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Backpacker Magazine – January 2012

Backpacker Bible: Camp Well

Who says spiritual travelers must shun earthly comforts? You just worked all day to reach a magnificent high-country cirque. Now create a campsite to match.

by: The Backpacker Editors

PAGE 1 2
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir (Courtesy Photo)
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir (Courtesy Photo)

Backpacker Bible
See all 10 skills every backpacker should know
{ Revelation }
See the Heavens Shine

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

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Reader Rating: -


Sep 21, 2012

I use a hammock, it's lite and comfortable and I can sleep with the stars.

Restfull sleeper
Sep 12, 2012

Starbuck - I don't think there is a piece of backpacking equipment that everyone can agree upon. I love my neoair. Very comfortable, and I hear my friend's BA pad in the next tent more than I hear my own (he doesn't hear mine either). My neoair did develop a slow leak last year, but I patched it and it's as good as new.

Sep 10, 2012

Sep 10, 2012

I know a couple doing the Continental Divide Trail who purchased the neoairs. Between the rotten reliability and the terrible crackling noise while trying to sleep, they ditched them for rolled eggshell foam mats.

Did editors sleep on them or even handled them? I took one look at REI by taking down the hanging sample and laughed myself silly!

P.T. Barnum had it right.

Sep 10, 2012

Sep 09, 2012

Be very careful camping high. On a high Sierras backpack, we camped high and got caught in a thunderstorm. An exposed pad is not a safe place to be under those circumstances.

May 05, 2012

fond memories of my camping beginnings. 12 years old, me and my friends heading out, the farm lands of Frederick Maryland, when you didn't have to worry about who's land you were on. My pack consisted of my sleeping bag and food. We hardly everhad a tent with us.

Jonathan Kniskern
Apr 24, 2012

Nice story but you will scare people off with the caveat at the end. I am a firm believer in camping under the stars - coyotes and all. I saw a wild stallion rear and neigh on the other side of the Rio one night camping under the stars near the Caballo Mts.

Jonathan Kniskern
Apr 24, 2012

Big Agnes makes a winter version too that worked great for me in rainy nasty fall/winter weather on the mountain here in Santa Fe and was way lighter than my tent-mate's setup.

Feb 09, 2012

neoair got a hole in it and i awoke at 3am on the ground, blew it up and in the dark i found the hole by feeling the air on my cheek, placed a piece of tenacious tape on the hole with out any prepping (and w/out much confidence of it sealing) but to my pleasant surprise it held and is still holding several outings later! by the way it was cold and moist weather conditions

Feb 04, 2012

Frank 2/3/12.
I believe he was referring to shoveling the snow to level the tent platform, not the earth below. He is not a Marine digging in. smile

Feb 03, 2012

Try getting a bivy sack with a screen mesh cover at the head to keep out the bugs when sleeping out. There are bivy sacks for sale at many major outdoors stores that are nothing but mesh. They won't protect you if it rains but they also don't weight, cost as much or get as clammy as the more traditional bivy sacks.

My first time camping was off of I-94 in the badlands of north dakota, I got eaten alive that night, but learning my lesson meant getting a bivy sack, not abandoning the view of the night sky.

Feb 03, 2012

The author is missing the Leave no Trace ethic with leveling tent sites
Use a groundcloth and tarp and find not make the right level smooth spot to sleep along the trail.

Jan 31, 2012

The last time I slept outside the tent I ended up with a 10" long centipede in my sleeping bag.

Asa Foley
Jan 23, 2012

The size of your pack is relative to the size of your fear - I hope someday to sleep outside, but as I lay in my warm bed on this stormy morning, I realize I have great fear to overcome. Thanks for the great report, it will push me in the right direction.


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