A Day in the Life Part 5: Shelter from the Storm
The cool breeze that began blowing across your back a few minutes ago has a scent to it. It’s the humid, damp scent of wet earth. Though the incoming storm clouds haven’t quite yet blocked the late day sun, that event is quickly approaching. With a sigh you heave out of the hammock and walk to your pack, still perched against the tree.
In the bottom of your pack, you dig around until the thin nylon bag that contains your tarp is felt. Weaving it around the various loose items, you slide out the bag and quickly head to your hammock. Unwittingly, you’ve left your stakes in the bottom of your pack, but you don’t realize it just yet. Opening the drawstring, your tarp slides out easily, and falls to the ground. Being almost asleep when you noticed the towering clouds, your mind is in a slight panic state, and for some reason, your tarp landing on the ground gives you just enough pause to stop and clearly think.
There isn’t much time to waste.
By your best calculations, this should be a quick, albeit powerful storm. You decide that it’s best to bring the tarp low, and close to the ground. That’s the quickest way to string it, and will give the most protection. You figure you can always readjust it after the storm passes. Untangling the ridgeline and looping it around the first tree, you let it hang slightly loose. Your muscle memory has kicked in, and the thin line slides through your hand as you walk to the other end, and create yet another anchor point around the opposite tree. Standing back for a second, you give a cursory glance as to the height, and determine it “good enough”. As you pull the line taut, the ridge of the tarp straightens out and reveals that about a foot of your hammock is uncovered by the tarp. A few minutes of fiddling later, and the nylon sheet is perfectly adjusted from head to foot.
With a glance towards the west, you confirm that there is but maybe 10 minutes before the rain hits. A fight-or-flight response occurs, and you pick up your pace. This is when you realize that light is fading fast, and as you pat the cargo pocket of your shorts, nothing is felt. Your stakes are still in your pack.
Rather than dig around in the dim light to find them, you bring the entire pack back to your half-built shelter, pull your headlamp out of the top pocket, and slide underneath the loose tarp. At the very least, this will keep your gear mostly dry if your calculations are wrong and the rain begins sooner than expected. Kicking your headlamp on, an eerie green light floods your little cave, as it is reflecting off of the nylon. Finding the stakes takes only a few seconds, but as you pull them out, a gust slams your tarp into and over your face.
Flapping steadily in the gust, you struggle to grab the upwind corner. If you don’t stake this first, the rain may very well blow into your hammock before you’re finished battening down the hatches. Luckily, the ground is soft, and rock and root free, and the first stake plunges flush into the ground. The tarp is now steadier, and the second corner is much easier to secure. As the first light drops of rain begin to fall, you quickly round out the opposite side, and retreat into your shelter.
The quick burst of activity, and the smack in the face from mother nature is already over. You tarp isn’t posted perfectly, but it’s strong and tight, and will keep you dry.
For 20 minutes, you listen to the fluttering sound of misty rain striking your cloth roof, and gaze out from the openings at the end. Gusts come and go, and your shelter stands strong, leaning away from the wind, but never loosening. The downpour you expected turns out to be nothing more than a brief, light shower, and you’re almost disappointed that you went to all the trouble. When the sound of raindrops hitting ceases to one every few seconds, you step out, and look up. The skies have cleared, and there are a million stars. The only water falling now is dripping softly from the trees.
As you survey the sky, the milky way comes into view. You at first thought it was a high, remnant cloud, but it doesn’t move. Living in town, you only get to see this when you’re here. It awes you every time. You wish you could lie on your back and just stare up for a while, but the wet ground and your suddenly empty feeling stomach moves you towards your fire ring.
You’re appreciative of the fact that you hadn’t started your fire early, for now you have everything ready to go, and you’ll have plenty of firewood through the rest of the evening, with enough left over for morning. Luckily, the shower didn’t soak your kindling. Rather than spend the time and effort it takes to shave up some tinder and use your ferro rod, you decide to “cheat”. From your pack, you pull out some wadded up paper, old receipts or something, and a cotton ball impregnated with Vaseline. You place a small handful of twigs on the remnant ashes from guests before you, and on the top of this, you place your “tinder bundle”, and have the bird’s nest you created earlier in hand.
