Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Me and Poly Down by the Beach

Can a weird loner guy have fun in the dark with a piece of plastic?

Smaller is lighter. Lighter is usually better.

It was a dark and stormy night. There I was on the ground in the dark, under a transparent sheet of plastic, wrapped in a home-made backpacking quilt, all alone at Christmas, in a hail storm.

Perfect. I am nuts and this is my story.

I used to visit the beaches of Olympic National Park at Thanksgiving, when I had four days free of work, when it was just the tides, the storms, the birds and me. And maybe some dead things on the beach.

X is for Xmas.

One year I tried Christmas instead, and pushed the limits a little by taking my first shot at tarp camping. Ray Jardine's "Beyond Backpacking" (now out of print) covered the subject pretty well, but he had a newer book available, just about tarps, and I bought it. It inspired wild thoughts.

I pitched an 8 X 10 foot (244 by 305 cm) piece of 3-mil (0.076 mm) transparent polyethylene, with another 40-inch by 7-foot (102 by 213 cm) sheet to go under me as a combination floor and ground sheet. Cost: about $3.50. And though crazy I'm not stupid, at least not in public if I can avoid it, so I took another shelter as a backup.

This tarp setup was a bit heavy at 25 ounces (709 g), but much lighter than even my single-lonely-guy's lightweight tent, and nearly as light as my Hennessy Adventure-Racer hammock. What was missing was netting to keep out teeny creeping critters or biting flying nighttime nippers, and any ability to zip it shut and make the world go away.

Howdy, world.

What I gained was a full-sky view of the world through a transparent roof, and 360-degree ventilation.

First-night's impressions: Drafty. The temperature was barely above freezing, the walls ended a hand's width above the ground, and the air was unsettled all night, changing direction frequently and finding all my unprotected spots.

Take two.

I lowered the sides to the ground for night two and stuffed my open umbrella into the drafty end. There was only a lick of condensation right above my blow hole. How about rain? Yes, it rained. And sleeted. And hailed, for hours on end. Lightning and thunder too.

Second-night's impression: Not too bad. Because of the weather it was a whole lot like sleeping inside a snare drum during a parade, but the tarp held.

No wet, no splashing, plenty of room to move around. Lots of room to wave my arms and swear, to curse various things, and wonder if I'd ever make it home again. But camped back in the forest as I was, away from the open beach, there was no wind, only a steady gentle draft that kept condensation at bay.

Teeth and claws.

Critters? Everything with wings and blood lust was already dead for the season, so mosquito netting was irrelevant.

I had a bigger worry though -- what if one of the larger, more clever locals felt like having a midnight snack, felt like moseying on over to eat my face, for example?

My first two backpacking nights in 1980 had been inside a plastic tube tent where I kept panicking all night, dreaming I'd wake to find my scalp full of teeth and my face full of claws, hearing a distressing munching sound. Ray Jardine insisted that was safe to sleep wide open. So, I figured, it must be, and went for it.

But I had an idea. As a test I tried leaving three peanuts on the ground near my head before saying my prayers.

The next morning in their place was half a cheese doodle with tooth marks on it. Hmmm.

Second night: I left a couple of raisins and a pretzel. Got back half a stick of chewing gum and six sesame seeds.

So, OK.

Then, third night, I laid out a broken wristwatch and a $10 bill. On the final morning I got the watch back, in perfect working order, 43 cents in change and a receipt from Mikey's Fixit Shop saying that it was a pleasure doing business with me, signed with a minuscule paw print.

Hey. I'm cool. You?

So, no complaints on this score, either. All mellow.

Now let's review. The plastic tarp was heavier and noisier than a silnylon one would have been, but much lighter than a tent, and is an easy way to try this way of camping. Hey, anything is noisy in hail. Besides, I could see the stars through my roof, and make a decision about the new day as morning approached without having to leave my nest.

Pitched low, the tarp was a awkward to enter and leave from the narrow end, but cleaning the floor was easy -- just sweep things off the ground sheet. I stowed my footwear inside without making a mess, because my shoes were out on the ground, but still protected from rain.

Ventilation? Great. I guessed that this setup would be much more comfortable in warm weather though. But in warm weather there would be bugs, so I couldn't complain.

Easy to set up and easy to repack. Cheap. Lo-tech. I was sold on the experiment. Pretty soon I ordered a bunch of fabric and designed a smaller, lighter and much more expensive tarp that ultimately worked out pretty well.

So this trip was fun for me, but I'm kinda weird anyway, so use your own judgment. Mikey was sure nice, though. Gotta say that. I'd like to meet him some day.

The Ray-Way Tarp Book Essential, by Ray Jardine