The Joy Of Tarps

by Craig Monday, October 25th 2010

If you are like me you don’t mind a little rain when you are camping. What I do mind is sitting in a damp tent for hours with no view fretting about getting my stuff even more wet if I have to crawl out to go to the bathroom. I also don’t enjoy the sun trying to poach my brain in cranial fluid. The answer for me is an 8’x10’ nylon tarp and 100’ of parachute cord. I love tarps. My tarp comes with me on every trip. It doesn’t get set up every time but it is always there like an old friend, willing to help when I need it.

Many years ago when I first began attending backpacking’s school of hard knocks I bought a tarp. It was a blue poly tarp, either 7’x9’ or 8”x10’. I tried setting it up on several occasions. Every time there was a moderate breeze or more than a passing rain, the bell rang and school was in session. I was always adjusting the thing; too much flapping, pushing gallons of water out of the catchment that my shelter had become. Luckily on a trip through the Wet Beaver Creek Wilderness my friend KF, an Eagle Scout, set up the finest lean to shelter I have ever seen. It was a beauty; maroon nylon 8’x10’, 100’ of paracord(single strand), one tree, one stick, and several heavy rocks. It was clear to me that I had much to learn. Thankfully KF was a willing teacher

Sleeping Tarp 
Sleeping Tarp

Knowing how to tie some useful knots is the most important step in setting up a tarp. There are four knots I use frequently in the backcountry: the bowline, the midshipman’s hitch, the double fisherman’s, and the half hitch. Each of them is used on the tarp. One way to learn these knots is to obtain a piece of cord in the 5mm to 9mm range at least 6 feet long, a knowledgeable friend or clear simple diagrams, and practice. Confidence in your knots when conditions are unpleasant is a great feeling. Your knots must be able to withstand severe stress, if not it is more than likely that your tarp will fail at precisely the time you wish it would not.

Finding a place to set a tarp is a part of campsite management that is both an art and a science. Usually I am camping where there are some trees to anchor from, which is nice. I look for a spot that has ground that will be comfortable to sit or lay on and two trees 10 to 20 feet apart that can take a very strong tug and not bend much if at all. Those are my main anchor points. My tarp has cord pre-attached with a bowline to the grommets on the corners and in the middle of each of the long sides. The cords attached to the middle of the long sides will be attached to the main anchor points up high, the corners angled down towards the ground to form an A frame.

The height of the anchors depends on your situation. Do you and friend(s) need a place to hang out and cook or must you sleep there in a driving rain? I’ll leave it to you to determine how close to the ground it needs to be. The first thing I do is wrap the cord around the tree and tie a bowline. It is a non adjustable knot but is very secure and easy to untie when it is time to go. Since most of the time I need a hangout tarp this anchor is about head high. The opposite cord is then attached to the other main anchor point as close to level with the first anchor. For this I use a midshipman’s hitch with an extra locking loop. This knot allows me to create lots of tension and lock it in place, it is adjustable and releases easily. If your midshipman’s is a little shaky, simply wrapping the cord around the trunk or branch a couple of times and securing with whatever granny-spaghetti monstrosity you can come up with will do.

Anchoring the corners of the tarp is what separates the engineers from the uncomfortable. The corner cords have a limited effective angle. If you have a bad angle on any of your cords there will be a slack spot in the tarp that will be a source of continual annoyance. Rarely can I find a spot that provides perfect low anchors. If I can’t use things already in place I look for big rocks with flat sides. (*CYA Alert* Always pay attention for critters when moving rocks or digging your hands into bushes.) The bigger the rock the better the anchor; besides, huffing around camp like the World’s Strongest Man loser really impresses the ladies. I use a couple half hitches to connect to the rock; they are easy to tie and slip securely against the rock. For low branches a midshipman’s is usually the ticket. Voila, extreme picnic engaged!

Hangout Tarp
Hangout Tarp

Never do I have enough cord attached to the grommets when I start my project; there is inevitably an anchor that is a little too far away. To attach a piece of extra cord I use the double fisherman’s knot, its easy and strong. If you are planning on setting up a tarp with any regularity bring lots of paracord, its cheap, has many uses and expands the possibilities for your tarp and food hang. Trekking poles come in pretty handy too.

