Years ago I discovered a Long Distance Traveler living in one of my old deer towers. I’d built the “blind” for the kids but after a decade it began falling apart so I decided to tear it down. Approaching from a distance I saw someone climb down and scoot into the brush. I slowed keeping an eye out for the woods ahead of me but when I examined the blind I saw where someone had set up his casita replete with a bed made from sticks and his gear stored in one corner. I proceeded to knock the old tower down and then built a bonfire. Later on I learned someone had been raiding hunting trailers a couple of miles away and I figured it was this same fellow. Anyway, he disappeared and nothing marks that spot now but a few herbaceous shrubs and a matt of needle grass. Whoever that fellow was he knew a thing or two about sleeping in the Brushlands. The same goes for the deserts to the west. Despite what you’ve seen in Hollywood westerns nobody with any sense sleeps on the ground around these parts. Scorpions, centipedes, black widow spiders, pamorana ants, velvet ants, and the mean tempered Western Diamondback rattlesnake. By the way, we’ve also got coral snakes slithering around at night.
About thirty-five years ago I ran into a Boy Scouts troop and their leader at my uncle’s place. Some of the boys were working on merit badges and they’d made three wickiups with the intention of sleeping in them. With as much finesse as possible I urged the Scout leader not to let his boys sleep in those upturned bushel baskets even if Indian lore said they’d bib wacked in them back in the old days. “You don’t want to get one of your Scouts scorpion bit or even worse,” I said.
When I was a boy we’d travel down to my Dad’s ranch east of the town of San Fernando, Tamaulipas, Mexico. That was wild country back then. Before my dad built a stone cabin we’d sleep under a feeble covering of sticks and branches set atop four mesquite posts propped up with boulders. Now and then my Dad’s brother and his sons would join us but they were city slickers and refused to sleep under the stars. They’d hide themselves in the back of an old truck with a tarp over them scared to death and constantly complaining about one thing or another. My dad’s brother worked for my dad so there wasn’t much I could say or do other than keep to myself and away from them. I was maybe ten years old at the time and one afternoon my dad took me aside and said, “The vaqueros admire you for sleeping with them out in the open.” They constructed simple cots made from baretta limbs but my dad had an old Army cot for me to use.
I’ve never been much for tents. Even when I’d camp in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula I’d build a simple lean-to covered with pine boughs in near zero degree weather. Here in the Brushlands I sometimes build a bed frame reminiscent of what those campesinos made long ago. It’s basically a typical cot with two Xs on either end and reinforced with cross beams to keep the Xs from expanding. Of course, it all depends on the available wood and sometimes it’s best to sling a hammock and be done with it.
In some places where I’ve camped there were thousands of vampire bats and lots of jaguars and so the shelter design had to accommodate both the bats and cats. No one ever slept deeply in jaguar country. Besides, you’re constantly making sure your legs aren’t touching the mosquito netting since Desmodus rotundus will suck your blood through the net.
I knew a fellow who built his own portable lightweight hammock frame using ¾ inch PVC pipe. He’d attach the pieces into two small tripods then hang a hammock between the two pods. Except the hammock always rode too close to the ground and though it would keep him safe from scorpions and other stinging critters it did little to protect him from rattlesnakes. A large rattler can rear its head up to nearly knee height and so I like to be at least three feet off the ground.
The hard part in making a makeshift cot is finding the six foot (or longer) poles onto which you’ll slip a sock to sleep on. Most campesinos huddle up and sleep fetus-like in order to save finding long poles which usually aren’t available. It’s not all that uncomfortable and one gets used to it. It’s a compromise and I always save the poles to make walking sticks or some other piece of camping equipment. I reinforce the cross-members with parachute cord, jute or even twine and sometimes peg the frame to the ground. You don’t need to use para cord for everything. Besides, that gets expensive. You only need two tools to do the job: A machete and a pruning saw. The pruning saw makes the work easier but you can get by with only a machete. Remember this if you forget everything else: A machete is the one tool in desert, brushlands and jungle regions that you absolutely need if you plan to build a comfortable camp. All other cutting tools are secondary. I carry a pocket knife but I’ve never had much use for the typical “classic” bushcraft knife with its Scandinavian four-inch blade. That’s fine for softer climes but in the desert, thorn forests and jungles you’re better off carrying a machete. I should add that hammocks are sold in every market throughout Mexico and Central America and so you’ll see people carrying a hammock over their shoulders with a few supplies wrapped within. When it’s time to sleep they set up their hammock and tuck in for the night.
One thing to remember is never leave your shoes on the ground. Hang your shoes from the frame or from a branch and keep a small flashlight close by (usually next to you) so you can scan the ground around you in case nature calls during the night. Also, consider bringing a mosquito net along even if there aren’t any mosquitoes around. Chagas beetles are appearing more and more in the American Southwest and those bugs can carry Chagas Disease. In cold weather you need not worry as much about scorpions and other stinging critters unless you’re sleeping on gravely or rocky terrain. Scorpions will hunker under a rock for warmth and when you set your bedding on the ground they’ll come out from under the rock and join you. Hammocks aren’t comfortable in cold weather. Sometimes people will place a pad (a silver vehicle sunscreen or a horse blanket) over the hammock and then set a sleeping bag on top. Other people will attach an under-pad that affixes beneath the hammock. But it’s never really all that comfortable when temps plunge below 40 degrees so a small tent is prudent.
Hanging a hammock becomes a problem in places where there aren’t many trees. In that case you’re probably better off climbing into a tent. I always look for shade but sometimes there’s none around so you’d best bring along a tarp for cover and a good ground cloth to protect your tent. Weight, of course, becomes a problem if you plan on walking far. I’ve seen people so burdened by their pack they trudge around like zombies.
Water is the most important thing to carry in the desert and thorn forests. Bring along as much water as you can tote and add a water filter to your gear—and pray you find water along the way. If you run out of water you’re dead! Next in line is food and shelter. If you want to be macho and make a bow-drill then that’s up to you but don’t be foolish and leave your ferro rod or butane lighter at home. I like to make hidden camps where I can bird watch and keep to myself. Crowds just complicate things as far as I’m concerned but to each his own.
Camping in the brushlands or Southwestern deserts takes forethought. I always told my sons to “think.” Don’t pick up rocks or rotting branches without first checking underneath. Never take a step until you know there’s nothing coiled on the ground in front of you. Desert Rats do these things automatically just like urban dwellers look both ways before crossing a busy street.
A cool weather hammock from Mexico.