Help us live in a tent this summer!
April 28, 2011 7:52 PM   Subscribe

Starting in a month, my girlfriend and I will be living for the summer in a 10x16, two room Kelty tent we bought on craigslist. We will be living/working on a farm outside of Olympia, WA. We'd love any advice/experience you might have on long-term tent living. We're super excited about it but we are aware it will suck sometimes... what sucked about it and how can we prepare for the suck? Lots more details inside on building a makeshift kitchen, hopefully cozy bedroom, etc.

(We will be able to plug into the farm electricity and will have access to a full bathroom.)

Bedroom: Our thought is the make the back room the bedroom. For the bed we are planning on buying a futon pad (or two stitched together?) and putting it on top of some wood pallets. I am planning on bringing a small bookshelf. What should we do for lighting? How do we organize our clothes? We'll have a fan. Rugs?

Kitchen: The tent has a roll out awning thing, where we plan on doing most of our cooking. For a stove we were thinking something like this Coleman stove. Any experience/suggestions with camping stoves would be much appreciated. For kitchen stuff, our list so far:
- a medium pot, cast iron skillet, and a kettle.
- silverware and such etc.
- mini-fridge/cooler
- mason jars for rice and such. Plastic buckets, other animal proof containers for food.
- small shelf for the mason jars, spices and oils
- cob chairs and table

What would you absolutely bring with you for a limited kitchen space? What spices and staples? What's your best cleaning advice for a tent?

Front room: not really sure what to do with this space. It'd be nice to make it welcoming and comfortable in some way, but also as a mud room of sorts so that the back room remains somewhat clean. Also enough space to bring kitchen stuff inside at night (is that necessary?) Ideas?

Rain proofing: the tent is not super rain proof. We have one tarp already for the bottom, and are hoping to get another large tarp to drape OVER the whole tent through a complicated pole/tree branch combination. We also plan on setting up the tent this weekend or the next and using some sort of seam sealer to help rain proof it... any suggestions?

What kept you sane living in a tent for a long time? What made you enjoy it? Should we get a hammock? Have you ever worked and lived with your partner all day every day? We are open to all suggestions!
posted by Corduroy to Home & Garden (27 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Buy and read Dwelling Portably, or see if you can find back issues form your local zine store. It's worth the cash, speaks directly to a lot of your questions and will give you answers for the things you didn't even know to ask questions about. Get a lot of plastic tubs for storing things in to keep out bugs and moisture. You can build these into your storage and bedding situation. Get some chairs so that you can sit off the ground. Take off shoes before you go inside. Hang out bedding during sunny days. Make sure you understand how a groundcloth works and get a tapr set up overhead as soon as possible. If your nice situation gets rained out, it will be hard to set it up right again, futons are really really not easy to dry. I haven't done this myself for too long, but I've lived out of cars for long periods of time and the trick seems to be to compartmentalize, keep things fairly clean, have things to do [hobbies, reading, games, etc] and get on more of a solar schedule. Have fun.
posted by jessamyn at 8:20 PM on April 28, 2011 [10 favorites]

I take it you're not camping where you have to secure your food from wild animals, including raccoons. Inside a tent is not secure.

Why the wood pallets? Unless you're on perfectly even ground, they'll likely wobble and be more trouble than they're worth.

For long term lighting, avoid anything battery driven. Since you'll be there a while, you might invest in a couple of 20 lb. propane tanks and the necessary adaptors to use the stove and various lights and heaters with them. When my family camped in a two room tent, one of the tanks had a jet engine on it that heated everything in the tent in about two minutes (obviously you don't leave it running, but to warm things up quickly it was invaluable).

Take a small table or two as a nightstand for the bed. It's nice to have for a lamp, jewelry, etc.
posted by fatbird at 8:20 PM on April 28, 2011

Seconding Jessamyn on the groundcloth, and since you'll be there for a while, bother to trench your tent and be ready to use a tarp for extra protection/living space during rainy days.
posted by fatbird at 8:21 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Some good advice in this old thread about long term tent living.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:28 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Priority #1 Staying dry

Priority # 2 and the best piece of advice about outdoor living is -- learn to know exactly where your flashlight is. Since there are two of you, you might need to develop a system together will help. i agree with jessamyn that compartmentalization overall is useful, but you need that light every day right when it gets very hard to find things. I recommend you invest in a headlamp for each of you and then one of those long Maglights to always keep in the same place (just inside the door of the tent?). Keep the personal headlamps with other key evening items (for me: a warm hat and my toothbrush).

