A Cheap Tent and a Grand Canyon

My training looked a little different last month. I did all my hiking from the bottom of Grand Canyon while rafting 280 miles from Lee’s Ferry to Pearce Ferry on a 25-day private trip. In addition to running the rapids (1% of the river) and rowing all the flatwater (99%), I hiked almost every day. Most of the hikes were on very rocky trails up and down side canyons with huge climbs and descents. Along the way, I learned a little lesson about gear.

River Trips Ruin Tents

It’s the sand, mud, wind, and thorns, though operator error also takes some of the blame.

In the Southwest, river runners usually camp on sand bars and tributary debris fans, generously referred to as “beaches.” Hence the sand and mud, which will wreck all but the most durable zippers. What little vegetation exists on riverside beaches is low, scrubby, and full of prickers that will tear tent fabric at the slightest touch. And if you camp too far away from trees and brush, canyon winds can flatten your tent and snap the poles. Staking down a tent in loose beach sand is futile. One afternoon in Grand Canyon, I watched a windstorm pick up a staked-down dome tent and fling it like a frisbee into the river along with everything in it. I normally put a small boulder in each corner of my tent when I set up on an exposed beach.

A Better Option?

In 2019, after destroying a few very nice, high-end tents on river trips, I stumbled across Walmart’s tent collection while looking for a cheap camping chair. Right next to their $4.99 chairs was a shelf full of three-person, low-profile, free-standing dome tents for $24.00. “Hmm,” I thought, “I could buy ten $24 tents for less than the price of one high-end name brand tent. Surely, my expensive tents are not ten times more durable than this lovely $24 tent?” Plus, it only weighed 10 pounds ($2.40/lb!) and almost fit inside a 25-liter dry bag (< $1/liter!). But wait, there’s more. It also had a handy flap for an extension cord. When haven’t I needed an extension cord in my tent on a river trip?

I have some history with cheap tents. In Junior High, I took a four-person pup tent that had been hit by lightning (a long story of its own), and convinced my mom to sew it into a low-profile backpacking tent that used just one pole. It worked about as well as you’d expect. I still had it in graduate school where my field crew took to calling it my “Flash Dance” tent, after the iconic shredded clothes Jennifer Beal wore in the movie of the same name. Mrs. The Incident used that tent only once, early in our marriage. She approved the purchase of a new tent shortly thereafter.

I bought the $24 tent. And a $4.99 sack chair. I happened to be heading out the next week on a months-long, 650-mile, headwaters-to-mouth, solo canoe trip down the Gila River, and needed a new river tent. What could go wrong?

The Cheap Tent for the Win

In fact, nothing went wrong. I used the $24 tent during my entire Gila River trip. It kept me safe and dry. Of course, the Gila being in Arizona and New Mexico, it only rained once while I was in the tent. (For more on that trip, check out my book Gila River Elegy, Paddling America’s Most Endangered River on Amazon. Or message me, and I’ll get you a big discount and sign it.). Heady with success, I used the $24 tent again on my next two 25-day Grand Canyon rafting trips in 2020 and 2022. And on another headwaters-to-mouth solo canoe trip down Arizona’s Verde River in the summer of 2020 (Verde River Elegy, A Paddling Journey to the River’s End – yes, yet another shameless book plug, as well as one for Isaac Dudley’s very nice short film The Last Wild River premiering at film festivals this spring.). I also used it on several shorter river trips. The only time I didn’t use my $24 tent after 2019 was when I was backpacking. I’m an idiot, but I’m not crazy enough to carry a bulky 10-pound tent on my back up a mountain.

Well, almost nothing went wrong. The zipper gave me some trouble a few times on the Grand Canyon trips, but nothing some Zip Tech, a toothbrush, and a pair of pliers couldn’t fix. And re-fix. And re-re-fix. But the rest of the Grand Canyon crew had similar problems with their fancy schmancy $300 tents, so my cheap tent was in good company.

After my second or third long river trip, I noticed that if anything touched the side of my $24 tent during a storm, rainwater would seep in and puddle on the impermeable plastic floor. Still, as long as I kept my gear away from the tent walls everything was fine. And if I happened to roll over and accidentally touch the wall with my sleeping bag, I could always dry it out the next day. Because it never rains two days in a row in Arizona, right?

Which brings me to 2023.

