Staying Connected

To the ground, that is, with ropes and stakes

Note: This article can be found in its entirety, with much additional information, in The Pavilion Book. We've left it on the web site to give you an idea of the depth of information that the book provides.

In previous columns, we've talked about using ropes and stakes to keep your tent attached to terra firma in even the most extreme conditions. This month, we'll discuss the ropes and stakes themselves. It's obvious that your connection is only as good as the stake and rope itself. Here's how to get the most of what you have.

Knowing the ropes

When you're selecting rope for your tent, you have to decide up front whether you're going to go for a natural fiber rope (like cotton, manila, hemp or sisal) or artificial-fiber (like polyester, polypropylene, or Nylon). The choice will be aesthetics and authenticity versus stability and durability.

If you're going for authenticity, the most historically accurate cordage is probably hemp. It also handles very well, is fairly smooth, and holds knots well. Unfortunately, it's also rather hard to come by, at least in the United States of America, since laws regulating the growing of marijuana also apply to growing hemp.

Hemp can be notoriously variable in quality, ranging from nearly as soft as cotton rope to nearly as stiff and fibrous as manila, but most of the stuff we see nowadays runs to the softer side. It also tends to be a bit more variable in thickness, so it's wise to test if your rope can go through the slider easily.

Speaking of sliders, I recommend that you use them with rope, rather than tying sliding knots such as the tautline hitch. This is bacause when hemp rope gets wet, it contracts and swells. (I've heard that in some circumstances, the rope contracts enough to tear the stakes right out of the ground after a good soaking rain, although that phenomenon may have as much to do with soggy ground and inadequate stakes as the contraction of the rope.) This means that you have to pay more attention to hemp ropes than other kinds, loosening them when the weather gets damp and tightening up when it dries out again. It also means that, when the rope starts to swell, it's nearly impossible for a sliding knot to slide, so some sort of sliders are very helpful here. The column on "fast setup" elsewhere on this web site shows an easy-to-make slider to adjust your ropes with.

The next choice is pretty much a toss-up between manila and sisal. Both are easily obtainable just about everywhere. Their strengths are quite similar (manila is about 20% stronger) and both hold knots reasonably well. They do stretch under load, particularly when damp. And if stored wet, both will rot.

I'm not sure about this, but I've noticed that most of the manila rope I've come across has been lightly oiled, and I suspect that if it weren't, it would probably demonstrate the same sort of swelling and contracting that hemp does.

One drawback of manila or sisal ropes is that sliding knots (used to regulate the length and tension of the ropes) don't hold very well. So, again, you'll want to use some sort of sliding mechanism.

Bringing up the rear is cotton. Besides sharing all the disadvantages of the other ropes (stretch and susceptibility to rot), cotton also holds knots so tenaciously that once tied, the knot is very difficult to untie. With sliding knots, the difficulty isn't that they'll come loose, but that they won't slide easily. Cotton is also weaker. Even a reinforced-core cotton braided rope is only half the strength of a manila cord with the same diameter. And cotton wouldn't have been a choice in period, since the process of removing the seeds was so labor-intensive that cotton was reserved for cloth-making.

Artificial-fiber ropes are your choice if stability and longevity are your primary concerns. Of the various fibers available, only polyester (which Dupont markets under the trade name of Dacron) is a practical fiber. It holds knots well (although the knots can be undone if necessary) and it is relatively impervious to moisture, sunlight, or rot. A #6 "diamond braid" (about 3/16" diameter) is as heavy as you need to go; it has twice the tensile strength of a manila rope when new, and keeps its strength far longer than manila or sisal.

Nylon is a (distant) second choice to polyester. It too is very strong, but it is more susceptible to sunlight damage and its tension is strongly affected by temperature. It expands when cold, decreasing tension, and it contracts when warm, increasing tension.

Polypropylene as a pretty horrible as a rope, since it is slippery, doesn't hold knots well, is fairly weak, and looks extremely tacky in its more fluorescent manifestations (although you can by it in a color that closely approximates hemp). About the only good thing I can say for it is that it floats .. not an important consideration for tents. Let us speak no more of this rope.

With all ropes, it's important to check them once in a while for integrity. Check for fraying, broken fibers, and funny smells. Ensure that the knots are staying knotted. The most common points of wear are at the points where it attaches to a stake or to the tent, or anyplace where it's forced around a small radius. Remember that anywhere the rope has a knot, it has a weak point. And if the rope has experienced strain, that weak point remains, to some extent, even if the knot is later untied. (Don't be unduly alarmed about this. The rope will likely still have enough strength to be used as a guy rope. I'm mentioning this to emphasize that no rope is immortal, and that the rope that your buddy borrowed to pull his truck out of the mud may not be as strong as it used to be.)

