Maybe it was the romance of my first elk hunt. Perhaps it was the warmth from the woodstove. All I know is that once I hunted out of a wall tent, it’s all I ever wanted to do.
That experience in the snowy mountains north of Boise came in a wall tent owned by a logger friend who had mercy on three other elk-hunting novices. We slept in comfort and all of our clothes remained crispy dry.
Of course being in my late 20s, I didn’t have the means to go out and purchase a wall tent, frame and woodstove. Instead, I made due the next couple of years with my semi-trusty Coleman 7-foot dome tent. Before one can succeed, it seems, one must freeze.
I remember putting my clothes in my sleeping bag so they wouldn’t be frozen when I awoke.
In those early years, I always had a camp fire at night. But the only heat source I had available in the mornings was the burned-out heater in my 1989 Ford “Broken” Bronco.
I got elk, and learned camping techniques I wanted to avoid.
After roughing it for a couple of years, I finally found a used wall tent in 2000 on Nickels Worth and purchased it for $250. I bought a frame kit from a large sporting goods store and had to chop the poles to make it fit. (Think Johnny Cash’s 1976 classic, “One Piece at a Time.”)
I got a woodstove and stove pipe and – bam! – I was in the cloth-cabin business. I took it everywhere.
I boated it into several locations on Dworshak Reservoir for the opening of grouse season and for several spring turkey hunts. Neighbors borrowed it for weekend parties. We used it for horse camping excursions at Farragut State Park.
We set the tent up on 3 feet of snow in the Methow Valley and skied out the front door.
And, I enjoyed epic deer and elk hunts, sleeping in heat under the light of a propane lantern.
In the prime of my wall-tent renaissance, some lowlife broke into my storage unit in North Spokane and stole my beloved tent.
Alas, the burglar didn’t take the tent poles. However, I couldn’t find any wall tent by the same dimensions. Luckily, I still had all the mill-ends from my previous pole cutting excursion.
With some fence couplers and a few rolls of duct tape, I bought a bigger tent and remade the poles to fit. I still use them to this day.
The current outfit withstood 18 inches of overnight snow on Sept. 16 at 9,000-feet elevation in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.
It survived a microburst wind on Dworshak that sent everything outside blowing into the lake. The tent only stayed upright because my father and I pushed against the walls.
It’s only major repair was needed after a bear took out an entire rear section of tent when I left it unattended at my cabin.
Beacon of warmth
Each and every elk hunt, the woodstove is what makes a wall tent a comfortable, cloth-home-away-from home.
One time while hunting in 30-below weather near Challis, Idaho, my buddy, Dave Voelker, and I had a contest to see how warm the woodstove could make it inside the tent. We finally shut it down when the thermometer topped 90 degrees and we could no longer stand the heat.
Jed Conklin, 37, of Spokane, has been hunting elk for the past decade with his father, Keith, and buddies. After one hunt this past fall in Idaho, he and hunting partner, Jason Camp, 43, of Morgantown, Kentucky, trudged back to camp in a major rain storm.
“On the way down the mountain, you could see that tent glowing,” Conklin said. “You knew there was going to be food and a place to dry your clothes and a place to get warm. It’s like a beacon.
“That wood-burning stove breathes life into the coldest, wettest hunter.”
Conklin and Camp sometimes revert to the dome tent. But the base camp for elk season always has canvas walls.
“I have hunted out of dome tents. You get zero comfort level,” Camp said. “Four guys can’t hang out. You can’t congregate.”
The canvas also soaks up aromas from every time it’s deployed.
“I obviously like the smell, the warmth, the drying of your wet clothes after you’ve been on a forced death march,” Camp said. “I love the glow of the wall tent when I’m walking up to it at night.”
Conklin, who formerly worked as a photographer for The Spokesman-Review, said he’s spent nearly a year of his life living out of a wall tent.
“Aesthetically, it brings us back to a simpler time when something like that was all they had,” he said. “The main advantage is the room and the wood-burning stove. It functions well in wet weather if you take care to make sure your canvas is in good shape.”
Outfitting the outfitter tent
Two ways to keep the canvas in shape is to apply water repellant and to use a plastic tarp as a roof.
The tarp helps repel water and makes it easy for snow to slide off. After the tarp roof loses its utility, it can then be used as a floor. Two or three tarps on the floor allow campers to set the tent up on snow while keeping the moisture underneath.
Most hunters choose to sleep on padded cots with good sleeping bags. The cots provide storage underneath for clothes, bags and boots. The cots can double as seats during social hour.
I also use a kitchen unit, which has a countertop for the propane cooking stove. It also has racks for canned goods, spices and a small sink for doing dishes that drains into a 5-gallon bucket.
Also, whenever using tarps for floors, it’s always a good idea to have all-weather carpets to provide better footing inside the tent.
Tent versus camper
Many hunters forego the three-hour setup and breakdown by simply towing their comfort to camp. However, a trailer camper limits the places hunters can set up, especially if they want to hunt right out of camp.
“For road camping, I think the trailer would be the way to go,” Camp said. “But that’s not camping to me.”
Conklin agreed, saying a wall tent gives campers many more choices.
“Trailers are nice, but it’s one more step removed for why we are out there in the first place, which is to be out in nature,” Conklin said. “For me, it’s as much about the experience as it is the function.”
In Kentucky, Camp also has a small cabin that he uses as a base camp for hunting.
“It has his pluses and minuses. That view is always the same,” he said. “With a wall tent, you can get a different view in about an hour’s work. All you need is a 16-by-16 semi-flat spot. That wall tent is just the bomb.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.