Friday, January 29, 2016

Classic Backpacking Gear: Cutting Tools

In this post I want to focus on butting tools which would have been available to and used by woodsmen during the Classic Backpacking period of 1880 through 1930. As with shelters, actual choices by particular woodsmen or authors are not particularly significant because the chosen tools are a very personal thing to each individual and reflect as much the person’s tastes as they do the practical aspects of the tools. Therefore, the information I want to provide here is focused more on what would constitute period correct tool from which you can make your selection if you are interested in the activity.

Axes and Hatchets

Let’s start with the axe, perhaps the most important cutting tool. “On the ax more than on anything else depends the comfort and success of the northern forest traveler, whatever his calling. He may, to lighten his load, discard all of the articles in his outfit which are not absolutely essential, but never by any chance is the ax among those cast aside, because this tool is the most necessary and the most useful article used by the bushman. Not a day passes that the ax is not put to strenuous use, and on the trap line nearly every hour of the day finds the ax at work, smoothing the rough path of the traveler and providing for his comfort and welfare.” Elmer Harry Kreps, Woodcraft, 1919 p. 52

The first thing to consider would be what exactly constitutes a period correct axe or hatchet.

Starting in the 1750s, the axe went through some significant changes, giving us axes we recognize today. Starting with a tomahawk-like axe, with round eye and long bit, the axe progressed into the American Felling Axe which came do dominate the market ever since. In the picture below you see three axes. The first axe on the left is an example of a 1850s axe, the second is a 1890s W.C. Kelly Perfect axe, and the one of the right is a 1940s modern Plumb axe.

There are certainly differences in the axes starting from the 1850s and going through the 1940s. You can see a more in dept discussion about them here. The bottom line however is that most modern axe designs will fit perfectly well within this time period. You don’t have to look for anything out of the ordinary.

You can see an example of available axes on p.67 of the 1907 Abercrombie & Fitch Catalog. They are clearly a completely modern design.

Abercrombie & Fitch were not big axe distributors, nor did they manufacture their own axes. I believe the axes were actually made by Mann Edge Tool Co. Even so, this is an example showing that in 1907 the available axes were largely modern in design.

Similarly, a design shown by Elmer Harry Kreps on p.55 of his 1919 book Woodcraft shows a modern axe design.

Of course, the issue then comes up of exactly what type of axe to use: size, handle length and type, etc. As I mentioned above, the choice is a very personal one to each woodsman, and each of the authors on whom I’m relying his a different idea of what makes the perfect axe.

The one thing that all the authors have in common is that none of them recommend a full size axe for anything other than a large camp with transportation other than backpacking. There is no question that a full size axe gets the work finished faster, but carrying around such a tool on your back is more of a fashion statement than a practical use of your resources. “A full-sized axe should be carried, in cold weather, if means of transportation permit. Its head need not weigh over 3 or 3 pounds, but let the handle be of standard 36-inch length for a full- arm sweep. A single-bitt is best for campers, as the poll is useful for driving stakes, knocking off pine knots, to rive timber (striking with a mallet), and as an anvil (bitt stuck in a log or stump).” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol I, 1918 (2nd edition, 1920) p.113

For backpacking purposes, the recommendations varied depending on the author, ranging from a small hatchet to a boy’s size axe. 

For warm weather Kephart preferred a hatchet. You will sometimes see him refer to it as a tomahawk, but it’s not an actual tomahawk, its a hatchet. Tomahawks were not in general use around that time and would not have been carried by anyone other than for nostalgic reasons. 

A woodsman should carry a hatchet, and he should be as critical in selecting it as in buying a gun. The notion that a heavy hunting knife can do the work of a hatchet is a delusion. When it comes to cleaving carcasses, chopping kindling, blazing thick-barked trees, driving tent pegs or trap stakes, and keeping up a bivouac fire, the knife never was made that will compare with a good tomahawk. The common hatchets of the hardware stores are unfit for a woodsman's use. They have broad blades with beveled edge, and they are generally made of poor, brittle stuff. A camper's hatchet should have the edge and temper of a good axe. It must be light enough to carry in or on one's knap sack, yet it should bite deep in timber. The best hatchet I have used (and it has been with me in the mountains for seven or eight years) is one shown in Fig. 103, except that the handle is a straight one, 17-inch, that I made myself. Its weight, with leather sheath, is 1 lb. 10 oz.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol I, 1918 (2nd edition, 1920) p.165-166

I have omitted the the drawing Kephart provided in the book (you can of course look at it for yourself) because we know the model hatchet that he actually used. It was manufactured by Colchester Bros. of Eldorado, PA. 

In the above picture, acquired from the West Carolina University Hunter Library Special Collection, you can also see a version of the Nessmuk double but pocket axe that he preferred.

For winter travel he recommended a larger axe. “The short axe may be of Hudson Bay or Damascus pattern. There should be a small mill file to keep it in order, besides the whetstone.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol II, 1918 (2nd edition, 1920) p.144 He lists the axe as weighing 1lb 12oz. I don’t know if that is the weight of the head, or the full axe. 

Other woodsmen like E.H. Kreps recommend a larger axe for year round use. You have already seen the drawing he provided above. “For the northern forest and the western mountain district the ax that I would recommend would weigh only about two pounds, handle not included in the weight. Some of you may think this entirely too light, but the northern Indians use axes of only one and a half pounds, and find them heavy enough for practical purposes, while light to carry on the trail. To make a light ax effective, however, it must have a long handle. An ax like this should have a handle of from thirty to thirty-four inches over all, and with such a tool you will be surprised to see what heavy work can be done.” Elmer Harry Kreps, Woodcraft, 1919 p.56

Lastly, much has been said about about the shape of an axe handle in recent years. Unfortunately, in 1981, Dudley Cook published a book titled Keeping Warm With an Axe, which was later re-published as The Ax Book in 1999. While the book is generally excellent, it contains a discussion on the “best” shape for axe handles. Mr. Cook clearly prefers straight handles on his axes, and there is nothing wrong with that. Unfortunately however, he felt the need to justify his personal preference by presenting some extremely low quality geometry and physics as “proof” that a straight handle is more accurate and allows you to swing harder. While his theory is laughably poor, it did spark a following of internet axmen, who now have for years perpetuated the absurd statements made by Dudley Cook. 

So, let me say this about the shape of axe handles: An S-shaped handle is no less accurate than a straight handle, and allows you to swing the axe with just as much power. In fact, the S-shaped handle gives you better feedback as to the angle of the bit. This deficiency of the straight handle can be compensated for by using an octagonal handle rather than a rounded one which will give you a better feel for how the handle is turning in your hands. Octagonal handles are not needed for S-shaped designs because there the curvature does the job. 

Kephart appears to have preferred straight handles, or at least was fine with them. “In making a new axe-helve, do not bother to make a crooked one like the store pattern. Thousands of expert axemen use, from preference, straight handles in their axes — single-bitted axes at that. In making a new axe-helve, do not bother to make a crooked one like the store pattern. I have seen such handles full four feet long, to be used chiefly in logging-up big trees. Two feet eight inches is long enough for ordinary chopping.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol II, 1918 (2nd edition, 1920) p.188-189

Kreps preferred a S-shaped handle. “Did you ever wonder why an ax handle is curved in an S shape? It is made to fit the hands of the user without strain on the arms or wrists, and this curved shape enables him to hold the ax more solidly when striking a blow than could be done with a straight handle. The handle should be quite thick and "hand-fitting" near the end where it is grasped by the left hand (or right, according to whether the user is right or left handed), but the other part should be shaped so the hand can slide easily back and forth while chopping.” Elmer Harry Kreps, Woodcraft, 1919 p.57

The issue of straight handle vs. S-shaped handle is one of personal preference, and arguing that one is better than the other is the same as arguing that a Michigan pattern axe head is better than a Yankee patter axe head. It is something you should leave for internet woodsmen, as it does not concern people who actually spend any time in the woods. Both handle designs existed during the time period of 1880 through 1930, and both are equally effective.

So, to summarize, if you are interested in Classic Backpacking, any modern design axe, ranging in size from a hatchet to a boy’s size axe, with a straight or curved handle, will fit the bill. Smaller axes and hatchets have the benefit of being more portable, while larger axes get the job done faster and with less energy. 


When it comes to knives, most of the American authors of the time period seem to have taken after the example set by Nessmuk. 

