Light Camping

Blog Post
A friend of mine asked that I elaborate on a discussion that we had, in writing on my blog. That’s the purpose of this post. Today when I go camping, I travel heavy, because I’m older and prefer comfort. When I was a teenager I often set out on my own, sometimes with my horse, and would stay out for a few days. I did this in winter (without the horse) and all seasons really. In winter you make a snow cave. In the summer, a shelter.
Tools: Hand axe, rope
The first rule of “light camping” is that you build shelter. I realize that today in many location in America, there is a tendency for people to get upset if you chop down dead trees because raptors use them as perches. (I had a ranger get upset at me at Toroweap, AZ a couple of years ago) My favorite is a primitive log cabin primarily because they are water proof and you can build a fire and stay toasty warm. This is not what the Forrest Service would prefer that you do when camping…they would prefer that you stay in a prepared campground with pit toilets among other campers, their kids racing around on dirt bikes and quads, etc. I don’t want to offend anyone with this post. I’m just telling you how you can do it quickly and inexpensively if you’re in a situation where it works for you, leaving a very light footprint on the land with no trace that you’ve been there with the exception of a few loose logs, when you leave.
When you are constructing a primitive cabin, you need to select a good site where there will be good drainage away from the small structure that you plan to build. Since you can build it in about a day, it’s not “forever” but who wants their sleep interrupted by water seeping into the structure. At the same time it’s better to have a wet camp (near running water). Secondly, you need a design. My experience is that if you are chopping unseasoned wood for your log cabin, that you don’t have to concern yourself with the timber burning – as will be evident later – so your hearth can be more crudely constructed and can be closer to the wall than would be optimal if you planned to live in the cabin more than a few days. 
Cut living timber with your axe to lengths of about ten feet. I always preferred trees no more than 6  inches around because you can cut them fast and, again, this cabin isn’t forever. I always disassembled them when I was finished with them. The idea is to cut enough to make a square structure that will be between 5 and 6 feet high on one side and 3 to 4 feet high on the other. This creates a situation where you can have a pitch to the roof. 
Lay out timbers in a square and lash them together. I used hemp rope but if you want to be primitive, you can tie them with thin strips of pine fiber that you strip from your logs with your axe, and peel down, tapping the axe lightly as you go. Getting the framework is right is important since the rest of the structure will be indexed to them. Next, dig out holes at least 12 inches deep at each corner and emplace a vertical pole in each hole. Those poles should each be about 6 feet long and will provide support for the vertical logs. 
If you’re following me this far, you simply build up courses of logs, using the rope to bind them to the structure. You will go through quite a bit of rope but I used cheap rope. Today I would use 550 cord. Then the pre-military me, used braided hemp line and I de-braided it to get more use out of it.  
The photo shows a large door. I never made them THAT big because they just have to be big enough for you to crawl through or push your gear through. Think bear cave. 
Before you start laying down your roof, build your hearth for the fire. The chimney is simply a hole you’re going to leave in the roof at the highest point. There is going to be ventilation in the cabin because the logs are not chinked. You will be able to see out through gaps in the logs and they will provide oxygen for the fire. This is a camping cabin, not a long term living in cabin. You should also put firewood in the cabin at this point. This will be chopped from dead trees because you want it to burn with as little smoke as possible. Index the amount you chop and gather to how long you plan to remain. You can replenish it, but it’s nice to have two or three days supply laid in before you put the roof logs on. It won’t take much to keep the place warm. In most cases, it gets too warm.
The roof logs are added lengthwise and they will rest agains the corner posts that you put in place when you started. The structure will add strength to those corner posts and they’ll hold it up. It’s not optimal to prevent rain run-off, but it goes together much easier. At this point you need to decide how you will chink the roof.  Cut turf works very well if you’re able to do that. You can pull up long grass in wet loam but that takes time. If you picked a good site near running water, a little exploration and you will be able to find turf, or at the very least you’ll be able to make mud. Chink the roof with mud mixed with pine needles or grass if you don’t use turf. It’s poor man’s adobe, and if it doesn’t rain the first night, it will set up and will survive light rain. Turf will survive much heavier rain and if left alone, the roots will establish themselves and you’ll have a solid roof. 
That’s it. If you’re young, strong and industrious, you can build it in a solid day. Use a poncho to cover the door if it’s cold outside. Again, there is enough airflow from the space between your construction logs that you and your fire will be fine. 
The only tool that you used was your axe, which will need to be sharpened periodically during the day. I used a dry stone but pick your poison. 
If you’re camping light, you won’t need a heavy backpack if you have a horse, put the saddle blanket/pad under you and your blanket over you at night with the saddle as a pillow. If you’re pulling the saddle in and out you will need a larger door.
Camping by running water means that you will have access to animals that use the water source as food. Your first night (cabin complete) provides your first hunting opportunity as dusk sets in, you’re more likely to get a shot at something that you can cook and eat. Or you can fish if there are fish in the stream. 
Thus, an axe, blanket, light fishing tackle, your rifle and a knife are the basics for light camping. It’s easier if you also have a small skillet or pot. I also like to have salt for meat with me. You can stay out in a cabin like this for a very long time if you’re so inclined. Hobble your horse at night and range around during the day. Or hike if you’re afoot. But you don’t need a heavy pack or any modern (expensive) equipment.
Onions grow wild in most mountain environments as does sage. One of my first gathering priorities for the second day out is to gather spices for meat, fish or stew. And so it goes. I hope some of you find this interesting and helpful.

