Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Tarp me!

Back on Labor Day, I found myself staring into my laptop screen. We hadn't made plans to take advantage of the holiday. I chided myself; I still hadn't fully transitioned out of "this-project-at-work-is-taking-all-of-my-waking-hours" mode. My mind began to daydream about how I might spend my weekends in the wet fall and winter of the Pacific Northwest. My thoughts turned to a problem that had plagued me in the spring: How to keep dry while getting in and out of my bivy during a rain storm.

Internet searches yielded no commercially available products that would meet my needs. I did, however, stumble upon the dark underbelly of the backpacking world: weight conscious minimalists who fret so much about the weight of their gear that they fabricate their own backpacking shelters instead of buying stuff off the shelf. On various online forums, I found links to suppliers of ultralight materials and plans and tips for creating your own gear. Within the hour, I'd placed an order for 6 yards of silicone impregnated ripstop nylon, 55 yards of fortified thread, and a few feet of grosgrain.

When the supplies arrived (actually, minutes after the charges hit our bank account), Emily gave me a pep talk for the arduous and exciting task ahead. And by pep talk, I mean a stern warning that this little sewing project for me better not turn into a large sewing project for her.

I replied that I wouldn't be "sewing." I would be "tent engineering." And all I needed from her was a quick primer on how to operate a Singer "tent engineering" machine, and I wouldn't bother her again.

After the intro to sewing, I quickly got down to business, sketched out a design (complete with a caternary cut), and crafted a prototype out of hot pink cotton. Satisfied with my results, I turned the scissors to the real material.

Around this point in time, I found myself working in another "this-project-at-work-is-taking-all-of-my-waking-hours" mode and the tarp was mothballed. Until the other day.

Starting in the afternoon and working until 3AM, I emerged victorious from the sewing table tent fabrication floor.

Behold the tarp in it's pitched glory!

At this point, it's probably worth a comparison with its well known, readily available brother: the blue 8x10 tarp.  Which gains the advantage?
  • Packability -- my tarp. It rolls up nice and compact.
  • Weight -- my tarp. I don't have a scale on hand, but there raw materials weighed about 12 oz.
  • Stability in a windstorm -- my tarp. The caternary cut allows it to be pitched super taut. Wind flows right over it.
  • Flexibility -- blue tarp. The caternary cut makes it less useful in other pitching scenarios. And I probably wouldn't use it to protect my driveway from a dump truck full of mulch .
  • Price -- The blue tarp. It's less than $3. In material costs, I'm probably looking at $50 for my tarp. The labors costs might be 20 to 40 times more.
For those of you crazy enough to try this on your own, let me offer a few pointers:
  1. Only do it if you want to do it. Other people can make it better and more cost effectively
  2. Silicone impregnated nylon is difficult to work with -- my prototype material was cotton and made me think I was a pretty awesome tent engineer. The nylon took a serious toll on my self esteem.
  3. Be ready to improvise -- for example, since I couldn't use an iron to press the seams and hems, I resorted to glue sticks and paper clips.

A closeup of my handiwork. Surprisingly good in some places.
Embarrassing in others.

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