Priority #3 Figure out what mosquito repellent works (ideally something for your skin and then a citronella torch or something for sitting as a group).

Priority #4 Stay away from the poison oak. (Sounds too obvious to mention, doesn't it?)

Qualifications: lived outside or in tents for three summers, worked two other summers at camps.
posted by salvia at 9:21 PM on April 28, 2011

Living in a tent for several months while doing farm work all day? The novelty is going to run out very quickly. How big is the farmhouse? Ask if they can spare you a room, any room, because otherwise you run the risk of first hating the tent, then hating each other.
posted by joannemullen at 10:10 PM on April 28, 2011

Oh sweet, where are you going to be? Helsing?

If you don't yet have cast iron / silverware / other random life essentials, I know of a few great places in Oly to get them on the cheap.

My only advice is this: Keep airflow good in your tent. You have no idea how wet it is up here, even just 100 miles north of Portland. Stagnant air creates mold and health problems. I've got some friends that live outdoors and this is what they all say, as well. The South Puget Sound region is the gateway to the only US's only continental rain forest, and it might as well be a rain forest here too. If you're moving here in a month then you've still got plenty of rain to look forward to, and the best defense against mold is airflow.

I'm moving to Argentina in mid July, but if you come into town before then I'll show you around Olympia. We can see some shows or jam or whatever.

Good luck!
posted by special agent conrad uno at 10:48 PM on April 28, 2011

Best answer: Hi, fellow Northwester here. You'll be in Olympia in May. It will rain. A lot. Your stuff is going to get wet at some point, so I would caution against the futon pad. Once it gets wet it will be very difficult to dry out well, and you don't want a mold/mildew problem in your tent. Go with a good air mattress or a quality camp pad made for this.

Forget about your wood pallets. You run the risk of puncturing or tearing your tent fabric, and as you'll be shoeless inside your tent, you really don't want a stubbed toe, splinters, or worse a rusty nail. You don't need to keep your bedding elevated off the tent floor anyway, because...

Trench around your tent, a good foot out from the tent and all around, with runoff to the downhill corner. Use tarps and groundcloths, too.

A small section of astroturf staked down outside the tent door will make such a difference in how clean your tent stays inside. Have a broom with fine/gentle bristles for sweeping up. Coarse bristles are to be avoided as they can perforate tent walls.

If your tent has awnings, use them. If not, consider adding one or more, or get one of those portable gazebo things. Having a "porch" to retreat to, outside of the tent, does wonders for your sanity.

Batteries for emergencies, lanterns for most of your lighting.

If you have the space outside your tent, something like this or this helps a lot. The more stuff you can keep outside of your tent, the roomier and less claustrophobic it will feel inside.

If you'll be storing your food, you'll need some kind of reasonably secure locker (the above can be made to work, a couple additional ratcheting straps around the door is a good idea) to keep the food in, and for heaven's sake store the food and your foody-smelling kitchen kit OUTSIDE the tent, preferably well away from it. Your tent is not a bear or cougar deterrent, and in SW WA we have plenty of both. Most of what people commonly think is animal- (especially bear-)proof is not. I have a bear-proof container that I take on backpacking trips. If you don't have a sturdy food locker, you could wind up in trouble. Common backpacking method is to throw a line over a sturdy tree limb at least 15 feet off the ground, and hoist your food containers up most of the way (but not snug to the limb, or tree-dwellers have easy access to it.) Again, well away from your tent.

Your Coleman stove looks good. Skip the small canister, get a 20lb or larger refillable tank, and a propane tree. Run all your stuff off this. Cheaper (you're talking two months straight usage here) and so much more convenient. What to use on your propane tree? Your stove, lanterns, infra-red heaters (so nice). Don't know what your budget is, but there are even propane-powered generators available. (Couple thou.)

Have a few sets of tough place settings. Enameled steel plates & cups are a tried and true favorite, tough plastic like Texas Ware is also a good choice. Plenty of flatware and cutlery. Have some way to wash and dry your dishes, and dispose of gray water. (Hint, nowhere near your camp, as your wash water will have food in it, which will attract animals.)

Get your kitchen kit together and practice cooking with it before you start camping, if possible. Cooking on a propane camp stove is an entirely different skill set than cooking on a home kitchen range. One-skillet meals are your friend. Lots of hashes and casseroley kinds of things. Stews with dumplings. Potatoes are a base for almost anything.