A word as to knife, or knives. These are of prime necessity, and should be of the best, both as to shape and temper. The "bowies" and "hunting knives" usually kept on sale, are thick, clumsy affairs, with a sort of ridge along the middle of the blade, murderous looking, but of little use; rather fitted to adorn a dime novel or the belt of "Billy the Kid," than the outfit of the hunter. The one shown in the cut is thin in the blade, and handy for skinning, cutting meat, or eating with. The strong double-bladed pocket knife is the best model I have yet found, and, in connection with the sheath knife, is all sufficient for camp use.” George Washington Sears, Woodcraft, 1892 p.13

The majority of the wood working seems to have been done with a folding pocket knife. The belt knife was usually a butchering type knife and was reserved for game and food processing and typically had a blade between 4 and 6 inches in length. 

A popular design for a fixed blade knife was a common butcher's knife, as can be seen on p.146 of the 1907 Abercrombie & Fitch Catalog.

Such a design can currently be found in the Russell Green River Hunting Knives.

Another popular design was the “hunting” knife. I believe early versions were popularized by Marble’s. An example can be seen on p.146 of the 1907 Abercrombie & Fitch Catalog.

If we look outside of the Americas there is an additional style of knife available at the time, the puukko, and similar variations. The Lapin Puukko Vuolupuukko #31 you see below is a good, affordable example. Similar designs have been around since long before the period at which we are looking of 1880 through 1930. While they were not widely available in the United States, examples that were brought over by immigrants must have certainly been around at the time.

A slightly different design emerged from Sweden. In 1891 Frost-Erik Ersson started Frosts Knivfabrik, which was later purchased by KJ Eriksson AB in 1912, and later became what we now know as Mora of Sweden. Below you can see an early advertisement for what would be Mora knives in the 1920s.

Below is a modern Mora #1 knife. The design has seen some minor changes like an epoxied handle rather than a pinned one, but the design is largely the same.

Pocket knives were typically double blade, non-locking knives. Below is an image provided by Nessmuk. Similar designs can easily be found today.

"Many hunters do not carry sheath knives, saying (and it is quite true) that a common jackknife will skin anything from a squirrel to a bear. Still, I like a small, light sheath knife. It is always open and " get-at-able," ready not only for skinning game and cleaning fish, but for cutting sticks, slicing bread and bacon and peeling " spuds." It saves the pocket knife from wet and messy work, and preserves its edge for the fine jobs." Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol I, 1918 (2nd edition, 1920) p.167

In summary, any of the above designs would be appropriate to use during the Classic Backpacking period. The American model was to use a butchering style fixed blade knife, combined with a folding pocket knife. In Europe the puukko style knife was in use at the time. This by no means covers all types of knives that were available and used at the time, it’s only a sample of what can be used.  


In all of the reading that I have done while doing research on this subject, which admittedly is not much, I have not found any references to using small saws for camp work. There are discussions of large cross cutting saws, both when it comes to their selections and to transporting them via pack train, but the use of small saws doesn’t seem to have been popular. For a while I thought that they just weren’t available at the time, but then I found a pretty good example on p.70 of the 1907 Abercrombie & Fitch Catalog.

It had a folding 8 inch blade, and in many ways resembles modern folding saws. Of course, it is hard to tell from the picture how usable the saw actually was. It might have been unreliable and easily damaged.

Either way, small portable saws don’t seem to have been in use by any of the authors I referenced earlier. They all preferred to rely on their hatchets and knives for wood processing. Maybe that’s because the saws available at the time were not of particularly good design or quality, or it could be that they were so used to using axes that a small saw seemed like a useless item to carry. 

My Choices

After going through the above options, I decided to go with a hatchet and a Scandinavian style fixed blade knife.

The hatchet is an older model Husqvarna. Since Husqvarna outsources their axe production to a number of different companies, I can not tell who the actual maker was, but in design it very closely resembles the Wetterlings Wilderness Hatchet. It has a head on approximately 1.25lb and a 12 inch handle.

The knife is a Mora #2. I’ve used it for years when backpacking, for everything from processing game to woodworking. In my opinion it is a much better design than the style knives used by the likes of Nessmuk and Kephart. It also eliminates the need for me to carry a separate folding, woodworking knife.

I do have a larger axe that I like to use. It’s an old Collins Homestead axe that I restored and re-hung. It has a 2.25lb head and a 26 inch handle. Just like with my hatchet, I made a leather cover for it. 

It’s an excellent axe, but unfortunately I’ve had no reason to use it. It would be great for processing large amounts of wood, but I have been trying to restrict myself to what I would consider responsible practices. On most trips that limits me to fallen dead wood, which is often no more than three inches thick. For that I don’t need an axe this size. A hatchet does the job just fine, and it’s easier to carry. It doesn’t mean I would never use it on a trip, it’s just that so far I haven’t had the opportunity.

So, this is just some background on the issue of cutting tool in the context of Classic Backpacking, as well as my choices. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Trip Report: Classic Backpacking 1/24/16 - 1/25/16

This advice is not intended for the tenderfoot, for he should never attempt to "rough it," and that is just what it means to "travel light," for when making long journeys over land, carrying the camping outfit and food on one's back, one must leave behind all of those little articles which are so necessary for the comfort of the tender one. The instructions given here are for the hardy outdoor man, inexperienced in bush life, but with a desire to learn of the methods employed. I give my own methods of traveling and camping out, and if others think they have better ways, they should remember that we woodsmen are all cranks and that their modes might seem as absurd to me as mine do to them. Elmer Harry Kreps, 1910

I know that this is probably more trip reports than you guys want to see, but since I am doing this Classic Backpacking thing as an experiment, I think it’s important to share what I am doing as much as possible.

My goal for this past weekend was to do another three day trip. I took Monday off, and planned to start out on Saturday. We were supposed to get a snow storm on Saturday, and my plan was to go into the woods right before the storm hit, so I could try camping in the type of weather which I imagine is the most difficult to do when Classic Backpacking, where it would be difficult to maintain a fire at the same time as sheltering yourself from the elements. Unfortunately, the storm hit earlier than expected, and I couldn’t get the car through the snow. Ye olde Camry just wouldn’t budge. So, I waited for the snow plows, and started out on Sunday morning. Most of the roads into the mountains were closed, so I had to keep driving north until I found one that wasn’t.

I started out around 9 am, low in elevation, with my plan being to move up the mountain until I found an area with more resources, i.e. pine.

The snow was knee deep. I didn’t bring snowshoes because I don’t have any period appropriate ones, but travel wasn’t bad on account of there being no ice layer that I would have to punch through.

The weather was supposed to be warm, going up to about 32F (0C) during the day. However, I figured something wasn’t right with the weather predictions, as when I left the house it was 9F (-13C), and it was certainly colder in the mountains. As a result, I brought and extra sweater, and wore my wool pants and a cotton anorak over my top layers, mostly to keep the wind from cutting through the wool layers.

Since I was bushwhacking, some of the terrain was pretty tough to get through. There were many stream beds that had been covered with snow, making it hard to figure out where to place your steps. It was a time consuming process.

Eventually I reached a small patch of pine. The time was shortly after 1 pm. I selected a sheltered spot, and started setting up my camp.

I used the same stick-bed method from last trip. Initially I tried doing it just with pine boughs, but it was going to take way too much to complete because the boughs were compressing a lot.

The next step was to gather some firewood. I knew the night was going to be colder than on my last trip, so I gathered some extra wood. Before I left for the trip, I contemplated bringing my boy’s axe to make the gathering of firewood easier, but at the last minute I decided against it. I wouldn’t be able to utilize it fully because as on the last trip, I wasn’t willing to start felling large trees. For the wrist-thick firewood which I was likely to collect, my hatchet was more than enough. 

The wood gathering was slow going. I was looking for dead wood to process, and slogging through the snow in search of dry pieces protruding from the snow was time consuming. The hatchet made quick work of it though.

I kept gathering firewood for some time, adding to the pile, and stopping from time to time to hydrate and have a few crackers. It took me approximately two hours to set up camp and to gather the firewood. It was faster than I expected, and I was mostly ready for the night around 3:30 pm.

I took care of some minor tasks, and near 4 pm I was ready for the night. With sunset at 5 pm, I had some extra time. I usually like to time it so that I am done setting up right as it gets dark, but I got done early this time. That meant I had to keep warm for another hour or so before going to sleep. I put on all the clothing I had, put on my dry gloves, and got the fire going, drying out my wet gloves and cooking dinner. 

