Parachute Shade Structure




How to build a sturdy shade structure using a military surplus "35 foot" parachute. We're bringing this to Burning Man this year, so it has to withstand the intense winds on the playa.

Update: The structure made it to the playa and survived the wicked windstorm on Wednesday! It required some additional reinforcement, but it held together quite well. Our flag was a little damaged, and the threaded end of the center pole broke when we tried to unscrew it from the coupler after the windstorm. Luckily we had an extra coupler, so we just reversed the pipe and used the other end. Aside from that, no other parts broke or were significantly damaged during the week. Set up went pretty smoothly with a couple people helping. The most time consuming part was screwing the eye bolts into the posts. Next year I think I'm just going to drill the holes out a little wider and use a nut and washer to secure them.

The modifications we made in the field were:

- We opened the structure at two ends to allow breeze through the structure. The parachute was either rolled over the posts or tied up using rope tied around a ball or penny pushed through on the opposite side of the 'chute.

- Several ropes strung over the top of the structure and anchored in the ground to keep the parachute from billowing too much.

- Slits cut in some sections of the parachute to reduce billowing.

- Additional guy ropes run from the top of the posts to the ground on the windward side of the structure. We found that the structure put a lot of strain on the anchored guy ropes when the wind really picked up. Adding additional ropes and rebar helped significantly.

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Step 1: The Plan

The shade structure is built somewhat like a big top tent. There is a large centre pole and six outer posts arranged around the centre pole. The centre pole and outer posts are supported by guy lines that also support the parachute once it is draped over the frame. You'll need to know or learn some knots in order to attach the guy lines correctly.

The centre pole is made from two 6' 1/2" steel pipes. I went with two segments of pipe and a coupler because they will fit in our van more easily than one 12' post or pipe. The outer posts are 8' 4x4s and just fit in our van. The (optional) flag pole on the roof can also be attached with another pipe coupler.

Like any good Burning Man shade structure, all the rope and posts are secured to the ground with rebar.

My cheesy Inkscape-drawn plan is below. For the original size image see here.

Step 2: Materials Needed

  • 35' parachute. We found ours at a military surplus store for about $130 CAD.
  • ~400' parachute cord. Also available at military surplus stores.
  • 6 8' 4x4s
  • 24 3/8-16 5" Eye bolts with nuts, eye diameter should be at least 1/2" (a 1/2" piece of rebar should just slide through the eye)
  • 24 3/8" washers

One thing about the parachute: even though it's sold as a 35' parachute, the diameter along the bottom edge is more like 22'-24'. It could be that the parachute is mushroom shaped, and that the maximum outer diameter is actually not along the bottom edge but a few feet towards the centre of the parachute, or it could be that we got ripped off. (I did go back and exchange the first 'chute I got and the next one was identical in size, so I dunno.) If you can score a bigger parachute I think this design should scale up to at least a true 35' parachute. In that case, you'll need about 500' feet of paracord and you will probably want to make the centre pole 16'-18' high instead of 12'.

Step 3: More Materials

  • 7 4' pieces of rebar, 1/2" dia.
  • 12 or more 3' rebar "candy canes" (3' section of rebar bent to form a hook)
  • sledgehammer for rebar
  • 2 6' 1/2" sections of threaded steel pipe
  • 1 1/2" pipe coupler
  • 1 1/2" pipe tee

We're thinking of putting a flag on the top of our structure, so we bought another 4' section of pipe and another 1/2" coupler.

Rebar candy canes are much safer when sticking out of the ground. You might stub your toe, but you won't impale your shin. They also make excellent rope tie downs.

To make a candy cane:
1. Insert one end of the rebar into one 1/2" pipe about halfway.
2. Place the pipe and rebar on the ground against your house or a sturdy wall.
3. Slide the other 1/2" pipe over the exposed end of the rebar.
4. Grab the long end of the pipe and bend the rebar over. You may need someone to help you by standing on the rebar as you start bending it.

