Something to sleep in

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This page is a subsection of SCA Without Breaking the Bank. It provides information on tents and pavilions.


Aside from garb, you can probably lose more money on tents than anything else. Grand pavilions with hand sewn dagging and ornamentation: who wouldn't want one? Of course, grand pavilions come with grand price tags. Can you, the poor SCAdian, still have somewhere to sleep without blowing the bank account? Of course! It just takes a little creativity.

Before we start, though, one thing needs mention. If you've been in the SCA for any amount of time, you have certainly heard about the debate between modern tents versus period pavilions. Those in favor of modern tents praise their ease to set up and take down, their portability and compactness, and above all, their price (ie: cheap). Though who love period tents exalt their authenticity, their comfort (it's nicer to stay in a cloth tent than a nylon one when it's a scorching day), and claim they are not much more expensive than modern tents. I will be discussing both, and let you come to your own decision about what you want.

General tips about tent buying and making

  • Make sure it's really what you need: You might think you want a four-room pavilion, but it it's just going to be you sleeping in it, you probably don't want to get it. Putting up a huge pavilion by yourself can be a daunting task at best, and you don't want to try it in the dark when you came to the event late and it's raining. Also, how are you going to transport such a huge pavilion? Make sure you have enough (a good rule for modern tents is to take the "sleeps X", and divide X by 2 or 3, depending on how much stuff you have), but don't get too much.
  • Make sure it's what you want: This is one of those areas where you might want to spend a little more (not three times as much, but a little) to get something that you like. If you don't, you'll wind up with a tent that you hate and that you want to replace as soon as possible. You'll have wasted your money for no reason.
  • Make sure it's authentic enough for you: if you want an authentic pavilion (even a small one), make sure it's authentic enough. Think along the lines of construction and pattern, material, and decoration. Think to yourself "will this be good enough for me in two years, when I've progressed in the SCA?". If the answer is no, rethink your tent and do some more research. Researching now will save you when you actually have to put it all together, and you won't kick yourself later on for messing up something simple.

Five-step method

  1. Get it free: Obviously, no one's going to give you a tent for free. If they do, be very cautious about what you're getting. However, there are ways to sleep at camping events for free. The easiest, of course, is to day-trip (ie: go during the day and go home at night). That way, the whole problem is circumvented. But if the event is too far away to day-trip, or you want to stay for the midnight party, what then? The easiest way to stay for free is to ask around and see if anyone has extra tent space you can use. People are generally good about this, and often will let you stay with them an entire weekend if you help them set up and take down their tent (note: I don't count this as barter, but simply following the rules of hospitality and common sense). Be sure to give people lots of advance warning that you're looking for someone to camp with, or else all the spots might be taken. Alternately, you can see if someone has an extra tent you can borrow for the weekend.
  2. Barter for it: Now we're getting into actually having your own tent. If someone you know is getting rid of a tent or pavilion that you want, you can try bartering for it. This works best if you have a SCAdian or otherwise marketable skill they can use, or else be prepared for some serious laboring to pay it off. Or you can see if someone can make one for you. Be warned, though, that this will also be costly on your barter budget (you don't really want to do dishes for a year, do you?)
  3. Pay someone in the SCA for it: You can usually buy used pavilions or pay someone to make you one for less than you'd pay in a camping store. Just make sure, though, that you inspect the tent before you buy it. Make sure there are no holes or mildew, that all the parts are still included, and that you can set it up yourself. You don't want to be stuck in a rainstorm when you find out that the roof leaks or the window won't zip up. You can also see if someone has a damaged tent that they are giving away: if you know how, you can fix it, and voila! instant tent.
  4. Get it at discount: For modern tents, check out wholesale tent manufacturers, army surplus stores, and end-of-season sales at camping stores. This is probably where you'll get the best deals. For period tents, try hitting the lumber yards for wood, and follow the same principles as getting fabric for garb for the canvas for your tent. In general, you might want to pay a little extra money to get something you really like: there's no point in having a tent if you hate it, because you'll want to go out an get a new one and you'll have wasted your money. At some events (notably Pennsic), you can rent tents to use for less than you might pay to buy it.
  5. Get it cheap: Again, check for modern tents on sale. For period tents, check out SCAdian merchants. Again, check what you're getting and be sure it's really what you want.

Submitted tips

Submitted by Crazy Einar

When I first split off from merchanting for someone else, I had to have a tent. We got accepted at a large event, and they asked what size my tent was. I looked helplessly at my wife, who said, "Nine by twelve."

So I told them 9 X 12.

She grabbed several plain cotton drop cloths from a hardware store and some colored heavy cotton tablecloths a hotel was throwing out, and with some grommets and a couple of sewing machines (letting one cool while using the other) seamed panels that we overlapped and blanket pinned together, so we could fold the sides up for selling space. It was not a totally period style, being a leanto, but I've seen wedges done the same way. Once waterproofed, the only long-term drawback is that driving rain will still beat through, creating a very light mist inside the tent that's actually kinda neat and even comfortable in hot weather. Well woven fabric at a decent angle will simply wick normal rain straight off the tent. Just be sure nothing you want to stay dry touches the sides (Which is important in any tent).

