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At home in the woods

David Ramsey • Aug 4, 2019 at 12:00 AM

Spending a night or a few in the wilderness, without the comforts of a permanent structure, awakens in us a certain primal instinct. It is a reconnection to something deep inside, formed long ago, over countless millennia, not by choice, but by necessity. Nonetheless, we want our backcountry shelter to be light in weight, impervious to rain and wind and quick and easy to set up — we really don't like to take that primal thing too far.

These days we have a lot of choices in how we sleep in the wild. Among them are the more traditional style tents (though they now come in countless design variations), lightweight backpacking tarps, camping hammocks and for some minimalists, the old school, military style bivy bags. A few other options have popped up now also, including car-top platform tents and strange little cot-tent contraptions. All have their pros and cons and loyal devotees.

A quality grade, modern tent is hard to beat. For backpacking you can now carry a relatively roomy, two-person model that comes in at under three pounds. And for car camping there are big cabin style tents for six to eight people, which used to weigh twenty pounds, but are less than ten now. One reason is that tent fabrics are lighter and stronger than ever. The same goes for the poles, which are typically manufactured from super-light, aircraft-grade aluminum instead of the heavier old fiberglass.

A tent is more like a house. Trekking (or driving or paddling) into the wilderness and searching for a suitable site for a temporary home is pretty gratifying. We often choose a spot that affords a good view of the natural world we go there to experience. But there are a few practical considerations as well, like how the site drains in a downpour, if it's fairly level and whether it is located under trees or branches that could fall in heavy wind. A tent, depending on its size, gives us a place to hang out with company if the weather turns bad, and of course, it's the best option for privacy.

Tarps are now quite popular forms of shelter. They are dead simple, can be configured in a dozen or more ways, using little more than some cordage or rope, and provide maximum space and ventilation. Tarps come in countless sizes, including ones for up to ten or so people, which makes them ideal as a kind of camp community shelter. A number of my family members and I have been truck camping in a certain remote area of the Cherokee National Forest for many years. Tarps are strung from the trees over truck beds, above the kitchen area and over the area where cards are played well into the night. It looks a little like a refugee camp for three or four days, but it's a tradition that has been followed every Labor Day weekend — without missing — since before I was born. (Don't ask).

Hammocks have been popular for many years as a means of relaxing outdoors. Lightweight, parachute nylon models are among the best selling products nowadays for almost any outdoor retailer. But only in the last decade or so have hammocks carved a niche in the backcountry camp shelter category. I have personally been backpacking with a hammock now for more than a dozen years.

The advantages of camping in a hammock are several: they're very light, with some dedicated backpacking models weighing less than two pounds, including the bug netting and rain fly. They are really compact, taking up less space than most tents in your backpack. And maybe best of all, they don't require a flat, debris-free spot for set-up. A couple of trees around twelve to fifteen feet apart are all you need — even if they're on the side of a steep ridge or hill. Of course hammocks aren't very good for two campers, are hard to change clothes or sit up in and are not as warm or weather resistant as a tent.

Whatever your specific shelter type, an overnight backcountry refuge swaps the creature comforts of a downtown condo or suburban split-level for a healthy dose of fresh air, great views in natural surroundings and a little reminder of where and how we once lived. Sometimes, breaking out of our crazy, high tech existence for a night or two in the wild is just exactly what we need.

David A. Ramsey is a regionally and nationally recognized outdoor photographer and writer from Unicoi, TN. His recently released book, Rocky Fork: Hidden Jewel of the Blue Ridge Wild, is available at Mahoney's in Johnson City and online at www.ramseyphotos.com

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