Nothing beats properly seasoned and cared-for cast iron. But if you're not used to cooking with it and caring for it, you're probably better off with quality stainless steel. Teflon is probably not a good idea. I don't know what your facilities will be like, but when I'm camping, washing up means rubbing out the pots with sand from the river.

Size your cookware to your stove. Huge 18" skillets are wonderful, but not when half of it is hanging off the stove, or it makes your second burner useless. Smaller, deeper pots are better. If necessary, you can make do with just a good stock pot. You can fry in it, make soups, stews, you can make pan bread in it, you can heat your wash water.

If you have the budget/space, consider a griddle sized to sit atop your Coleman stove.

Get an enameled steel percolator. Even if you don't drink coffee, you'll want a way to heat some water other than your cook pot.

If you can use a camp fire, your cooking possibilities just more than doubled. Dutch oven! Roasting sticks, heck there are all sorts of sandwich makers, grill baskets, etc for cooking over an open fire.

Rope and tent stakes. You really can never have enough.

Outside table for eating, games, repairing things, etc.

Always be aware of carbon monoxide and of course fire danger with fuel-burning equipment, but that infra-red heater can be a good way to warm up and dry out a damp tent. Always carefully attended, of course.

Set up a sturdy (1/2" or better) rope between a couple trees as a clothes line, and air out your sleeping bags and blankets as frequently as possible. Beat them like you would a carpet, not only to shake out pine needles and bugs, but also to shake up the insulating fibers in your sleeping bag and help restore some of its loft, which will keep you warmer and more comfortable.

Take your shoes off before entering the tent, but bang them together to knock the dirt off and bring them in with you at night. There is nothing, nothing worse than slug trails (welcome to Washington!) all over your shoes. Or worse, in them.
posted by xedrik at 11:04 PM on April 28, 2011 [20 favorites]

Something else to consider is earplugs. On a rainy night, the drumming of the rain can make sleep very difficult, and if you're working at a farm, you won't want to put up with a bad night's sleep.
posted by fatbird at 11:26 PM on April 28, 2011

Set up a big-ass tarp over the tent for rain. Do not drape it over the tent, you need to hang and stake it over the tent in a manner so that it slopes downward and at good angle. The first times it rains go out and check on it and make sure that rain is not pooling up on it somewhere.

Also, treat your tent with at least two cans of silicon waterproofing spray. hist the floor pan seams and lower walls especially hard.
posted by LarryC at 11:51 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

About bears: Common backpacking method is to throw a line over a sturdy tree limb at least 15 feet off the ground, and hoist your food containers up most of the way (but not snug to the limb, or tree-dwellers have easy access to it.) Again, well away from your tent.

I have a friend who teaches camping to undergrads. One of the first lessons is how to bear-proof your food. And according to him the same thing happens every year: he says "you have to rig the bean-can up so the bear can't get at it. If I can get at it, the bear can get at it." And they go through five or six iterations of trying to figure out how to do this, rigging it up in branches etc, and my friend climbs up the tree and goes out on the limb to get the food, etc. It's often getting dark by the time they finally figure out what to do, which is this: how to rig up a bear cache between two trees, using a long rope (scroll down for pictures).
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:52 PM on April 28, 2011

Response by poster: Woah, really great responses. Thanks everyone.

Living in a tent for several months while doing farm work all day? The novelty is going to run out very quickly.

Believe me, the tent was our third option (the first was a tree house on the farm, but alas...), and the only one left that made financial sense. I do think it will be a valuable experience, but I'm definitely not romanticizing this. All of these responses make it clear we have a ton of prep left to do!

Jessamyn, just ordered "Dwelling Portably: 1990-2010", thank you. Looks great.

special agent conrad uno, we'll definitely meet up before you leave. The farm is a couple down from Helsing, it's Rising River Farm (in case there are other Olympians reading and are looking for a great CSA....). And I'm sure we'll forget some things and will need help finding them, thank you!

Xedric, thanks for the epic response. Thanks again everyone else, too; so much good advice and many things I hadn't even thought of. Please keep it coming!
posted by Corduroy at 1:35 AM on April 29, 2011

I agree with everything xedrik says. I'd emphasize the issue of dampness and mold. It will be raining all day, all your clothes are soaked, so where do you put them when you want to go into the tent that evening? For bonus irritation, remember that mice and other small rodents can get attracted to your sweaty clothes (for the salt, I think) and will chew holes in things.