The tarp set up I have described is very basic. You may find yourself in conditions that pose challenges not covered here. Creativity and trial and error will usually allow something to work. Remember school is always in session out there and the grading is pass/fail with extra credit for bomber knots.


Backcountry Baking

by Craig Monday, September 27th 2010

A few years ago I read a tip in Backpacker Magazine about how to turn your cookset in to an oven using a technique called the twiggy fire. The long and short of the method is to build a fire on top of your cookset using twigs the length of you palm, no larger in diameter than your pinkie. I like to do this when it is appropriate to have a fire so I can use the coals to help start the twiggy fire; also a light coal bed warms the bottom of the pan without burning. I just searched the Backpacker website and found the twiggy fire directions. They describe building the twiggy fire on top of the cookset while using a stove on the bottom. I’m sure that works great but I will continue to build my twiggy fires in my fire ring.

I can bake nearly anything using the twiggy fire and my cookset. My cookset, by the way, is the MSR Alpine 2; hyperbole aside, the finest, most versatile cookset known to man. I have had it since the early nineties and am sure it will serve me well for decades to come. I have baked lasagna, pita pizzas, cornbread, and dumplings in soup. Cake, however, is by far the crowd favorite. Serving a freshly baked cake to your friends in a beautifully remote locale is a sure fire way to garner a rep as a backcountry badass. So let’s walk through the process so you can amaze your friends on your next adventure.

Things you will need:

1. Cooking oil of choice. I use Canola oil. I have a 4oz nalgene bottle which is always more than enough.
2. Cake mix. I prefer the brands that are on sale.
3. Powdered egg. Backpacker’s Pantry scrambled eggs are simply powdered eggs and we have them at Summit Hut
4. Clean water
5. Mixing utensil. I use a long handled spoon, and you guessed it, we have them at Summit Hut.
6. Cookset with a 2 liter pot w/lid. I use a MSR Alpine 2 and we already know how I feel about that.
7. Bowl or separate pan to mix in.

At Home:

***Disclaimer*** I don’t measure, I eyeball. If you have concerns please do the math.

1. Divide the cake mix in half. Place half in zip top plastic bag quart size.
2. Place a little less than half of the egg package in with the mix.
3. Write with a marker on the zip top bag how much water and oil you will need.

On the trail:

Oh boy
Backcountry Bakery

1. Get your fire going. While a small coal bed develops gather lots of twigs ranging from pinkie size to very thin.
2. Mix the cake mix with the oil and water until there are no powder lumps visible. Cake batter is pretty thick. You can always add more water, you can’t take it out.
3. Once you have enough coals, move some aside for your baking and save some to keep the main fire going.
4. Dump some leftover oil in the 2 liter pan. Swirl the pan to coat the entire bottom and as much of the sides as possible. Heating as you swirl makes it easier and faster.
5. Scrape the batter into the pan and cover with the lid.
6. Place the pan onto the coals. If you use too many coals the bottom will burn.
7. Place a few coals on the lid to help get the twiggy fire going. Lay on some tiny twigs, dry grass, pine needles or whatever you have that will catch easy and spark.
8. Once the flames catch, build the fire up with the twigs you have gathered. If you pile too high the fire will just fall over off the pan.
9. Repeat the process of building the fire up and burning down a few to several times before you even think about checking the cake.
10. Don’t try and rush the process. If you build the twiggy fire too high especially towards the end you will burn the top. Also if your main fire is close by and hot rotate the pan a few times.
11. Once you can smell the cake it is probably done. Be careful when checking the cake you don’t want to get any ash on it. Stick a knife in the center or wherever happens to be the thickest part, if it comes out clean its done.
12. Remove from fire and let sit for a few minutes
13. With the lid secure flip upside down and smack on flat surface. (I prefer the top of my lid) Lift the pan and hope it didn’t stick, if it didn’t you are a twiggy fire Jedi.
14. Enjoy!

cake in lid
Finished Cake in the Lid

I have burned a couple but have mostly had great results and they never fail to please. Get creative and you can bake anything. A quick tip on cleanup: boil water in the pan put the mixing bowl in the boiled water and wash it off then use the water to make chunky hot chocolate to share with the cake.

I will be baking a chocolate cake using a twiggy fire on Sunday, October 3 at 11 AM in the parking lot of our Wetmore location for our Food Tips & Tasting event. Please drop by, say hi and taste some samples from our food manufacturers; and if the force is with me a twiggy fired cake.