Step 4: Tools

  • safety glasses
  • work gloves
  • drill
  • ruler/measuring tape
  • pencil
  • center punch
  • hammer

Other things you'll need, not shown:

  • An assistant. One person could probably do this, but it's much easier with two.
  • A couple of short step ladders or chairs.
  • wrench for eye bolt nuts
  • knife to cut rope
  • lighter to burn rope ends

Step 5: Prepare the Posts

Drill two 5/16" holes 2.5" and 5" from the top of each 4x4. Tap the holes by screwing an eye bolt into each. Screwing in the eye bolts is a little easier if you stick something through the eye, like a piece of rebar or another eye bolt. You can see a simple crank I rigged up with some of the extra eye bolts.

Step 6: Prepare the Posts, Continued

Drill two more holes at the opposite end of the post, one 2.5" and one 12" from the end. Again tap the holes by screwing the eye bolts into the holes.

These holes will support the bottom of the posts. The eye bolts will slide over rebar stakes.

Step 7: Rebar Layout

Each post slides over one of the 4' rebar stakes, as does the centre pole. Find a big space in a nearby field, or if you're lucky, in your backyard, and pound in one of the rebar stakes. This will be the centre pole. Pound in the remaining six rebar stakes in a hexagon centred around the central stake. It isn't absolutely critical that you get it perfect, but the stakes should all be 7' from the centre and spaced fairly evenly.

A good way of getting the distances and angles correct is to create an equilateral triangle of rope that is 7' a side. Tie knots at the corners of the triangle and slip the triangle over the centre stake, placing a knot behind the stake. Stretch the triangle out and place rebar at the knots at the corners. Pull the triangle off the rebar and slip it over the centre pole and one of the new stakes. Stretch the triangle out again and place a stake at the remaing free knot in the triangle. Repeat for each new stake. Note that opposite rebar stakes should form a straight line through the centre.

One other thing to note is that you should try and get the rebar as vertical as possible. We weren't too successful with this the first time around so we're going to try making a guide out of a small board, a 1/2" piece of pipe and a 1/2" pipe wall flange. If anyone has any other suggestions please leave a comment!

For a larger version of the second image see here.

Step 8: Add the Posts

Attach the eye bolts to the posts. At the top, screw the eye bolts facing opposite directions. Secure the bolts with a washer and a nut. At the bottom, screw both eye bolts on the same side.

Slide each of the posts over the outer rebar stakes. Pound in a candy cane about 4' behind each post, in a straight line from the centre stake. This is where you'll need to tie some knots. You'll need to know how to tie a clove hitch and a taut line hitch. A clove hitch is useful for attaching a rope to a post or rod. A taut line hitch is an adjustable knot, sort of like the knot equivalent of a locking slider. We're using them here so that we can increase the tension on the structure to straighten it out and to make it more stable. Make sure you know how to tie these correctly! They're pretty handy elsewhere too, so they're worth knowing anyway.

For the upper horizontal sections use about 9' of rope. Tie a clove hitch around one post and secure it with a regular knot (i.e. a half-hitch), wrap the rope around the next post and tie a taut line hitch.

For the guy lines use about 10' or 11' of rope. Tie a clove hitch around the eye bolt secured with another half-hitch and run the rope around the candy cane and tie another taut line hitch.

While we didn't do this the first time through, we plan on adding additional supporting ropes from the top of each post down to the candy canes behind each adjacent post. This provides some lateral stability to each post and holds the parachute out better. These ropes should be about 13.5' long and are tied the same way as the other guy lines (clove hitch around the eye bolt, taut line at the rebar candy cane).

Instead of pre-cutting your rope, it may be easier to measure it in place and cut it to fit. Make sure you burn the cut ends of your cord too so that it doesn't fray.

This step is by far the most time consuming. With two people it shouldn't take more than 20-30 minutes or so, if they know their knots.

Once all the knots are tied, tighten the taut line hitches and try to straighten out the structure. The tighter the better, since the ropes have to support the parachute and eventually they must withstand the 40mph winds on the playa.

Step 9: Parachute!

Attach the pipe coupling to the end of one of the 1/2" pipes and slide the pipe over the central rebar stake. The coupling will prevent the parachute from catching on the pipe.

Unroll the parachute and unfold it in the centre of the structure, over top of the centre pole. Try and stretch it out evenly. Starting with one side, pull the parachute over the top of the posts. This step is probably easier with two people, since the parachute tends to snag a bit on the tops of the posts. Once you get the parachute over one side, work your way around and even out the fabric again.

