Category Archives: Backyard Testing

Baker Tent Hunt – the half-dome shelter

In addition to the full size campfire tent and lightweight versions we’ve looked at, one of the simplest ways to achieve a ‘campfire tent’ setup would be the ‘half dome shelter’.

Source: Period Shelters -http://poisonriverparty.homestead.com/Shelters.html

In fact this construct was used widely in woodland camping by the North Eastern native American populations. One such construction was shown in Ray Mears series on “Rogers Rangers” an exploration of how WIlliam Rogers led expeditions and raiding parties in the early british military campaigns in the Frontier country with Canada, fighting both the French and the opposing native tribes. The demonstration by a descendent of the local tribes showed how a half dome shelter would be built. Interestingly the structure of the frame would be made at the camp site, from materials found thereabouts, whilst the covering was made from wide sheets of birchbark, which being the most valuable material as well as extremely lightweight, would be carried from camp to camp – a new frame simply being built as required at the next location.

Ray shows how with a fire built out front the shelter is extremely insulating, and practical allowing easy access in and out, and the ability to cook under cover using the fire in front of the shelter. These are all characteristics of the “Campfire Tent” or “Baker Tent” we were looking for.

That episode showed a beautiful end result of this technique – I am keen to try this technique, but using a tarp instead of birchbark.

So in searching for a modern version of this ‘half-dome campfire tent’ i began looking into surprisingly fishing “bivvies” which typically do have this half dome shape, as well as a rigid or semi-rigid frame built in. There are many types of these bivvies on the market, with the key differentiating from our point of view being weight and b8ulk, as we will want to carry this in a canoe, as well as portaging where necessary.

carp bivvi or brolly

So clearly some of the larger more heavy duty fishing shelters, or “carp bivvies” or “brollys” as they are also known in the world of course fishing are not suitable in this case. The most interesting I found were these two:

The Fox Evolution XS Shelter/Bivvi.

This has a rigid, interlocking hooped frame which interestingly stays in place when the shelter is collapsed, making setting up and taking down very quick and simple, as well as great resistance against the wind. Also importantly this one can be set lower in bad weather, another feature of Bill Mason’s campfire tents – that of being highly adjustable to the weather conditions. Here’s a pic:

fox evolution bivvy

(a good review here) The downside of course here is that its still quite heavy at 4.2kg (if you compare to a tarp/pole/line setup), but even more importantly its bulky at 1.9m long (!) and 11cm’s diameter size when packed.

All the fishing bivvi info you’ll ever need is here at http://www.bivvies.co.uk/

The Wychwood Rogue Shelter.

This is the most lightweight of the bivvi shelters, with simple shock-corded poles in place of more rigid frames, but again the ability to change the shape significantly from wide open and high at the front very low and enclosed in bad weather. The shelter is extremely lightweight, has good fixings and guy ropes and is very easy to put up (once you’ve tried a few times – at first its quite confusing!). So this one really began to get our attention and we purchase one on Ebay for an incredibly cheap price of just £25, compared to the normal price of about £48. It was a brand new and unpacked one…and in fact the chap who sent it out actually sent out 5 in one box not realising it was a group – I let him know and he arrnged for the others to be picked up – we’re an honest lot here.

So the Wychwood shelter in backyard and canoe trip test turned out be absolutely excellent – the only downside that the poles although light, because they aren’t designed for canoe camping as such are quite long at about 5 foot, rather than being made up of shorter sections- and that does make it a bit big or rather long in the boat, although its no real problem.

The Shelter when set up really does make exactly the half-dome ‘campfire tent’ shelter we were after, and even looks very much like the native american shelters that inspired the idea. It’s a fantastic shape and has only one downside I can see – which is faced into strong winds it can take quite a bashing and become unstable – but if you’re on good ground for pegging this hasn’t been a problem for me even in extreme conditions, lowering the front egde means you can position it carefully in the wind, to get some downforce in play as well.

