As a member of the Acorn Patrol Classic Camping Interpretive Team, I participate in several demonstrations a year during which we invite the public to observe us camping in a canvas tent and using gear and clothing appropriate to the “Golden Age” of camping from 1880 to 1930. Those were the days before plastic and nylon, when people made equipment from wood, metal, glass and natural fibers. During these events, visitors invariably posed two questions.
The first is, “Are you really going to spend the night here?” The answer is always, “Yes.” We insist on spending a night or two at a demonstration so we can enjoy camping while visitors experience all the sights, sounds and smells of a classic campsite. Inevitably, the second question is, “What will you do if it rains?” The answer is always, “That’s what we brought tents for.” We want to demonstrate that canvas tents are waterproof, breathable and durable. Further, they are sustainable in that they are made from a natural fiber that does not break down in sunlight, as nylon does. If kept clean and properly stored to avoid mold and mildew, a canvas tent will last for generations.
Canvas Tent History
People made canvas from hemp in China as early as 3,000 B.C. In fact, the word “canvas” is a corruption of “cannabis,” or the Latin word for hemp. By 1,500 B.C., people began making cloth in India from cotton; although people also used flax, cotton became the standard for canvas cloth.
The Roman Legions, Medieval armies and soldiers of the American Revolutionary War used canvas tents. The U.S. Civil War saw enough canvas tent usage to satisfy the military surplus market for years, but by 1900 companies such as Abercrombie & Fitch were producing well-made, comfortable tents for the increasing number of recreational campers. People made tents in a surprising variety of designs to meet every need from circuses to canoe campers. (For this introduction to canvas tents, I’ll exclude tipis and yurts.)
Those of a certain age who have camped in poor-quality military surplus canvas tents might recall their parents admonishing them not to touch the inside roof of the tent when it was raining—doing so might make it leak. This was true in many cases because the thread used in the canvas was course and loosely woven, allowing enough gap for water droplets to break free of the threads and slip between.
The Modern Canvas Tent
Modern canvas, like the higher-quality canvas available in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, has a much higher thread count than earlier canvas. It’s also wonderfully waterproof, particularly when adding “sunforger” treatment to repel water and resist mildew and mold. Canvas cannot be made totally fireproof, but canvas treated with flame retardant is recommended.
For most recreational uses, 10.38-ounce canvas is sufficient, although it is available in heavier weights for added durability. Canvas is an excellent choice for car, tent and pack-train camping. However, weight and bulk make canvas tents impractical for backpacking, although a small canvas tarp comes in handy when hiking.
Horace Kephart (1862-1931), author of the 1906 classic Camping and Woodcraft, had a lightweight Egyptian cotton—sometimes called balloon cloth—tent made by Abercrombie & Fitch that he could pack solo into a backcountry campsite. The tent is now part of the Horace Kephart Collection at Western Carolina University (see photo). The company Tentsmiths manufactured tents from this type of lightweight, 4.5-ounce cotton until recently; however, the material is now difficult to find.
Tents are constructed of numerous pieces of canvas stitched together, and double stitched, flat-felled seams are the strongest. Peg loops or grommets are required to tie down a tent. Metal grommets existed in the Civil War, but reenactors should research their period when selecting a tent. Mud flaps at the bottom of the walls, combined with a ground cloth, make for a closed, water and windproof floor.
Canvas Tent Designs
The simplest canvas tent is a tarp; this can be pitched with one end staked and the other tied across a canoe lain on its side. Either that or the tarp can be draped over a line tied between two trees with the sides staked; this is frequently used by Outward Bound with nylon tarps to accommodate large groups.
Another effective tarp setup has with one end pegged to the ground and the other suspended from a tree branch, or held up by a pole or sheers (crossed poles set in the ground in the shape of a scissors) in the manner of a George tent. An airy, warm-weather setup can be made by sewing a loop to the center of the tarp with a line tied to an overhanging branch, and the corners held up by sticks with lines running to stakes in the ground.
The Wedge Tent
The wedge is a classic, simple but versatile design consisting of a rectangular section of canvas with door flaps. Try hanging a wedge from a line between two trees or held up with a ridgepole atop two upright poles, and then staked to the ground. An advantage here is that the wedge is constructible with uprights more than 6-feet high; this allows a camper to stand up inside. Door flaps at both ends provide ventilation for warmer weather, or one side of the tent can be propped up with poles and staked down with lines to provide an open, but dry arrangement.
A lone camper can pitch a wedge tent in 10 minutes by loosely staking down both sides. The slack allows the camper to then assemble the ridgepole and uprights and slip them into position inside to erect the tent. To tighten the canvas, remove the stakes on each side one at a time and move them farther out. Adding walls to the sides of a wedge provides much more usable space, in the same way a house with vertical walls has more usable interior space than an A-frame does.
The Wall Tent
The wall tent, often depicted in period films and safari photos, is the classic design. Common usage comes from Rocky Mountain trout-fishing and hunting outfitters. With its roomy interior, the wall tent is probably the best choice for long-term camping. Adding a fly to the front of a wedge or wall tent greatly increases the living space by providing a “front porch” for cooking, working and relaxing in the shade, or getting out of the rain.
Two types of open-sided tents have been popular over the years. The Baker in a large size provides shelter for an entire group. Though complicated to erect, once in place it’s very roomy. A smaller alternative is the Whelen, named for Colonel Townsend Whelen (1877-1961). He developed the design based on plans drawn by Charles Sheldon in the early 1900s. In addition to his military career, Whelen was a prolific outdoor writer and editor and wilderness explorer in North and South America.
A passage in Camping in the Old Style by David Wescott with foreword and contributions by Steven M. Watts, tells us more about the Whelen: “It can be set wide and high for maximum access to the radiated heat from a fire, or closed tight to shed wind and rain driven by a passing storm. The design allows the use of shears, ridgepoles, guy ropes or upright poles to pitch the structure.”
More Tent Details
Wedge tents, wall tents and similar designs require upright poles and ridge poles. People construct poles using various types of wood, usually made from 2-by-2-inch lumber. Take care to round the upper edges of ridgepoles to prevent abrading the canvas. Upright poles end in an iron spike that runs through the ridgepole and the peak grommets in the tent. Stakes can be hardwood, or metal.
Cotton, hemp, sisal or other natural materials make good tent ropes. When adding wooden slides, adjusting the tension on the ropes is easy. A slide can be quickly made by drilling two holes in a four-inch section of an old broomstick. After that, run each guy line through the holes in a slide. Similarly, wrought-iron lantern hooks and clothes hooks make for convenient tent living.
Tent bedding can be as simple as a “tick” or large cloth bag stuffed with straw or pine needles for insulation and cushioning placed over a waterproof ground cloth. For longer stays, a wood and canvas military-surplus-style cot with two sheepskins stretched end-to-end is the most comfortable choice. The sheepskins provide insulation, as well as a cushioning. This style of cot features holes on the corners; they accommodate sticks to hold a rectangular mosquito net suspended above the camper. A cot elevates the sleeper above any ground moisture during hard rains. Meanwhile, a rug adds the final touch for tent living. Stove pipe inserts can be added for use with sheet-metal stoves in extreme weather.
Of course, no tent setup is complete without the soft glow of a kerosene lantern after dark.
This article is from the summer 2018 issue of American Frontiersman Magazine. Grab your copy at OutdoorGroupStore.com.