As usual, at sunset I wrapped myself up and went to sleep. At first things went well. I slept for a few hours, but abound 8 pm I woke up with the fire out and me shivering. The rest of the night was very unpleasant. The temperature dropped down to about 5F (-15C). Sleeping for any period of time became almost impossible. Unlike on my last trip, where I could get the fire stoked up, get my body temperature up, and then sleep for a few hours before I got chilled, this time, I would get cold the moment the fire died down. I was up every half hour to feed the fire. With sunrise at 7 am, it was a very long 14 hours of night. 

The problem wouldn’t have been as bad if I was using large logs that I could toss on the fire. Larger logs can burn for two hours or so before needing tending. With the wrist-thick wood I had though, half an hour of burn time was about the most I could expect. 

Overall, a very miserable night. When I started out with this Classic Backpacking  thing, my goal was to explore the origins of backpacking. Well, this is not backpacking. This is a “survival” trip. Sure, I can do it, but there is nothing enjoyable about it. Even if I was willing to start bringing down large trees for firewood, it still wouldn’t be a fun experience. 

I’ll have to come up with some other options for cold weather backpacking. Steve Watts contacted me last week, and recommended a cotton lined down comforter. They were certainly available at the time, and are mentioned by some of the authors. It doesn’t seem like they were a primary choice for many at the time, but they would be period correct, and might solve the issue. A woven fur blanket might also work, but the cost is too much. Anyway, I’ll keep thinking about it. 

One of the worst problems is getting up to pee. It’s a whole procedure, where you get very cold, have to stoke up the fire, warm yourself back up, then wrap yourself again. You can’t tell because of the facemask, but I’m frowning. 

So, I made it through the night, packed up, cleared up the camp site and headed back. It took me about an hour of walking to get completely warmed up.

As with last trip, some of the gear was not exactly period correct. I’m still using a water bottle with a plastic cap, my anorak is a cotton nylon blend (85% cotton-I believe) and has a zipper, my boots are still my regular boots, etc.

Anyway, there are still things to work out, especially when it comes to the sleep system. I’ll figure something out eventually. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

Classic Backpacking Gear - Blankets

Along with the “canvas tarp”, the blanket is one of the most integral parts of the myth of the woodsman. While it is correct that for warm weather most woodsmen in the time period between 1880 and 1930 utilized wool blankets, the notion that they did so because such blankets are “the ideal” form of sleep system couldn’t be further from the truth. It is in this respect more than any other that most severely limits the modern woodsman when trying to do Classic Backpacking. All other modern materials and tools can be substituted with rough equivalents from the late 19th century, but when it comes to insulation, the choices are not as easy.

All of the authors I have read, covering the time period between 1880 and 1930, understood that wool blankets, while good, were severely limited due to their poor insulation to weight/bulk ratio. As long as a single blanket would suffice, they were content to carry it, but for colder temperatures, they all looked for better alternatives.

For warm weather, either listed as down to freezing, 32F(0C) or a bit above that, depending on the author, all of them seem to have preferred a single wool blanket, weighing about 5lb.

Next in the order of necessities is a woollen blanket,— a good stout one, rather than the light or flimsy one that you may think of taking… A lining of cotton drilling will perhaps make a thin blanket serviceable.” John Mead Gould, How to Camp Out

George Washington Sears (Nessmuk) preferred a blanket bag, i.e. a single blanket folded over and sewn along the edges, not to be confused with a sleeping bag of the time, which wasn’t all that different, but involved several layers of wool covered by canvas. “A soft, warm blanket-bag, open at the ends, and just long enough to cover the sleeper, with an oblong square of waterproofed cotton cloth 6x8 feet, will give warmth and shelter by night and will weigh together five or six pounds. This, with the extra clothing, will make about eight pounds of dry goods to pack over carries, which is enough. Probably, also, it will be found little enough for comfort.” George Washington Sears, Woodcraft, 1892 p.6

A similarly used blanket bag is illustrated in Scrambles Amongst the Alps by Edward Whymper, 1872.

A six or seven pound blanket of the best quality is heavy enough. The gray army blanket, to be purchased sometimes at the military stores, is good, as is also the "three- point" blanket issued by the Hudson's Bay Company…You will find that another suit of underwear is as warm as an extra blanket, and much easier to carry. Sleeping bags I do not care for. They cannot be drawn closely to the body, and the resulting air space is difficult to warm up. A blanket you can hug close to you, thus retaining all the animal heat. Beside which a sleeping bag is heavier and more of a bother to keep well aired. If you like the thing occasionally, a few horse blanket pins will make one of your blanket.” Stewart Edward White, Camp and Trail , 1911, p.87

They (blankets) should be of generous size, for a white man cannot sleep comfortably if he must draw his knees up against his chin. What is more, the blankets should cover his head as well as his feet, so they should be a foot and a half longer than the user's height. They should also be wide — six feet will do, but nothing less. With such blankets a man can lie on one-half and pull the other half over him, and by suddenly elevating his pedal extremities he can drop the lower edge of the blankets under them, while the upper part can be drawn tightly around his head and shoulders...The Hudson's Bay blankets are excellent, being heavy and of large size. Then there are many camp blankets of less note, most of which are good. Really good, heavy, all-wool blankets of a size 72x84 inches will cost from $ 5.00 to $ 10.00 each for single blankets, and twice that much for the double kind, if you can get them. These single blankets should weigh from four and a half to five pounds each.” Elmer Harry Kreps. Woodcraft 1919, p.49

In all likelihood you will depend for warmth upon blankets. Their use is so universal that we need no discussion other than in regard to their quality and shape… The thicker and looser the texture of woolen goods the greater will be the warmth.” Claude P. Fordyce, Touring Afoot, 1916, p.102

Not all blankets however are made equal, not even the woolen ones. The above authors make it very clear that the blanket should not only be large enough to wrap around yourself, but the wool should be loosely woven in order to maximize the warmth provided for the weight. Using the same amount of wool, if it is loosely woven, will trap more air and provide better insulation. The downsize is less durability and it renders the blanket more permeable to wind.

The warmest blanket for its weight is not a close-woven one but one that is loose-woven and fluffy. An army blanket is made for hard service, and so must be of firm weave, but a third of its weight is added for that purpose only, not for warmth.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol I, 1918, p.127

Also see to it that the weight is in the thickness and not in the size. In this country the regulation Army blanket is to be depended upon. However, if they can be secured, a person will certainly make no mistake in getting a genuine Hudson Bay or Mackinaw. The proper weight is about five pounds per blanket and size seventy-two by seventy-eight is about right. If you get it too narrow you cannot then roll it up so snugly for packing nor wrap it so closely about the body at night.” Claude P. Fordyce, Touring Afoot, 1916, p.104

It has always been my belief that wool loosely woven, so that it forms a soft, thick cloth, is a better heat retainer than the same quantity of wool tightly woven, so that it makes a thinner, tighter and harder material. Anyway, I think the surface should be as woolly as it is possible to make it.” Elmer Harry Kreps. Woodcraft 1919, p.45

You may get a good idea of what a loosely woven blanket would approximate in volume from the description given by Warren Miller: “Take the army blanket, single thickness, 84 inches by 66 inches, weight 5 pounds. You may roll it into a sort of sausage, 7 feet long and 9 inches in diameter.” Warren Hastings Miller, Camp Craft, 1915, p.42

A blanket weighing 5lb for bedding that will take you down to 32F (0C) with proper bedding, is not great my modern standards, where equivalent insulation would weigh as little as 1lb, but is still portable, and will function well for a person traveling on foot.

The problem comes when the temperatures dip below that. All of the authors I have read seemed to agree that a blankets were insufficient, and would problematic if one attempted to carry enough of them on one’s back. The problem was nothing new. 18th and early 19th century explorers struggled with the same problem. Their solution most often was to use fur robes, and travel by pack train or canoe. As in Nansen’s case below, he used sleds to move his fur sleeping bags across the ice and snow. 

The sleeping-bag is, of course, a most important article of equipment for all Arctic expeditions. In our case, the nature of the material of which the bag should be made needed our best consideration, as it was necessary that it should be at the same time light and sufficiently warm. On previous expeditions sometimes wool and sometimes skins have been used. Wool, of course, lets the perspiration through much more readily, and there is not so much condensation of moisture inside as in the case of skin ; but, on the other hand, wool has the disadvantage of being very heavy in comparison with the amount of warmth which it affords. For a time I thought of trying woollen bags, but I came to the conclusion that they would not be warm enough, and I now think that if we had taken them we should have scarcely reached the west coast of Greenland alive. After several experiments I determined to use reindeer-skin, as the best material which I could procure in the circumstances. Reindeer-skin is, in comparison with its weight, the warmest of all similar materials known to me, and the skin of the calf, in its winter-coat especially, combines the qualities of warmth and lightness in quite an unusual degree.” Fridtjof Nansen, The First Crossing of Greenland, 1890 p.29-30

A similar sleep system was used by Scott and Amundsen during their race to the South Pole. 

