Long story, but I'm noodling over the idea of going without the net-tent or splash bivy under my tarp. Bathtub floors are a selling point of tents and I know they are supposed to help with water, spindrift and even wind to some extent. I just haven't done it before.
So, for the folks out there who cowboy camp or use tarps with just groundsheets, how do you mitigate water ingress? I know that site selection is the first place to start: don't set up in a drainage, pick a high spot, a spot where the ground can absorb some rain...
Are there more considerations or skills I need to cultivate in order to pull this off successfully? What can I do if I mess up?
I haven't used a tarp in years, but I can remember a couple of things:
1. Site selection was never too difficult (in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky, where I mostly camp.) The forest duff is pretty good at absorbing water, so most flat spots worked as long as there wasn't evidence that water moved across it: no erosion marks or even "streambeds" through the leaves and other debris. I usually tried to pick a higher spot if possible, but that didn't seem as critical as flat with no evidence of previous water.
2. I used a bivy sack under the tarp (sometimes with a groundcloth, sometimes without.) It didn't need to be expensive - even a "bug" bivy would work. Essentially, bivies have bathtub floors just where you sleep. My favorite was an REI model that had a large section of mesh at the head, with no closure (clearly not meant to use in the rain without a tarp) that weighed about a pound and cost about $100. As long as my bed was dry, a little bit of water running through the tarp wasn't a huge issue.
3. I made sure the tarp covered my groundcloth with about a foot of overlap all the way around. I mostly used a 4'x6' groundcloth (if I remember right) under an 8"x10" tarp which I mostly pitched in an A-frame style. The fact that I camped in a forest also helped: the trees provided a windbreak that virtually eliminate rain blowing into the tarp. (Sometimes I also had to pitch the tarp low, just high enough to sit under, to mitigate blowing rain.)
I did pay attention to site selection, but I didn't obsess over it. But, like I said, my experience was all in those 3 states; conditions in other types of climate and terrain might be very different.
I'm in the Rockies, so there's not usually as much duff, but we do have some gravelly soil in places, which can be like a sieve. I should be able to find some of that.
In RMNP, the designated sites have packed, flat pads for tents. I've had water run underneath my tarp once on one of those, which has fueled my fear of the water. It was actually snowing really hard that time and I'm not sure anything would have prevented some water coming under.
Even so, I feel like I just need to get over it and try it out on a nice night to see if I like it. I sleep on an inflatable pad, so it's basically like a pool-lounger, right? I should be fine.
Why do the words "gently down the stream" pop into my head?
I'd definitely try things out on a nice night - you want to figure out your pitch (especially if you're doing something more complex than an A-frame.)
Is the rain different in your piece of the Big Dirty? The rains I experienced were all-day or all-night (or both), soaking rains that went from light to "...build it 40 cubits by..." and lasted a couple of days. If your worst storms are only a few hours, rain might not be as big a deal as it is around here.
Another thought: are your long, soaking rains confined to one season? If so, you might want to just avoid those seasons. At 72, my "I can camp in the rain" t-shirt is still intact, and since I don't collect them, I now just opt to stay home when significant rain is in the forecast.
No need to gather up the gopher wood and the two-by-twos, just yet. Most of the storms in CO come and go quickly, more so the higher you go. The intensity can be anything, any time of year.
I'm trying to figure this out because I grabbed a chair kit which completely covers the sleeping pad. I want to just leave the pad inside the chair kit to protect the pad while I sleep. The chair is tougher than a ground sheet, however it would wear through the floor of the net-tent or bivy, so trying to figure out how to go without one of those.
I love that idea - I also used the chair kit (Thermarest Trekker?) without a groundsheet for a while. The only problem I had was that I would occasionally end up with some dust or dried mud on the bottom of the sleeping bag, where it hung over the pad. I solved that by cutting a piece of Visqueen (ultralight, back then) slightly larger than the sleeping bag and using that under the chair kit.
Nothing better than sleeping under the stars, then clipping the chair straps together for breakfast in bed (stove by your side, right?)
At the time I was using a tarp, it was the lightest solution for shelter; the groundsheet, tarp, and chair kit together was still 3 pounds lighter than the two person tent I had been carrying. I switched back to a tent when the MSR Hubba solo tent came out. It weighed the same as the tarp setup, offered the protection of bathtub floor and rainfly, and was all mesh except for the bottom two inches which were waterproof. It was as close as I could come to sleeping under the stars, with the bonus of bug protection (critical around my part of the country.) I still kept the chair kit, though.
I'm so glad someone else has tried this with a chair kit. I was expecting much less specific advice.
I am a little worried about sliding off the chair overnight since there's no margin. I always bring a homemade rain kilt that I use as a mini ground sheet for my pack and shoes, but it may make sense to sneak a plastic sheet since I won't cry if it gets holes. I think I have some window film in the garage.