A quick strike of your disposable lighter effortlessly ignites the cotton. Tossing the nest on, a wisp of white smoke and steam signals that it’s enough to dry any dampness from your kindling, and once the flames are above the top level of twigs, you begin adding slightly larger pieces. It doesn’t take long to move up to the bigger wood, and before you know it, the fire is hot and steady. It can maintain itself long enough for you to make dinner.
Realizing you don’t have enough water, you don your headlamp and make your way to the creek with your collapsible bucket. As you approach you can see it is still running clear, and any rain in the distance wasn’t enough to raise the water level. Plunging your feet in, you are jolted by the temperature, after having sit by the fire a bit. Efficiently filling your bucket, you walk back to your spruce grove, a few pounds heavier. You could filter and fill your bottles now, but you’re hungry. Sifting through your food bag, you pull out dinner…freeze dried chili mac, and a small bottle of hot sauce. A little spice will be good after a somewhat dreary evening. Estimating, you ladle out a few cups of water with your pot, start your stove, and set the pot upon it.
The hissing sound of the canister stove drowns out most other sounds. As you wait for a boil, you stare into the fire, and throw another log on…watching as it blackens, then begins to glow. After a few minutes, the shaking of your pot signals you’ve achieved sanitary, boiling water. This is quickly poured into the bag of pasta and meat crumbles, just enough to cover the top of the food. You close the freezer bag, and with a quick shake, set it aside to steep. The remaining hot water goes into your mug, along with a tea bag.
Since the food will take ten minutes or so, you decide to fill your bottles, transferring the suspect water from the bucket via filter. The water has always looked and tasted clean here, but if there’s one thing you won’t risk, it’s giardia. Getting impatient with your food, you occupy yourself by wandering a few yards off and finding the tree limb that you will hang your food from tonight. After a few errant tosses, you are able to hit your mark, and get the parachute cord with a carabiner on the end over a branch about 10 feet out from the trunk. Here it will wait until just before bed time.
Sauntering back to the fire, your food is ready. When you open the bag, the smell of chili warms you. A few dashes of hot sauce, a quick stir, and you dig in. The popping and hissing of the fire has slowed, and it’s largely quiet as you savor. Suddenly, a howl is heard in the distance, perhaps half of a mile away. The coyotes are out. You’ve never had an encounter in camp, but part of you secretly would enjoy one, just for the story. Listening while you chew, it’s gone silent. With the last bits of pasta gone, you turn the bag up and drink the broth directly from it. You don’t know why you do this out here. Perhaps it’s some innate survival technique built into your DNA to retrieve every last calorie, but you certainly wouldn’t do something like this in proper company. It always tastes better than you think.
Neatly closing and folding the bag, it goes back into your sack of food, to be hung away from critters for the night. Your day is all but over, and sipping the tea, it’s really the first time where that hasn’t been something going on. From the drive, to the hike in, to lunch, to camp set-up, the rain, and dinner, your mind has been firing since sunrise. This is the first time you’ve zoned out and thought of home. You don’t miss home per se, but you miss the people. It’s here that you know you really are a social animal.
A few more logs on the fire, 30 minutes of restful silent reflecting, and it’s getting late. Stiffly, you detach yourself from the ground, brush the pine needles off, and take your food bag to the cord you strung earlier. Smoothly hoisting it into the air, you tie off the opposite end of your rope to a nearby spruce. It will be safe from bears and raccoon for the night. Thinking ahead, you take a bathroom break here as well, hoping that your human scent will also aid in deterring any vandals.
The fire has died down, so rather than stoking it back up and wasting more wood, you decide it’s bed time. At this point, it’s only 9:00 PM, but your internal clock states it’s after midnight. Primal instincts kick in out here, without even thinking about it. Even your eyes improve, and you realize that your headlamp has been sitting aside for the past hour, and wasn’t needed for hanging your food. The moon has risen, and given more than enough light to move about. Satisfied with the state of your camp, you wander over to your shelter.
As you crawl into the hammock and shuffle around a bit to get comfortable, your eyes become heavy. You’re sleeping soundly in less than five minutes.
This article is the fifth in a series titled “A Day in the Life”. The entire series puts the reader into the experiences and mindset of a weekend backpacker taking a short overnight trip into the backcountry. I hope that in basing this on my own travels, it encourages you, the reader, to have these experiences yourself.