Winters of My Discount Tents

Phil Knight's picture
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Cold-weather camping before Gore-Tex and synthetic down.

Does it ever seem like the fancier your gear, the less you actually use it? Maybe you're too busy earning money, or you're older and lazier than you once were, or you just don’t want to get that shiny new mountain bike dirty... Personally, I know I got after it more when my equipment was bad and my ideas were even worse.  

It all started with the Boy Scouts. On one particular winter expedition, we made “tents” out of Visqueen and grommets, and even as wee lads, our feet hung outside the makeshfit shelters' coverage zone. By morning, our sleeping bags were frozen to the ground. Thankfully, most of the grommets ripped out and we retired the “tents” after one miserable night. The external-frame pack I bought with my paper-route money had plastic couplings on the frame, which broke just two miles in, forcing me to lash it together with cord. Fast-forward to the torture-fest the Scouts called the “Klondike Derby,” where we acted as sled dogs, pulling a sledge loaded with all of our winter camping gear through two feet of slush, thawing our boots by the campfire, and burning coffeecake in a reflector oven. At least we had real tents, though sleeping pads were a luxury yet to be invented.

Winter Camping, Bozeman, MontanaIn conditions like these, best not to skimp on gear.

A few years later, I'd moved on from the Scouts, but hadn't lost my flare for budget winter camping. I bought a cheap, single-layer pup tent—the A-frame kind with a pole at each end—and wanted to try it out. On a frigid night in February, my buddy Jed and I set up camp in the hardwood forest near my home. We zipped the tent up tight… and woke up gasping for breath. The tent didn’t breathe worth a damn, so neither could we. Grabbing at the zipper, I flung the tent door open and we shoved our heads out, sucking in the cold night air. The next day I ordered a double-walled tent, the one I used for the next 15 years. Sometimes spending some extra coin is well worth the investment.

During college, my outing club friends and I traded the sun and sand of Daytona Beach for frostbite in the Adirondacks. I had no money, so I borrowed by brother-in-law’s massive Kelty external-frame pack, and stuffed it with a cheap rectangular down sleeping bag and army-surplus wool pants. My baselayers were cotton and my parka was a patched down jacket. My boots were hand-me-down Sorels. If not for my friend’s two-person, four-season tent—into which we crammed three men—I’d have frozen solid during the -20-degree nights.

Winter Camping, Bozeman, MontanaWinter camping might have its benefits, we just aren't quite sure what they are.

I’ve made these and other mistakes, but you don’t have to. If you can afford it, get the best gear available—it’s worth it in the long run. Even if you don’t have much spare cash, Bozeman is overflowing with used gear and it’s easy to find quality goods at second-hand stores like Second Wind Sports or gear swaps. Winter camping gear has advanced to a level unimaginable when I was getting started, so there's no need to freeze these days, if you are crazy enough to venture into the mountains overnight.

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