Wychwood Rogue Shelter

On less good ground for pegs it can be more of an issue. And in fact on a winter camp last year what were the most violent gusts of winds I’ve ever experienced anywhere on 3 continents hit our camp for a short while, probably half an hour only. Fortunately the direction was favourable, as the shelter got buffeted in the back edge forcing the structure down rather than taking it skyward! With some stones to weigh down the back, some extra pegging to a big log and some crossed fingers, the shelter actually withstood this onslaught, however lying in the shelter with all hell breaking loose around me and snow starting to fall (sideways) I was forced to consider ‘what to do IF it was going to fail’. In fact with this shelter there’s a good option here, and one which is actually useful part of the set-up in good weather too: by simply removing the poles you are left with an excellent simple tarp, again with good fixing point and a slight dome shape that helps enormously when constructing a tarp shelter. So the solution would have been to collapse the poles and just cover the swag with a very lower tarp cover, down and out of the wind behind the canoe.

Since then things have changed and although I haven’t yet tried constructing a shelter using sticks with this tarp, I have used it with canoe paddles attached to the canoe for stablity and that really works well – then you simply take the small rolled up tarp part of the shelter and its extremely minimalist as well as being very effective in both wind and rain, with enough room for two people and gear to sit out of the rain.

“Backyard Test” of the Wychwood shelter canoe-tarp rig:

canoe tarp backyard test

And in use for real on a canoe trip:

canoe tarp wye

So there you have it – the Wychwood shelter is our recommendation for the half-dome campfire tent shelter and as a canoe-tarp rig; so it’s a great buy for the price.

read more in our “Baker Tent Hunt” series.

Snowbound in a Campfire Tent

The Campfire Tent has been getting good use during this winter snow: kind of a ‘Backyard’ test for a snowbound winter camp here. The campfire tent proving itself again – giving great shelter from strong and bitterly cold Northerly winds, whilst allowing the openess for cooking, observing nature and snowbound views, and generally ‘messing about in tents’! In this weather the views have been absolutely stunning and I haven’t missed a thing – including a huge shooting star one evening. I set up just before the snow came in 10 days ago, and after the main snowfall the roof of the tent had about 5 inches of snow weighing it down – that’s a LOT of weight, and happy to say the canvas, stitching, poles and guys all stood up to the test. The pegs have been completely frozen into the ground so they aren’t going anywhere, which has helped in the very strong winds we’ve had. Walking the fields all the activity of nature is written into the snow in footprints – from tiny mice trails and bird footprints, to thin and whispy deer tracks and big badger prints – all the activity you’d normally miss in the dark is recorded for the following morning.

Also here is a backyard test of a new Hekla 30 firebox from Tentipi, a great bit of kit I’ll write more about in detail later.. The tent itself is from Green Outdoor and features in the Winter Camp story below. For now here’s the video:

Tripod for Cooking – the Ray Mears Way

With some new Dutch ovens pots on there way to me via Fedex, I was interested to see Ray Mears in his Northern Wilderness series using a traditional tripod simply made from some branches found at the camp site. Ray explains how this was in fact the way the “Voyageurs” worked, saving weight by not having to carry a metal tripod. Again unlike the classic dutch oven tripod set up there’s no metal chain suspending the pots either – instead ‘Withy” or thin sampling branch twisted to make it more flexible was used by Ray in this example. Further withies were used to secure the tripod legs at the top – here’s some outtakes:
Ray Mears tripod cooking

Ray Mears cooking with tripod
We’ll be trying this method at our next camp, once I’ve properly seasoned the new dutch ovens.

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Campfire Tent – Baker Tent Hunt

Here’s the Backyard Test of the fantastic new “Campfire Tent” from Green Outdoor (who also make the “Bush Shelter” tent featured earlier as a ‘lightweight’ campfire tent option). As part of our ongoing “Baker Tent Hunt” series this full size tent looks really promising and is beautifully made – it passed the ‘Backyard Test’ with flying colours, easy to put up, withstood some strong winds and provided great shelter with the all-important open frontage of the classic Campfire or Baker tent. Stay tuned for the full experience in our forthcoming Winter Camp [Update: that report now available here: See Winter Camp ]

And here’s Bill Mason’s original tent from his book “Song Of The Paddle – An Illustrated Guide To Wilderness Camping”:

Inspiration for the Campfire Tent - Bill Mason in Song of The Paddle

Inspiration for the Campfire Tent - Bill Mason in Song of The Paddle

For more information on this tent see the details on the Green Outdoor.co.uk website.