Out here, we have to cook and eat away from camp, but that'll be a bit nicer with a chair on the ground.
The mosquito solution may have to be a head-net, which I hope will make evenings more pleasant since I won't have to retreat to my shelter. Once it gets cold overnight, the bugs stop flying and I can take it off to sleep or keep it on to trap a little warmth.
Actually, the chair kit was my second "comfort" variation.
I began backpacking before Thermarest. I remember I was thrilled when I got an original Thermarest pad one Christmas - vast improvement over the closed cell pads that had been the only game in town. Chair kits hadn't been developed yet.
That was also before internal-frame packs: everyone used an external frame pack (complete with welded-conduit frames and grommet attachments for the bag.) I happened to read Colin Fletcher's original Complete Walker book, and adopted his method: sleep under the stars but carry a tarp just in case.
Camp was made by using your hiking staff (no paired trekking poles, either) to prop up your external frame pack. You could then spread out your ground sheet in front of it, inflate your Thermarest, sit down and lean against your pack. It was actually a pretty comfortable chair. You ate supper and breakfast inside your sleeping bag, leaning against the pack (unless you were in bear country.)
Chair kits were great - I always carried one as long as I used a self-inflating Thermarest. When the NeoAirs came along, they still worked with a chair kit, but I never found the resulting chair to be quite as stable, and eventually quit using the chair kit - replacing it with a Helinox chair. That was a love-hate relationship: loved the comfort, hated the weight.
This spring, I stumbled across the Mountainsmith Slingback chair, a strip of nylon which uses a pair of hiking poles to support your back and your weight to hold the nylon in place. So far, I really like it - especially the 5-ounce weight. (Of course, it's not a solution if you're using your hiking poles to pitch your tent or tarp!)
Whatever kind of chair works for you is great; sitting on logs and rocks just isn't that comfortable after about 5 minutes! Then came the chair kits,
Loc: The Southwestern Deserts
Site position for water but we rarely get any rain. The big thing we have encountered while cowboy camping are gnats, mosquitoes and scorpions. There are times we have to cowboy camp to cut enough weight so we can reach an objective with sufficient water but picking up a rock to use as a tarp weight and finding a huge scorpion underneath or being eaten alive by cedar gnats doesn’t make for good sleep. Everything seems to come out in the desert after sunset lol.
@Arizona How do you mitigate the bugs? I'm thinking of trying a head-net because most of the mosquito pressure is in the evening before bed. They tend to stop flying when it gets cold. I sometimes just unzip the netting while I sleep now. Just not sure if I'll be able to get used to wearing the net.
Also, I've heard you can use a UV light to light up scorpions. Have you tried that? I don't have a scorpion to try it out on, but I can attest that it works on cat pee. :-/
As usual, it sounds like I'm overthinking things and I just need to discover the little pros/cons of a chair kit and ground sheet. I'm imagining being able to hang out and watch satellites cross the sky and reading after my hiking partner goes to sleep (he starts yawning at dusk). Maybe even accidentally cowboy camping if I'm cozy enough.
Loc: The Southwestern Deserts
For a good long time as a teenager I never used a tent, just lay back on my bag and watched the stars. Nothing really bothered me too much back then. I didn’t even have a pad. But now if I do cowboy camp it’s usually with the Snugpak jungle bag that has zip up netting at the face. The netting does brush my face and bothers me but it’s effective enough. I’ve heard the same of a black light making the scorpions glow. I’d rather not see them though we have seen them almost everywhere we camp, even at 7000’ once, an orange specimen. I don’t kill them as they are all around camouflaged. I’ve had them walk across my face a time or two. Lol I know people who do use a little bug net with supports, Adventure 16 used to make them, don’t know if they still do. What we ultimately did was get a Tarptent. They are fairly light and manage bugs well. I got the bathtub floor in mine but the bottom of the canopy was mesh and in the Ah-shi-sle-pah of NW New Mexico the wind brought in a quarter inch of fine sand that covered everything we owned. Finally got a Hilleberg Kaitum and hauled that backcountry bombshelter everywhere until the sand wore out the zippers. We find things we like but don’t think experimentation will ever end.
Yeah, I must respectfully say, "no thank you," to the scorpions on the face. <shudder> If I end up doing any real desert trips, I'll bring the SMD net tent and probably the closed-cell pad due to all the pointy things out there like the Devil's Toenails I used to step on around ABQ.
I was 16 when I saw my first sleeping pad and was immediately smitten --by the pad and the girl who had it. Even so, it too me a couple of years to finally grab one of each cuz I didn't feel like I was cool enough.
