Tent Fires

I had a great time at the Snow Walkers’ Rendezvous in Vermont, both meeting up with old friends and making some new ones. My workshop on using an axe and lighting wet-weather fires was well attended, and the food was outstanding as it always is at the Hulbert Outdoor Center. I also attended an informative presentation by Craig MacDonald on traditional winter travel hand-hauling techniques. But the highlight of the weekend for me was the tent fires.

Like many of us who spend a lot of time in traditional canvas and Egyptian cotton tents in the winter, Allan Brown had been curious about tent fires for a long time. The literature on the topic states simply that people don’t survive tent fires. So Allan decided to test these theories by attempting to burn several tents, as well as a variety of different fabric samples. Allan set up an old, Egyptian cotton wall tent with a wood stove located in between the open doors. When the stove was running good and hot, he untied the doors so one of them would fall on the stove, simulating a collapsed wall. Within ten seconds, the material was smoking. Within about a minute, it caught on fire. The fire climbed slowly up the vertical doors of the tent, then slowly began to burn along the ridge pole towards the far end. In about eight (if you were there and my times are off, please email me) minutes, the tent was gone except for some of the walls which were burning on the ground.

Allan then tested a variety of other fabrics commonly used by tent makers by placing samples in contact with the hot woodstove. They all had similar fates, although some took longer to burn.

The last part of the experiment was to try and burn down a nylon dome tent by simulating a white gas fire. The nylon fared better than the canvas – it melted away from the fire, but didn’t catch on fire itself. When the gas had all burned, the fire went out.

It was a great demonstration and gave many of us pause for thought. Safety when using portable wood stoves in winter tents is crucial. Thanks to Allan for providing an opportunity allowing me, and the other participants, the opportunity to learn this experientially.

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