Nothing says elk hunting in the Rocky Mountains quite like a wall tent.
“They’re really pretty homey when you get them set up,” said John Simmons, an Absarokee hunter who has used wall tents in his wilderness elk camp since the 1980s. “If it starts to snow or rain, to sit inside your wall tent is really enjoyable.”
It’s strange that a bit of cotton treated to resist water and fashioned into a tall, rectangular shelter could become such an iconic symbol of the American West. Maybe it’s because the thin tent walls make immersion in the wild close but not uncomfortably so. Maybe it’s as much about where the tents are set up as it is the protection they provide.
“It’s just a big back-to-nature thing,” said Oregon hunter Larry Hepper, who bought his first wall tent 55 years ago. “It’s just nice to see what goes on in a day out there rather than stay in a hotel or something.”
“Wall tent” is an American phrase that dates back to about 1835. Who built the first one seems lost to history, although two U.S. tent makers still in business date their origination back to the 1890s and the Alaskan gold rush era. The wall refers to the upright sides of the tent, as opposed to an A-frame- or teepee-type structure.
Animal skins were the original portable tent material, long used by American Indians for teepees. References to canvas tents date as far back as the 1700s, but they've probably been around much longer. Canvas actually gets its name from cannabis, the Latin word for the hemp plant used to create some of the first fabrics.
When humans began creating tent-type shelters goes back even farther in history. A tentlike structure made of branches dated 450,000 years old was found by archaeologists in France. Another 40,000-year-old tent used mammoth tusks. There are also biblical references to tents.
The structures have long been used by the military because of their portability.
David Nemer can trace his family’s Billings-based Reliable Tent and Tipi back to 1945. That was when his grandfather purchased the “mom and pop” company. Oddly, a company that once catered to hunters and more outdoorsy folks has found new life in creating structures for glamping, or glamorous camping.
“Glamping might be the largest single area of business for us these days,” Nemer said. “We’ve built a lot that are for resorts, ranches and individuals that people are going to fix up.”
The tents, as well as yurts, aren’t only used for eating or sleeping in, they also are now employed as yoga and art studios. Those more permanent installments often have wooden floors.
What’s the attraction?
“I think there’s something a little nostalgic about being in a canvas wall tent,” Nemer said. “It brings back that western experience, going back 100 years.”
Nemer’s wall tents start at 8 by 10 feet and go as big as 16 by 20 feet with 5-foot high walls. They range in price from $500 to $1,400. Internal frames are standard fare now to hold the tents up, but in the old days and for wilderness campers like Simmons, lengths of lodgepole pine trees are lashed upright to support the structures. Without the frame the structures range in weight from 40 to about 80 pounds.
“We used to set up a wall tent when we went paddlefishing on the Missouri River,” Nemer said. “We’d pack in a generator and television. It was pretty obnoxious. That was our version of glamping.”
Red Lodge photographer and writer Jack Ballard wrote the book on wall tents, “Creating a Traditional Elk Camp Where the Heart of the Hunt is Found,” published in association with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in 2006.
“Some of the finest nights of my life have passed within such shelters,” Ballard wrote. “Fond memories, a few reaching nearly three decades into the recesses of my mind, come to consciousness when I catch the pungent odor of treated canvas: images of my deceased father and uncle laughing, hunting, or lounging about camp.”
For more than 50 years Ballard’s family has driven up a rutted four-wheel-drive road in southwestern Montana to pitch their tent in the Snowcrest Mountains. Ballard was 15 when he got to go for the first time, a rite of passage.
“It was a big deal,” he said, signifying that his father thought he was old enough to handle the adventure on his own. True to that thinking, on his first hunt in the area Ballard was left by his uncle and cousins after only a couple of hours.
“I was a 15-year-old kid in some pretty big country,” he recalled. “And I was on my own. I actually saw two cow elk, though.”
For Ballard, Hepper and Simmons a wall tent represents more than an idyllic location and memories of hunts past; they are great protection from the rain, snow, wind and cold.
“They’re really pretty homey when you get them set up,” Simmons said. “You just feel comfortable with those walls. They seem to be a barricade.”
“You can dry out your boots and clothes,” Ballard said, something that’s impossible to do in a nylon tent without a heat source.
“We always have a nice woodstove to warm the tent,” Simmons said. “It’s really comfortable to have that stove inside.”
Although Hepper enjoyed the warmth of his woodstove, he got tired of spending so much time chopping wood and trying to control the stove’s erratic heat output. So about 10 years ago he designed a stove that burns commercial wood pellets. The stove has a funnel on top that feeds the pellets slowly into the fire to keep the heat more even, all without an electric auger. Now there’s no more wood to chop at Hepper’s camp.
So far the market for his Clarry Pellet Stoves has been small.
“Most guys don’t buy more than two,” he said.
But now Hepper is pinning his hopes for the business on the growing glamping movement, where some providers set up as many as 200 tents scattered around iconic places like Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, as well as the desert destination of Moab, Utah.
Such tinkering to make a wall tent camp a little nicer is another part of the experience that appeals to some people, Ballard said.
“We probably go a little crazy with stuff,” he admitted, but it’s also fun to make life more comfortable deep in the woods.
Ballard has even set up a propane-heated shower at elk camp. When his wife, Lisa Ballard, first made a trip to elk camp, Ballard was a bit apprehensive about how she’d react to camping out at 8,100 feet during the cold that October can bring. But Densmore was impressed.
“Geez, this is just like a portable cabin,” she told him.
“I had a friend who loved the tent life,” Simmons said. “If we went hunting for six days, about the third day he’d just stay in camp, clean the tent and saw wood.
“By the third or fourth day of the season, if I still have a tag, I just sit in my tent door and hunt,” he added. “I’ve never killed anything from the tent door, but when an elk runs through camp things can get pretty damn exciting.”