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28.03.2014 admin
Simply stating that Colonel Townsend Whelen (1877-1961) was just an outdoorsman is like saying that Babe Ruth was just a baseball player. Considering the above, and as strange as it may seem, when it comes to classic camping, I was always a little disappointed in the Whelen tent. The simple lean-to is one of man’s oldest shelters, so there is really nothing new or innovative about it.
A few weeks ago, I was looking around for a good source for hand woven wool blankets at a reasonable price (not an easy thing to find). Although Whelen took a notable trip to British Columbia in 1901, in 1908 when the photograph of Sheldon’s tent was taken, Whelen was busy settling into his career in the US Army.
During this trip, Whelen and a guide named Bill Andrews spent over six months in uncharted territory, as he called it, between the Scumscum River and the Yukon. According to Canoeing North Into the Unknown: A Record of River Travel, 1874 to 1974 by Bruce W.
The photograph above, from the Charles Shelton Collection, Shelburne Museum, displayed on the Alaska’s Digital Archives site, offers a clue to the development of the Whelen lean-to.
I had an open shelter, instead of a tent, with side wings so constructed that, when pegged to the ground, they inclined outward at an angle from the perpendicular, leaving extra space for storing provisions. It sounds from the above description that he had refined the ends of the tarp since the 1906 photograph above, but had still not permanently attached an awning.
It is clear from the above that the original idea for this tent goes further back than Whelen’s 1926 version. Camping gear costs thousands of dollars for products, that if used enough, are going to fail when you least expect it. I will base this off of a summer loadout that I built in 2009 after I lost my job in the economic collapse. Do build your own frame saw.   A nicely tempered 24 inch Bahco saw blade is much lighter in your survival pack and more efficient than an expensive folding saw that tends to bend and break. Do Not buy heavy, expensive canteens.   I already touched base on this one, but a cheap billy pot and a Gatorade bottle are every bit as efficient as a heavy and costly metal bottle. Do Not buy expensive custom knives.   A laser sharp Mora in the right hands is pretty hard to beat for $10. Savings: Savings here are not monetary but the quality of 550 over the quantity of bank line gives us a real peace of mind savings. Tent stakes you bought at a store and need replaced occasionally = $10 – $20 every few months. Hopefully you have found something useful here, so maybe if you’re just now planning a low-budget camping backpack, you can save some coin and headache. When Leatherman made the Charge TTi, they combined all of the most requested features into one functional tool.
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The USA-made Trucker’s Friend is an all-purpose tool, built tough and specifically designed to meet the needs of professional truck drivers. According to the dust jacket flap of On Your Own in the Wilderness (Whelen and Angier), 1958, Whelen wrote his first outdoor magazine article in 1901 and afterward, his work appeared in outdoor magazines almost every month. During one of my Internet searches, I noticed a link to a site featuring outdoor paintings by John Seerey-Lester.
He hunted and camped extensively in British Columbia, the Yukon, Alaska, Nova Scotia, the United States and Mexico.
Scrolling down to the bottom of the second page linked above, I found a photograph of what looked almost exactly like a Whelen tent, except perhaps taller and certainly narrower. Furthermore, another Sheldon photograph on the Alaska’s Digital Archives site, dated June 30, 1906, shows an improvised tent rigged in a style similar to a Whelen tent.
The only mention of a tent in this narrative was a small tent that formed one of their pack covers. At Ashcroft (British Columbia) I bought a saddle horse for $25, two pack horses for $15 each, a stock saddle for $25, two sawbuck saddles for $5, and $25 worth of grub.
Besides, at this juncture, he was just starting out in the region, so tent development was probably not at the top of his agenda.
Hodgins and Gwyneth Hoyle, as early as 1904, Charles Sheldon and Frederick Courtney Selous (arguably the most famous British big game hunter who ever lived) were hunting in the area of the Macmillan River. In the photograph, referenced earlier in this article and dated June 30, 1906, a tarpaulin shelter can be seen. A detachable strip of canvas, a foot wide, could be tied in front and sloped outward over inclined poles.
Whelen and Angier in their superb book, On Your Own in the Wilderness, 1958, page 73, show a diagram of the tarp described above by Shelton.