In weather a bit below 32F (0C), the answer might have been as simple as bringing an extra blanket. 

Usually they beginner weights himself with a considerable number of blankets. It is found that during a good part of the night that one blanket is not sufficient, even in Summer. He therefore takes two.” Thomas Hiram Holding, The Camper’s Handbook, 1908, p.162

At the time of writing, although it is well on in the Winter, we have been sleeping under two blankets, with the front of the tent wide open, and my eldest son, who occupies a tent hard by, sleeps under a single blanket.” Thomas Hiram Holding, The Camper’s Handbook, 1908, p.385

But this is only one side of the story: arrange the blanket as you will, there is but one thickness around you, and this is not enough — not nearly enough — for comfortable sleeping with the night temperature even as high as 40 degrees. Below that you positively must have two thicknesses of blanket. So we get the red Hudson Bay blanket (with the four black bars!), 72 inches by 84 inches, weight 10 pounds, which can be doubled around one in a pinch; also the double mackinaw, 72 inches by twice 90 inches, weight 10 pounds, and the various gray doubles, usually twice 82 inches long by 72 inches wide. These all require a whole tump-bag to pack in, with precious little space to spare, and every thing else you take must go in the other bag. Now, in the summer, early fall, and late spring one can go as Nessmuk did, with a light knapsack and a single blanket, total weight, including canoe, not over 30 pounds; but I notice he usually denned up about the time the first snows fell. If he had stayed out later he would either have had to change his rig or increase his weight, and as soon as he got blankets enough his bulk would run out of hand for lone-wilderness tramping. As I try to get out at least once a month every month in the year, some sort of a winter pack that would be warm yet total under 35 pounds, including provisions, tent, duffel, and ammunition, had to be devised.” Warren Hastings Miller, Camp Craft, 1915, p.43-44

Now, a man with one thickness of blanket has no chance at all against zero temperatures or even freezing (32 degrees). If he doubles the blanket it is not wide enough to stay on him, as he has no lacing holding it to the browse-bag. If he takes two blankets there is 10 pounds of weight, and 2 cubic feet of baggage to load on a man's back… And at that, the blanket toter will not be really warm. There are yards of useless extra material around his feet, which he would give much to have transferred up to his hips and shoulders, where the cold is biting in ! And his load ! Well, it might answer on a canoe trip, where a portage of a few miles is the longest back-pack trip, or on a toboggan jaunt, where the snow carries the load — but not for a free and independent tramp over mountains and down brooks, such as the trout angler takes in spring or the hunter in the fall.” Warren Hastings Miller, Camp Craft, 1915, p.56-57

The number of blankets needed depends somewhat upon the time of year and the locality of use and whether or not the all night fire is to be used. In ordinary summer weather one blanket is enough especially if combined with the proper browse bag and wind break and is enough even for frosty autumn temperatures up to stream freezing time, excepting in the higher altitudes. With the temperature under thirty-two degrees two Army blankets will be needed...Many mountaineers to whom strenuous pedestrianism and cold nights of the higher altitudes necessitate the lightest form of bedding prefer wool quilts which are folded and sewed on one end and half up one side in the form of a sleeping bag which is protected from the damp ground by a waterproof balloon silk cover.” Claude P. Fordyce, Touring Afoot, 1916, p.105

The downside of the extra blanket is clearly the added weight and bulk, as mentioned above. While carrying 5lb worth of blankets is not an issue, 10lb starts to become problematic. Some of the authors suggest foregoing the second blanket and instead relaying on extra clothing for the added warmth.

Where the transportation is inadequate as on a hike trip, the wearing of an extra suit of underwear is as warm as an extra blanket. One then gets the dead air space between the wool and the warmth is thereby intensified because the number of layers of covering retains the heat longer than one thick layer of the same weight.” Claude P. Fordyce, Touring Afoot, 1916, p.105

You will find that another suit of underwear is as warm as an extra blanket, and much easier to carry.” Stewart Edward White, Camp and Trail, 1911, p.87

These strategies however seem to have been completely abandoned when the weather really got cold. Each author seems to have struggled with what to do for insulation in cold weather, and each had his attempted solutions. As seem from Nansen above, when transportation was not an issue, i.e. one had access to pack horses, sleds, etc, fur sleeping bags were the answer. Caribou or Reindeer fur appears to have been preferred, although it was too heavy of an option for backpacking.

Some resorted to using the sleeping bags available at the time. These were noting more than several layers of loosely woven wool, covered by some type of shell layer. They were heavy and bulky, but not nearly as much as the equivalent amount of blankets.

Bedding is the problem; a man carrying his all upon his back, in cold weather, must study compactness as well as lightness of outfit. Here the points are in favor of sleeping-bag vs. blankets, because, for a given insulation against cold and draughts, it may be so made as to save bulk as well as weight. For a pedestrian it need not be so roomy as the standard ones, especially at the foot end. Better design one to suit yourself, and have an outfitter make it up to order, if you have no skill with the needle. An inner bag of woolen blanketing, an outer one of knotted wool batting, and a separate cover of cravenetted khaki or Tanalite — the weight need not be over 8 pounds complete. Your camp- fire will do the rest. A browse bag is dispensed with, for you will carry an axe and can cut small logs to hold in place a deep layer of such soft stuff as the location affords.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol II, 1918, p.144

There is a good deal of waste material in blankets and comforters, especially at the foot end. Suppose we cut them into a sort of coffin shape, to conform to the outlines of the body, sew up a side and an end and the lower third of the other side, then attach buttons or laces or clasps to close the bag after one has got into it. A good deal of weight and bulk are saved.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol I, 1918, p.129

Some like Warren Miller went to great lengths to design their own sleeping bags, dedicating a whole chapter of Camp Craft, titled “Eliminating the Blanket” to describing its construction. The final product can be seen below.

Thomas Holding similarly designed his own, stating: “The proper sleeping bag should fit a man like a coat, only a good deal less.” Thomas Hiram Holding, The Camper’s Handbook, 1908, p.170

Others resorted to using different types of fur. E.H. Kreps goes into great length about rabbit fur blankets in both of his books, Camp and Train Methods, 1910, and Woodcraft, 1919.

Now it is not difficult to get together a quantity of blankets that will keep a man warm on the coldest night, but the trouble will come when he wants to transport them. I have slept out on nights when it would have required a half-dozen or more of the heaviest woolen blankets made to keep me near-comfortable, but a bed of this kind would have made a pack that would discourage a bush Indian. No, you can't carry with you enough woolen blankets to keep you comfortably warm when traveling the northern trails in midwinter. Now think it over and it will become obvious that either a man cannot be comfortable in the woods during zero weather unless he has a way of transporting his camp duffle other than by back-packing, or he must find a lighter, warmer blanket than can be made of wool. The latter is the solution. Woolen blankets are good, in fact the best thing made, for camping in spring, summer and fall. As long as the spirits do not go lower than 10 or 20 degrees above zero and a fire may be kept burning all night a pair of Hudson Bay blankets are hard to beat. But when the temperature falls lower the shivering spells preceding each "fire-fixing" become too frequent and the cat-naps too short… But when zero weather is to be contended with woolen blankets must take a back seat for the Indian's kind, woven from strips of rabbit fur… One such blanket, weighing eight or ten pounds, is all that a man requires for sleeping out of doors in a temperature of 40 below zero… It appears bulky, for with fur on both sides it is quite thick, but it can be tied up into a fairly small package. I used to roll mine into a package measuring about 10 inches in diameter by 20 inches in length, and this could be placed in the bottom of a common packsack.” Elmer Harry Kreps. Woodcraft 1919, p.48-49

Many of the authors mention llama wool as a great insulator, twice as good as sheep’s wool, but they all speak about it as something they have heard of, but never used themselves.

Of course, there was always the option of last resort, continuing to carry only a singly blanket, and keeping a large fire burning all night. Such an option would have been extremely difficult to maintain over a longer period of time.

