By Joe Miller
A quick overnighter was in order: a change of shelters-in-place, if you will. One that was close to home (about an hour) and one where I likely wouldn’t see more than a handful of other hikers (the Birkhead Wilderness are of central North Carolina’s Uwharrie National Forest).
When I checked my gear closet, I found I was lacking two key ingredients for a quick, comfortable and fast overnight backpack trip: a one-person tent and a light and compact camp chair. Fortunately, Great Outdoor Provision Co. had both. I ordered over the phone, then drove to the Chapel Hill shop for curbside pickup. In just under than an hour, I was in business.
First, the tent.
North Face Stormbreak1
Leading trips, I use a two-person tent. As a guide, I often have just enough extra gear — extra maps, GPS, usually a guidebook or two on our destination and some just-in-case extra clothing — that I need the roominess of a two-person tent. Minus the gear required to lead, it seemed I could shave some weight, and expedite the set-up and break-down processes as well by having a one-person tent.
A caveat on the weight saving. I’m not, by any means, an ultralight backpacker. Sure, I like to shave weight — where it doesn’t sacrifice comfort: I’ve switched from a sleeping bag to a quilt (Sierra Designs Nitro Quilt 800/35, which I love); I’ve gone to a lighter, more fuel-efficient stove (the Soto WindMaster, ditto); I’ve got a lightweight sleeping pad (the Klymit Static V, ditto ditto). But with certain items I’m less inclined to play the weight-ing game. One of them is my tent.
So much of being able to pull off a lightweight tent is being able to pitch it perfectly. When I get to camp after 12 miles in the Southern Appalachians, I’m not a patient person: I want to pitch camp quickly, make a fire, eat, relax: a half hour fiddling with a temperamental tent isn’t on my agenda. Some of the ultralight tents are also a bit … diaphanous, and I’m a rather modest camper. And there’s the anything-but-ultralight price tag, which I’m pretty sure would not pass our house budget committee (the $129 Stormbreak1, on the other hand, didn’t even require an appropriations hearing). So I lug a little extra weight (3 pounds, 7 ounces).
Driving south on I-74 to the Uwharrie Mountains, there was a brief tease of rain on the windshield. Another about 15 minutes down the trail. When I got to my campsite, the teasing was over. I quickly set-up the Stormbreak1, a tent I had picked up curbside from Great Outdoor Provision only the day before. Despite my unfamiliarity with the tent and a rookie error, the tent was up in less than 5 minutes. Five minutes after the last tent stake went in, it began to rain, an introductory spritzing followed shortly by a steady rain.
One of the great joys of backpacking is being hunkered down in a dry tent during a rain. Not a downpour, but the kind of melodic rat-a-tat on the rainfly akin to rain on a tin roof. My sleeping pad took up much of the tent’s 34-inch width (tapering to 26 inches at the foot), while the 87-inch length easily accommodated my 69-inch-long self. The vestibule was surprisingly roomy (25 inches at its widest), accommodating my hiking boots, water bottle and food, while the more modest 12-inch rainfly overhang on the non-door side was enough to shelter my pack. I took notes for a few minutes, read for a few minutes, then napped as the rain on my rainfly worked its drowsy magic.
Helinox Chair Zero
A few minutes after 7 p.m., I was roused from my nap by the growing light inside my tent. Shortly, fresh raindrops gave way to leaf-detained droplets now occasionally making their way to the forest floor. The world outside my tent was wet: not puddle wet, but not something you’d want to sit directly in, either. Fortunately, I didn’t have to.
Why, oh why, had I waited this long to get the one luxury I knew would make a world of difference in the backcountry. (I knew, because I’d taken advantage of vacated Helinox chairs around campfires for a good three years now.) I got out my stove, heated two cups of water, then poured it into the plastic-coated sack that would, in 10 minutes, yield beef stew. (Five minutes in I gilded the lily and poured in some instant mashed potatoes: baby reds, with roasted garlic and parmesan.)
“Wine?” I asked myself.
“A cabaret would be delightful, thank you,” I replied.
I unzipped my dinner, unscrewed my wine box, settle in to my camp chair. I was reminded of countless dads from the 1950s contentedly chowing down on a Swanson’s while parked in a Barcalounger watching “Gunsmoke.” Only instead of Matt & Kitty, I was watching a live production of night fall.
An hour and a half later, the wind kicked up bringing more recalcitrant raindrops down from above, plus a surprising chill (the temperature would drop to 39 by morning). I hated to give up the comfort of my Chair Zero, but was convinced by my waiting Stormbreak1 that I’d simply be trading one form of comfort for another.
After settling in under my quilt, I realize I hadn’t felt this relaxed in a long while.
At least since early March.
Joe Miller unites people with the outdoors through writing and guiding trips, through his GetHiking! and GetBackpacking! programs. His latest book is “Explore Your Neighborhood: A Guide to Discovering the World Immediately Around You,” available in paperback and ebook, here.
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