Sunday, November 22, 2009

How to Sleep in a Tent

If you need to spend the night in an uncomfortable outdoor environment, a tent can often provide just enough shelter to get the job done. Tents protect you from insects and light rain and can help you conserve heat. They won't get you through the harshest weather, but they can help you deal with the moderate trials of Mother Nature.

I prefer not to use a tent if I can get away with it. In the desert, you don't need one unless it is especially cold. There are no mosquitoes in the desert and little chance of rain, so just an air mattress and sleeping bag will usually suffice. You also don't need a tent if you have the back seat of a car to sleep in. It takes some training to sleep in a space that is shorter than you are, but it's still usually easier than setting up a tent. A car is essentially a hard-shell tent that will protect you in even the most extreme conditions.

Most people think they need a tent for privacy--to be able to change clothes, etc.--but this isn't a big issue for me, since I rarely use campgrounds, and I will always camp in hidden locations that aren't visible anyway. The cost of privacy (everywhere in life) is less awareness of your environment. I prefer to sleep without a tent when possible because then I can keep track of what's going on around me. If a twig snaps, I can look up and see what it is. A tent only gives you the illusion of security. Real security lies in knowledge of your surroundings.

To me, the purpose of a tent is strictly to protect me from the physical elements during the 7 hours a night when I am unconscious. It is mainly bugs and the threat of rain that will drive me to use one. I will put the tent up when I want to sleep and take it down as soon as I wake up. Typically, I do both under cover of darkness. Under ideal circumstances, no one should ever have a clue I was there -- apart from some matted grass in the morning.

On rare occasions, I may use an actual authorized campground. These are usually located in state parks. (Also National Parks, of course, but those campgrounds tend to fill up fast.) In the US, the commercial "campgrounds" you see in tourist areas are mainly for RVs. They may allow tenting, but you'll feel strange doing it, surrounded by those massive land yachts . Since even a state campground will set you back $10-20/night, it usually seems easier to camp commando-style in any piece of vacant land that seems appropriate.

See The Supercenter Camping Method for one way to find a campsite when driving cross-country (park your car at a 24-hour Acme™ Supercenter and discreetly set up your tent on the adjoining land). If you are on foot or using public transportation, you can study the aerial photography in Google Earth/Google Maps for potential camping spots on the outskirts of a city's public transportation system. Without a car, your range is limited, but you also don't have to worry about a car giving you away, so you may have more siting options. Keep in mind that fences and no trespassing signs don't show up in aerial photos, so you'll need some active field study before you know for sure that a site is suitable. (I will avoid No Trespassing/No Camping signs if I can, but I will sometimes ignore them if there are no alternatives and the chance of detection is negligible.) It is preferable to be able to survey your campsite before the sun goes down, then come back after dark to set up your tent.

I choose a tent based mainly on price, carry weight and ease of set-up. If you stop at any of the big sporting goods chains, like Sports Authority and Big Five, you can usually find a 1- or 2-man tent on sale for $25-35. (Also check the Sunday newspaper circulars.) In a pinch, Acme™ also has tents, but they tend to be a little pricey--more like $35-45. The one-man tent at the top of this entry was bought for $25 on sale at Sports Authority. It is suitable for most situations, and at that price it is semi-disposable (i.e. I can abandon it if it isn't convenient to take it with me). The most important feature of this tent, however, is that it is very light to carry and fits in my carry-on airline baggage.

I have little use for big cabin tents that sleep four or more people and that usually cost $100+. They are awkward to haul around and difficult to set up, and they are certainly not discreet. You also lose the heat advantage of a smaller tent. In a small space, your own body heat can warm the tent by perhaps 10 degrees F while it has little effect in a large tent. If I were traveling in a large family unit (which I did in an earlier life), I would use several small tents rather than one big one. This has the added advantage of allowing some members of the party to sleep even while others insist on being active.

The ideal camping spot is a field of thick grass. The grass may provide enough padding that you don't need a mattress. Of course, if do you have a mattress you'll want to use it. Air mattresses are the best, but you'll also need a pump of some kind because lungs alone may not be enough. Over time, the body can get used to a variety of sleeping surfaces, but hard ground under your tent probably won't do for most of us. You'll need some kind of padding under you.