The northern or western trapper frequently finds it necessary to make long trips in terribly cold weather, camping out night after night. Since the entire camp outfit and food supply must be carried on these journeys the outfit taken must of necessity be meager. Only a single blanket and a small, light canvas shelter can be taken and to sleep without a fire under such conditions is out of the question. A good hot fire must be kept going and such a fire will consume nearly half a cord of wood during the long northern night. This must be cut into lengths that can be handled and what would become of the camper if his ax were to break before the night's wood was cut; he far from the home camp, darkness at hand, and the temperature far below the zero mark. Freezing to death could be the only possible outcome, unless he could retrace his steps in the dark and travel all the long night.” Elmer Harry Kreps. Woodcraft 1919, p.54

So, where does that leave us with respect to sleep insulation when attempting to do Classic Backpacking? All of the authors seem to agree that a loosely woven blanket, weighing about 5lb is sufficient to keep you warm down to just above freezing, 32F (0C). 

For colder temperatures, they all seem to have their own preferences, and at times outright disagree. Some prefer sleeping bags, others hate them; some prefer furs, others do not. As a last resort one might just try to tough it out with a blanket and a large fire. 

Ultimately, I haven’t been able to reach any conclusion on what would be a good solution, especially for someone trying to do Classic Backpacking. I would be interested in trying out a rabbit fur blanket, but one is nowhere to be found. On the other hand, I am reluctant to try designing a sleeping bag, because with the knowledge we have today it would be too easy to come up with a fully modern down sleeping bag, utilizing silk as a shell rather than nylon. In fact, some people at the time had that same idea: “Then, as another example, Doctor Loughren, of the Camp Fire Club, showed me an excellent scheme, a sort of quilt bag, made of fine, green, paraffined muslin, and lined with live-goose feathers. It is water-proof and light — 4 pounds, if I remember correctly.” Warren Hastings Miller, Camp Craft, 1915, p.58

And thanks to Steve Watts for a reminder, The Woods Arctic Sleeping Robe was introduced around 1898, and featured a cotton shell, lined with duck down and wool. It was advertised as being six times warmer than wool. Despite its heavy weight of 16lb, it was utilized on a number of cold weather expeditions. 

So, clearly, the idea of using down in the form of some type of sleeping bag was floating around during the time period I am considering. It wouldn't be particularly innacurate to use a cotton lined down quilt. However, for me, the above is dangerously close to a modern sleeping bag, and it is tempting for me to try to construct exactly that using period correct materials. After all, in the 1924 summit attempt on Everest, Mallory and Irvine used similar down sleeping bags. However, I can’t help but feel like that would be cheating. For one, it would make it too easy, and eliminate the challenge I have been seeking. Besides, such technology was really at the cutting edge of innovation at the time, in particular towards the tail end of the time period in which I am interested. It doesn't seem to have been regularly utilized by the average woodsman. As such, I want to avoid it.

Well, that leaves me in an interesting position. While all of the woodsmen between 1880 and 1930 were trying to innovate and move beyond their wool blankets, I will intentionally refrain from doing so because of the unfair advantage I would have in such an endeavor. I don’t have access to potentially portable furs like rabbit fur blankets, so i can’t put them to use.

What I am left with are wool blankets. Since I am determined to carry all of my gear on my back while traveling on foot, using period correct packs, that presents quite a problem. The wool blanket that you saw me carry on my last trip takes up good 70% of my pack. Carrying a second one would be impossible without getting a pack twice the size. Unfortunately, that leaves me with only one option: “Only a single blanket and a small, light canvas shelter can be taken and to sleep without a fire under such conditions is out of the question. A good hot fire must be kept going and such a fire will consume nearly half a cord of wood during the long northern night.” For anyone who finds this an appealing option, I recommend that you try gathering enough wood to keep a good size fire burning during a long winter night, and then waking up every two hours to feed the fire. From experience, I don’t look forward to it. None the less, it is the course I have chosen to take.

My blanket of choice for the task is an old wool blanket I bought about fourteen years ago. In fact, it is the first sleep insulation I used on my early backpacking trips. It was promptly replaced by a sleeping bag, but it’s an excellent blanket, so I’ve been using it around the house. Ordinarily, when selecting gear I like to use commercially available options, in order to make it easier for you guys, but here unfortunately I can’t do that. I haven’t been able to find a reasonably priced blanket that matches this one in terms of warmth for the weight. I bought it at a regular department store, so you may want to try your luck as well. 

To illustrate what I mean when I say that the blanket provides more warmth for the weight than any other reasonably priced blanket I have been able to find, here is a comparison picture between the popular Italian Army wool blanket (the Rothco 90% wool replica), and the blanket I am using. 

My wool blanket (right) weights 5lb 8.9oz. The Italian Army blanket (left) weighs 4lb 8.7oz. My blanket weighs only 1lb more, but is about two and a half times the size. The reason is that it is much more loosely woven. The Italian Army blankets are about as bad as you can get in terms of insulation you can get from a wool blanket. They are so tightly woven that they are better suited for work as a tarp than as a blanket. They do have the advantage of packing much more easily because of their compact size, but the insulation they provide for the weight leaves a lot to be desired.

Because of its loose weave, the blanket is very large. As I mentioned above, it takes up about 70% of my pack.

I have to stuff it in my pack, then open up a space between the folds, and then stuff the rest of my gear in there. It provides good rigidity to the pack, but it significantly limits what I can carry.

The blanket, of course, can should not be used without proper bedding. Typically you want about five inches of compressed insulation between the blanket and the ground. That is easier said than done considering that we do not have the luxury some of our predecessors had of falling as many trees as we want for the bedding material. 

A stick bed might offer a possible solution. The goal is to create loft and dead air space. The problem is that insulation like spruce boughs, let alone leafs, compress significantly once weight is put on them. You may need two feet of boughs so that you get five inches of compressed insulation, even more with leafs. The solution is to use layers of other, less compressible materials, leaving the boughs only for the top layer. That way you have to harvest less resources from living trees. 

I start with larger sticks, covered with a layer of finer brush, and covered with a top layer of spruce of leafs. The lower layers compress much less, so you get more compressed loft than you would otherwise from a similar thickness of boughs alone. It is not as comfortable, but it can be made to work.

Lastly, there is the issue of how to wrap the blanket about you. The method which I was taught, doesn’t seem to have been used by any of the authors I’ve read. So, let me give you a few quotes describing how they did it.

I have never seen described the woods men's method of using a blanket, however. Lie flat on your back. Spread the blanket over you. Now raise your legs rigid from the hip, the blanket of course draping over them. In two swift motions tuck first one edge under your legs from right to left, then the second edge under from left to right, and over the first edge. Lower your legs, wrap up your shoulders, and go to sleep. If you roll over, one edge will unwind but the other will tighten.” Stewart Edward White, Camp and Trail, 1911, p.88 

Lying flat on your back on the browse bag cover yourself with the blanket, kick up your feet rigid from the hips so as to bring the blanket foot end draping over and under the feet, returning the feet to the tick roll the body to the left side and tuck the blanket edge under your right side, reverse the turn and do the same under your left side. Lower the feet, wrap up the shoulders and go to sleep. The blanket is now drawn about you snugly above and below and there is no exposed side to let in the cold air and in rolling over the blanket will tighten about you.” Claude P. Fordyce, Touring Afoot, 1916, p.113

I tend to do the opposite. I start out on top of the blanket, and then fold it over on top of me. First, I position the blanket at a diagonal. Since the blanket is not square, one of the side corners will be higher than the other. I make sure that corner is away from the direction in which I will be turned, in my case, the fire.

When I am on top of the blanket, I want the top corner to be just at the top of my head. I then fold the lower corner over my feet.

Then I take the corner pointing in the direction which I will be facing during the night ,i.e. the fire, and wrap it around me. This should be the corner that is slightly lower, so it should cover my hips and torso. I wrap is all the way around.  

I then wrap the other corner around me, which should cover the shoulders. I find to easier to have this higher corner coming over my back, than across my chest. It is less likely to unravel.

Lastly, I take the upper corner that is under my head, and pull it under my shoulder and around my neck.

I’ve started using two large blanket pins to secure the blanket together; one at the feet, and another one around my shoulders. That way the whole thing doesn’t come apart of I turn in the middle of the night. “…horse blanket pins will make one (sleeping bag) of your blanket.” Stewart Edward White, Camp and Trail, 1911, p.87

The above wrap has served me well, and allows for a relatively small blanket to be used without wasting any material.

