Outdoors: Nirvana via lean-to

My father must have been claustrophobic. I grew up in Colorado doing a lot of camping during hunting and fishing trips with him. Dad always set up a lean-to—a tentlike structure with a waterproof top, back and bottom, but with the front and sides wide open.

Open for dinner: Hobey Ford tests the lean-to’s superior functionality on a camp-out at Max Patch. Photo by Jeff Ashton

We never used a tent. Maybe that’s because a lean-to is functionally superior, allowing the occupants to hang out under cover with a cook station set up at the front. But I suspect that Dad, as a man of the “greatest generation,” camped in lean-tos because he was claustrophobic and could never admit it.

When I went to college, I invested in a backpacking tent. Compact, lightweight, steady in high-altitude winds—and beautiful as well. Going from Dad’s lean-to contraptions to that sleek, colorful, nylon bad boy made me feel like a wrong-thinking Amish lad who escapes to Gotham City. Comrades and I used this and similar tents for a decade or so of backpacking and climbing pleasure.

Somewhere along the way, however, I became perhaps less anxious to push the limits—but more likely to try to find ways to enjoy the stay while I’m out there.

I found a like-minded comrade in Hobey Ford. We each had a pair of daughters the same ages, and our homes are only five minutes apart. Our daughters grew up together, and Hobey and I took a number of camping and fishing trips together, always using lean-tos. When it’s raining, we can still cook on the Svea stove under cover. You can’t boil water for espresso in one of those fancy, store-bought, nylon tents.

Setting up a lean-to is sort of like the way I imagine it must feel to play good improvisational jazz. For years, we’ve used an 11-by-22-foot, camouflage tarp that provides an 8-by-11 floor, a 2-and-a-half-foot-tall back and an 11-by-12 roof. It has plenty of space for three people, and when there are only two, you feel rich with room.

But it’s like jazz because, every time we set it up, we have to use tent poles or nearby brush in a way that makes the structure work for that particular spot in the universe without failing, even amid the worst rain and gales. We’ve set it up in the rugged-with-rock terrain of Linville Gorge. We’ve set it up in the laurel hells of the upper North Mills River and Hazel Creek. We’ve set it up on the windy, shrubless balds of Max Patch and Table Rock. We’ve set it up in national-forest campgrounds all over the place. And each location required a different rigging—which is part of the charm of a lean-to.

The only problem is that using a cheap tarp from Wal-Mart—with its 10,000 miles of nylon cord and assorted fiberglass poles scavenged from actual tents—adds up to about 22 pounds. And though that makes no difference in car camping, it’s a bit of a commitment to hedonism if you want to haul it very far into the mountains.

The weight issue was always our biggest challenge. For years, Hobey and I had talked about making a lean-to that would be lightweight, intelligently designed and easy to set up. About two years ago, I called up Hobey on New Year’s Day and proposed that we resolve to design a lightweight lean-to—and that is what we did. The only problem is, it took about 18 months of tenacity and coffee to get the dang thing put together.

Hobey, who’s known to be dangerous with all things artistic, did all the sewing. In July, daughter Laurel and I took it out West for two weeks of testing; we discovered some design issues that Hobey and I are now ironing out. It weighs about 12 pounds, and it came out a lot bigger than we expected. But it can easily handle four people and their gear in a manner befitting the most self-indulgent of campers. It sheds water like a duck, and it looks pretty cool as well. Camping in our new Sub-Atomic Lean-to may not be pure Nirvana, but we’re tottering pretty close to the edge.

[Jeff Ashton lives in Weaverville.]

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