None of the other writers of the day, such as Kephart, Miller, Cheley or anyone else were writing about it prior to the 1920’s, so it must have been a very localized design, exclusive to all but perhaps Sheldon himself.


I had always believed (and still do) that Whelen was a man of integrity who would not blatantly lie about such matters, and yet, I had concrete evidence that such a tent existed prior to 1926, with no evidence of a direct link prior to that time between Sheldon and Whelen.
It is obvious that Sheldon had already thought out the design and someone, most likely Sheldon, had the tent made prior to Whelen ever hearing about it. His youth was spent hunting, fishing, camping and trapping in and around the Broad River Basin and Sumter National Forest. Since I wrote this, a friend of mine turned me on to another source that adds supporting detail to the Whelen lean-to story.
Some folks use catfish line, but I’ve tried it and never have found the quantity to trump the quality of paracord. Of course, they are not indestructible, and you’ll likely be replacing them if you are a hard-use type. And if you’re an experienced camper, I hope this has inspired you to reevaluate your current investment and needs. The TTi’s premium comfort-sculpted titanium handle scales and an S30V® stainless steel clip-point knife to really take this multi-tool to the next level. This versatile piece of equipment handles a number of tasks including excavation, operations breaching, obstacle removal, and extraction, which makes the F01T-N an ideal tool for military and service personnel. In fact, one of the last pieces he wrote addressed the subject of this article and appeared in Sports Afield in June of 1961.
Lean-tos were used extensively by hunters and trappers in the Yukon, British Columbia and Alaska at the turn of the century. He was the driving force behind the creation of Mount McKinley National Park (now Denali National Park) and spent an entire year at the foot of Denali in 1907-1908. The 1906 photo, to be discussed further in this article, indicates that the Whelen style tent from the 1908 photo was created sometime between 1906 and 1908 to mimic this tarp arrangement. Rather than being a simple lean-to, the ends of the tarp are bent around as Selous describes, and are pegged to the ground.
When I first discussed the photos I had discovered with Steve Watts, and before I had done any of this research, he argued for independent invention. Whelen made critical contributions to the final design of this tent, differentiating it from anything that existed before, including the Sheldon tent. As a result, he developed a lifelong interest in history, aboriginal studies, survival, primitive arts and frontier life. That includes hail storms, damaging winds, a few feet worth of rain, and general drunken stubbornness.
In any situation that requires hacking, prying, pulling or pounding, you will feel real peace of mind with this serious tool on board. Whelen was the camping editor of Sports Afield for twenty years, Director of Research and Development at Springfield Armory and commanding officer at Frankfort Arsenal. Another of my camping heroes, Albert Faille (1887-1973) used one on his trips up the Liard and Nahanni Rivers in the Northwest Territories of Canada. I read the description at the bottom, which indicated that it had been painted after an account of one of naturalist Charles Sheldon’s 1906 bear hunts in Alaska. The next morning I started out over the Telegraph Trail, bound for northern British Columbia. These trips are described in Selous’ excellent book, Recent Hunting Trips in British North America, 1907.
By 1908, as can be seen from the other Sheldon photograph, someone, presumably Sheldon, had a tent constructed from to mimic this tarp arrangement, presumably with awning attached.
Already wealthy from his work and investments with the Chihuahua and Pacific Exploration Company, developers of Potasi, one of the richest silver and lead mines in Mexico, he was able to retire at 35 years of age to pursue his outdoor endeavors.
I did not agree, based on the fact that the Whelen lean-to was too much like Sheldon’s tent.
He widened the center panel from what is pictured in the 1908 Sheldon photograph so that there is more room inside to sleep. Besides, with the savings you’ll make from the other tips in this article, you can afford it. So you can cut through a tangle of brush and tree limbs, set up and take down a tent or blind, and conquer just about anything else that crops up when you’re in the wild. He was the developer of the Whelen rifle sling, the Whelen lean-to tent and the .35 Whelen rifle cartridge. This would have still put it in the Golden Age of camping (1880s-1930s), albeit toward the end of the era, but I was more interested in equipment and techniques from the middle period (turn of the century), so my Whelens were relegated to the shelf in favor of a wall tent and awning with all the accoutrements, except of course, when I needed to go classic and go light at the same time.
Donald Wilder made an excellent film of one of these trips Faille took when he was 73 years old.