Let’s have no delusions though. Blankets are a miserable affair. Getting up when nature calls in the middle of the night is miserable, requiring you to undo the bundle you have created. Even if pee bottles were a thing back then (they weren’t), I still don’t see a way of doing it without unfolding the blanket.  

I’ve even seen people these days recommend blankets over sleeping bags for various reasons, the main being that they are safer to use around a fire. That is as true at it is ridiculous. It is the same as me deciding to walk the 50 miles to work each day instead of taking the train, so that I would avoid train delays. True, I’ll avoid the delays, but it will take me two days to get to work, making the delays irrelevant. Similarly, considering that for the weight of a single blanket which will struggle to keep you warm at 32F (0C), I can get a sleeping bag which will keep we warm at –40F (-40C) without the need for a fire, the blanket is a poor choice. I want to stress that the only reason I am using a blanket here is that I am trying to do what I am calling Classic Backpacking, focusing on the time period of 1880 through 1930. Even by the 1950s, when On Your Own in the Wilderness by Col Townsend Whelen and Bradford Angier (1958) was published, the blanket was discussed only as a relic from the past. 

Similarly, don’t buy into myths about how your wool insulation will keep you warm even when wet. It will not. Take off all of your wet or damp clothing, and keep the blanket as dry as possible. A wet blanket, no matter if made of cotton, wool, or fibers spun by magical woodland elves, will get you in trouble when it really counts. A dry pair of socks to sleep in will avoid a lot of discomfort. 

I say all this for those who wish to try camping in the same manner. Please know that it is no joke. A single blanket, or even two of them are a really poor form of insulation compared to what we are used to these days. You will have to adjust your approach accordingly. Anyone can go to their local campsite or backyard where they have a precut pile of wood, and then show you how they sleep with a blanket along a large long fire. Similarly, it is an easy enough task in the middle of summer, when one can spend the night out with no blankets at all. Doing the same thing in the woods after a long day of backpacking, in winter, is a completely different story, and you will have to manage your time and your energy well. Lastly, you have to have realistic expectations and be prepared to have a hard night if things don’t go as planner, or even if they do. 

The sleep insulation has been my biggest concern, and will continue to be so. I will see how well I can manage when the temperatures drop lower, and I’ll keep you updated. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

Classic Backpacking Gear - Shelters

The next piece of gear I want to discuss in the context of Classic Backpacking is shelters. The amount written on the subject by authors of the time period is quite large, so here I will try to hit the main points they are making, in particular as it relates to traveling on foot.

When considering shelters during the period between 1880 and 1930, there are three aspects to discuss. The first is the material used in the shelters; the second is the waterproofing techniques for the shelter, and the third is the type of shelter, i.e. design of tent, tarp, etc.

Shelter Materials

I will start with the aspect that I consider most important, the shelter material. Shelter designs are numerous, and vary widely depending on the personal preferences of the author. I will mention the preferences of some of them as I go along. Lastly, I will discuss some of the common waterproofing methods.

I believe that we have a huge misconception when it comes to woodsmen of the time period between 1880 and 1930. Many seem to imagine a rugged woodsman who grew up in the wilderness, going into the woods with an axe, a canvas tarp, and a blanket; and more importantly, doing so because he knows through his vast experience that those tools are the best for the job. The reality appears to have been very far from this. Since this is a post about shelters, let’s discuss shelter realities.

First and foremost, not a single author I have read, from Sears (Nessmuk) to Kephart, used what today we would call canvas tarps or shelters. Canvas was just as heavy back then, as it is now. Accordingly, woodsmen traveling on foot were equally reluctant to use it for shelters.

As a bit of general background for people unfamiliar with canvas, it is a tightly woven material, typically made from cotton, but linen and hemp versions can also be found. Duck canvas is more tightly woven, double duck typically being preferred for shelter material. Canvas is usually referred to by weight: 10oz duck, 8oz duck, etc. The weight refers to the weight of the canvas per square yard. So, 8oz duck weighs 8oz per square yard of fabric. 10oz (10.10 oz) double duck, sometimes also called Army duck, is the material you typically see these days for use in tents. Some manufacturers offer lighter tents in 8oz or 7oz duck, but 10oz double duck is the most popular, in particular because it takes modern waterproofing treatments like Sunforger well.

So, when we read of woodsmen from the past using canvas, we usually assume that they were referring to what we think of as canvas, i.e. 10oz double duck. During the time period we are considering here however, they certainly didn’t use anything of the sort. A 10oz 8ftx6ft canvas tarp that was been waterproofed with paraffin will weigh about 6 1/4 pounds. The weight is just too much, especially if talking about more sizable shelters. The material that was actually in use by just about everyone from Sears (Nessmuk) to Kephart, was Egyptian cotton a/k/a balloon silk.

Formerly a man had to make a choice between canvas, which is heavy but fairly waterproof, and drill, which is light but flimsy. A seven by seven duck tent weighs fully twenty-five pounds when dry, and a great many more when wet. It will shed rain as long as you do not hit against it. A touch on the inside, however, will often start a trickle at the point of contact. Altogether it is unsatisfactory, and one does not wonder than many men prefer to knock together bark shelters. Nowadays, however, another and better material is to be had. It is the stuff balloons are made of, and is called balloon silk… A tent of the size mentioned, instead of weighing twenty-five pounds, pulls the scales down at about eight.” Stewart Edward White, Camp and Trail, 1911 p.79

The materials that are recommended (for an A frame tent) are placed in the order of lightness. 1. Japanese Silk 2. "Thintus" (very fine cotton) 3. Best Lawn, Egyptian (J. Goodman & Sons, 30, Glasshouse St.,W.) 4. Ordinary Lawn (Piatt & Co., St. Martin's Lane, W.C ) 5. Fine Unbleached Linen (edited).” Thomas Hiram Holding, The Camper’s Handbook, 1908 p.321

For a hunting- party of four men, I should consider a 7x9 Baker shelter-tent, weighing 12 pounds in balloon silk, to be a good investment. It has become standard for north woods and Canada hunting and fishing parties.”  Warren Hastings Miller, Camp Craft, 1915 p.31

This Egyptian cotton described as the preferred tent material by just about all of the authors that I have previously listed as my sources, appears to have been of very uniform quality. The weights listed be Sears (Nessmuk) match exactly the weight of the material listed by Kephart, 26 years later, as well as every author in between that time period. The weight given for the untreated Egyptian cotton material prior to any waterproofing treatment is 3 1/2 oz per square yard. In effect, we are talking about a modern bed sheet. In fact, most modern bed sheets are a bit thicker, coming in closer to 4 oz per square yard. The material is very thin, and in no way resembles what we typically call canvas.

Of materials preferable for use in light weight tent-making waterproofed balloon silk stands in a class by itself. Superseding the antiquated duck or flimsy drill tents it is one of the items which has done much to make tramping trips feasible and worth while. It is in reality not a silk at all but a closely woven cotton cloth with a weight of but 3 1/2 ounces per square yard (10 ounce duck waterproofed tips the scales at about 16 ounces). It is water proof, rot proof, mildew proof and exceedingly durable. A leanto for the bivouacker can then be kept down to three pounds.” Claude P. Fordyce, Touring Afoot, 1916 p.86

Tents that are to be carried on pack animals need to be of strong, heavy duck, or else carried in stout bags; otherwise they will be ruined by the sawing of lash ropes and snagging or rubbing against trees and rocks. For such work the best of army duck is none too good… Otherwise the most suitable material is very closely woven stuff made from Sea Island or Egyptian cotton, which has a long and strong fiber. A thin cloth of this kind is stout enough for most purposes, yet very light, and a tent made from it rolls up into a much smaller bundle than one of duck. It comes in various weights and fineness of texture. The standard grade of "balloon silk " runs about 3 1/2 oz. to the square yard in plain goods, and 5 oz. when waterproofed with paraffine. This trade name, by the way, is an absurdity: the stuff has no thread of silk in it, and the only ballooning it ever does is when a wind gets under it.”  Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol I, 1918 p.69

It should be noted that the weight of a 9ft x 7ft tarp made of Egyptian cotton as listed by Kephart (Camping and Woodcraft Vol II, p.105) exactly matches the weight given for a 9ft x 7ft tarp as listed by Nessmuk (Woodcraft, p.39), indicating the use of the exact same material. Some like Elmer Harry Kreps still used materials like drill (Camp and Trail Methods, p.89), which Stewart Edward White noted as outdated in his above quote a year later, but the consensus appears to have been that for a person traveling on foot, shelter was to be made of Egyptian cotton, which at the time appears to have been consistently 3 1/2 lb per square yard prior to waterproofing, and according to Kephart, approximately 5 oz per square yard after waterproofing. 

