Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Winter Camping... The Paragwam!

The Paragwam
After following several British bushcraft forums and blogs for years, and seeing how often they used parachutes for shelters at group meets I had really wanted to try one out myself.  Then, much to my adulation, I stumbled across a 24’ reserve parachute dating from the late 1960’s in an card board box in an obscure corner of the basement at my work.  Needless to say I was giddy.

The first time I set up the parachute was during a early fall camping trip I led, and we elevated the the chute by making a hoop out of willow, slightly larger than the hole at the top, reinforced it with cross-braces, then suspended it from a limb in cotton wood that was approximately twenty or so feet off the ground. I pulled the chute up so that the edges were about 5 ½’ off the ground creating a canopy you could easily walk under.  We had a communal fire for cooking in the center and that raised the air temperature beneath the canopy a good 5 degrees warmer than the air outside.  

We cut some driftwood we found on the flood plain we were camping on and cut the to 6’ lengths and placed them around the perimeter of the chute and used them to hold the chute edges the desired height, then attached guy-lines to the ground to tighten the whole thing up.

It rained that night, and off-and-on the next morning, but by and large we stayed dry beneath the canopy.  I think if we had made more uprights and guy-lines there would have been less leakage.  All in all, for not being waterproof it preformed really well.  I was sold on the parachute as a warm weather shelter.

The next test came in mid-December, 2011 when I scheduled a winter camping overnight course.  We have had a very mild winter thus far, and that weekend was almost too warm during the day to call it “winter camping”.  The high during the night was forecasted to be around 250 F, which I thought would be plenty cold since a some of the folks who signed up had never been camping in temps below freezing.

To set up the paragwam this time I needed to use two ropes.  The first rope was thrown over two seperate tree limbs in a Red oak (Quercus rubra) and an American hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) about 15 feet in the air and spaced about 30 feet apart.  over this was thrown another rope, roughly in the center of the first rope and it was allowed to hag to the ground.  

Discussion time
One end was used to lash together the cross-brace/spacer sticks the were inserted into the hole at the top of the canopy. They served two purposes: 1) to keep the smoke hole open, 2) to provide an attachment point to the rope that elevated the canopy. After the rope was used to square lash the cross-brace the other end was taken one time around a tree about 20 feet away and to be pulled upon, thereby raising the canopy once it was staked out. We made the stakes from some young Sugar maples (Acer saccharum) that I had thinned out doing some TSI (timber stand improvement) work. Because the ground was frozen, and because of the large size of the canopy I made the stake pretty stout. They were about a foot and half in length and 2-inches in diameter (give or take a 1/2 inch) at the blunt end. Once the stakes were sharpened with the axe we were ready to drive them in.

The center of the canopy was elevated by pulling on the rope that is attached to the cross brace holding open the smoke hole.  The top center of the canopy was elevated until it was about seven feet off the ground.  I thought this would give enough space for the smoke to fill without choking us out inside, and it made moving around a lot easier since one could stand to one's full height.

Staking out the canopy was very simple.  There are loop attachment around the outside of edge of the canopy for attaching the parachute lines and the worked perfectly as stake pockets.  Stakes were placed about three feet apart, or every other loop.  As the stake were driven in the canopy was spread out and tightened.  Three loops in a row were left un-staked on the south east side of the canopy to act as a door.  The door was held open with a three foot tall stake that was rounded on one end and sharpened on the other.  The sharpened end was placed on the ground and the rounded end rested against the canopy.  The downward tension of the canopy on the stake held it in place.

To increase the size of the livable space beneath the canopy springy branches, about four feet long and an inch in diameter at the thick end were placed around the inside of the canopy in the same manor as the stake holding the door.  The larger ends of the stakes were rounded, and the narrow eds were sharpened.  With this step the Paragwam was set up and ready for habitation.

We took a old tractor wheel that we use as a fire ring in the the paragwam and built a fire.  Even before the fire was built you could tell a huge difference in temperature between the outside and the inside.  With the sunlight shine on the material the air inside warmed up quickly.
Campfire and the smoke hole

With the fire built in the fire ring we were quickly enticed to begin removing layers of clothing.  Soon we were in shirt-sleeves an quite comfortable.As the air inside the paragwam began to warm up the canopy "puffed-out" and expanded a bit more from the rising warm air.  The rest of our time was spent inside the paragwam discussing skills, traditional lifestyles, history, knives, gear, philosophy and the like.  There was also a lot of time spent singing the praises of the parachute as a shelter and discussing other configurations that could be implemented for different situations.

Below are a list of pros & cons of "The Paragwam" put together by my friend and paragwam enthusiast, Trace. 

  • About $50 from a surplus dealer
  • Light-weight, stuffable
  • Most economical way to sleep 8+ people
  • Easy to set up in forested terrain
  • Fire inside
  • Did I mention it packs to the size of a volleyball?
  • Fire inside, can get smokey
  • Tree dependent
  • Dirt floor (reaching here!)
  • May require some waterproofing
  • Smokey fire when sleeping can be a carbon monoxide risk.  Keep the flames high and the wood dry!

The Paragwam at night

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

An Improvised Day-pack

While on a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters this summer my wife and I took a day trip to see the Picture Rocks on Crooked Lake.  We took a lunch of crackers, summer sausage, cheese, and trail mix along.  My satchel that I use as a day pack did not have quite enough room for all that and my EDC gear so we improvised a day-pack for my wife to carry.  Know what it is?  It is a large compression sack!

I shortened two of the straps (facing camera), and lengthened the other two (not seen) to act as shoulder straps. Once the food and a couple of water bottles were stored inside and the drawstring was tightened it is placed on your back and then you tuck the drawstring end beneath the "lid" of the compression sack and you are ready to go.

It worked great with the light load and we did not have to take along an extra pack that would have been taking up space during the rest of the trip.  Let me know if you try it out!