In 1969, chemist Bill Gore took some polytetrafluoroethylene, heated it and stretched it, creating a membrane that had 14 million microscopic holes per square inch. The holes were large enough to let water molecules escape, but too small to let liquid water through. Waterproof breathable fabric was just around the corner, and Gore-Tex became the eponymous substance that made Bill Gore the richest man in Delaware.
Gore-Tex changed the outdoor industry, no doubt. The waxed cotton slickers that marinated folks in their own juices became a thing of the past. Canvas tents went the way of the dodo, mostly. Rustic was out; high-tech in.
Nearly 50 years on, though, you'll still find a few adherents to the old stuff. And that raises the question: If synthetics and sophisticated coatings are all that, why do some of us still use tight-weave cotton cloth for shelter and clothing?
I'm glad you asked. There are still good reasons to use canvas.
My primary shelter between the first frost in Fall and the first mosquito hatch in Spring is a canvas lean-to. It provides me what I need from a shelter and allows me flexibility you can't get with a synthetic tent.
Everyone has a nylon shell with little black-rimmed pinholes on it where the sparks from a campfire penetrated the thin, wispy cloth. I don't care how waterproof a material is, if you burn a hole in it, it's going to leak.
I can build a campfire a few feet in front of my lean-to, turning my shelter into a giant reflector. A few sparks from the fire might hit the canvas, but they don't burn a pinhole; they just go out. It stays a good 10 or 15 degrees warmer in my lean-to, so much that before long I'm in my t-shirt.
Downsides? Canvas is hardly your ultralight solution, and it doesn't pack down to the size of a half-gallon of milk. It gets damp with the evening dew and requires some care to make sure it's dry before you put it away. But for canoeists, unless you're portaging long stretches through the woods, weight and bulk matter little. While the minimalist is crammed into his 2-person nylon cocoon, I'm sitting under my canvas porch, watching the fire warm my shins. I mean, why go outside just to be inside?
Not just for shelters
The No. 2 Duluth Pack dates back to 1882, when Camille Poirier arrived in Duluth and opened a tent and awning shop. Later that year he filed a patent for the toughest, simplest canoe pack ever made. A simple envelope pack, it nevertheless held a substantial amount of gear and was tougher than a boiled owl's gizzard. It had a simple carrying system; two shoulder straps. No suspension, two brass buckle adjustments, that's it.
There's nothing wrong with a new-fangled suspension pack with waist belts, multiple adjustment points and quick-release buckles: I own half a dozen of them. I use them, and they work great. For solo trips, my little Cooke Custom Sewing Explorer is the one I keep packed and ready to go.
But I also use my Duluth No. 2, the one with a patch sewn into it where a mouse wanted my trail mix in the worst way. The one with leather straps that rotted after too long in my late friend Jim's basement. The one with new latigo leather straps attached by Ken, my favorite cobbler. This pack was made in the 60s, and will last another 50 years. Longer than me, and my son will give it to his children someday.
Some of my newer coated nylon packs have problems. The coating on the inside is flaking off in some places. The odd buckle is cracked and held together with dental floss. The canvas pack sits quietly, waiting its turn.
I am not a Luddite. I do not eat pemmican, smoke a clay pipe, or speak voyageur patois. I do appreciate, however, that sometimes the old ways are just as good as the new, and sometimes better.
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