The chair kit setup is an experiment, too. It won't be the only thing I do hereafter; just an option if I can work it out.
If you were to camp in Michigan during black fly season or during mosquito season you would soon forget all thoughts of cowboy camping. Even using a tent you spend the first 15 minutes getting rid of all of the mosquitos that manages to get in while you had the flap open. I have been in the tent and it sounded like the air force was outside the tent trying to get in.
I've heard stories about the mosquitos and other bugs in the North. The worst I've seen was on the south side of Yellowstone Lake. It got dark an hour early, but at least they didn't try to carry me off. I was on a crew working down there and I'll admit I tried to kill them with the Pulaskis and shovels.
One day, they sent me to survey trail users on Slough Creek. There was no wind and my repellent bottle ran dry, so I ended up walking maybe 5 miles in little circles to keep ahead of the blood suckers. By the end of the day I was kind of staggering around with my clipboard, babbling to myself. People stopped coming down the trail.
Loc: The Southwestern Deserts
I have quite a few rattlesnake pictures so we know they are around. In the Mojave desert of western Arizona we came across a young Mojave Green rattler who was sleeping about 30’ from where we had set our tent. We left it alone but were glad to have that thin barrier, don’t like the idea of cozying up with that. Lol I know they don’t hunt humans but they surely bungle into them at times. When I was 10 we were camping in the Sonoran desert and all lounging around camp mid afternoon and my father sort of levitated up off his chase lounge and curiously started climbing the outer canopy of a palo verde tree. They are brittle and very prickly. So the branches of course didn’t support his weight and he crashed down into the chase lounge and right up again dancing backwards with a diamondback doing short strikes at him. It had been hunting and surprised the daylights out of both of them. Another trip in Mexico my mother was scared half to death by one in some nearby bushes in the dark. I’ve come very close to stepping on rattlesnakes two years in a row now.
The thin barrier of a nylon tent feels good out there in the darkness. I know a guy who woke up to two mountain lions pacing around his tent. He lay quiet but got some amazing photos and waited until they departed. Don’t know what the outcome would have been without that hiding place but who knows. Again there were two of them and they were adults pacing back and forth. That guy really covered ground and tons of bag nights, even got a dry strike on the calf from a surprised rattler once.
When young I didn’t care but now I strongly prefer a light little tent for carefree sleep.
We don't have nearly as many, but we've got our share or rattlesnakes here. I've had enough close encounters to know how they look, sound and smell (a mixture of juniper, B.O. and maybe a hint of urine depending on how spooked you are ;-). I smell far more than I see, nowadays.
Where I usually go, the rattlers give people a wide berth, but the bull snakes stand(?) their ground and hiss. We've all heard stories of cowboys waking up with rattlers in their bedrolls, which I am not anxious to reenact.
I do end up in cat country sometimes, which keeps me on my toes. @Arizona, I bet your friend inadvertently fooled the cats into thinking he was the size of a tent, and was lucky they didn't investigate.
I was able to set up my Gatewood in the backyard a couple of days ago and try out the chair in a few configurations inside. It worked okay, but it's not a lot of space to keep my bag off of the ground. I will need to bring a groundsheet that I don't mind getting torn up a bit. Maybe a space blanket or similar.
Wanted to circle back to this after a quick overnighter where I brought my usual tarp/bivy setup, plus the chair kit since that's what got me thinking about all of this. I'll start by saying it was nice to have the back support and a clean, dry spot to sit.
I rolled it up and stuffed it into the outside water bottle pocket and lashed it with the compression straps, which made it quick to grab at stops. I used it without the pad as a chair, but also as a clean place to put my pack down and sort gear.
It was nice to sit comfortably on the ground while I cooked and ate. I was also able to just fit under my Gatewood when it rained that evening. I fully reclined it and put the whole thing into my bivy to sleep. It even worked to unzip the bivy and sit up to read. The top fabric was slightly nicer to sleep against than the bare pad and the frame on the bottom seems to have acted like cleats and prevented sliding.
There are a couple of drawbacks, of course. First is the added weight and bulk of a luxury item. The second is that I could sometimes feel the bottom framework through the pad when I turned on my side. The metal bars are easily removable, but not as easily reinstalled. I also worry that the frame will tear the floor of my bivy, so I'm not going to use it inside that bivy or the net-tent again.
However, I have realized that since this kit is essentially a large bag, it can be multi-use. I can crawl inside and use it as an emergency bivy (I checked). It protects my inflatable pad, top and bottom. And if my pad does pop, I could stuff the chair with clothes, leaves, etc. to get through the night. Since my pack doesn't have a front pocket, I can lash the chair to the outside and use the zippered section as external storage. These other uses are now making me lean toward incorporating this a part of the usual setup.
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