Which Wood For Winter…

With winter well and truly upon us, it’s time to look at methods of keeping warm. Equally useful for the indoor woodburning stove as for the outdoor campfire, a knowledge of the burning qualities of our major native woods is invaluable at this time of year. Gather some Alder on your winter canoe trip and after dark you’ll find it hard to get the fire going, because of the high moisture content. Recognizing the exact species of wood from dead lying branches can be difficult of course, but look up, look up, and you’ll get a clue to what’s providing the wood lying on the ground.

Campfire

The Woodland Trust provides this excellent guide to the trees of britain which will help with the “look up” part with beautiful and accurate illustrations from the Collins book.

The “Crack Willow” Tree - very common on southern UK river backs and wetlands

The “Crack Willow” Tree - very common on southern UK river backs and wetlands

Willow is one of my favourite woods and Willow driftwood is common on our river banks where floods surge through in winter breaking branches from the trees which are often half-submerged for much of the year. In this guide the “Crack Willow” is described perfectly:

“Crack willow is aptly named, not only due to the twigs making a ‘cracking’ noise when broken but also because old trees often develop a large crack in their trunk and are prone to collapse.”

The leaf stalk and catkins of the crack willow tree.

The leaf stalk and catkins of the crack willow tree.

And also useful is this old rhyme from an anonymous source gives doubtless hard-won clues as the qualities of the different wood available:

Oaken logs, if dry and old,
Keep away the winter’s cold
Poplar gives a bitter smoke,
Fills your eyes, and makes you choke
Elm wood burns like churchyard mould,
E’en the very flames are cold
Hawthorn bakes the sweetest bread -
Or so it is in Ireland said,
Applewood will scent the room,
Pearwood smells like flowers in bloom,
But Ashwood wet and Ashwood dry,
A King can warm his slippers by.

Beechwood logs burn bright and clear,
If the wood is kept a year
Store your Beech for Christmas-tide,
With new-cut holly laid aside
Chestnut’s only good, they say
If for years it’s stored away
Birch and Fir wood burn too fast,
Blaze too bright, and do not last
Flames from larch will shoot up high,
And dangerously the sparks will fly….
But Ashwood green,
And Ashwood brown
Are fit for Queen with golden crown.

That ryhme from an unknown traditional source was found from an excellent web resource here at www.aie.org which also has a fantastic table of ratings and descriptions of the main wood species which gives a really good overview of the burning and seasoning qualities of different species.

Autumn is Axe Time…

Just sought out a new axe for Autumn and Winter ahead. Found this lovely one from B&Q of all places: Has a real Hickory handle and 2.5lb head… superb action and excellent strike force. It’s big for taking on trips although it will soon be a permanent fixture in the Landrover, but I love it so much I may yet take on the next canoe trip rather than my small hatchet.

The weather finally cleared up for several lovely days of perfect September “Indian Summer” sunshine, and gave me the chance to use the axe in some “Backyard Testing” and also to get some real iconic photos!

bushcraft axe

new-axe

bushcraft axe closeup

Good 'Ol Kelly…

Just thought I’d collect my thoughts following a recent canoeing and ‘get out and stay out’ camping trip in the Wye valley. I’ve shared a few tips and ‘learns’ below that I’ve picked up in recent trips with the help of a touch of ‘backyard’ testing too. 

Camp Fire!  Firstly, respect your surroundings at all times, only light camp fires where and when they are allowed and keep it safe. Depending on where you are and if there are restrictions – find out and follow the rules.  Extinguish remains and embers thoroughly as it can travel both over and under the ground.     

  • Collect the fluffy bits from your tumble dryer – from the filter you have to keep clear. Great tinder support. Keep it dry and take it as back up as you can find tinder in the field / woods, even in the rain if you know where to look. Ray can anyway.!
     
  • Open pine cones great too, put a couple in with your small twigs.  The air gets in around them and it really picks up quickly
  • Prepare your sizes of sticks before hand and have them in different graded size piles.  Nothing too fussy but otherwise you will be scrabbling around for the right sizes…. and the fire has gone out.
     