Step 10: Centre Pole

Measure out and cut six 9' sections of rope. Attach the 1/2" pipe tee to the end of the remaining 6' pipe (note I goofed and grabbed a 1/2" to 3/4" tee because someone mixed up the box at Home Depot, grumble). Pass one end through the tee and tie a bowline to secure the rope.

Duck under the parachute and try to to loop part of the centre of the parachute over the tee so that you can raise the parachute with the pipe. Our parachute had a canvas strap that we were able to fit over the tee that worked pretty well. You may have to improvise a bit here.

Once the centre of the parachute is attached to the pipe, raise it over the existing pipe and screw them together. The structure should be starting to look a little more respectable now.

Separate the ropes dangling from the centre pole and tie them to the eye bolts on the inside of the posts using another taught line hitch. Once all the knots are tied, tighten the hitches to raise the parachute. Again, tighter is better. As you tighten the centre pole ropes you may have to tighten the others to keep everything straight.

Step 11: Entrance

Even out the parachute some more and then roll up one section of the parachute over two of the posts to form an entrance. You can make this permanent if you wish by placing a coin behind the parachute on one side and tying a piece of rope around the coin, passing it over the rolled up fabric, and then tying it to one of the posts or eye bolts.

Pull the parachute out from the structure and secure it to the ground with rebar candy canes (not shown).

I've added a scale bar to the image below. It's six feet tall, to give you an idea of the size of the structure. The high roof makes the structure seem roomy and airy when inside. We had originally hoped to fit our tent inside the structure (when we thought we were actually getting a 35' parachute), but we won't be able to with this smaller 'chute. A long narrow tent might fit as long as it it less than 7' wide. That said, there is easily enough room for five or six chairs, a table, a few totes, and a couple of coolers.

That's it! I'll update this once we bring it to the playa!

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    19 Discussions


    4 years ago on Step 11

    imma do this at youtopia this year, just the same chute you got!


    9 years ago on Introduction

    Those were used a lot in the early days of the SCA. It was discovered that people would get sunburned under them. Don't know if there's any difference between the surplus parachutes available today and the ones they were using in the early '70s.

    1 reply

    i assume from you're comment that you are an SCA member. do you know of any easily erected, cheap, period tent?


    9 years ago on Introduction

    johnny3h says: I don't know IF PRESENT DAY chutes are better at blocking the Sun, but in the "old days" chute material was totally useless for that. Back in the latter half of the 1950s I was heavy into Scouting [Boy, and Explorers] and I we planned a trip to Philmont Scout Ranch in NE New Mexico. I was assigned the task of providing extremely lighweight [backpacking] and AFFORDABLE [for us] tents for the entire group [14 boys and an adult leader]. I got the brilliant idea of making them out of GI surplus WWII parachutes. We we had a terrible time at Philmont as the parachute tents had TWO MAJOR SHORTCOMINGS: 1] They stop VERY LITTLE of the dirct rays of the bright sunlight, and we got sunburned under them [no sunscreen in those days]. 2] They are NOT WATER OR RAINPROOF like tight woven canvas. Light rain would accumulate on the top, soak through, and DRIPPED EVERYWHERE ON EVERYTHING! In addition, when heavy raindrops struck the parachute material, instead of stopping it, the loose mesh of the material just acted like a window screen and broke the single droplets into dozens of smaller high speed droplets. Needless to say that was one miserable trip. The next year, learning based on our experience we bought the cheapest "ordinary" backpacking tents available. For sunscreening, as at Burning Man and Terlingua I suggest that IF you use parachute material then double or triple layer it. There would be multiple advantages for this technique: 1] Improved screening out of the sun's rays, 2] Multiple layers would improve the "density" of the envelope and help "dampen" the pitching and bucking in the wind, and 3] May reduce the generation of holes due to chafing on the support poles. For reducing chaffing, I've used ordinary cardboard box material [always plentiful at events like this] or multiple layers of grocery bags [paper OR plastic].