That is not to say that other options wouldn’t be period appropriate. Several of the above authors mention silk (actual silk, not balloon silk/Egyptian cotton) as tent material, although Kephart wrote that it is too weak for prolonged use. Actual canvas, both 10oz Army duck and lighter versions were certainly in wide use for shelters that were intended to be transported by pack train, cars, etc. It wouldn’t be out of the question for someone at the time to cut up a small tarp out of such material and use it for their shelter, whether it be cotton duck or linen. The preference however of these pioneers of backpacking seems to have been Egyptian cotton. 

Waterproofing Methods

Canvas type materials are still in use today. As such, manufacturers have developed modern waterproofing treatments for canvas. Some such treatments resemble the old methods, others do not. One can purchase canvas tarps and tents which look the part, but because they have been waterproofed in a modern way, wouldn’t be functionally equivalent to the materials available during the 1880 to 1930 period. The most popular modern waterproofing method for canvas is the Sunforger treatment. It is an excellent waterproofing method for canvas that hardly adds any weight to the material. Such canvas can also be purchased with fireproofing treatment. It is the material of choice for manufacturers like Tentsmiths. Unfortunately, the treatment is not period correct. A canvas tarp treated with period correct methods would be significantly heavier than its untreated version. So, let’s look at some of the available period correct methods:

Alum and Lime

George Washington Sears (Nessmuk) gives the following description: “The cloth does not even require hemming. It does, however, need a little water-proofing; for which the following receipt will answer very well, and add little or nothing to the weight: To 10 quarts of water add 10 ounces of lime, and 4 ounces of alum; let it stand until clear; fold the cloth snugly and put it in another vessel, pour the solution on it, let it soak for 12 hours; then rinse in luke-warm rain water, stretch and dry in the sun, and the shanty-tent is ready for use.” George Washington Sears, Woodcraft, 1892 p.35

However, Kephart later comments that he has had no luck with waterproofing a shelter with the method described by Nessmuk: “I have had no success with the alum and lime method mentioned by " Nessmuk."’ Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol I, 1918 p.73 I am more inclined to trust Kephart’s writing than Nessmuks.

Sears does however mention that the above method does not make the cloth flame/spark resistant: “Lastly, whatever cloth structure you may erect to use for a camp, do not fail to cover the roof with a screen of green boughs before building your camp- fire. Because, there will usually be one fellow in camp who has a penchant for feeding the fire with old mulchy deadwood and brush, for the fun of watching the blaze, and the sparks that are prone to fly upward; forgetting that the blazing cinders are also prone to drop downward on the roof of the tent, burning holes in it.” George Washington Sears, Woodcraft, 1892 p.39

These days it is often pontificated online that canvas is safe around fires. It is nothing of the sort. While wool resists sparks and flame, cotton canvas, unless it has received some fireproof treatment, is very vulnerable to sparks as well as to drying out and catching fire.

Paraffin or Wax

Waterproofing by paraffin is a most satisfactory process and the one most used by tent manufacturers… Simply put. into a tin vessel 3 pounds of paraffin shavings (ordinary paraffin of the stores) and two gallons of gasolene or turpentine. The receptacle, best with a closed top, is set in the sun or in a tub of boiling water and never near a flame. When a solution is effected out doors spread it on the stretched cloth by means of a brush, sponge or piece of cheesecloth. The gasolene evaporates leaving a thin coating of paraffin in the fibers of the cloth… To make it fire proof and rot proof as well as water repellent I would treat the cloth first to an alum and sugar of lead solution and then paraffin well as above.” Claude P. Fordyce, Touring Afoot ,1916 p.88

A similar paraffin treatment is proposed by Kephart as the most effective waterproofing option: “The cheapest, simplest, and, in some respects, the most satisfactory way is to get a cake or two of paraffine or cerasine, lay the tent on a table, rub the outer side with the wax until it has a good coating evenly distributed, then iron the cloth with a medium- hot flatiron, which melts the wax and runs it into every pore of the cloth. The more closely woven the cloth, the less wax and less total weight. Some prefer to treat the tent with a solution of paraffine. In this case, cut the wax into shavings so it will dissolve readily. Put 2 lbs. of the wax in 2 gallons of turpentine (for a 7x9 tent or thereabouts). Place the vessel in a tub of hot water until solution is completed. Meantime set up the tent true and taut. Then paint it with the hot solution, working rapidly, and using a stiff brush. Do this on a sunny morning and let tent stand until quite dry. The turpentine adds a certain elasticity to the wax; benzine does not.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol I, 1918 p.72

Paraffine is used either plain (in which case it is liable to crack or flake in cold weather) or combined with some elastic substance. The " mineral wax " called ozocerite or cerasine (often used as a substi tute for beeswax, and sold by dealers in crude drugs) is not so brittle as paraffine, adheres better, and, like paraffine, has no deleterious action on cloth, being chemically neutral… The plain wax process renders cloth quite water proof, but adds considerable weight, makes the stuff rather stiff, and increases its liability to catch afire when exposed close to a stove or camp-fire…” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol I, 1918 p.71

Undoubtedly, the paraffin method of waterproofing is not a particularly safe option. Heating up wax mixed with gasoline or turpentine is as close you can get to making home-made napalm without the ATF knocking on you door. Using your wife’s iron to melt wax onto a tarp will even more certainly lead to a swift death. The method however appears to have been the preferred one.

It should again be noted that both authors mention that a fabric treated in such a way is not flame resistant.

Alum and Sugar of Lead

For tents to be used in cold weather before an open fire, the following process is better: First soak the tent over night in water to rid it of sizing, and hang up to dry. Then get enough soft water to make the solutions (rain water is best; Some city waters will do, others are too hard). Have two tubs or wash-boilers big enough for the purpose. In one, dissolve alum in hot soft water, in the proportion of 1/4 lb. to the gallon. In the other, with the same amount of hot water, dissolve sugar of lead (lead acetate — a poison) in the same proportion. Let the solutions stand until clear; then add the sugar of lead solution to the alum liquor. Let stand about four hours, or until all the lead sulphate has precipitated. Then pour off the clear liquor from the dregs into the other tub, thoroughly work the tent in it with the hands until every part is quite penetrated, and let soak over night. In the morning, rinse well, stretch, and hang up to dry. A closely woven cloth should be used…” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol I, 1918 p.73

As quoted above, Fordyce also recommended the use of alum and sugar of lead, but only for its fireproofing characteristics. He still recommended treating the material with wax afterwards. To make it fire proof and rot proof as well as water repellent I would treat the cloth first to an alum and sugar of lead solution and then paraffin well as above.” Claude P. Fordyce, Touring Afoot ,1916 p.88

It should be noted that sugar of lead (lead acetate) is a poison. I think it may still be in use in textile manufacturing, but I’m not sure how one can actually get it, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it.

Oiled Cloth

For ground-sheets to use under bedding: get some of the best grade of boiled linseed oil of a reputable paint dealer. One quart will cover five or six square yards of heavy sheeting. Four it into a pan big enough to dip your hand into. Lay out the cloth and rub the oil into it between your palms, using just enough oil at a time to soak the cloth through, filling the pores, but leaving no surplus. Then stretch it in a barn or garret, or other dry shady place, for one week. Finish drying by hanging in the sunlight three or four days, first one side up, then the other.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol I, 1918 p.73

Cloth proofed with linseed or other drying oil is not strong enough for tenting (for its weight); it is sticky in hot weather, stiff in cold, and dangerously inflammable.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol I, 1918 p.71

There must have certainly been other methods for treating tent/tarp material, and Kephart does mention that each manufacturer makes their own, but the above are the most common ones that I have noticed.

Types of Shelters

As I mentioned earlier, the type of shelter recommended by each author changes based on their personal preferences. I will quickly touch on some of them.

The above is drawing of a four person tent used by Edward Whymper and his team when climbing in the Alps. I will save you the full description of the tent, but if interested you can read it in Scrambles Amongst the Alps by Edward Whymper, 1872 p.46-47.

The above A frame design continued to be a popular design during the period of 1880 through 1930. 