For both animal and general happy living reasons, you will be far, far happier if you set up a kitchen under a tarp next to your tent, rather than in your tent. That keeps food smells, steam, messes, and all the other cooking stuff out of the tent totally, while letting you cook even in a total downpour. For tarps, buying even slightly higher quality ones is better than the absolute cheapest -- you may be surprised at how quickly a tarp can thrash itself to pieces in the wind. (And, don't tie off to trees in ways that hurts the trees -- I have seen trees get ringbarked from bad rope lines.)

Lastly, make sure you have some comfortable places to sit (which many folding chairs are not). Living in a tent is generally kind of semi-miserable; living in a tent and never being able to relax comfortable while reading or talking crosses the line into actually kind of miserable.
posted by Forktine at 5:11 AM on April 29, 2011

Give yourself plenty of time for apply the seam sealer on a tent that big - going too fast and missing spots kind of defeats the purpose. My guess is it would take one person half a day to apply. This stuff is probably as good as any. You will need at least 3 tubes and I wouldn't be surprised if you need twice that.

Putting a tarp over the tent sounds kind of half-assed to me, but I guess it could work if it's not too windy.

It might be nice to have some sponges to mop up any water that gets in the tent.
posted by exogenous at 5:51 AM on April 29, 2011

I lived in a tent on the east coast (near a beach, actually) for a summer, and it was mostly great, but I was alone, and I suspect things dried out faster and oftener than than they will for you. Perhaps ask about some good dry storage space elsewhere?

Do you have a car? Will it be nearby? I faced a couple of thunderstorms so scary I moved to the car for the night. Depending on the likelihood of severe weather, you might want to have a plan (you should have some perk for the fact that you're not really living in the wilderness!).

Seconding the tarp--tents never seem fully dry.
posted by Mngo at 6:17 AM on April 29, 2011

Living in a tent for several months while doing farm work all day? The novelty is going to run out very quickly.

I lived in a tent for a couple months while doing farm work all day, and ... it was fine. I was happy to get back into a real house at the end of it, but if you´re careful and conscientious about it, you´ll probably enjoy it.

Lots of good advice above, so I don´t know how much I have to add.

Try to be in the tent as little as possible, I would say. The tent is for sleeping and changing clothes, that´s about it. Definitely have a little table and chairs outside for eating meals at and so forth. There happened to be a little hand-cranked radio already at my site, which I got a lot of use out of -- just being able to put on some music while I cooked and ate dinner made me feel more like a real human.

The floor of my tent wore out within a few weeks (ok, it was a shitty tent) and I put a towel down on it, but too late. Always take off your shoes and leave them outside the tent. (Or in the front room, since you have that option, but I would recommend just having a boot mat or something right outside the door.)

Be very conscientious about putting everything away. A tent gets cluttered and terrible in no time flat.

I had a whole wooden-pallet-floor setup with a biiiig tarp over the whole thing (and a campstove with propane tank and a working mini fridge and sink, so I was spoiled in terms of cooking) which kept everything nice and dry. (Though the tarp did break most of its bungees during the night of 70 mph winds. Oh my!) If there's any way to rig up some kind of larger tarp over your camp space, where you could keep the kitchen setup and tables and chairs and whatnot under, that would be wise. Depending on how big the awning of your tent is, it could be enough, but bigger might be nicer.

I can't think of anything else right now, but if I do, I'll add it.
posted by little cow make small moo at 8:16 AM on April 29, 2011

OMG I love the veggies from Rising River at the farmer's market. And if special agent conrad uno is really leaving for Argentina (!!!!!) then we totally need to have an Oly meetup.
posted by epersonae at 8:38 AM on April 29, 2011

Putting a tarp over the tent sounds kind of half-assed to me, but I guess it could work if it's not too windy.

No, it is essential, no commercial tent outside of an expedition model will actually stay dry for very long with just the fly, no matter how you seam-seal.
posted by LarryC at 8:43 AM on April 29, 2011

I lived in a tipi in Idaho for several weeks about...oh man it's been ten years! Time flies!!

I shared the tipi with between 5-8 other people. The worst part about it is that it got really musty in there. The best thing that we did was open it up all the way and let it air out during the day. 24 hours without a good airing-out and it was nigh unbearable.

