When I first started backpacking, like most people, I slept in a tent. Unlike most people, after my first trip I signed up for a semester with the National Outdoor Leadership School. I wanted to push myself, absorb the wilderness through my skin. With NOLS, I confronted new and strange decisions, like how many socks you really need for 28 days (three pairs). Most confounding, on our second week my trip-mates posed a question I’d never considered: Inside or out? Initially I was confused, but then it dawned on me: They meant outside the tent.
At first it was hard: The wind blew through my bag. I awoke covered with frost. The moon’s glare kept me tossing. But I adapted and learned some tricks to stay comfortable. Soon, the rewards outweighed the challenges. I loved the smell of sagebrush surrounding me as I nestled where a tent would never fit, the constellations I befriended, the romance of meteors and moon shadows. Sleeping out helped me forge a closer connection to the land, plus it shaved minutes off my camp routine. And because sleeping outside offered privacy in the midst of a group—I could seek out quiet spots away from others and camp chatter—bedtime was when I would reflect on the lessons I’d learned. I became a regular.
Eventually the semester ended. Backcountry nights became rare. The peer pressure changed: My new backpacking boyfriend was bug-averse. And without the wilderness immersion, I lost the habit. But when conditions are right, the wild lures me out again and that connection I once had—to my best self and to the land—comes roaring back. I remember: This is how it should be. I should sleep outside more often.
And that boyfriend? He came around. One night, as we lay tentless in a Tahoe forest watching the Perseids rain shooting stars, he slipped a ring on my finger and proposed. Perfect. If we’d been under nylon, we’d have missed the celestial fireworks. And every future night under-the-stars would remind me of this one, just as this one reminded me of all the ones before.
Follow these tips and go tentless in comfort:
» Use training wheels. Bring a shelter with you, just in case. Still nervous? Set it up for a midnight bailout option.
» Choose the right season. Pick mild, dry, and skeeter-free conditions for your first attempts.
» Cover up. Use a ground cloth to help cut wind and keep dew and frost from collecting on your bag (lay it loosely on top, so it doesn’t become a condensation trap). Sleep on the edges of meadows, not in them, to avoid excessive dew.
» Shake out your bag before climbing in. Avoid bedtime surprises like scorpions and warmth-seeking snakes. —Rachel Zurer