In the Northeastern USA, you need to be aware of the risk of Lyme disease, which is caused by deer ticks that may hang out in the same grassy areas you might want to camp in. (I became conscious of this risk while camping on an island in Maine.) Here is a Lyme disease risk map. If I were camping in a Lyme disease area, I might avoid grass in favor of hard ground and a mattress. If I had to walk through grass or underbrush, I would wear long pants and carefully check my clothing for ticks before I got into my tent. (The ticks are large enough to be visible and are blocked by the tent's screening.)

To keep warm while sleeping in a tent, you just keep adding clothing and bedding. As long as you are dry, there is no low temperature that can't be addressed by adding multiple layers of passive insulation. Your first defense is your clothing: As the temperature gets colder, you can put on whatever clothing you have and as many layers of it as possible. Don't forget a hat, since your head can lose a lot of heat at night. (If you don't have a hat, use a T-shirt turned upside down, with your head through the neck opening.) Start with one sleeping bag for moderate temperatures, then add more sleeping bags as the temperature gets colder. I have camped in temperatures at low as 0 degrees F using passive insulation alone, and mountaineers obviously endure even lower temperatures on places like Everest. They have expensive lightweight sleeping bags, but apart from the difficulty of transport, many layers of clothing and several $9 Acme sleeping bags should do just as well.

All bets are off, however, once your bedding starts getting wet. No matter how many layers you have, it's not going to keep you warm. You can be camping in temperatures well below freezing with a layer of snow on your tent and still be comfortable, but if you are wet, then you could be miserable even with temps in the 70s. That's when the water protection of your tent becomes critical.

In occasional light rain, or a mere risk of rain, almost any tent will do. Tenting becomes a science only when the precipitation gets heavy. That's when you have to understand how tents work if you hope to sleep.

The walls of a tent are made of porous fabric, not plastic. A tent protects you from rain only because the water flows down the outside of the fabric to the ground before it has a chance to seep inside. Water is inherently "sticky", and it will follow the path of least resistance to get to the ground. If the fabric is always sloping downward, that the water will follow the slope and has no motivation to come inside your tent. If any of the fabric dips, however, then water will pool on the surface and drip inside.

For example, look at the tent shown at the top of this entry. At the low end of the tent (left side), there is a dip in the fabric just before the small pole. This where water is likely to collect and drip inside.
Dome tents, like the one above, have the advantage of eliminating most of the major dip points in the fabric. This tent is probably going be less vulnerable to the rain than the one at the top of the entry. However, it's still not perfect. This dome tent isn't set up on level ground, which generates pooling places along the seams at the bottom. Wherever a seam turns upward, water is going to pool in the crack and seep into the tent. The floor of most tents is non-porous plastic, so once water leaks in, it forms lakes on the floor and will never leave on its own.

It is possible that a better-designed tent instead of the rock-bottom cheapest will do better for you in the rain. It depends on the tent, and you can't be sure until you actually use it. You can also benefit from careful siting of your tent on flat, well drained ground. However, it's a sad fact that no tent is going to protect you for long in torrential or perpetual rain (like I experienced in San Diego). In times like that, you may have no choice but to move inside--to a motel, rental car or nice cave if you can find one.

In dreary places like England or New England, with soggy weather day after day, the wet is going to accumulate in your tent and bedding and never leave. At some point, you'll need an opportunity to dry out. That doesn't mean you can't camp in these soggy places, but you need a backup plan for when the sog gets to be too much.

Likewise, in tropical paradises like Hawaii or the Caribbean, the tourist brochures don't tell you about the Biblical rains or the fact that the windward side of an island gets rain almost every single day. The attraction of paradise may be diminished if you are wet all the time.

As usual, you should move to the dry whenever you have the option. If you can't do that, then you have to study how water works and develop as many backup plans as you can. Tenting may be a painless lodging option 80% of the time. It's the other 20% that you have to prepare for.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Case Study: Campsite Selection in Reno

This past May, I had a social event to attend in Reno. As usual, I could fly there for free, but I couldn't afford lodging. And even if I had the money, formal lodging wouldn't make a lot of sense, since I planned to sleep for only 4-5 hours before flying out in the morning. To maximize my sleep time, a free location I could walk to from the airport would beat a downtown hotel room at any price. The weather forecast was good, with no chance of rain, so all I really needed was a place to lay out my sleeping bag without fear of human contact.

