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November 2020 Issue
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In-tents moments in the hills

Peter Clough with his tents of tramps past. Photo: Peter Clough

Peter Clough takes us on a tenting trip down memory lane.

On misty, wind-gripped days, huts provide a welcome respite from the elements, except when they’re full or not where you want them. That’s when modern lightweight tents with intricate jointed poles, groundsheets and waterproof flys come into their own.

These days, there are so many tents to choose from it can be quite a journey finding one that suits your needs and budget. We weren’t always so spoilt for choice.

In the 1970s, lightweight tents were rare and expensive. My first tent was a garden play tent for children – an orange wedge of nylon like an oversized Toblerone with two poles, a groundsheet, a door one end and a wall at the other. You soon learnt to stay in the middle, which had more headroom and less chance of touching the sides and letting moisture seep in.

Sprayed with shower proofing, it worked adequately until one night the distant rumble of thunder stirred in the mountains. Overnight rain tested the tent’s thin fabric and by morning the nylon sagged under its load of water, leaks dripped into the tent.

Months later, I chanced upon an exhibition of tents pitched in a park and found one about the same size as mine with a green flysheet and extended awnings at each end. As an impecunious student, I haggled and bought the flysheet alone. It fitted my tent and the 2400g combination stowed easily into my pack. It accompanied me all around Europe and kept the rain out, but one night I woke to find a field mouse tickling my nose and others rustling through my peg bag and burrowing under the groundsheet. After that, I got zips to replace the door’s tape ties.

I continued using the tent around New Zealand until one night I woke in darkness to find a howling wind shaking it so forcefully I grabbed the poles to stop them snapping.

In need of a more robust and reliable tent, I bought a Beaufort tent by mail order from Vango, a Scottish company whose Force 10 tents had a solid reputation from numerous high altitude expeditions. Inside, it felt spacious and looked as if drawn with an artist’s perspective, its edges tapering to an imagined vanishing point beyond the foot, for streamlining against the wind.

Tramping colleagues quipped its free-standing frame needed an engineering degree to assemble. Two poles at the front and two shorter poles at the rear fitted into a shock-corded ridge pole, which had two further extensions front and rear to create vestibules. It could be pitched flysheet first to keep the inner dry when raining and could be repositioned once pitched, a bit of a novelty in the 1980s.

On a club trip around Mt Taranaki, we arrived after a day’s persistent rain at Holly Hut to find it almost full. While my companions decided who would share the last bunks and floor space, I set up camp before retreating to the hut for dinner. Two of us retired to the tent for a night disturbed by the staccato patter of rain on nylon, and sporadic gusts that vigorously shook the tent. Next morning when our trip leader unzipped the front flap carrying mugs of steaming tea, he seemed surprised to find us snug and dry.

At 2900g, it was on the heavy side and it was a bit of squeeze for family camping when our first child arrived, so I looked for a replacement and alighted on a Macpac Eclipse – a transverse hoop tent with a door and vestibule on each side, making it easier to get out without disturbing the other person.It weighed 2200g, but had to be pitched tent first with the flysheet positioned afterwards. The tent was roomy and comfortable, but the wrap-around flysheet allowed little ventilation and condensation would drip onto the inner and form little puddles inside.

About this time, I began following overseas developments in lightweight tramping and scanning what was available in New Zealand. I camped once in a Vaude Hogan Ultralight, a two-person hybrid tunnel and hoop tent with a thin and flexible hooped pole over the door attached to another hoop running the length of the tent to its foot. It was a bit cosy for two, but weighing only 1700g, I was intrigued to see how it performed.

We camped in the Tararuas upstream from Atiwhakatu Hut. After a calm evening, we set the guys before turning in but awoke in the night to find the tent convulsing around us as gusty williwaws coiled down the valley. The tent survived till morning, but it was not a restful night.

Some years later on a guided trip to Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, I stayed in a The North Face tent, which the locals thought best to withstand the fierce winds that roll off the high Andes. It’s semi-geodesic design gave it impressive headroom, space and stability, but it was heavier than I want to carry.

My current tent is a Macpac Duolight, which has four interlinked poles running from a central hub to the corners, a light and airy interior and relatively spacious awnings, double-sided entry and two large covered vents on the fly. It weighs 2100g and is described as a three-season tent for use below the snowline, which suits my purposes, but it could probably handle an unexpected snowfall.

A well-chosen camp can provide snug refuge as rain drums on the outside and wind whistles through the guys. For freedom to choose where to stop and the chance to watch the sun set or rise from a warm sleeping bag, try a wild night on the hills.

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