15 January 2012

Bringing the Whelen into the 21st Century

Anyone who knows me or has spent much time reading my rambles knows what a fan I am of Col. Townsend Whelen's writings. He was a consummate woodsman, his writing top notch and  his experience in the 'back of beyond' was quite extensive.

His camps were primitive but functional affairs, preferring a bedroll under a lean-to tarp of his own design to any tents. His belief was the tarp was good enough down to twenty below, he liked an open air camp. His lean-to design which he called a "Hunter's Lean-to" ultimately went into production in 1925 at Abercrombie & Fitch, which at the time was one of the premier outfitter of outdoors gear, my how things have changed! They sold it as the "Whelen Lean-to" and it has been known as such ever since.

The Whelen Lean-to is still available, usually from custom tent makers and some specialty shops, variations of it exist in lighter materials but the limited selection that is out there is typically made of lightweight canvas.

Over the years I've toyed with making one and finally decided it was time. I didn't want just an average one though, I wanted to really bring the design forward, mating it with modern reliable materials. If Whelen were alive today, I like to think he'd approve this version. Typically I am a huge fan of traditional canvas, in this case, using that material results in a very heavy product. So much so that it won't work for backpacking and is instead relegated to canoe trips and so on. I wanted the shelter in a light enough, compact enough end product that backpacking it wouldn't be a challenge.

I looked around for a long time for what I thought would be an ideal material. The first tries just didn't work for me. Finally, after researching the latest material types that were both rugged and lightweight, I settled on 70D Nylon, coated with 1-1.25 ounces per yard of urethane, providing great protection from the elements. It's also fire retardant, while an ember might burn a pin hole in it, it will not ignite, if you hold a flame to it, it'll burn but as soon as you remove the open flame it extinguishes. It meets with CPAI-84 fire protection standards. I was exposed to this material by way of the BUSHCRAFT OUTFITTERS Multicam 10x10 tarp. I wrote about them here. So I tracked down the manufacturer and order the material.

I also didn't want white, or blue, or orange, or any other typical color, in fact I wanted something very specific. I wanted Multicam. The Multicam camouflage pattern is pretty slick, it blends into almost any environment.

All seams are double stitched, some are triple stitched at high stress locations. I used Mil-Spec size 69 polyester thread designed for use in awnings, backpacks, boat covers and other heavy duty out door use products. Both the multicam material and the thread are USA made products. I did all of the work on my 1948 Singer 15-91 sewing machine.

I finished my prototype last night and wanted to get it set up. I needed to mark exactly where I wanted ties and grommets and lashing points. While I did use the designs published in Whelen and Angier's books I varied the design at some points. Because of this the exact placement of those points have to be changed. The best way to determine optimum use was to set it up and mark it.

I also sewed up a bag for it out of the left over material, complete with para-cord draw string closure. When weighed the shelter and the bag came in at under two pounds!

This is what the set up process looked like and what my version of the Whelen Lean-To looks like at this stage. I still have some work to do but I'm getting closer.

Some of the additional options I'll have, are a mosquito bar, it hangs where the ridge line is, internally, and seals the front from insects in summer use. Also, a winter bar, it incorporates Kochanski's supershelter idea, you'd be able to lower a clear plastic sheet from the same location as the mosquito bar. This allows radial heat to enter the shelter from the fire in front, and holds it inside. Using the same principle I got my last shelter up to 81 degrees with an outside temperature of 9 degrees.

Those two options mean the Whelen Lean To becomes a year round shelter for me. I've wanted one of these for ages, that would be light enough to backpack with and incorporated some options that the original did not. I've learned quite a bit through this project, enjoyed it quite a bit. Now if I can just get some field time in to do some proper testing I'll be a happy camper indeed!


  1. I don’t do any really cold weather camping myself, but day in and day out I much prefer a tarp over a tent.

  2. Had to go to Chrome (Foxfire would probably have worked) in order to get to your comment box. Blogger is messed up again. Just curious, how much do you have in it so far?

  3. About eight hours of work, thread was nominal in cost. The material ran me $102. Cheaper if I buy in larger volume but this was an experiment to see how the fabric was to work with. It's great by the way, and my old singer ate it up with no issues. A roll of 30 yards would be $275 not including shipping, and would make about three of the lean tos.

  4. Great shelter project! It's a versatile, age-old design. Hope it serves you well.

    I'm quite a shelter-tinkerer myself (I have cobbled together both of my frequently-used shelters). Despite technological advancement etc., the shelters commonly available for sale leave a lot to be desired. If you want something done right...


  5. Just curious, when you drop the mosquito netting down.....are there any plans to seal the sides at all?? My experience with MN summers is that those buggers (black flies, mosquitoes, what have you) will find you once it's too dark to be able to swat them!

  6. The sides and back can be pegged and actually tucked if desired, sealing the perimeter, there would be a gap above the mosquito bar, but it would be minimal. When I use this I'll also be using lemon eucalyptus and maybe a thermacell to boot if they are that bad. Full report this summer!

  7. I was thinking about the same type of set-up, but rather than make a Whelen tent I am planing to try a 10' x 10' tarp pitched as "Adirondack Wind Shed" as I have seen elsewhere.

    I hope to retain the versatility of tarp (as opposed to a purpose cut tent) and still get the benefits of a Whelen style set-up.

    I will let you know how it goes.

  8. I like Whelen very much. He is practical and to the point. I think you have followed his example perfectly in creating a very functional modern variation of the shelter.

  9. "American Grouch" has been included in this weeks Sites To See. I hope this helps to attract many new visitors here.


  10. Looks like it would be fantastic on a 32 degrees and raining day.

  11. Check out Cooke Custom Sewing' tarp tent. Very similar. I have one and love it.

  12. way to go on your desighn. I too recently beacme aware of the Whelen and made my own out of Tyveck as it is wind and watter resistant as well as fire resistant. I have taken it ou two outings this year both cold weekends and my mot recent trip i pitched it in snow. it was very comfortable and roomy and it weighed in at 22 oz.
    i plan on many outings under this practical light weight adaptation of an age old classic.

  13. I would love to try this out myself, I think if I had to oppotunity also I would do the same whelen configuration in a couple hunting camo's also, Loke realtree ap and Mossy oak. The ability to lower the ridge line in the winter lends to more usage in the winter time for those of us in a colder winter time climate. I also wonder about things such as snow load, what kind of wind speeds the lean to can handle. The weight is definently an advantage to such a lean-to. I'm just have reservations toward long term usage. otherwise it is a wonderful piece of engineering. I myself am looking for something that is literally Bomb proof, as Dave Canterbury would say, Something that literally utilizes all that is around you to accentuate your chance of Survivability if an emergency arises. But also to be durable enough to use it on camping trips, bushcrafting trips, and fishing trips. I am also somewhat of a traditionalist. I like a good Canvas tarp, but unless you configure one like this and pay bookoo bucks it hard to find one. I hope too hear more from you about your lightweight whelen tarp.

  14. I'm going to wait to early spring of 2015 to assemble a Whelen tent from fire retardant,high grade cotton canvas.I've found the plans(same you're using)and will assemble the tent in my garage.I expect it to be somewhat heavy,but I plan to store it while not in use in my other shelter.No one goes out to the location of my camp,if they did,they left it intact.I've built my shelter in April of 2014,including a primitive bench and table.A trout stream flows nearby,my source of water and place to bathe.It's just me as no one I know seems to be interested in the camping life anymore.Their loss,they don't know what they're missing.