Here's a table of comparative tensile strengths for most of the types of rope we've been discussing. Bear in mind that the figures for the natural fibers can be considered approximate (because nobody tells the plants what the desired specifications are as they are growing, so they don't know), and that "working" strengths are approximately 10% of the actual tensile strength.

Comparative strengths of Ropes
Composition Thickness Tensile Strength (Lbs) Tensile Strength (Kg)
Reinforced-core cotton 1/8" (3 mm) 130 59
Reinforced-core cotton 3/16" (4.75 mm) 180 82
Reinforced-core cotton 14" (6 mm) 250 114
Nylon awning braid 1/8" (3 mm) 450 205
Nylon awning braid 3/16" (4.75 mm) 750 341
Nylon awning braid 1/4" (6mm) 1100 500
Polyester awning braid 1/8" (3 mm) 450 205
Polyester awning braid 3/16" (4.75 mm) 750 341
Polyester awning braid 1/4" (6mm) 1100 500
Manila 1/4" (6 mm) 540 245
Manila 5/16" (8 mm) 843 375
Manila 3/8" (9.5 mm) 1220 555

Stakes

The very best tent stakes I've seen are (shameless plug coming up) the kind that we sell with our tents (for approximately the same reason that Bentleys come with leather seat covers and not vinyl). These pegs are made of 1/2" square steel stock, with one end curved to a radius of about an inch, and the other forged (not filed or ground) to a point. These puppies are heavy, but very strong. (Usually, when I drive them in and they hit a rock, the rock loses.) But their best feature is that when it's time to take them out, you simply feed another stake (or similar object) through the curve and rotate the stake a quarter-turn. The square hole that the stake made when it went in becomes a round hole, and we all know about square pegs (or stakes) and round holes. A gentle tug, and these stakes seem to fly out of the hole.

You can either buy them from us, or you can make them yourself if you have access to the usual blacksmith paraphernalia and a source for 1/2" square stock. They're not hard to make at all.

We usually provide the stakes in two lengths. For guy ropes that take a lot of strain, we use 16" stakes, which are actually made of stock that's 19" long before the end is radiused. For ropes that take very little load, and for staking down the bottoms of the tent sidewalls, we provide 12" stakes (which start out life as 15" pieces). For most of the camping we do, that's overkill, but now and then you come across very loose or sandy soil, and every inch counts. If the soil is very loose and conditions are windy, even these lengths might not be enough, and you'll need to resort to the tactics discussed in column on "fast setup." . But in the majority of conditions, the ground will be fine for that length of stake. The only time that long stakes are a drawback is when the ground is very hard, but I can get all the holding power I need simply by driving the stake in nearly parallel to the ground, into the top three inches where the soil is looser.

Why 1/2"? Well, we tried 3/8" and it just wasn't strong enough. We've also thought about providing them in 8" lengths, but the cost probably would have been the same as the longer stakes and they wouldn't have been as versatile.

The second-best stakes I've seen are ones you can make by getting three things:

  1. A 12" nail, also called a "wire spike." The spike will be 3/8" in diameter. These nails are available in just about any of the larger hardware stores. (If you're buying a lot of these and you live in logging county, don't be surprised if they write down your license number when you drive off; these nails are also used by "tree spikers" to sabotage lumber trees. In fact, you might want to keep a copy of this article handy if pointed questions are asked.)
  2. A washer that fits closely onto the spike. 3/8" washers will do but are a little loose. A better fit might be a 5/16" washer, which may actually have a 3/8" hole, but be sure to test the washer on the spike before you buy.
  3. A 1" length of thick vinyl hose. Again, 3/8" will work, but if you can get one in a slightly smaller inner diameter, it will hold better. The wall thickness should be about 1/4", which means that the tube's inner diameter should be about 1/2" less than the outer diameter.
To assemble the stake, you put the washer onto the nail and slide it up toward the head. Then you put the tubing onto the nail and slide it up toward the head so that it will retain the washer.

Pretty simple, huh? And this tent stake, which will cost you maybe sixty cents, will last for a very long time. You might have to replace the tubing every second year or so, and straighten it if you hit some incredibly hard stone underneath the surface, but that's about it for maintenance.

If you have a welding rig, you can also weld the washers to the nail instead of using tubing.

You can make smaller versions of the above stakes, using appropriately scaled-down components, to help hold rugs and mats in place in your encampment.

One drawback with all the kinds of stakes mentioned above is that they'll rust. So you'll have to have separate bags to store them in. If you're sewing-impaired, you can make a fairly good bag by taking a leg from that old pair of blue jeans and sealing one end with a hand-sewn seam, a knot, or whatever. Or (another shameless plug coming up) you can get bags from Dragonwing. Your stakes will have to chew their way through six layers of 10-ounce canvas to break through the bottom of the bag, so they probably will last at least as long as your tent. Six layers is about the limit that my machine can sew through ... it's actually twelve layers at the side seam.


Index of Previous Columns

Other articles of interest, mostly about tents and tentmaking


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