Ice Lake

by Craig Wednesday, August 11th 2010

Ice Lake, San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Just getting to the trailhead for Ice Lake outside of Silverton, Colorado is a delight to the senses. The San Juan Mountains are quite a treat for a desert dweller in the summer, even what the locals were calling a heat wave felt refreshing and energizing. Just two miles north of Silverton on US 550 the left turn-off to South Mineral Campground led us along a well graded road to the campground and the trailhead. After a couple days of car camping and touring the San Juans by car we were ready to hike and get a closer view.

pretty flowers
Taking In the Incredible Vistas

The number of cars in the parking lot should have tipped me off that we had stumbled on to something special; but I just went through the motions preparing for an overnighter in what I thought was just the standard issue Southwestern Colorado glory. The hike in is short so we launched onto the trail with a relaxed, slow and easy pace. A good thing too, because it is uphill, not terribly steep but consistent. The trail stays near the creek most of the way, switchbacking through a forest of Spruce and Fir with a green and flowering carpet . As the trees started to thin out the flowers started to take over. It seemed that we couldn't escape a waterfall view. Next thing you know we reach Lower Ice Lake. We spy a prime campsite and spring into action.

Beautiful Wildflowers Along the Trail

Lean-to erected, tent pitched: we high five as it starts to rain and we watch a few more parties stroll through and look for their own slice of paradise. An hour or so of rain does nothing to dampen our spirits as we lounge under the tarp. Once the storm breaks we head beyond tree-line and Ice Lake. Less than an hour later we reach Ice Lake. WOW! I have seen some pretty water but this is something special. The color was changing as the sun flirted with the clouds. We burned up the memory card as we gawked and repeatedly said things like, “That is so awesome!” Another storm with a menacing electrical component sent us scurrying back to the comfort of camp. There are a few more lakes up in Ice Lake Basin but they would have to wait for the next day.

Ice Lake
Ice Lake (back) and an Unnamed Lake (front)

The next morning we had a leisurely breakfast , policed camp, then headed back to Ice Lake Basin. Ice Lake was just as we remembered it, so we couldn’t help but dawdle before exploring the basin some more. Fuller Lake was the next stop. More gawking and dawdling. Past Fuller Lake there seems to be a reasonable line to a high ridge over 13,000ft that could offer some mellow ridge walking. Alas we wouldn’t find out. Cracking and booming in the sky and a steady darkening turned us around. We tried to wait it out near Ice Lake and attempt a trip to Island Lake nearby. Nope; discretion is the better part of valor. Right.

The storm never let up. We sat under the tarp for a couple of hours waiting for a lull. Finally we packed everything wet and headed for the car. The steady rain let up about 10 minutes before we reached the car. Perfect. The long ride home allowed us plenty of time to plot our next trip to Ice Lake and scheme how to be there while the flowers are blooming but avoid the thunderstorms. We shall return.


From Silverton drive 2 miles north on US 550. Look for the left hand turn-off for the Mineral Creek Area roughly 6 miles of good dirt road brings you to the South Mineral Campground and the Ice Lake Trailhead.


The Authors

Dave BakerDave Baker

I'm Dave Baker, founder of Summit Hut, an independent outdoor retailer based in Tucson, Arizona since 1969. As an experienced and passionate hiker, climber and backpacker, my blog is intended to be an informative and interesting look into the outdoors and the outdoor industry.

Dana Davis

Dana Davis

I’m Dana Davis, co-owner of the Summit Hut. I mostly enjoy hiking and road biking though I often do other things to keep it interesting (mountaineering, motorcycling, backpacking, climbing, you name it!) My biggest challenge is sometimes finding the balance between career, family, and fun but it’s working out so far!

Dan Davis

Dan Davis

I'm Dan Davis, after retiring from the National Park Service as a Ranger and manager, I worked for the Summit Hut until 2009, then retired for good (maybe). I'm now spending my time traveling around the southwest writing and working on my nature and fine art photography business.

Emily Gindlesparger

Emily Gindlesparger

I’m Emily Gindlesparger, a member of the Summit Hut floor staff. Since moving here from the Midwest, I’ve been taking advantage of all possible adventures in Arizona: rock climbing, mountain biking, backpacking, whitewater kayaking, caving and trail running; I’m always excited to see what’s next!