Glamping at the Red

Canvas Camp Sibley Pro 500 Tent and Winnerwell Stove

“Um, Hello? Hi there. So, I think you’ve set up in our site,” a polite but strained voice spoke into the chilly Kentucky darkness.  I looked up from the kindling I was chopping and met the speaker’s blinding LED gaze with my own headlamp.  Hatchet still in hand, I stood up and replied, “I know.  I’m really sorry.  We got in late last night and the directions were hard to follow.  The lady who runs the campground saw our tent here this morning and basically took pity on us.  She thought you’d be able to fit your camper in our site, and she told us we could just stay here.”  As I was talking, I noticed the headlamp beam scan the tent over my shoulder: “Yeah, wow,” she said, “That’s a really big tent, like a circus tent or something.  Are you glamping?  At the Red?”  Guilt-ridden for taking this other family’s campsite and suddenly ashamed of my tent, I offered every accommodation I could think of short of moving.  Relocating my tent was impossible at this point in the evening though — not only were my two children fast asleep in their beds, I had a fire roaring in the woodstove.

The misplaced tent at issue was my brand-new Canvas Camp Sibley 500 Pro.  It’s a giant conical bell tent made of treated cotton canvas, the sort of shelter you might see Ulysses S. Grant lounging in front of or that might show up in photos of nineteenth-century National Geographic expeditions.   The “500” in the tent’s name describes its diameter at ground level:  5.00 meters or sixteen and a half feet.  It’s held up by a central pole that raises the tent’s peak 9’10” above the floor.  The eight-foot radius between this pole and the tent wall is plenty big enough to fit a queen mattress lengthwise.  Twenty-seven stakes and fourteen guy lines hold the tent to the ground.  The wood stove that made moving the tent impossible — not just inconvenient — is a Winnerwell Woodlander, a stainless-steel camp stove that folds into a duffle bag about the size of a 70L Patagonia Black Hole.  At thirty-five pounds, it’s not the sort of thing you’d take backpacking, but it’s easy enough to move from the car to the tent, when it’s cool.  We bought the Double View model, so called because windows line both its sides. 

Photo: Paper Antler Ltd.

My campground neighbor’s circus tent comparison stung because I had the exact same thought when I set the new tent up in my yard two days before our trip.  Seeing it staked out for the first time, I couldn’t possibly imagine pitching it at a climbers’ campground.  “It’s ridiculous,” I said to my wife Kerstin when she came out to see the tent.  “It is big,” she acknowledged, “but it’s smaller than a Sprinter van.”  Kerstin wasn’t exactly right — the tent’s square footage is about fifty percent greater than a Sprinter’s — but her perspective helped me recalibrate my assessment.  To this point, I had been thinking of it as an embarrassingly excessive tent instead of as a principled rejection of #vanlife.  In truth, the bell tent and stove fit somewhere between the nylon austerity of a backpacking tent and the bourgeois excess of a converted Sprinter.   Both extremes were untenable for our family and both approaches to travel jeopardized the long-term sustainability of early spring and late fall climbing. 

Our purchase of the Sibley tent two weeks before an October trip to the Red River Gorge was an impulsive solution to a problem at least a year in the making.  The previous October, Kerstin and I took our six- and eight-year-old kids to the Red for the first time.  We stayed at Miguels’, which I love and where I have stayed on all of my previous trips.  It was different with kids.  It was cold, and it rained for most of the weekend.  We found overhanging rock to climb out of the rain, but we never shook the damp chill that we picked up the moment we arrived.  Like every other climber at Miguel’s, we hovered over people finishing their pizza at tables in the dining room so we could sit and eat out of the cold.  We eventually found seats at a table and ate our pizza while other cold climbers hovered around us.  Then, we made our way to our tent in the misty darkness and zipped ourselves into sleeping bags at 7:00 pm, not really ready for sleep but finding our mummy bags to be the only habitable space available. I tried to read, but shining my headlamp so close to my six- and eight-year-olds’ faces made it impossible for them to settle.  Awake in my clammy bag and with a root pushing through my partially deflated Therm-a-rest, I rolled over and whispered to Kerstin, “We’re getting too old for this.”  “Tell me about it,” she replied.  We managed two more nights at Miguel’s in our REI Half Dome but packed up the last morning knowing something had to change.

