The joys of tent camping

Author’s note: This column first appeared in the Clarion on Oct. 18, 2002. My attitude toward tent camping has not changed in the past 10 years. LP


It’s not without good reason that I clearly remember every time I’ve camped in a tent.

My parents, whose people apparently were no more than a generation or two removed from caves, had an affinity for tents. I may well have been conceived in one. Even though they owned a perfectly good house, complete with windows, carpeting and a flush toilet, we spent many a summer night sleeping on the ground under canvas.

The first family tent I can remember was a wall tent, purchased by my father in about 1947. It was made of heavy, dark-brown canvas. Measuring about 8-by-12 feet at the ground, it could be set up with poles or strung between two trees. Several hemp ropes, staked at the ends, pulled the “roof” into line and supported what passed for walls. You could stand beside the walls, providing you were 2 years old and short for your age.

Setting up that monster with the dubious help of my two younger brothers and me was a major test of my father’s patience. There were ropes to string, knots to tie and stakes to drive, all to the accompaniment of much yelling, pounding and the whining of kids. Circus tents have gone up with less fuss.

When loaded aboard our 14-foot, homemade skiff for a trip on Puget Sound, that tent consumed much of the boat’s meager interior. It weighed so much, scant distance remained between gunwales and water. I guess Dad figured that courting disaster would make us kids more appreciative of life. If that was his aim, it worked. Whenever the boat touched land, we would jump out as one, fall to our knees and kiss the beach.

My second run-in with a tent was a “pup” tent, bought at a war surplus store in the late 1940s. This tent was used mainly my brother Dave and I, who by then were Cub Scouts in fairly good standing.

After World War II, surplus pup tents provided a semblance of shelter to tens of thousands of kids and other adventurers. Pup tents were made of light canvas and constructed in two “shelter halves.” Buttoned together, the halves became a two-man tent, providing that the two men were very friendly, were not claustrophobic and were dwarfs.

At an early age, I developed an appreciation for houses which, if not for pup tents, I never would have known. After one particularly miserable Cub Scout outing, when it rained so hard that it doused our campfire while we were frying pancakes, I recall hearing words that still rank among the sweetest I’ve ever heard: “All right, Cubs, let’s break camp. We’re going home!”

What I couldn’t have known during the endless nights in the tents of my kidhood, was that those were the good-old days.

In later years, one of my tents was the “umbrella” type. One night a fishing buddy and I were camped beside the Kenai River in a howling storm, lying in our sleeping bags, wondering if that tent would take wing and fly away. It actually came as a relief when the downwind poles buckled and collapsed. In the dark, we crawled out and dragged the tent into the shelter of the nearby woods. We spent the rest of the night hearing things crashing all around us, certain that a tree was going to fall on the tent and squash us like bugs.

Another memorable tenting experience occurred during a Seward Silver Salmon Derby. My friend Doug Green and I arrived at Miller’s Landing and made camp in near darkness in the only camping spot available. We awoke at 5 a.m. in pitch blackness. Wind-driven rain spattered the tent like buckshot. Our air mattresses were actually floating. We threw all the gear in the back of Doug’s pickup and headed for home. We didn’t even wet a line.

There were other good times, like when the dog rolled in the rotten king salmon and came into the tent. And there were the campgrounds from hell, where the yahoos made life miserable for one and all.

Then, in the late 1970s, I noticed that the ground was slowly becoming colder and harder, an apparent result of global cooling and compacting that to this day is unrecognized by the scientific community.

Since then, whenever I feel an urge to go tent camping, I just take a cold shower.

Les Palmer can be reached at