In the days before cell phone pics and online photo-sharing sites, nearly every household in America had its version of the picture album. Snapshots of weddings and family vacations filled the pages of these books, kept ostensibly to retain memories of bygone events and deceased relatives. But though visual and verbal recollections are assumed to be the most potent triggers of memory, psychologists recognize another, sometimes superior sense that sparks human memory. Smell, in certain contexts, can actually spawn more salient memories and associations from bygone decades than photos can.
A storefront in the manufacturing and warehouse district east of downtown Billings has nothing to commend itself as natural. The parking lot is paved, a drab concrete sidewalk lists imperceptibly in the direction of a dusty street. But once inside I am immediately transported to a lofty ridge in Montana's Snowcrest Mountains. A grassy meadow slides away to a smattering of aspen groves and a tumbling creek. There are evergreen trees here, pines and spruce. I can hear the low hush of an autumn breeze in their branches.
It is an experience repeated each time I catch a whiff of treated canvas. For over 50 years my family has maintained an elk camp in the Snowcrests. My father finally deemed his youngest son worthy of initiation as a 15-year-old. Nearly 40 years later, there is no place I’d rather be than in elk camp.
But “camp” is a term plagued with its own errant associations. For my crew, hunting camp has nothing to do with shivering all night in a sleeping bag rated for 10-below that scarcely fends the chill at 15 degrees, or worrying if a “four-season” shelter is really up for a foot of snow. We sleep comfortably on cots with logs smoldering in a wood stove gently heating the tent’s interior. We cook inside and eat at a real table draped with a red and white cloth (OK, it’s plastic). When my sweetheart first tentatively stuck her head in my deer-hunting camp east of Ashland, her green eyes widened like ripples on water after the rise of a trout.
“Wow, this is just like a canvas cabin.”
She perfectly described the wall tent in a single sentence. Buffalo hunters, prospectors and other early exploiters of Rocky Mountain resources often spent months housed in canvas tents. For hunters who take to the mountains in autumn—hell, for anyone who takes to the mountains in autumn—there is no finer shelter than a wall tent.
Reliable Tent & Tipi (reliabletent.com) began manufacturing awnings, irrigation fabrics, tarps and wall tents in Billings in 1945 as Reliable Tent & Awning. Initially, awnings and tarps used for agricultural purposes were the mainstays of the business. The company made a concerted push into the wall tent market in 2003, aggressively seeking to establish brand identity and capture significant market share. “We’ve grown about 30 percent since then and tents are a big part of it,” says Dave Nemer, company president.
Along with wall tents, Reliable also manufactures yurts. A partner wood company crafts the frames; Reliable creates all the fabric components and insulation. They’re currently in the process of building two Goliath-size yurts measuring 40 feet in diameter. Some 40 to 50 yurts exit the doors of this Billings business each year.
Online marketing, computer design and automated fabric cutting seem far removed from elk camp deep in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Yet it’s these contemporary business practices that allow Reliable Tent & Tipi to remain competitive in the national marketplace. “About 70 percent of our tents go to out-of-state buyers,” Nemer says. Many of those are marketed through an extensive dealer network in the western United States and Alaska.
The Internet component of the business tends to be informational. “This isn’t a $100 fishing vest they’re buying,” Nemer says. “The average customer wants to call and talk about their purchase. At that point we have the chance to guide them to the best product for their needs.”
Traditional, rectangular wall tents make up the backbone of Reliable’s product line. Standard models in their basic “Big Horn” line include an 8-by-10 tent that’s perfect as a solo camp or a cozy cabin for two, and a 16-by-20 monster that will easily house half-a-dozen hunters and their gear with plenty of room left over for cooking and poker. Prices start at $427 and reach $1,265 for the largest tents, with additional costs for bonus features like flooring and tie-in screen doors.
Wooden poles, commonly cut from standing dead lodgepole pines at the campsite, are historically used for pitching wall tents. Internal frames formed from metal tubing and joints make the job much simpler, and give hunters the flexibility to set camp in areas where natural materials are unavailable. Although an internal frame costs more than half as much as the tent itself, I wouldn’t be without one.
