My Biggest Backcountry Mistake: Tie Down Your Tent

Sierra Trading Post is hosting a chat on outdoor backcountry mistakes (Thursday @ 6 PM EST/3 PM PST) and as my contribution, I’m telling the story about how I nearly lost my tent in a brutal windstorm at Vantage, Washington in March of 2013.

The Frenchman's Coulee Basin of Vantage, Washington
The Frenchman’s Coulee Basin of Vantage, Washington

We knew the weather was up when we arrived in the dark. There were already several gusts of wind as we were pitching my Kelty tent, but we didn’t think too much of it. We managed to stake the main body into the soft red clay soil of the canyon country basin, wind filtering through the basalt columns made everything impossible to set down without holding on with two feet. The rain fly was becoming almost kite-like as we tried desperately to latch it to the overlapping poles. As we settled all our gear inside the cabin: backpacks, pads, sleeping bags, we could already feel the nylon bottom starting to lift up from under our backs. As we settled in for the night ready to get up and climb in the morning.

We didn’t realize what a miserable night we were in for.

I awoke at 3 AM, tucked in my sleeping bag on the far left side of the tent, the gusts still coming strong, the fabric pushing against my face. The tent poles were rattling hard, shaking and creaking as the tent floor billowed up from under my head. I looked over at my two climbing partners, fast asleep on their side, seemingly undisturbed by all the chaos on my side. I rearranged my backpack to try and keep the tent down but I could still feel the lifting as if the tent was about to roll across the basin.

I tried to pull the sleeping bag over my head, thinking that if I just cocooned myself inside that it would all go away, and we would wake up to a serene and peaceful morning. As I nodded in and out of short bursts of sleep, the doorway of my Teton 4 was caving in, the mesh lining just inches away from my face. At this point I knew something was very wrong, and that with the wind already blowing strong when we had arrived, I hadn’t reinforced the stakes or tied the guide lines to keep our shelter locked to the ground.

My Kelty Teton 4 Tent
My Kelty Teton 4 Tent

Through the night, the gusts increased, the poles bent and creaked as if they were ready to break. It was around 5 AM I saw my tent-mates awake and we all knew that the stakes had pulled out and only our bodies and our bags were keeping us from being flung across the red rock basin. I could now see holes in the mesh lining of the main body and it was clear that the tent was getting shredded while we were still stuck inside.

And then the pole collapsed.

I’m not exactly sure how it happened, maybe it was the stress of the wind, maybe I had kicked it out of it’s brace but the pole right by my feet was now laying flat next to my head. The rain fly was partially collapsed as well so I could see the dust being kicked up in the predawn hours but now I was surrounded by the loud flapping of the nylon walls pushed right up against my cheek. I looked over to my two other companions, both on hands and knees trying to keep it down as we were hit by one gust after another. I worked my way out the front of the door and went to look at our situation. As I braced myself against the oncoming onslaught of wind, I inspected each of the four stakes and found that in the soft soil, only one of them had held.

There was no point in staying inside.

Fortunately we still had our car, a small Subaru that with gear could barely fit the three of us for a night but at least offered some semblance of shelter. We carefully orchestrated pulling our gear and sleeping bags out as the rain fly tried not to fly away. Stuffing the entire shelter ingloriously into the trunk, we huddled inside the small car as the wind continued to rock us back and forth until the morning.

The wind continued after sunrise and I had a good chance to look at the damage: Both tent poles were completely bent in an arc from all the stress they took, the mesh lining had developed major tears, and there were even holes in the nylon tent floor. So what could I have done differently?

  • Use bigger stakes – The stakes that had come with my tent were metal hooks that wouldn’t dig far into the ground. Using a deeper stake would have kept each line from tearing out of the soil.
  • Tie the guy lines – When we first arrived at the campsite, we knew there was already wind so we should have staked down the guy lines for extra support or at least held them down with more large stones.
  • Reinforce the interior – Placing large stones on the edges of the tent inside would have provided an extra anchor, especially considering the gusts of wind that were already there.

Although there were several forces that weren’t in our control, I felt that an experience like this better prepared me for setting up my tent in rough weather. It was both a harrowing night and a learning opportunity but it’s better set me up to expect the unexpected in the backcountry.

4 thoughts on “My Biggest Backcountry Mistake: Tie Down Your Tent

  1. Good call on the stones inside of the tent. I’ve never had that kind of problem with wind and a tent despite not staking the corners down at all sometimes (just relying on my gear to hold it down) but maybe I should reconsider always doing it.

    1. It’s a three season backpacking tent and ever since then I’ve fared against just as bad winds and it’s still held up. Yeah stones can work wonders. I just wasn’t thinking straight at that point.

  2. GAH. I hate windy campsites. Crazy that the wind completely wrecked your tent!! Was it salvagable at all?? I think stakes in soft clay-ish soil is so hard to secure in the first place – but definitely longer stakes could help!

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