Period stakes should be cut with a hatchet from 1 x 2s. Iron stakes aren't generally period, are heavier and harder to replace. It takes 5 strokes of a hatchet to cut a stake: chop to length, point tip with two strokes, notch carefully. When it breaks or gets stuck, chop another one. Also use forked limbs. Iron in 3/8" can be forged down to a point with propane and a hammer on a good vise, and then the tops bent the same way with one pipe for leverage and one for a form while another person holds the torch on the metal.

Rope is standard manilla or coil from a hardware store, $5 for 100 feet or so. Either knot tautline hitches or drill sliders from more 1 X 2.

The disadvantage is it's not as weather tight as a professional pavilion. But you can still get years out of one--we got six years of Pennsic, Gulf, Lilies and major regional events from that tent. They look very period because they are. And I believe we spent about $25 on materials. I'm more than willing to give a merchant points for it when shopping, because it's a dedicated and serious attempt at being period, and looks far better than a quickup nylon fly or blue plastic tarp (Shudder). And for camping, it adds much to the atmosphere--you actually have a tent that fits being a medieval peasant.

Submitted by John Greyshade of Adria

$8 No-sew Canvas Mini Pavilion: The military makes many low tech durable things that can be adapted by reenactors, but shelter halves deserve a special mention. These are two person wedge tents that button together at the ridgeline. The idea is that one soldier carries half a shelter, one pole and four stakes and he can make a shelter to share with any other soldier so equipped. They are extremely common suplus items. I picked up a Dutch pair for $8 complete with stakes and poles from Cheaper Than Dirt. Mine was useable out of the box but a little patching might be needed on some of them. It was, of course, olive drab but fortunately these tents are cotton canvas and can be dyed. I used black dye and ended up with the kind of brownish grayish black that Elizabethans called "rat color," very period. You could also try browns, greens and other dark colors. Once the color is altered the only thing that looks out of place is the double row of metal buttons along the ridge, but even that is more atypical than unperiod. You can also paint heraldry etc. on the tent. You can replace the aluminum poles with wood, add a top pole for a banner, pendant or whatever you come up with. The point is for super cheap you have a fairly period useable tent that can be cheaply and easily customized as time permits. If you buy from Cheaper Than Dirt, use the flat rate $5.99 shipping to your advantage and pick up some blankets and other cheap camping goodies. You can probably get a decent looking little camp together for less than your pewter tankard cost. I've even seen a few period weapons there from time to time.

Submitted by Lady Eulalia de Ravenfeld

Find a friend or relative who is upgrading their gear. My lady's cousin just gave us her viking A-frame after she moved up to a larger pavilion. She explained that it was a good tent, and perfect for two people, but because she's had to patch it she is wary of selling it. The key is to make sure you trust whoever is offering you something for free (or for really, really cheap). I realize this isn't an option either for someone who needs some kind of shelter immediately or who has very specific needs for their pavilion. But a free period tent is better than no period tent! By endearing yourself to many people in your local group, you may find that someone you know will think of you when they ask themselves what to do with their old gear (actually I guess that goes for more than just tents).

Submitted by Joe Papasso

I'm active duty Navy, and I have a wife and a 6 month old son. I'm currently living in Colorado. Here, there are a lot of outdoor activities to do (not all SCA related), but when we arrived here we wanted to start camping. Knowing my wife was pregnant, we knew money was not going to stretch too far (as babies cost a lot of money even before they are born). So I checked with our Morale, Wellfare, and Recreation (MWR) office and found they offer a lot of camping supplies for very cheap. In fact one could get everything needed for camping (not counting your car) for nearly $50-80. This includes tent, coolers, lanterns, chairs, stove, etc. These prices aren't restricted to only this base's MWR, most MWR offices have this equipment for about the same price.

Submitted by Lady Anne Brynley and Lord Oliver Tarney

My Lord and I felt that the cost of already made pavilions was beyond our budget, plus we liked sleeping in a bug-free tent (zippered tent fly) so didn't really want to give up our mundane tent. We made a French Bell Wedge Pavilion "coverup" to go over our mundane tent.

Submitted by Mistress Baroness Merlinia

This was my original tent; 30 years later, I still have the poles. I have had 3 covers.

Go to a good Lumber yard in Spring, and check out their really long tomato stakes- the 1"x1"x7', go thru them carefully ,and find the hardwood ones. They are usually a darker brown than softwoods, and much heavier. As I am making another one, I know that Jager Lumber in Union, N.J., had what I needed (6) for a 40 min. hunt and $2.49 each.