The trouble with Reno is that it's desert. There are no mosquitoes, but there's also not much foliage to hide in. Large plants don't grow without irrigation. The area around the airport is densely occupied, without much vacant land. Where was I going to camp?

(The Reno airport is a small one where the secure areas close at night, so I wasn't comfortable sleeping at the airport.)

I turned to Google Earth to find some potential sites (actually, Google Maps, since I find it easier to use). I focused on the location above, just a short walk from the airport terminal. (Here is the Google Maps link.) It appeared to be landscaping in the unused median between roadways. If you compare this land to the size of the cars in the parking lot, you see that it's quite spacious. The surrounding neighborhood is industrial (no houses), so there's no reason for anyone to be passing through at night.

When I got there during the day, I found it was perfect! It was just as envisioned, with no telltale signs of other homeless people (i.e. no trash). I hid my sleeping bag in the bushes and then came back after midnight to set up camp (at the "X" in the photo). The greenery you see in the aerial photo was indeed irrigated trees and large bushes, and the only people I would expect to come here were grounds-keeping staff maintaining the irrigation. They would be visiting only during the day, so I felt secure there at night.

Landscaping can be a wonderful place to spend the night -- as long as you break camp before dawn. There's one concern, though: The sprinklers usually come on at night! I you choose a nice green lawn, you might find yourself irrigated sometime in the early morning hours. However, trees and bushes are usually irrigated by drip systems, and if you find the drip heads, you can avoid getting wet.

The only camping supplies I had were a tarp (for as a groundcover) and a mummy sleeping bag. I would have brought an air mattress had I wanted a sound night's sleep, but I only expected a few hours of "adequate" sleep before flying out in the morning. I had previously consulted the weather forecast and found that the nighttime temp would be in the 40s. In the absence of rain or high winds, this is fine sleeping weather! If you sleep in your clothes and a jacket, a mummy bag is adequate. (If the temp goes below freezing, you'd probably need two sleeping bags, and you'd want a tent if there was rain or snow in the forecast.)

It went without a hitch! I encountered no humans, got a few hours of adequate sleep (enough to maintain my sanity), then broke camp before dawn. No one knew I was there, which is the ideal circumstance. Yes, I was probably sleeping in a place I shouldn't (probably on airport land), but are police or airport security going to comb the bushes every night?

Compare my luxurious digs to the way the locals sleep in downtown Reno (taken on the same night)....
This campsite selection can only be regarded as stupid. Out in the open like that, you're a target for thieves and thugs. The thing that separates me from these people isn't money but brains. The worst place to be if you're homeless is Downtown Anywhere. Homeless life is always better in the suburbs or the edges of town, and the rent isn't any higher. Why, then, do the visible homeless always seem to gravitate downtown?

On possible theory: drugs. If you need access to booze or whatever your preferred drug may be, maybe downtown is the best place to find it. But drugs don't explain the phenomenon completely. I think homeless people, like humans everywhere, have a need for community and territory. They are attached to other people in their neighborhood -- and to their neighborhood itself -- and they're afraid of being alone or detaching themselves from familiar surroundings. How else do you explain homeless people remaining in a harsh environment like Manhattan or downtown Chicago?

If you're a homeless person with any capacity for logic, you're obviously going to migrate to where the weather and living conditions are best. The fact that someone hangs out downtown is a pretty good sign that their higher cognitive functions have broken down -- from drugs or mental illness -- and they have gone back to their animal instincts of sticking to the surroundings they know.

Since I'm suffering from neither drugs nor mental illness (to the best of my knowledge), I'm going to use all the resources at my disposal to find a safe and comfortable camping spot away from human contact. If others prefer to be miserable, that's their choice.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Walmart Supercenter Camping Method

If you are driving across the country intending to tent along the side of the road, it's pretty easy to find gypsy camping spots in the Western states, at least away from the coastline and the main tourist drags. In states with lots of public land, like Nevada and Arizona, you can legally camp in almost any patch of empty desert. Finding a campsite can be a little more challenging in Western states dominated by private land, like Texas, but you can almost always find a workable solution somewhere.

