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The wall tent has been and probably always will be the premier classic camping shelter for fixed camps. It’s no wonder why outfitters all over the world still use wall tents today. The U.S. military has been using such shelters since the 1770s, and they have been in use by armies around the world for many centuries. Ancient friezes depict Roman legions using wall tents. They are still popular today in the U.S., from the canoe camps of Maine to the elk camps of Idaho.

Ways Of The Wall

Wall tents are desirable as long-term shelters in wilderness conditions for a variety of reasons. First, they are sturdy, and when properly pitched, stand up well to storms and bad weather. Wall tents are also easy to make “weather-tight,” thus protecting occupants from drafts, wind, rain and pests. They also lend themselves to being equipped with a small woodstove for comfort in extreme winter conditions. Because of their straight side walls, these tents are roomy, allowing their occupants adequate space for cots as well as room to stand up when getting dressed or doing chores inside during inclement weather or at night. Although they require lots of ropes and stakes, a 9-foot-by-9-foot wall tent can be set up with only three poles.

At the outset, it is important to emphasize that the wall tent is not suitable for backpacking or for use in shifting camps. It is designed for situations where campers will be living afield for extended periods of time, from a week to a year or more. These tents and their accoutrements may be transported to fixed camps in a variety of ways, including bush planes, pack animals, canoes or wheeled vehicles. The campsite then becomes a secure base camp for woods loafing or ranging out on backpacking trips.

A well-built wall tent provides the perfect  enviornment for relaxation after a day of outdoor exploration
A well-built wall tent provides the perfect enviornment for relaxation after a day of outdoor exploration

Selection Guide

From the perspective of someone who has done most of his camping in the eastern U.S., a good wall tent for one or two campers is a 9-foot-by-9-foot tent with side walls of at least 3 feet and a height of 7 feet. The 7-foot peak allows for ease of set up in case one is camping solo, and this footprint provides plenty of room for sleeping and dry gear storage.

Wall tents can be had as large as 12 feet by 20 feet, or more if size of the party or the desire for more room calls for it. It is important to remember, however, that the larger the tent the more unstable it becomes in windy weather. Lower walls allow these tents to better shed the wind. The 9-foot-by-9-foot wall shown here weighs about 30 pounds packed without poles or stakes, a manageable size and weight for an individual.

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There are many classic options regarding materials for wall tents. Ten-ounce army duck canvas is very durable, and when it is manufactured using the Sunforger process it makes the tent both mildew and water resistant. As a result, the tent will not leak in rainy weather, even when it is touched on the inside during a rainstorm. I have canvas tents over 10 years old that have never leaked. DBuild An Improvised Backwoods Shelteruring the “golden era” (1880s-1930s) of camping there was factory-treated canvas too, and just as today it was more expensive, thus explaining the bad experiences that many folks have had camping under inferior canvas in the rain. For a high quality, wilderness-worthy 9-foot-by-9-foot wall tent treated with the Sunforger process at the factory, one can expect to pay around $550. But with care, this is a lifetime investment. It is also worth the extra money to get a second door. This allows for extra ventilation when needed and allows the tent to be pitched in an open-front configuration when desired. Reinforced loops are better than grommets for durability, and loops are an option on finer tents. It is best to confine the use of grommets to the ridgeline.

Options such as stovepipe holes with flaps, flame retardancy and windows make the tent more expensive, but flame retardancy is a must for those using a tent stove. Certain things should be standard on a quality wall tent, such as roof eaves to carry water away from the edge of the tent and sod flaps around the inside perimeter of the floor that block weather, drafts and insects. 

East Vs. West

Most eastern wall tents are made so that the ridgepole is situated completely inside the tent. It sits on vertical poles cut for the purpose. Some western wall tents have through-pole construction for the ridgepole, so that the ends of the ridgepole can stick out beyond each end of the tent. This allows the poles to be cut on site and for the ridgepole to be supported with sets of sheer poles. This configuration also eliminates the need for a center pole at each end of the tent, allowing free access through the doors. Some western tents have tapes on the outside of the tent to which the ridgepole is tied. Western walls are also usually outfitted to accommodate a stove. 

wall tent
An awning on the tent creates a great outdoor space

Must-Have Accessories

An awning will create a porch of sorts, offering a workspace for chores or projects, especially when it rains. Awnings can also be had in Sunforger in the same weight as the tent. Better awnings have tie-down loops underneath the eaves of the awnings to guard against the awning being blown away. 

Ridge and support poles are usually made on site. These can be cut from trees or dressed lumber according to the tent manufacturer’s specifications. Manufacturers like Tentsmiths of Conway, New Hampshire, send detailed instructions with their tents for the manufacture of poles. 

All manner of rustic furniture can be made to furnish a wall tent camp. Tables and seats are a must. Collapsible storage shelves can be made that attach to uprights inside the tent. These can be used to store clothing and other light- to medium-weight items. The wooden dairy crates used for packing in your gear can be used for storage under bunks. A variety of hangers can be made of metal or wood to hang clothes, packs and tools. If windy weather is expected, storm lines as described by Horace Kephart in Camping and Woodcraft should be created to further anchor the tent. Under certain conditions, a floor of water-resistant Sunforger might be desirable.

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One-Man Wall Pitch

A 7-foot-high wall tent can be set up by one person. Friend Steve Watts taught me this trick. First, the doors should be staked together at the bottom to make it easier to square it up. Stake out the four corners square, driving the stakes only about halfway in. Once the four corners are loosely staked, remove the stakes holding the doors together. Next, insert the ridgepole into the tent in its correct position along with one of the uprights, placing the upright so that it is parallel to the ridgepole with its tent pin pointing toward the opposite door. Lift the ridgepole on one end and insert the upright. Next, lift the ridgepole, straighten the first upright, and then walk to the other end of the tent while holding the ridgepole above your head. Now, roll the remaining upright onto the top of your foot, raise it to your hand and insert it in the ridgepole. Pull out the sides and stake down the ropes. Finally, insert the remaining stakes along the bottom. Your tent is up in minutes! The wall tent can also be pitched as a lean-to. The excess fabric can be thrown over the opposite side so that one side of the tent can be opened and heated by a long log fire.

Tent Care

It is best to use a tarp to roll out the tent on for pitching and for packing up. It keeps the tent clean and free of debris between trips. Always make sure the tent is completely dry (especially the bottom, peg loops and sod flaps) before packing it for long-term storage. If a stove is used, make sure the stovepipe is equipped with a spark arrester. Store tents in a dry location, away from pests like wasps or rats. I store mine in a closet inside the house. Use a bag to protect the tent from abrasion and tears during storage and transport. Do not store oily rope, such as manila, with the tent. Do not allow insecticides or bug repellants to get on the tent fabric. These can destroy its water resistance. With care and common sense, your wall tent should serve you well for many years to come.           

This article originally published in AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN®  2014-#158 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN®  magazine are available here

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