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Camper Killian learns life lessons by building tent

Updated: Nov 15, 2023

From their imaginations, the boys at Cameron Boys Camp put tent ideas on paper. They draw a front view, a side view, and a top view. For something like a cooking tent, the boys create a floor plan showing where the mud oven, tables, coolers for fresh food, and other items will be located. Several hands go into making adjustments— it is never one boy’s creation. Killian is a new camper. He is not as confident. Even so, his opinions hold just as much weight as the most experienced guy.

Once the group feels their design meets muster, drawings are handed over to supervision. Supervisors make sure the design is safe and achievable and then return the plans with a stamp of approval. Each boy then draws the tent for himself. This gives clarity to the project, ownership, and the boys receive school credit. Killian is helped when needed— no camper is left to lag behind.

With completed blueprints, campers calculate the pole lengths and quantities using all three views of the tent. With the list in hand, they march into the woods with axes and saws. The boys don’t use power tools. Everything is done by hand. It may take a little longer, but there is more pride when a little sweat equity is put into it. Pine trees are selected for girth and height. Killian learns to look up before he cuts, making sure the tree falls without being caught in a nearby tree. He is joined by another camper and the boys sit down near the trunk with a bow saw making sure they cut as low to the ground as possible.

Campers stand behind and push the tree, preventing the saw from pinching and guiding the tree to fall in the desired direction. Killian and the boys learn to be good stewards with what they cut. The thicker portion of the tree is cut into uprights (posts) while the thinner sections are used for rafters. Middle portions are used for side rails or ridgepoles. Any part not being used for the tent

becomes firewood. Once the tree is down and cut to the sizes, campers carry the poles to the campsite. Excellent teamwork and communication are required. When all the poles are at the campsite, the bark is stripped off with shingle removers. This keeps bugs out of the wood and makes it look nice.

Before the boys build the new tent, they dismantle the old tent from the rafters down to the uprights. All the wood will be repurposed as either firewood or trail logs—nothing goes to waste. Most times, tents are built out of pine. Someone versed in construction may ask, “Why would you build them out of a soft wood? They’ll rot. quickly out in the elements.” It seems counterintuitive, but that’s exactly what is desired. Tents are not to last for decades. The hope is that a tent will last two or three years before needing to be taken down. This way new boys like Killian have opportunities to contribute to their campsite.

A boy is only here, on average, a year and a half. The more tents they build, the better their experience. The build starts from the ground up, putting in uprights and then side rails for stability. Ridgepoles are added to hold the rafters. For this tent, the boys wanted a curved roof. Pines can be difficult to bend, so young sweet gums are used. The entire structure is done without nails. Campers notch the poles with hammers and chisels and fasten them together using dowel rods. Holes for the rods are drilled using old brace-and-bit drills. The boys lash the rafters to the ridgepoles with twine. A large vinyl tarp protects them from the weather and secured with additional twine.

It’s an impressive feat—taking an image from one’s imagination and turning it into reality. A new boy like Killian is amazed. He gains valuable construction skills. He learns how he is important to the group—the guys couldn’t have carried the heaviest poles without him. The insight Killian provided during the dreaming process helped make the tent what it is now. He worked hard and reaps the reward by sleeping in something he made with his new friends and with his own two hands.

At a traditional school, guys typically just strive for a passing grade. At camp, a tent that’s done at seventy percent will leave people rained on or fall apart. Everyone at Camp strives for one-hundred percent. The experience of creating a tent is something the Killian will never forget.

Editor’s Note: Jason has a new book titled “The Nine Hundred Acre Woods: Exploring the Sandhills of Cameron Boys Camp.” To learn more, call 910-245-4034 or email

We are looking for counselors/teachers known as "Chiefs" to minister to boys and girls at Cameron Boys Camp and Camp Duncan for girls. Learn more at

Written by Jason Sullivan, Assistant Director, Cameron Boys Camp & Education Director, Wilderness Camping

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