If a Whelen-style tent existed this early in the twentieth century, I wanted to see a photograph of it! In looking at the photo, one can see that the seams run from one end of the tarp to the other, making it obvious that it is a simple tarp shelter rather than any sort of tent with walls.


The log fire which is always made before the shelter reflects warmth directly inside, so that one can sit at ease and in enjoyment in all but the coldest weather. The two photographs from the Charles Sheldon collection referenced in this article indicate that the tent in the 1908 photograph was invented sometime between 1906 and 1908. Instead of leaving the lean-to open at the sides, or bringing the sides straight down, as in the Baker tent, the sides are splayed outward and forward so that the bottom end comes three feet forward and three feet outward from a perpendicular dropped from the ends of the ridge. With Sheldon’s tent, the side wings had to be spread when pitched so that there was enough room to stretch out. For the last sixteen years, he has studied with Steve Watts at the Schiele Museum of Natural History. Then the Whelen really shines as a practical, packable shelter for almost any kind of weather, provided one uses campcraft by picking the correct site and erects it so that the front opening is parallel to the wind. How could Sheldon have been using a Whelen tent if it was not invented until the mid-1920s? Subsequently, I discovered photographs at Alaska’s Digital Archives, a site where various institutions post their collections of digital images. As evidenced, it is very much like what we now know as a Whelen tent, even down to the ties under the awning to accommodate the clothes rod as described in Whelen and Angier’s On Your Own in the Wilderness.
He may have simply needed a tent to suit his purposes which was more convenient to erect than a two-piece tarp, so at some point between 1906 and 1908. My old canvas one weighs in at 10 pounds, no more than a cheap nylon tent with fiberglass poles.
The collection of original photographs found in the links (here and here) are from the Charles Sheldon Collection housed in the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont. In 1926 I designed a small tent in accordance with Sheldon’s suggestion and asked Dave Abercrombie to make it for me. I believe Whelen designed his tent based on Sheldon’s descriptions and suggestions alone. Whelen’s wider back panel added the option of bringing in the side wings to protect against blowing rain or snow (see Watts, In Praise of the Whelen Lean-To). Other teachers and influences include David Wescott, Mel Deweese, Mors Kochanski and Dave Holladay.
A version could be sewn from Egyptian cotton sheeting that would weigh a mere six and one-half pounds. At first I thought perhaps Whelen might have invented an early version of the tent prior to 1908, but quickly realized this didn’t add up. I joked with Chris about not committing blasphemy, but it did not make me feel any better about my discoveries. Whelen also slightly reduced the height of the tent, making it even more resistant to rain and snow blowing in. For the past 28 years, Tom has worked in private, public and technology education.  He has taught numerous primitive skills classes and has presented a multitude of interpretive programs to a wide audience. Fuzzy, a trail friend, had a poly tarp last six months and he was every bit as hard on his as I was on mine. One of its few disadvantages is lack of privacy, but the Whelen is a wilderness tent, and this is not a concern in remote areas. The history of his travel, his writings and his experiences during the first decade of the twentieth century did not lead back to Alaska and the tent in the 1908 photograph.
This improved the tent’s ability to keep the warmth from the fire close to the sleeper. Many stormy nights for him, as well.  I know because I rode out a night filled with rain wrapped twisters with him on more than one occasion, so I can vouch for his tarp. I will not go into all of the details regarding the advantages and wonderful practicality of the Whelen tent, for Steve Watts has already done an excellent job of that elsewhere on this site (see In Praise of the Whelen Lean-To).
Some time afterward, he remembered a long forgotten article from an October 1979 magazine called the Buckskin Report which he proceeded to fish out from his archives.
After all, in the passage above, he gives Sheldon full credit in print for giving him the ideas for his tent. These significant design changes coupled with the fact that Whelen probably spent more time than anyone else in the tent, justifies this tent being called the Whelen Lean-to.
Whelen himself never referred to it as such until it was marketed under that name; he too, was simply seeking practicality.
However, because the final design is Whelen’s, because he wrote extensively about it and because of his vast experience camping in it, it will always be known by that name, and it should be. If Whelen had not done these things, this unique and nearly perfect tent design would almost certainly have been lost to obscurity.



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