25 thoughts on “Light Camping

  1. That sounds like a great method — though I can imagine TPWD shutting the operation down in short order, after confiscating the rifle, impounding the horse and pulling down the cabin.

    Still, there's places where it could work. Camping out in a prepared site has no appeal…

  2. Camping: I used to love it, then after 10 years active duty in the U.S. Army, I hated it. We would spend perhaps 3 months straight living out of GP medium tents, heated by a diesel burning pot belly stove. Heated dinner consisted of putting cans of C-rats on the manifold of our 30 KW generator. No floor in the tent, just mud and maybe some pallets if available.

    Now I camp (or glamp, as is the popular vernacular) with a 36' travel trailer, with AC, cable-ready, DVD and flat screen. Sleeps 7. Now THAT'S camping. My brother-in-law thinks its an abomination to all things camping, and he won't set foot inside it.

    But your temporary hovel is nice, too, LL….

  3. Cutting trees: Private lands, maybe. Public, not so much. I don't know anywhere in the U.S. where this is permitted, however remote, such as the Bob Marshall Wilderness area in hell and gone Montana. Not allowed, although there are places there where no white man has ever been, much less a 'Revenoo-er' who will give you grief at chopping down Uncle Sam's trees.

    You might be able to do this legally in perhaps the Northwest Territories of Canada, maybe the Yukon. Things just ain't the way they used to be, LL.

  4. I can see the Forest Ranger getting his panties in a wad if there is a big crowd camping in one spot and many trees are cut down to build a shelter. But being alone, you will do no damage to the forest at all. Especially pines, which are fast growers. We used to camp, both primitive and in camp sites, several times a year. Now days, my camping is in Holiday Inn's or the like. I need to be within close proximity to electricity for my laptop. I know. Old age sux.

  5. I know of areas where you can still do it in Arizona, Utah, Colorado, etc. where it's remote enough that nobody knows and moreover nobody cares. Felling a dozen small trees isn't an issue and there aren't people around to F-with you. However times clearly have changed.

  6. I don't do it now, obviously. But you're right. There is no harm done and nature compensates easily for a few trees. Prepared campsites have no appeal.

  7. Wilderness cabins were the precursors of homes in the west, and are far more comfortable than one might think (no not more comfortable than your Winnebago with the hot tub, Playboy bunnies and sou chef to help your saucier. No sommelier to bring the wine…no major domo either.

    Come to think of it, if you'd gone Air Force you would have had all of those support staff while you were "camping" in the military.

  8. I find I'm most fond of a good tarp when camping. I like a 10×12 sil-nylon for pack and paddle trips. Regardless – here's a link I think you might enjoy. It's a PDF copy of the 1910 Boy Scout Manual. The have a good section on cabin building.

  9. I don't think that the scouts do much of that anymore. They're civilized and accept transsexual scouts and homosexual leaders.

    A tarp is fine if the goal is to keep the rain off. And it works well as a roof with a log framework. In the old days I wrapped my heavy quilt with a gum rubber poncho in an attempt to travel light.

    I also packed apples and "deer hunting cookies", which were nothing but rolled oats, brown sugar or molasses, raisins and nuts baked into a cookie, in the event of rain and a cold camp or if I wanted a snack. I also packed rolled oats for the horse and for my supper if I made mush.

    The rolled oats kept the horse near (while hobbled) because that was his morning treat. About 4 am, I'd inevitably hear him knicker for his snack, right outside. If I had a tarp, he'd have been in the tent with me, blowing on me or looking for the oat bag. I used to take two flour sacks of rolled oats tied over the saddle bags.

  10. Great primer on roughing it, so to speak. And an EARLY start is better than showing up at noonish… 🙂

  11. You're going to sleep under the stars if you start at noon. Not that it's a bad thing.

  12. I learned this technique of camping while pulling cattle out of the Green River quicksand during my summer break, for wages. I'd build two of these along the sixty-mile stretch of BLM land that I patrolled. I did it for two summers. One area was rich in pine, the other had juniper/cedar. There is no sin to living off the land, contrary to what the liberal lobby contends.

  13. There was a sheep trailer (you know what I mean) that was a base camp where the boss brought food once a week, but it was impossible to do a good job when I spent my entire day going to and fro. Thus the need to learn and improvise. Ideally the corner posts were living trees and I merely stripped off some branches that got in the way. It didn't always work out.

  14. What an awful way to make a living. Hanging out in night-clubs to pick the minds of bad guys is much more fun.

  15. Interesting. We did a few summers in the Adirondacks with a tent…
    My wife much prefers the enjoyment of roughing it in the wilds of Marriott. Still got the tent, part of my bug out gear.

  16. There's not much room service in a pup tent or a shelter half on the leward side of a ridge.

  17. Prepared campsites that accommodate RV's have ENORMOUS appeal. Full hookup, 30/50amp electric, running water, sewer hookup, cable TV, flat concrete pad with picnic table. Pull through paved road, it just doesn't get any better. Of course, you and my brother-in-law would pooh pooh such digs. Give my brother in law clear ground, a sleeping bag and a rock for a pillow, and he is in heaven, but he is a young buck, 53, and he loves to rough it.

    Not me. The young me, yes. The old me, uh uh.

  18. A helmet for my pillow…

    These days I'm content with a hotel and a shower. When I do go out and about, I tend to camp one night and hit a hotel the next – for the shower.

  19. Sounds like great fun to build. I bet the grandsons would get a kick out of building one with you! I built a bunch of teepees for my grands, but never one of your shelters.

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