Any camping or backpacking manual, if you were such a total loser that you would read one, would tell you that when you buy a new tent you should set it up for the first time in your backyard on a clear, calm day. The idea there is that sometimes new tents are different from old tents, and they have to be set up a certain way, or else they won’t stand up. No matter how many tents you’ve set up before, you don’t know everything about tent pitching. And if you try to pitch a tent for the first time on a dark, windy night in unfamiliar territory, you’ll probably have trouble.
Yeah, well, advice like that is for suckers who don’t know much about setting up tents, is all I’ve got to say. I’ve been pitching tents for more than four decades, and I know what I’m doing. Which is what I told my wife last Friday in Austin, while I was talking her into camping at a KOA there.
We had driven to Austin early that morning, in order to watch the Mason High School tennis team win the state team tennis tournament for the ninth year in a row. That would be no small feat if they competed in class 1A, which is how Mason is classified, but they don’t. Mason competes in class 2A in team tennis. And I would be proud of them even if I didn’t have two sons on the team.
We had planned to stay at a hotel in Round Rock, where Mason ISD had reserved a bunch of rooms, but the hotel people decided to let someone else have the rooms. And since there were several big events in Austin last weekend, the nearest available hotel room was located slightly outside the city limits. I think it was in Cleveland.
At the last minute I called a friend to see about staying with him, but he was booked solid, too. So we were homeless in Austin, and I came up with the great idea to get a cabin at a KOA. Except there weren’t any cabins available, either. All we could get was a tent site. But since we had some lightweight sleeping bags with us, I figured we could buy a tent and stay at KOA anyway. The alternatives were to either drive the two hours to get home, or find a vacant house and sleep on the floor. We chose KOA.
We went to Academy and I found a nice little two-person backpacking tent. I looked real careful at the picture on the box, so as to determine if there were any new developments in tent pitching I needed to know, but it looked pretty standard to me. Your average expert tent pitcher, such as myself, generally has a feel for these things.
By the time we had eaten supper and spent an hour or so at a Target store someone had inconveniently erected in view of my wife, it was getting pretty late. We got back to the KOA about ten that night, and I told my wife to hit the showers and I’d get the tent set up in a jiffy. No problem.
Well, there wouldn’t have been a problem, except it was pretty dark, and the wind had picked up to about 187 miles per hour. Plus I didn’t have a hammer, and our tent site happened to be located on a patch of standard-issue-KOA-type material, which consists of a thin layer of camouflaging earth over a two-foot-deep layer of concrete. And the tent was not free-standing, which means you have to use stakes.
The only rock I could find was about the size of a golf ball, which is not your optimum stake-driving tool, but I managed to finally get the tent staked out by laying down on it and driving the stakes by feel. I didn’t really need all that skin on the back of my left hand, anyway.
About that time I noticed there was some kind of strap across the top of the collapsed tent, which would keep the thing from being raised to its full 40 inch height. I figured it was going to be about 35 inches short. After examination I decided the strap was supposed to be underneath the tent, but it was sewn on, so I had to unstake the tent and start over. Those yahoos at the tent factory should have put the strap underneath when they packed it, but it was made in China, and there’s no use crying over spilt chop suey.
I was putting the rain fly on when my wife came back and asked me how she was supposed to get in the tent. I showed her the slit in the fly, and she pointed out that it was only about two inches wide. I suggested she try to expel all the air from her lungs and squeeze in. It’s a good thing there weren’t any rocks around bigger than a golf ball, is all I’ve got to say.
We finally got bedded down in the tent, where we shivered all night in our thin sleeping bags, with the wind blowing through the vent holes at 187 miles per hour. At least I think they were vent holes. My wife voiced her opinion that the tent was not pitched precisely according to the manufacturer’s specifications, and was letting too much air in. But then, she doesn’t have my experience with tents.
And from what she told me the next morning, I don’t think she ever will . . .
Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist and public speaker who plans to hold monthly tent-pitching seminars this summer. Write to him at PO Box 1600, Mason, Tx 76856 or firstname.lastname@example.org