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!