How To Set Up, Maintain and Use A Tent When Camping and Canoeing

In about six weeks I hope to be setting up my tent somewhere in the backcountry of Algonquin Park. I have a simple 2-man dome tent - this is small enough to carry strapped to the bottom of a backpack, and large enough to hold a couple of sleeping bags with room left over for your equipment and one dog of the beagle variety. I use it for a solo tent, there is more than enough room, and it isn’t too heavy for a portaging journey.

Last November I did some camping and slept under just a tarp, and while I was warm with my sleeping bag and wool blanket and clothes, and dry from the rain - this time I will be bringing my tent. I think the main reason is because I will have the pooch with me, and I think he'll be warmer and more comfortable in a walled-in tent - also sometimes it is nice just to have a totally dry, enclosed space in which to retreat at night or during the day for a nap or a read.

Consider the following when setting up a tent: terrain & safety, cleaning and repair.

Terrain - when you find a camping spot, look around for a flat area. This may sound obvious, but be aware it isn't always easy to find a nice flat area. Nature isn't always flat. Pick up sticks to clear a space, remove stones and look for an area devoid of plants - grass is fine, as it tends to absorb the punishment of feet and scuffing of tent camping.

Also keep an eye out for small animal dens or holes beneath roots - once as a kid my family set up the tent on top of a chipmunk hole. My mum was awoken by the sensation of a wriggling chipmunk trying to return home. Also observe carefully to ensure you haven't covered up or are in the midst of an ant-hill. Ants can deliver painful stings. Also inspect for wasp nests - sometimes wasps make nests in or near the ground.

Safety and terrain are closely related. This may sound obvious, but don't camp on top of a cliff, despite the benefits of a great view. It is easy to roll around in your sleep and end up being swept off the cliff. That would spoil your trip. At the same time, camping too low to the water's edge could spell trouble. Last summer a tornado and bad storm piled water up and over the natural lip of the camp site and swamped our tent. Watch out for gullies or erosion lines hinting at water-courses - heavy rains will fill these up within minutes and make a mess of your site.

Looking around and down aren't enough - lay on your back and stare up at the sky. Observe the canopy of the forest. Widow-makers are dead-branches that have fallen and lodged in the branches above - they like to fall on unsuspecting campers. You likely won't come across coconut palms, but the same principle applies. Also make sure you don't have tree branches that are too low - heavy rains can lower them further and they will be too close to your fire once you've set up your shelter.

I bought my dome tent at a garage sale years ago for $30. I don't know the make, all I know is that it has fiberglass rods, the main tent body with a floor and a separate fly. The fiberglass rods fold down into segments, connect together and bend to provide strength and structure to the tent. They're light-weight, and are connected with elastic cord - these help the pieces snap together. If I was to lose one I could replace it temporarily with a piece of willow etc...

Having a floor is useful - it is generally a waterproof thick plastic that takes the friction and keeps the creepy-crawlies out. You can buy or make a tent footprint, which is another thick piece of material to further protect the bottom of your tent. I don't need one of these - I use one for tarp camping though.

The fly is an integral part of the function of a tent. A fly reduces condensation on the inside of your tent. When you're inside a tent, it is warmer than the outside because of your body heat, and because the wind is kept outside, and doesn't blow the heat away. When it is humid, water tends to condense out of the air against surfaces that are relatively cooler on one side than the other (your tent wall). A fly is a second layer of material separated by a region of air around your tent. This extra layer of air results in the main condensation to occur on the inside of the fly, causing the water to drip down harmlessly outside of your tent. A fly is good. No fly is no good.

Tent pegs and rope will keep your tent from moving around, and prevent it from becoming airborne. That can happen. It happened to me. Years ago I set up my tent on a narrow peninsula just outside of the woods, overlooking a very cold October lake in Algonquin Park. As I went to tie the canoe securely against the winds and the waves, I heard a whoosh, thunk, flap flap flap, thunk. It was the sound of a gust of wind lifting my tent, my tent going airborne, flying across the campsite, and lodging in a sparse, and conveniently located willow bush by the water. Had the willow bush not been there, my tent would have been skipping across the lake as I stood there blinking.

Spruce roots will suffice in a pinch if you have no rope, or you can tear up an extra shirt and tie the strips together to form a rope. Tie off your tent against a root, or use a large stone to weight down the end of your guy rope. Tie a small drip-string along the length of a guy rope, this will intercept drips that want to come along the length of your guy rope and end up on dripping down to your tent. A simple knot of string just before your tent will do the job.

A good insect mesh, kept repaired and in good shape will keep your tent secure from black flies, no see ‘ums, mosquitoes and other creepy-crawlies. It helps to have window-flaps to keep a breeze coming through on a hot day.

Set up your tent so that it faces east to greet the morning sun or north east so that you get a good amount of sunlight during the day. My preference is for a campsite on the south side of a lake, out of a strong wind, but with enough wind that will blow the insects away. Watch out for swampy or stagnant water - mosquitoes breed there and will plague your site.

Some folks bring a broom camping, to clean out the inside of the tent. I don’t. At the very least every day I take my sleeping bag and mattress roll out of the tent, and sweep out the dirt and leaves with a cloth or with spruce boughs. Use the cloth to sponge out any drips and make an effort every couple of days to inspect your tent for leaks or rips – use a repair kit consisting of extra pieces of fabric and glue to make fixes. Consider applying waterproofing silicone spray to your tent fabric, and silicone waterproofing material to seams before your journey.

And that’s it. Have fun on your next trip – after your trip, inspect your tent, be sure to dry it out to keep the mildew away, and make sure you have the ropes, tent pegs and fly that you had during your trip.

And have fun on your next camping trip with your tent.



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