For three seasons I have come gradually to thinking that an A or wedge tent is about the proper thing. In event of that rain storm or those flies its advantages are obvious. When a cold snap comes along, you simply pull up the stakes along one side, tie the loops of that wall to the same stakes that hold down the other wall — and there is your lean-to all ready for the fire.” Stewart Edward White, Camp and Trail, 1911 p.84

Other authors had different preferences, usually changing with the season. A number of them preferred  tarp for warm weather, and some sort of more enclosed tent for winter. 

For a summer camp, however, I have finally come to prefer the simple lean-to or shed roof. It is the lightest, simplest and cheapest of all cloth devices for camping out, and I have found it sufficient for all weathers from June until the fall of the leaves. It is only a sheet of strong cotton cloth 9x7 feet, and soaked in lime and alum-water as the other…The one I have used for two seasons cost sixty cents, and weighs 2 1/4 pounds. It makes a good shelter for a party of three; and if it be found a little too breezy for cool nights, a sufficient wind break can be made by driving light stakes at the sides and weaving in a siding of hemlock boughs.” George Washington Sears, Woodcraft, 1892 p.38-39

As good a camp as I have ever tried — perhaps the best — is the "shanty tent," shown in the illustration. It is easily put up, is comfortable, neat, and absolutely rain-proof. Of course, it may be of any required size; but, for a party of two, the following dimensions and directions will be found all sufficient: Firstly, the roof. This is merely a sheet of strong cotton cloth 9 feet long by 4 or feet in width. The sides, of the same material, to be 4}4 feet deep at front, and 2 feet deep at the back. This gives 7 feet along the edge of the roof, leaving 2 feet for turning down at the back end of the shanty. It will be seen that the sides must be "cut bias," to compensate for the angle of the roof, otherwise the shanty will not be square and ship-shape when put up. No buttons, strings or loops. The cloth does not even require hemming. It does, however, need a little water-proofing; for which the following receipt will answer very well, and add little or nothing to the weight: To 10 quarts of water add 10 ounces of lime, and 4 ounces of alum; let it stand until clear; fold the cloth snugly and put it in another vessel, pour the solution on it, let it soak for 12 hours; then rinse in luke-warm rain water, stretch and dry in the sun, and the shanty-tent is ready for use. 

The above description of the shanty-tent may seem a trifle elaborate, but I hope it is plain. The affair weighs just three pounds, and it takes a skillful woods man about three hours of easy work to put it in the shape described. Leaving out some of the work, and only aiming to get it up in square shape as quickly as possible, I can put it up in an hour.” George Washington Sears, Woodcraft, 1892 p.34-35

I think it is very interesting that Sears (Nessmuk) considered it perfectly reasonable that it would take three (3) hours for a skilled woodsman to put up a tent. By today’s standards that is absolutely ridiculous. On a short winter day, combined with the time needed for collecting fire wood, setting up camp would have taken about half the day. Setting up camp was clearly a much more elaborate process back then, even for a person on the move.

Tent designs similar to the one above were popular with other woodsmen as well.

To me the open tent with the backlog fire is the acme of forest life. I have camped in teepee, wall-tent, A-tent, shack, shelter- tent, lean-to, leaf pile, canoe-tent, and Forester, but my pleasantest memories cluster around the open- tent camps with a bright camp-fire in front.” Warren Hastings Miller, Camp Craft, 1915 p.41

Like Sears (Nessmuk), Kephart preferred a tarp for warm weather and a tent for winter. 

Shelter cloth, 7x9 ft., waterproof 2lb 4oz.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol II, 1918 p.105

It is enough in most parts of our country, but warmer bedding would be required at high altitudes, and perhaps a closed tent, such as the "Compac" or one of the semi-pyramid type, weighing 3 1/2 to 4 pounds, instead of the one-pound shelter cloth.” Horace Kephart, Camping and Woodcraft Vol II, 1918 p.104

Elmer Harry Kreps seems to have preferred a small modified tarp year round. “For the trapper who is inclined to travel lightly, there is only one tent to use for the long line, where one seldom spends two nights in succession on the same camp site. That is the shelter tent or leanto…I prefer to make one for my own use, and have made and used several such. The illustration shows the style. A convenient size for one person is 5 x 7 feet ; for two it should be somewhat larger. Triangular corners are sewn to each end, and when the shelter is pitched at the proper angle these pieces effectually close the ends. It is best to have a ten inch sod cloth to prevent the wind from entering at the bottom.” Elmer Harry Kreps, Camp and Trail Methods, 1910 p.89

It should be made clear that the examples given here are intended for a person traveling on foot, carrying all of their gear on their back. Each author had their own preferences for larger and more elaborate shelters when it came to permanent camps or travel by pack train or other methods.

One other thing you may also notice when reading the books is that some of the authors refer to using “mackintosh” as flooring for their shelters. Macintosh is a rubber coated fabric patented by Charles Macintosh in 1823. It was a waterproof material that some of the authors used for shelter floors or rain protection, although none of them seem to have tried constructing shelters from it. 

Now, that I have given you a summary of the source materials on which I am relying, let me say a bit about my current choice of a Classic Backpacking shelter. 

In terms of design, I decided to go with a tarp for several reasons. For starters, I’ve decided to rely just on a blanket for warmth, am issue I will discuss in a later post. As a result, during winter I will need to use a fire to stay warm at least part of the night. Therefore, I need a shelter that is open on at least one side so that I can work with the fire. I could have constructed a shelter similar to that depicted by Kreps, but I chose not. One reason for not doing it is that I have to sew everything by hand, and I wasn’t looking forward to all that sewing. The other, and more important reason is that in my opinion leanto style shelters are useless in bad weather. They are nice when everything is calm and you have a nice fire in front, but if there is any significant rain or snow, they might as well not be there. See, rain and snow don’t fall at 90 degree angle to the ground. They move around and come in at different angles. If you are in a shelter where one side if open, you will spend a significant part of the night with rain or snow beating directly in your face. With a tarp like this one, I can pitch it into an A frame type tent and stay protected if the weather turned.

For the material, I made the same choice that all of the above authors made, Egyptian cotton. I simply went to Walmart and bought a Full size 600 thread count Egyptian cotton bed sheet, 86in x 96in (7ft 2in x 8ft). I also bought the pillow cases for the same set, to use as material for stuff sacks, etc. 

The material is as close to what was used by the likes of Kephart and Nessmuk as I can get. It is the same material (100% Egyptian cotton), although it is probably higher thread count than what they ha back then. It is also probably a bit thicker because when I do the math, the weight of the tarp ( with folded and finished edges, etc) is 4 1/2 oz per square yard, about an ounce more than the material used by the above authors. The total weight of the untreated tarp is 1lb 13.7 oz (29.7oz).  

For water treatment, I decided to turn it into oilcloth using boiled linseed oil. The process was clearly available at the time, and even earlier, although it was not preferred method listed by any of the authors. The reason why I chose this method is because it was the easiest and safest for me to do. I’ve used to ironing method to coat a tarp with wax before, and it’s a real pain. There is no way I am mixing molten wax with turpentine of gasoline, and I’m not using lead acetate, even if I could find it. That left me with oil cloth as the period correct method of waterproofing. 

I used a method I was familiar with. I mixed equal parts boiled linseed oil and mineral spirits. The mineral spirits just serves to thin out the linseed oil so that it is easier to apply. Because of that I didn’t bother to check whether the components of the mineral spirits were period correct. You can use other diluting agents if you wish. I got both from Home Depot. I applied the oil with a brush because I wanted to use just enough to coat the material without letting any of it pool. When I was done, I hung it up to dry.

After about six hours I flipped the tarp upside down so that the edge that was on the bottom would be on top. That way the oil would distribute more evenly and not pool along the bottom edge. After a day in the garage, I brought the tarp inside to dry completely as the garage was too cold to get it done. 

When drying the tarp, leave it spread out. Linseed oil produces heat when it dries, and if you have the tarp bundled up, you can actually get ignition, or damage the tarp.

I sewed loops made of cotton string on the corners and about every two feet. I’m still worried that the string will not be strong enough, but it has held so far. 

I made a stuff sack from part of one of the pillow cases and treated it the same way. That way when the tarp is wet I can keep the rest of my pack dry. 

After being treated, the tarp weight 3lb 0.8oz (48.8oz), a significant weight increase, but still very manageable and matches the weight increase listed by Kephart. It is light compared to my wax treated 10oz, 6ft x 8ft canvas tarp, which weights 6lb 5oz, and is about two and a half times the size. It is easy to see why canvas was rarely used even in the late 19th century by people traveling on foot. 

So, that’s what I use for now. It seems to be working well, and wasn’t a difficult project.