The cover - my first one was made of 9 yds of 60" polyester knit that I found at a dollar sale at a fabric store. (yes, the stuff of 'polyester leisure suits'- it was the 70's) It actually worked in all but really hard rain. The second was made of sheets I got at a church sale. I don't recall what they cost, but the 3 I picked up this year were .50 each-so, $1.50 there.

My newest cover is going to be pure linen; the sheets are ok for SCA, but my Reenacting Legion is much more strict. I'm checking the Church sales for plain, unbleached linen table clothes. I got a beauty last year, 90"x 10' for $3.00, but I'm wearing it. I may have to go shopping at Pennsic or the Internet for what I need.

If/ Before it rains, get some wide plastic sheeting - the stuff that comes on rolls. A roll costs $14. You will also need some thin rope or cord or leather thongs (4 should do it). Also, either large grommets or marbles (my pref). Stakes can be of thick twigs, large 8"nails, or bamboo garden stakes.

To put together- go into your yard. Poke 4 poles into the ground where the corners of a twin bed would be. Pull the 2 at the 'head' together & tie, leaving a small X at the top. Do the same at the 'bottom'. Take the other 2, lay them along one side, points in, and size to go over the head & foot poles, plus 6"-8" over on each end. Tie these together at at least 3 places. This is the roof beam. Put it on the Xes. Tie the beam to the Xes. Rock it a bit; it should be pretty stable. If not, More rope.

If you have 3 twin sheets, sew 2 at the long sides together, measuring on the framework to center the fabric. Cut large triangles out of the 3rd sheet for 'doors'. They can be tied on before, or after the top goes on.

Remember the plastic? Before the top, run some from the ground on one side, over the top, and down to the ground on the other. Give a little extra. Lay 3 pieces of rope on the plastic, both ends and middle. Put the top on. Go in, & tightly roll up the plastic to either side of the pole. Tie the rolls up with the ropes hanging there. If it rains, untie and drop the plastic, pull it out to cover the walls and the ends (do this once at home, so you know how to do it!) then stake it down inside with the nails. Also be sure you can 'storm lash' the tent by staking a rope in an X pattern over the top, and a rope staked from the ground 3-4' away from the head end, looped around the poles, then over the roof pole to the other end, looped there, and thence to the ground again. This helps keep it from billowing in winds, too. Also use a piece of plastic still mostly folded for the floor.

To stake down the fabric cover, either measure & add grommets, or use the Marbles. (Put marble under the spot of fabric you want to attach a tiedown to, tie rope around neck of fabric under marble, and pull tight) Tie down all corners and 3 along each long side.

This mini 'viking' tent can cost under $20, sleeps 2, can hold a lot of gear in the end, is light,and is very portable.

Submitted by Anitra

I belong to a number of 'Points for Email' services. I earned enough points for a $25 Gift certificate to a national chain camping store. I also earned enough points on a different service for a $10.00 check. The tent I chose was on sale for $19.99 - I also bought an under-tarp for $2.50 on sale. The sleeping bag was also on sale for $14.99. Tent, under-tarp and sleeping bag cost me $2.48 plus tax.

Submitted by Inge

The SCA never banned mundane tents for events. You can get the 'dog house' type rather cheap, maybe borrow it of a friend who doesn't go camping just on the event weekend. Make do with it and wait for better times. (Even if you can sew well, making a tent is still a large project, costs a lot for cloth, and if you can't afford a car, how are you going to get the pavillion to the event site?)

Response by Lady Ennoguent filia Bronmael

Oh, I have to disagree with you. I made an 8x10 Viking a-frame for less than $100. About $55 for the canvas, and around $30 for the odds and ends. I sewed it on my brand-new Kenmore machine, typical household style. It took one Saturday. I do recommend reading everything on the florilegium about tentmaking before you try it, and having an assistant to steer the big heavy piles of canvas around. The tent itself fits into a average-sized rubbermaid tote, with ropes and stakes, and I (a weakling) can carry it myself. The poles are 10 ft long and can be strapped to the roof of my Bronco II or my Buick. It might be possible ?to figure out a way to bisect the poles and thus fit them into the average trunk or backseat. I realize this still isn't very practical for a college student, but it is within reach of the average poor SCAdian.

Submitted by Kat

If you're a student, check with your college to see if you can rent or borrow camping gear. Many of them do this.

Look for sports stores going out of business, and look for stores that sell used equipment.

Buy things at the end of the season. Right now (autumn) prices are going down for camping chairs etc.

Submitted by AElfwenna

If your group has events locally ( and most have at least one or two a year ) then daytrip; it's a lot less expensive than weekending and you are there for 90% of the good stuff.

When you do travel to events, try to share expenses and travel with others; if available, then using crash space instead of staying on site can also save money. Just don't forget to be a gracious and helpful guest, and remember down the line when you are more prosperous to return the favor.