  • Birch tree – tiny delicate bark shavings are fab too – they are flakey – care not to damage any trees though.  We’re talking the tiny bits from broken branches if possible.
     
  • Have a lighter and/or matches as back up but try to light your camp fire with a simple steel striker without an instant naked flame doing the work for you. I know this maybe cheating too but it’s only a step away from a flint stone approach, so stop making it so easy and improve your skills.
     
  • I find that firing up Kelly Kettle and using what’s left is easier than starting from scratch with a general camp fire. Let the chimney effect of the Kelly process do its thing.  Remember to point the ‘vent’ hole into the approaching wind to feed Kelly with air.  If there’s no wind, blow in there but too much puff and its out. Once your water is boiling use the established fire base to start your camp fire and have the sticks ready.  It’s all in the prep.

    rich1 

  • A well as a small sharp knife, if you don’t mind carrying it – a little wooden handled hand axe is very useful or even a hand sized fold up saw – most DIY stores.

    rich2 

  • On two occasions recently, I burnt my hand lifting the full kettle from the fire and in my instant reaction to the burn, spilt precious water on the fire that I still needed as I lifted it off! Now I run a decent stick under the kettle handle, angle it and lift from there, to keep my hand away from climbing flames in the ‘chimney’ of the kettle. Also, if you put the kettle straight on to a small fire rather than its own base, remember to keep the cork and wooden part of the handle away from the ‘wider’ flames.
     
  • Update. New Kelly Kettle Video Here.

  • The medium Kelly kettle takes 2.5 pints but remember not to fill it unnecessarily.  How much tea do you need? You’ll be peeing all night. Boil what you need for 2 mugs and it will be quicker anyway.
     
  • Collect fire wood, tinder, dried grass, leaves etc during your walk or canoe trip.  Don’t expect it to be lined up for you where you want to light your fire.  There won’t be a boot sale there with an estate car full of twigs with a bloke going, ‘’50p for the lot – get your fire here.’’  Not in the places I’ve camped anyway. Chances are it will be getting dark and there won’t be a dry stick in 50 metres radius especially if it’s a well used spot.  You might be lucky but don’t walk past some great natural fuel if it’s jumping out at you.  And it will be.  So much of it you might not see it.  Can’t see the wood for the trees and all that.  Take the dead stuff – don’t hack away at branches.  Look under your feet. Chuck it in your bag or into the canoe if you can reach it but don’t rock the boat!  It’s all in the prep.
     
  • Get the right side of the wind.  There’s nothing worse than a face full and eye full of smoke just as you’re getting it going. As your eyes sting and stream with tears, the appeal will wear off and you’ll be longing for a gas cooker and a wet flannel.
     
  • During the effort, refrain from putting your ‘tools’ from your kit on the ground – eg knife, striker, maglite etc.  You’ll mislay it, walk it into the soil, lose it in the cover or generally lose track.  Get in the habit of putting it into one handy pocket with a zip… and zip it up or it’s falling out with all the stooping you’re doing.  It’s like at home doing a bit of DIY – can you ever find your pencil if you put it down?! And the car keys…….

    rich31 

old swag in a bag 

There’s something to be said for not having a tent covering you up and hiding you away from the sky, especially when it’s fine. I guess in a tent, you’re not really out – you’re still ‘in’ and enclosed.  Recently, I lay half under the half turned boat in my sleeping bag with nothing above me apart from a little dew and a million stars.  As my old mate, Kevin, snored and grunted like a badger in his swag bag with only his beard on show, I listened to the Tawny Owls echoing in the valley, the splash of jumping fish in the Wye beside us and I picked out the shooting stars that were occasionally trailing and burning through the sky – sometimes I was momentarily tricked by the constant path and track of a man made one.  The birds were singing at 4.30 and it was impossible to sleep so watching the sunrise in the valley was the next thing and it was going to be a scorcher.  The ‘badger’ was awake too, not long after – and it was coffee, courtesy of good ol’ Kelly! 