Specialty tents, such as the hexagonal “Glacier” model, boast simpler setup with fewer poles than a traditional wall tent. All Reliable models can be customized to the buyer’s specifications, including such niceties as extra zippered windows, doors on either end, and custom stove-jack placement. Some customers opt to have their initials emblazoned on their tent.
New designs and automated fabric cutting have changed wall tent manufacturing since the days when bolts of fabric were unrolled on the floor and panels were cut by hand. Nemer recalls his company's purchase of an automatic cutting machine in 2002. “It really increased our cutting accuracy. It also minimizes waste and reduces our production time,” he says. The machine is essentially a very long, wide table that flattens and holds canvas securely on the top by suction. A moveable, programmable head then runs over the tabletop, cutting the fabric to specifications fed from a computer.
Reliable’s workforce of around 20 employees—some having more than two decades of experience with the company—varies in number depending on the season. During the busy season, which begins around the first of March and lasts until the end of October, there’s little down time. Employees stay busy stitching panels together to create tent walls, sewing windows into yurts, attaching grommets, bagging stakes and finally boxing tents for distribution and delivery. The product of their labor? A tough, portable shelter that helps keep hunters warm and dry when there’s 8 inches of snow on the roof and the mercury resides in the basement of the ice box.
Montana Canvas (montanacanvas.com) is another longtime wall tent manufacturer and a major player in the national market. Over 20 years ago, Montana Canvas began supplying wall tents for an upstart sporting goods retailer called Cabela’s. They now produce tents for a host of nationally recognized sporting retailers including Sportsman’s Warehouse, Bass Pro Shops and Gander Mountain. “We’re primarily a wholesaler,” explains Curt Heinert, company manager. “About 80 percent or maybe a little more of our business is in wholesaling.”
Located south of I-90 in Belgrade, Canvas employs 22 Montanans in a business with traditional roots and an eye for innovation. The heart of their business is producing standard, rectangular wall tents with a reputation for durability that range in price from around $900 to $1,900.
For most hunting applications, a 12-by-14 wall tent is ideal. It will sleep four hunters with just enough additional room to house a modest camp kitchen. Montana Canvas tents of this size sell like snow cones at a midsummer state fair. I’ve seen these tents hold up for two decades of casual hunting. At a shade over $1,000, that works out to about 50 bucks per year for a canvas cabin that’s about as comfortable as a stay in a local motel.
The company's wall tents are made of canvas similar to what was used in the 19th century—with key modern improvements. Before cutting for fabrication, the canvas is treated for waterproofing and mildew resistance. It also receives a fire retardant, making Montana Canvas tents legal for use in California. (State statutes prohibit use of a stove in a tent that’s not been so treated.) A high-tech polyester fabric called Relite finds its way into a few specialty models. Relite is a bit lighter than heavy-duty 12-ounce canvas, and is more durable and easier to clean, but it lacks the natural breathability of woven cotton. Nonetheless, this space-age fabric creates yet another selling point for a company that artfully balances nostalgia and innovation.
Futher advances come in the design features. The company’s ISQ wall tent (starting at $1,426) is a typical wall tent appended with individual sleeping quarters (hence ISQ) that jut from the main cabin like dormers. Heinert is currently redesigning the ISQ pods to reduce the tent’s overall footprint. Then there’s the company’s latest invention, a portable greenhouse (starting at $1,081). Constructed of reinforced vinyl, the greenhouse looks exactly like a wall tent, replete with zippered windows. It drapes over an internal frame, creating a functional greenhouse that can be set up and taken down with ease.
I can’t say I’m ever in one place long enough to care for plants in a greenhouse, but from autumn through early winter you’ll often find me bunking in a wall tent. Every hunter should have one. I have three: a 12-by-14 stalwart from Montana Canvas, a cute 8-by-10 from Reliable Tent & Tipi and one very old, very tired tent with a torn roof and three rodent holes in one sidewall. It’s shot, but I have no intention of turning it to trash. It still smells like elk camp. For that reason alone, I will always own a wall tent.