tie to an anchor point.

There are several ways to accomplish this.  You can add semi-permanent guy lines to the tarp by just tying some string or cord to the tie outs, or you can get a few mini-clips/carabiners plus a few lengths of string as shown in the picture below.  I got two 2m long pieces of string (you can use whatever length you like/need), tied loops on each end, and then attached a mini-carabiner to one end.  Next, I put the string through the ridge line tie out, then slipped the mini-carabiner through the loop of the string (now a guy line) and pulled it tight to attach it to the tie out.  With this option I can use either trekking poles or anchor points depending on the situation.  For example, if I were to pitch it between two trees, I would just wrap the guy lines around the trees until the lines were tight and then clip the string to itself or back to the tie out.  

For trekking poles, there are several different ways to pitch a tarp with them, and generally this requires more nuance and experience.  I suggest watching these helpful videos on this process, one by Ryan Jordan, and one by Steve Evens.  One big advantage of pitching a tarp with trekking poles (or sticks in place of trekking poles) is that you can set up your shelter in more locations, as you don't have to rely on any trees or other anchor points; and this opens up some very nice possibilities, such as being able to sleep on the shore of a lake, on top of a clear hill, in the middle of a clearing, etc.  You will also most likely save the most weight with this option (if you use trekking poles as a given, that is), not having to bring rope, but guy lines instead--though probably only hardcore SUL/XUL people will care about this.

Below is the end result of the Hobo Tarp with six side tie outs and two center ridge line tie outs.  I anchored the ridge line tie outs to my plum tree and a rake stuck in the ground, and pitched the side tie outs directly to the ground with tent stakes.

I left the tarp up to test it for a full 48 hours, and it had no issues.  Then I tried a more unique experiment.  My two kids (a 2 year old and a 3.5 year old) were playing inside the tarp the two days it was up, so I told them on the third day to go ahead and bring down tarp, which they happily did.  To my surprise, it actually took them a bit of effort to bring it down.  One ran across the side of the tarp itself 3 or 4 times while the other pulled on one of the ridge line strings until one of the center ridge line tie outs finally failed and ripped clean off the tarp.  I really should have taken pictures of this, but it was a spur of the moment idea I had.  The side tie outs were all just fine.

I look forward to buying another roll of plastic to play around with.  There really is so much you can do with a tarp, and being able to produce lots of them cheaply and easier, and exactly as you need them, is a great addition for most any backpacker and/or camper.

Well, that about wraps things up.  Seeing as my last post on the subject turned into my post popular post to date, I hope that this continuation makes all those people interested in simple and economic backpacking/camping shelters happy.