A Cheap Tent in Bad Weather

Some friends invited me on yet another 25-day Grand Canyon rafting trip this spring, my eighth since 2014. Mrs. The Incident gave me the green light, even though we’d be spending five to six months away from home on the AT beginning in April. Because Mrs. The Incident was recovering from a nasty bout with Shingles, she decided to skip most of this year’s Canyon adventure. If she had come along, I would have considered buying one of Walmart’s $49.00 four-man tents. Instead, I pulled out my now-slightly-less-than-trusty $24 tent, tuned up the zipper once again, and decided I could squeeze one more trip out of it. For those readers who are counting, I was then at about 13 cents per day of tent expense. From some reason, I decided to throw in a rainfly from an old tent the Canyon had destroyed before I discovered the joys of 13 cent camping. I must be prescient.

We launched from Lee’s Ferry on February 16th. It was the coldest, rainiest Grand Canyon trip I’ve taken.

Don’t get me wrong. The trip was fantastic. We had a great group, world-class scenery, and amazing whitewater and hiking in one of the seven natural wonders of the world. I’d go again in a heartbeat. After I finish the AT, that is. But it was rainy. Even worse, it was cold and rainy. And at times, cold, rainy, and windy. The perfect chance to put my $24 tent to the test.

It failed.

The Difference Between a Cheap Tent and a Good Tent

The zipper gave out first. This time, no amount of Zip Tech or plier wrangling could persuade it to stay zipped. Even if I managed to fully zip up the door, a gentle breeze or an accidental bump would make the zipper separate, leaving the half-open door flaps fluttering limply in the wind. As it turns out, being able to fully zip the tent door is crucial to keeping rain out. I learned this useful tidbit on a very rainy night after I’d flipped my 18-foot raft in Horn Rapid (my first flip ever) when much of my gear (and half of the crew’s bagel supply) was already a little wet. But I was prepared. I pulled out my spare rainfly and draped it over the front of my tent, providing a second cover for the half-open door.

I climbed back in the tent, flush with success and went to sleep. Until I was awoken by a raindrop in the face. I turned on my headlamp and discovered that most of the seams were leaking, in addition to the normal leaks caused by gear touching the tent walls. Still undaunted and resourceful, I packed my few remaining times of unsaturated gear in dry bags, covered my sleeping bag with my rain gear, and perched above the flood on my 3-inch-thick sleeping pad. I survived the night, damp but alive, and ready for a big day of the running the river’s biggest rapids (Granite, Hermit, Crystal, & Duebendorf).  After two days of mostly dry weather, keeping my raft’s smooth side down, and a protected tent site under a rare large tree at Bass Camp, I finally dried out. Mostly dried out.

Then came Racetrack Camp and the hardest rain and wind yet. For two days, we were pounded with rain and wind. At the first shower, I retreated to the “safety” of my tent only to find most of the floor covered in 1/2-inch-deep puddles. Fortunately, the group had set up a large Noah’s tarp over the cooking area, but the wind had blown it down. So I appropriated the tarp and draped it over my tent, folding it over to provide double coverage (quadruple if you count the two rain flies). I tied its guy lines to bushes and weighted the corners down with boulders. It wasn’t much for air flow or easy entry into the tent, but it kept the rain out.

And that is how I rigged my $24 tent for the rest of the trip, much to the amusement of our crew. They claimed to feel sorry for me, and to have considered offering me shelter in their tents, but never quite got around to an actual invitation.

Mrs. The Incident, who had decided to join me at Diamond Creek for the last 54 miles of the trip, kindly offered to purchase a “real” tent and bring it with her. Of course, once she arrived with a very nice rain- and wind-proof tent, the weather cleared, and we had the finest three days of warm sunshine of the entire trip.

And Now the Moral of the Story

This isn’t rocket science. Cheap tents work well in good weather. Then again, so does no tent. You buy a tent for adverse weather. Get a good one or don’t bother with one at all.

If I were really clever, I’d apply that lesson to all my gear.  But it is well established that I’m an idiot.

See you on the trail.

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Comments 4

  • Smitty : Mar 18th

    Well your resume is outstanding, I will be following your journey. Expecting a mature realistic attempt at something 2 in 3 fail. Barring physical injury I see you completing no problem.

    • Jon : Mar 19th

      Thanks, Smitty. I sure hope you’re right!

  • Sir Lostalot : Mar 18th

    Idiots love company. You make me so glad to know I am not the only one. Shoot for the stars, but take the bodyguards out first.

    • Jon : Mar 19th

      LOL.Thanks for reading, Sir Lostalot.


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