    11 years ago on Introduction

    We've used parachutes - both 32 ft and 64ft - for three years running, and they've worked fabulously. The only problem we had was in 2007 where our camp tried to raise the center pole on our 64 footer to 30ft instead of 20. That caught too much wind. However once we lowered it, we had no further problems. Shade wise, it also worked great, and allowed for plenty of air flow since the edges of the chute were about 5 feet off the playa. A chute definitely requires more rather than less guying and a goodly amount of rebar. But properly done, once it's up, it ain't moving.


    12 years ago

    Just say, "NO!", to parachutes. I know they are cheap and big and cheap, but they don't even block that much sunlight. They are designed to catch AIR and WIND! These are two things your don't want to catch with your shade. Air flow is key for cooling. As far as shade is concerned I think you are much better off with a tarp (Ugly) or a canvas drop cloth (Ahhh, playa colored. That being said. I love your design and description. I wish I'd so diligently documented the few shade structures I've produced. It seems you've done very well for yourself given the material choice. Way to MacGyver out this one! As far as burningman is concerned, I would agrue that optimizing for reuse is an optimization of cost. Much Love, SpaceHippy Matt


    12 years ago

    I was wondering how your structure turned out on the playa? did it make it through that one big storm we had (sorry i can't remember which day it was!!!). I am in charge of shade for our group for burning man 2007 so i'm doing a little research. thank you, sarah

    1 reply

    Reply 12 years ago

    All in all the structure held up really well. I've made a list of the modifications we made at Burning Man above. If you do decide to do something like this, I would suggest bringing a couple extra candy canes and a fair bit of rope, just in case you need to reinforce things once you're out there. Also, make sure you know your knots. Be able to tie them quickly really makes a difference when the dust starts flyin'! Compared to car ports, which seemed to be very popular this year, I'd say the main advantage of this structure is its packed size. No piece was longer than 8', so all the parts fit in our van without any trouble, and the 4x4s packed nicely along the floor. I'm not so sure a car port would have been as easy to pack. Otherwise, in terms of durability and amount of shade, I'd say that this structure was comparable. Hope this helps!


    13 years ago

    I wouldn't count on one year's experience telling you that your structure will be strong enough. I've seen years where there is no wind, and years were for the first several days it was hitting 60mph regularly (and we did see several complete tents blow past. Last year wasn't too bad, four years ago (I think?) was not so good, mostly white out. Parachutes seem like a good idea, and are fine on the good years, but those other years? it is designed to catch the wind. Don't count on it as your only shelter. As for the rebar. We gave up on the candy canes after the first year. Too much of a pain to get into the playa. Tried regular rebar (with water bottles, or tenis balls over the top to keep from impailing). I've now switched to these heavy stakes the sell at Home Despot (or any place that has concrete supplies). They are used to hold concrete forms in place. About 3/4 in in diameter, have a bunch of pre-drilled holes, and are pointy. Can get them in several lengths. Seem to work better than rebar, but they do cost a buck or two each (rebar is cheaper). Good luck and have a nice burn.

    2 replies

    Reply 13 years ago

    Yeah, I understand the weather can vary significantly from year to year. Last year our little gazebo got flattened within a few hours during the storm that hit Monday when we arrived. We were able to improvise and reinforce it though, so it worked out in the end. I'm planning on bringing boatloads of extra rope and we have a bunch of rebar left over from last year, so I'm pretty confident that we can improvise again if need be. Candy canes were a bit tricky last year, but not too bad with a sledgehammer or two. I'll keep an eye out for the stakes you've described, though. I also think we'll try struwwelpeter's idea and run ropes across the top of the parachute to keep it from billowing too much and if it gets really bad we can cut some holes in it like fungus amungus has suggested.

    fungus amungusgunterhausfrau

    Reply 13 years ago

    I always wondered how people hammered a candycane into the ground. I've used those same (very) heavy stakes as well. The Home Depot was sold out of rebar a few years ago (as it tends to do the week before BM) and I got those instead. If the chute is catching too much wind, go ahead and slice it to ribbons. OUr chute almost took our whole camp with it a few years ago until we slashed it up to let wind go through.

    fungus amungus

    13 years ago

    Doesn't quite look playa-proof to me. Have you stress tested it by jerking it around? A lot? Those sides can catch a lot of wind with occasional storms out there hitting 70mph. To get more shade from this structure, use your van to your advantage as an extra support. One side of the chute can be lifted up with a couple ropes that go over the top of the van. That should give you enough shade to get your tent under it.