Once you go east of the Mississippi, though, finding a discreet tenting site becomes much more difficult. It's not that there isn't enough campable land. The Eastern states are rich with woods and fields where a tent could easily be hidden. In even the most densely populated state, you pass endless forests along the highway; the only problem is getting to them. Your Achilles Heal is the vehicle you're driving. While it's easy to find secret tenting spots, it's not easy hiding your car. When your vehicle is parked on a remote road near some woods, it instantly attracts attention, be it from police, neighbors or the criminal element.

Of course, you could try finding a legitimate campground, but they cost money and are rarely available when you need them. Commercial campgrounds may be plentiful in tourist areas, but if you don't arrive in a massive RV, you'll pretty much be laughed off the property. This is America, where "camping" has evolved into a grotesque parody of roughing it, where people carry their whole house with them. State parks are usually the only places in the East to find "real" campsites--without full utility hookups--but locating one takes a lot of planning. A park campsite is probably going to set you back $15-20/night, with rarely even a hot shower to show for it.

If you're driving at sunset and you suddenly decide it's time to sleep (and for some reason you can't sleep in your vehicle), where are you going to go? Where can you easily pitch a tent in the dark without being noticed while also safely parking your car nearby? Personally, I struggled with this problem for years, until I turned to the same organization than solves so many other problems for me: the Acme Corporation!

Picture in your mind the average Acme Supercenter. (One is shown in the photo above.) Where are they located? Typically, these massive structures are found on the outskirts of town, on virgin land near the freeway. Usually their site has been etched out of the woods, and there is often large swathes of unoccupied land adjoining it. Viola, there's your tenting spot!

Most Supercenters are open 24 hours. The parking lot is usually patrolled by security and--at least in most rural areas--overnight parking is explicitly permitted. You know when it is allowed, because in one corner of the lot, a cluster of RVs is usually spending the night. If you are sleeping in your vehicle, an Acme parking lot is often a safe and convenient place to do it, but if you're tenting, this might also be the place to quietly pull it off.

Your first step is to case the area. You walk or drive the perimeter of the parking lot looking for woods, fields or bushes where you can hide a tent at night. Security would no doubt object to tenting if they knew, so your aim is pitch your tent where no one will detect your presence. Remember that many sites that seem exposed during the day are secure and invisible at night. (That's the magic of darkness!) You want to find a place where you can both comfortably camp and enter the campsite unnoticed. Often, this is in the back of the store. For example, the big overgrown field shown below (behind a Supercenter in Virginia) would make a perfect campsite at night, even if it is vulnerable at during the day...
You would avoid being exposed by daylight by setting your alarm to just before dawn and breaking camp before anyone knows you're there.

Once you have found the right spot along the periphery of the Acme parking lot, you can discreetly offload your camping gear from your car into the bushes. ("Camping gear" only needs to consist of a tent, sleeping bag and maybe a mattress, since your only goal is to sleep for seven hours then skedaddle. I find that I don't need a mattress if I am sleeping on grass.) Then you drive your car to a central part of the Acme lot where it will be safe for the night. You return to your campsite on foot, retrieve your camping gear from the bushes, then disappear into the darkness. If you do it gracefully, no one knows you are there, and your car won't give you away.

You can try similar techniques in non-Acme parking lots, but the Acme Supercenter offers a unique confluence of benefits: (1) Conveniently located on the outskirts nearly every major community. (2) Overnight parking is usually permitted. (3) The parking lot is usually patrolled by security, which protects your car from thieves or vandals. (4) Frequently surrounded by woods, fields or dense landscaping where a tent can be hidden. (5) Has clean restrooms open 24 hours. (6) Always Low Prices on whatever food or goods you happen need, including camping gear.

You may not even need a vehicle to use the Acme campground. On one occasion, I found myself in South Florida with little more than the clothes on my back. I hadn't planned to spend the night, but transportation glitches forced me to. As often is the case, an Acme in Florida City happened to be the transfer port for the local bus system. When I arrived there by chance, I checked out the parking lot on foot and noticed a big mowed field on one side. The field would have been totally exposed during the day, but it worked fine under cover of darkness. I went into the Acme, bought myself a $9 sleeping bags, put it down in the field, and slept comfortably. (I might have also bought a tent or tarp, but Acme's are a little pricey.)