Unlike the previous October when we jostled with other climbers for room to sit inside at Miguel’s, this year’s sunsets sent us scurrying for the warmth of our tent.  As the temperatures dipped close to freezing in an unseasonably cold early-October weekend, the Winnerwell Double View kept the temperature inside the tent close to seventy.  We set the tent up with two air mattresses — a queen Aerobed for Kerstin and me and a Coleman double mattress for the kids.  We made the beds with sheets and comforters from our beds at home.   Even after accounting for the mattresses, the stove, duffle bags of clothes, backpacks, and stray climbing gear, at least a third of the tent’s square feet remained unused and therefore available for sitting in camp chairs, making coffee, or laying on the ground to play chess.  I was surprised to find that there was so much space inside the tent that we didn’t have to reconfigure or reorganize to move from one activity to the next.  There was no changing pants while lying down, tossing gear around to get comfortable, or crawling over somebody to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

In contrast to the  synthetic world of our backpacking tent, the Sibley interior was cozily organic.  Cotton may kill in the alpine, but cotton canvas tent walls, cotton sheets, and cotton and down duvets came as a relief after a day of cragging.   I cannot overstate the pleasure I derived from sitting in a camp chair in jeans and a flannel shirt by the light and warmth of the woodstove.  I sorted the rack and ticked and read the guidebook by firelight for hours while my children slept.  My concerns about how well the treated canvas tent body would keep out rain proved unfounded.  It didn’t rain on our Kentucky trip this fall, but I did leave the tent set up in the rain in our backyard to test it before we left and found the interior totally dry the morning after a downpour. 

The tent is not without challenges.  It weighs ninety pounds. The tent’s bodybag-sized stuff sack took up more than half the space in our trunk.  The chief disadvantagea of the tent compared to a Sprinter van are of course its obtrusiveness and its set up time.  You can’t pitch a tent in a Cabela’s parking lot and you can’t crawl directly from the driver’s seat onto an air mattress the moment you pull into a campsite.  While the tent setup doesn’t compare to the convenience of a van, I noticed that pitching it took about the same amount of time it took my neighbors to set up their pull-behind camper.  It probably took my nine-year-old and me fifteen minutes to raise the poles, pound the stakes, and tension the guy lines; this is maybe five minutes more than it takes us to pitch our four-person backpacking tent.  Pack-up is a bit of a challenge too.  The tent and all its furnishings and linens do fit in our Camry, but they fit just so.  By far the biggest drawback of the tent is the need to completely dry it before putting it into storage.  All tents need to be dried, but finding a room big enough to lay out a sixteen-foot circle or a line strong enough to hang ninety pounds of canvas is a challenge.  Fortunately, the day after we returned from our trip was sunny, warm, and breezy, so I tossed the tent over our picnic table and dried it quickly.  If it had been rainy, I’m not exactly sure what I would have done.  These are relatively minor quibbles though.  To paraphrase Thoreau, I will gladly buy a van or rent a cabin as soon as it pleases me as much and costs me no more than my current shelter.

As infatuated as I am with our new bell tent, I shudder to think of climbers’ camps overrun by a glamping arms race.  I write not to those young climbers who are comfortable in their backcountry tents, but to those older climbers (especially climbers with families) who are either contemplating a camper or are discontented with the cramped confines of their vans.   I’m ok with more climbers choosing to buy bigger tents if it means that fewer climbers will burn fewer gallons of diesel fuel in Sprinter vans and that fewer hilltops and ridges will be leveled for new AirBnB cabins and second homes.  The guy with the glamping tent in the climber camp protests too much, you say?  Fine.  I’ve got my eye on Horseshoe Canyon in February.

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