So my advice is: if it's sunny out and you've got the time/place to securely move all of your tent stuff - open the tent as wide as you can and let the breeze blow through.
posted by Elly Vortex at 9:36 AM on April 29, 2011

Living & Working Together:
Make sure you both have some solo downtime.
Take turns with chores.
Laugh together.
posted by luckynerd at 9:59 AM on April 29, 2011

1. This may seem odd but put a ground cloth INSIDE the tent. Make sure the edges climb the sides of the tent a little bit, as if it is the pie crust climbing the sides of a pie tin. If you don't walk on it with your shoes, it will stay water-tight long after the ground abrades a leak in your tent floor. Also, you never have to worry about your tent slipping off, exposing an edge. I just go by a piece of visqueen, super cheap.

2. Learn some knots and sling a tarp over your tent properly. Trust me, a handful of useful knots will make your camping experience much better.

3. Make sure you stake your tent well. Having a tent wander or collapse in wind really sucks.

4. Ventilate. People are spot on about this.

5. Keep your cooking outside of the tent in a well ventilated area. While you are at it, create a comfortable cooking and seating area with a tarp and your knot skills. The key to comfortable tent living is to extend your comfort area outside of the tent.

6. Secure your food and keep a clean kitchen. Critters are curious and bears are scary.

7. I like to string a clothesline under a tarped area and I hang everything from it that I can. Keeps it from getting wet and keeps it easy to find.
posted by Foam Pants at 10:11 AM on April 29, 2011

Nothing, nothing, nothing may rest on the floor for more than a day. Rising damp will mildew anything left there. Since your tent is fairly small, this problem will persist - it won't take much for moisture to seep to the soil in the center of your tent. The ground will be dry to the touch, but still give off humidity.

Organize. Have structures - shelves, stacked crates, whatever - with designated uses (dirty clothes, my clean clothes, your clean clothes, toiletries, food prep stuff), so you can find things. The first time you lay a shirt down in the wrong place, something will go missing for hours or days. Really. And "turning the tent inside out" looking for an item will increase the mess, while possibly not even finding the item. Tents are devious that way.

I camp once a year for two weeks at Pennsic; the more I pre-organize my layout and placement of stuff, the better it goes. Everything that touches the ground - even the bed post feet - gets mildewy.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:24 AM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Here to repeat the advice to get a big-ass tarp and create an entire zone around your tent with it. This is one essential step to making a campsite livable long-term. Definitely don't drape it over your tent - it's not as waterproof, plus, you'll practically suffocate. This is the idea - create a big zone and pitch your tent within that zone.

There are a ton of great suggestions here, but another thing I'd recommend is just finding a state park near you that has weekend camping, and just taking a stroll through the campground. You'll get inspired by all the pro tips you can see around campsites. People who camp a lot have really perfected some long-term outdoor living systems.

My best tip from the six summers I spent in a canvas-roofed cabin is to have what's called a "foot towel." This is just a ratty towel you keep near your bed. Before you get in bed each night, dust your feet off with it.

Near your cooking area, have a bucket of sand and a 5-gallon tar-type bucket filled with water. Just in case of fire.

Also, if you can make a firepit, cooking on that is a nice alternative to cooking on the Coleman stove. I cooked on one for six weeks during a camping trip out west, and it was serviceable, but it's nice to get a break from it.
posted by Miko at 10:27 AM on April 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

Nothing, nothing, nothing may rest on the floor for more than a day.

This is why I'm worried about a futon directly on the floor. I can't picture it not getting moist without air being able to circulate underneath. A cot is really the best thing to sleep on in a tent, but can be tricky for two, though they do make them. Maybe a double cot with the futon on it? If not, the pallets are probably an OK solution but I'd be more in favor of something done with milk crates and plywood sheets. Stands a chance of being flatter and more durable.
posted by Miko at 10:28 AM on April 29, 2011

One thing I haven't seen mentioned yet is --> Solar Powered Flashlight!! (or other solar powered lights)

I work at a camp where we don't leave the grounds for two weeks time. Having such a flashlight is a lifesaver because I don't have to worry about never seeing anything because I charge it during the day (when I don't need it) and use it at night after its been charged. Even fi its an overcast day, they will still charge.

I would recommend This one. I've had it for years and its incredibly tough and waterproof (!!).
posted by fuzzysoft at 11:05 AM on April 29, 2011

Don't pitch your tent next to the pony tailed dude who plays the guitar. For a couple of reasons.
posted by tarvuz at 12:04 PM on April 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh, also, at least once a week move all your stuff to the side and sweep under it. Centipedes and their brethren like to hide under things that don't move around a lot.
posted by Miko at 12:27 PM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

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