In the humid East, you usually need a tent. In the summer you need it to protect you from insects and rain. In the winter, you need the wind protection and extra warmth. I was lucky in Florida City because I encountered no mosquitoes, but apart from the desert I would use a tent if I had one. One advantage of the Supercenter, though, is that you can afford to take chances. You can try sleeping without a tent and see how it goes. If you find you need more equipment, like a tent, tarp or insert repellent, you just go into the store and buy it. Even if you spend $30 to make yourself comfortable, that's still less than the cost of a motel.

There are no end to the uses you can find for your Acme Supercenter! When faced with any travel problem at all, that's the first place to go!

Also see: Walmart Motel for $20/Night

Style Note: "Evil Mega Mart" is now "Acme Corporation"

In earlier posts on this blog, I have referred to the "Evil Mega Mart™" (or EMM™), a certain giant megalithic corporation from which most goods for the blissful homeless life are obtained (at least in North America). I realize now that the label may be inappropriate. It isn't necessarily "Evil". It just is.

Henceforth on this blog, this megalithic retail organization shall be known as the "Acme Corporation"--in homage to the outfit that supplied Wile E. Coyote with roadrunner-catching equipment. True, the equipment always failed, but Acme was unmatched on fast delivery, often arriving within seconds of the Coyote placing his order. Acme can't really be blamed if its products are used for nefarious purposes; that's the customer's choice. Likewise, it may not be fair to blame a single American corporation for all of society's ills. Acme/EMM simply gives the customer what he wants, and if his motives are impure, then the customer himself must bear the burden for the results.

Without a doubt, our Acme is an enormous boon to the traveler. Its standardized installations in every significant city and town mean that you never have to search for basic goods like sleeping bags, shoes or fresh underwear. At Acme, you know you'll find what you need at reasonable prices. The quality may not be superior, but it's consistently adequate from place to place, which is all you really need for survival.

There are lots of bad things you say about the social affects of Acme -- how it has cannibalized small businesses and downtowns across America, replaced high paying jobs with subsistence ones and encouraged sweatshop labor overseas -- be we all shop there anyway, and it isn't clear that you're helping the world by not doing so. Acme is simply an unavoidable public institution, like the U.S. Government or Christianity. You either learn to live with it or you don't.

I visit Acme without guilt. When I'm driving, I may stop there as many as three times a day, for the restrooms if nothing else. Most Acme Supercenters ("Supercentres" in Canada) are open 24 hours a day, so you can drop by anytime. Acme parking lots in rural areas explicitly allow overnight parking, even by mammoth RVs. You don't have to buy anything to take advantage of these services, so why not use them?

Apart from food, there are about a dozen standard supplies I buy at Acme, including $9 sleeping bags, $2.50 pillows, $12 shoes, $5 shirts and $10 jeans. (Just about the only item I don't buy there is tents, which I can usually get cheaper at a chain sports store.) I don't feel that Acme is making a huge profit off me, but I'm getting a fantastic deal from them. At those prices, I can afford to throw away my bulkier supplies when I need to, then reconstruct my inventory at my next landing spot.

Attached to every piece of merchandise is some pain. Acme can sell at such low prices because some sweatshop worker in China is earning only pennies a day making it. Just because I don't see the exploitation myself doesn't mean it isn't happening. But if I don't buy the cheap product, am I really helping those exploited workers or simply putting them out of work? It's a genuine conundrum, and I deal with it in my own mind but not buying frivolously. If I buy something, it is because I truly need it and will use it well, not because it serves my vanity. I don't know if I am helping or hurting world society, but at least I am treading lightly through it.

In the Road Runner cartoons, the Coyote always gets what's coming to him. Acme sells him devices that always backfire, but he never learns from his experiences. I, too, have purchased Acme products that have fallen apart on first use, but I think I have learned a thing or two. Usually they were products that I didn't truly need anyway. Once my motives became more pure, my bad experiences at Acme dissipated.

Once I stopped trying to kill Road Runners, Acme and I have learned to get along.