travelling light with your buddy 

  • I find a good way to keep things to a minimum, with your buddy doing the same, is to challenge each other.  Basically swap bags and go through each others and get ‘tuff with the stuff’.  Take it out.  Why do you need this? and this? and this? How many of these?! Be honest with each other and eliminate any unnecessary duplication of kit.  Never cut out essentials but know what the essentials are. Could be they’ve forgotten something and you need to add rather than take away but you only know by checking. Oh, when you’ve checked it to an essentials ‘list’, check it again. Make sure you both know where the car keys are, the mobile, the tiny first aid kit you argued about taking earlier……….and zip up pockets and pouches ….or an item could slip out in the long grass when you have your next brew and you’ve lost it for ever……..
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Re-Light My Fire: Using a FireSteel to re-start your Camp Fire

On a recent Canoe Camping trip I found myself without any dry tinder or kindling to hand in the cold early morning, and the small fire from the night before having burnt out during the night. I remembered a Ray Mears episode where he used a charred log from an old firepit and using a flint-striker he got a spark going into the blackened wood and created an ember that he blew into flames in no time at all.

So with that piece of TV-derived Bushcraft knowledge in mind I used my Swedish firesteel and tried the same thing. Ray had said that it worked best where there were white ash bits on the charred logs due to the “free radicals” which he said he thought “sounded like revolutionaries” (very droll Ray…;-)) Anyway, whatever they are I tried that and to my great delight with some focussed blwoing sure enough the spark began to glow right away and was soon building up a good deal of glowing red charcoal – shortly after that and after positioning some other twigs and and burnt stick-ends on top the fire suddenly burst into flames! We put the Kelly Kettle right on top and shortly after had hot coffee while the small fire took the chill off the early morning air in the valley.

I did some further ‘Backyard testing’ on this since and yes it’s a great technique especially when you’re staying more than one night in one place, but if you are travelling downstream each day then you can use it as I did to get your breakfast on, or simpluy take a small piece of the prievious campste’s fire with you (allow it to cool of course) and apply this technique at your next stop! Here’s some pictures of this simple technique in action:

fire5.jpg

fire4.jpg

fire3.jpg

fire2.jpg

fire1.jpg

Baker Tent Hunt: Get Out and Stay Out… in your own Backyard

Update: See our latest test of the Green Outdoor full size Campfire Tent.

The Baker Tent/Campfire Tent search continues… Evening Tea under the Tarp… Kelly Kettle fires up – wish I bought the bigger one though as the small 1pt version is fiddly to light and get going; next choice for me is an Eydon Kettle, the 2pt “Popular” model looks good according to reviews on SOTP (www.songofthepaddle.co.uk). But the Brew is good once it’s ready.

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After tea the light started to dim, chopped some logs and got the firepit going (this is an old chiminea that fell over and broke during a storm: it’s much improved now!

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Saw a Hare dart across the field just before dusk – haven’t seen him all Winter – lovely to see him back: takes the same path every morning and night during the summer – perhaps one of our most beautiful native animals to see in thier natural habitat.
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The wind picked up a bit once the sun went down, giving the tarp a bit of a test as we’re up on a hillside facing the prevailing wind. The campfire tent / tarp rig stood up perfectly as expected, securely anchored to the canoe behind. Such a simple set up too: it’s easy to raise or lower the side walls dependent on the weather, using sticks of the right height to prop up the wings.

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I’m completely happy with this rig now as the perfect Campfire Tent and simple canoe shelter: it packs up tiny with no poles needed ( I hate threading shock-corded poles in the dark ;-), sets up in under 5 mintes nd provides great cover even in storms with the option of rigging it low over the canoe. And as an open camp-fire style tent for one its fantastic, you really feel your open to the elements and the views and sounds of nature around you. Why go outdoors only to lock yourself in inside a little canvas room! My Baker Tent Hunt is over.

As it got dark the Owls came out – I sat listening to their calls for an hour, back and forth between a male and female. At times they were so close I was sure I would see them – I’m convinced now that they’re invisible! They’re Tawny Owls and that classic Twit-Twoo is surely one of the great experiences of being outdoors at night.

Climbed into the swag at 11am and slept soundly with just the gentle flapping of the tarp against the canoe and more owl noises echoing through the air. Tomorrow we work, but felt I made the most of an average evening at home! If you can’t get to the river, at least “Get Out and Stay Out”, even if it’s in your own back yard!

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