    5 replies
    benjcarsonfungus amungus

    Reply 13 years ago

    I like the van idea. That would certainly give us some extra room. I think there should be enough fabric to reach, as long as we park close enough. As for stability, we did jerk it around quite a bit and it was a little unstable initially. It was way more stable once we added some guy lines from the top of each post diagaonally down to the candy canes behind each adjacent post. Plus, we plan on anchoring the parachute directly to the ground, which should keep the sides from catching too much wind. Heh, I know it looks kinda ramshakle and crooked in the photo above, but that's mostly because the rebar went into the ground crooked. Once the ropes are all tight, it's pretty sturdy though. Any suggestions on how to pound a rebar stake so that it's mostly vertical?

    fungus amungusbenjcarson

    Reply 13 years ago

    You can definitely rig up something to pound in the rebar better. You could screw a square flange onto a 2x4, drill through a hole big enough for the rebar and put a pipe on top as a guide. Once it's in, just life the whole thing off the top. Or try a variation on this theme. A couple of tips for removing the rebar from the playa: If it's regular straight rebar, then grab firmly with a vice grip or pliers and twist it before you try pulling it out. As for the candy canes you can tie a loop of rope through the candy cane. Slip a sledgehammer inside the loop and remove it with an inverse hammering technique. Don't try to get the chute down to the ground. Having a nice breeze can be a lifesaver out there. Also, a lot of the wind tends to blow in the direction of the 6 o'clock street from the cafe to the man. But mostly figure out where the sun's gonna be in the morning and get some shade protection. Cooking in your tent is no fun. I could go on and on, but that's enough for now. You've been before, right?

    benjcarsonfungus amungus

    Reply 13 years ago

    Yeah, last year was our first burn, so I do generally know what to expect. Our shade structure was just one of those little mosquito gazebos. Not very practical nor sturdy. We managed to reinforce it with some guy lines though and it held up the entire week. Sadly, we became quite familiar with the Easy Bake Tent effect, and that is one of the major motivations for having a bigger, better structure this year. Out of curiosity, what kinds of structures have you used? We could still anchor the parachute to the ground, but just via a couple feet of paracord so that there is a gap between the ground and the bottom edge of the parachute. That might also stretch the walls out a bit more to give us a little more room. I'd like to anchor the parachute anyway so that it doesn't turn into a gigantic sail. (Heh, I just hope it's not too windy when we get there.) Thanks for the suggestion on the rebar guides. I think I have a flange around here somewhere, so I'll give it a try before we go to see how it works.


    Reply 13 years ago

    Happened upon this and I've had some experience with large tents. One problem you might face in stiff winds is not that it will blow over, but that it will puff up and pull on the poles. I'd guess that your rebar will prevent the poles from falling out of alignment, but if I understand how you have it all attached, a lot of puffing might loosen a rebar and then a pole could slip out of alignment and come down. I have used wind ropes across the top of tents like this. You'll need four extra stakes or rebar candy canes and run two lines from the corner of each door to the opposite side of the tent so they criss-cross. This way, you can leave your walls loose (or even lift them all the way) and it will keep your lid secured down on all the poles. Because this can cause friction between the ropes and the silk which might wear holes in the silk, pick up some fabirc from a discount fabric place and sew up a tube to run the wind lines through. That should keep your lid on, leep your tent in good condition and, depending on how funky you want to be, add some color.

    fungus amungusbenjcarson

    Reply 13 years ago

    It's funny. I've gone six times and never really dealt with the shade structure aspect too much. I've often camped with large camps that had a large communal shade structure. I'd often plop my air mattress (essential!) in there and pass out for the night. That or I've used the technique of tying a chute or tarp to a car/van to another car/van or some rebar on the ground. Oddly enough, I've never been in a camp with a geodesic dome. It also helps to get some carpet or astroturf on the ground to keep the dust under control. Have fun out there and drink lots of water. A friend of mine had to be medevaced out when she got dehydrated. the next year she drank tons and tons of water and OVER hydrated and had to go to the hospital again. And if your shade structure has any problems you can just ask a neighbor for some help.