Skip the Tent: Sleep Under the Stars

Tear down the walls: Cowboy camping gives a true backcountry experience.
No-Tent Camping

A night out at Castleton Tower, UT [Photo by Justin Bailie]

“WHAT ABOUT BEARS?” asked one of the girls.

“And spiders?” added one of the boys.

I had suggested they and the other eight teenagers in our group lay their sleeping bags on the ground and sleep under the stars. It was a warm summer night in Northern California’s Trinity Alps. No rain threatened and no mosquitoes buzzed. The other guide and I threw our bags on the ground and I said, “See, there’s nothing simpler.”

But there was no dissuading them from seeking shelter on the first night—all 10 kids zipped themselves into tents.

It was the beginning of a weeklong backpacking trip with teens who had never been in the backcountry. Over the coming days, the other guide and I would teach the kids how to use a map and compass, plan a route, hike off-trail, select a campsite, care for their feet, hang a bear bag, cook their meals, filter water, pitch a tent securely, and—hopefully—enjoy not pitching a tent at all.

Why am I such an advocate for cowboy camping? It’s not that I don’t appreciate the value of a good tent. I’ve weathered plenty of rain, cold, and bugs from within a nylon refuge—and I know I would have been miserable without one. But that thin sheet of fabric does more than protect from the elements. It also creates a barrier between you and the wilderness. Without it, every chirp and rustle sounds a little closer. You feel the softest breeze on your cheeks. The dome of stars overhead shines as bright as a planetarium.

On most trips I guided, the kids were reluctant to sleep outside for the first few days. This one was no different. But as often happened, something changed between the first day and the last. As they got dirtier, they also got more comfortable. And on the final night, when I suggested they skip the tents, all 10 of them rolled their pads out in a meadow, in a circle with their heads together, so they could stay up late whispering—and watching for shooting stars. No one mentioned spiders.

No-Tent Tips
1. Avoid low-lying spots, where moisture collects.
2. Seek breezy ridges if bugs are buzzing.
3. Clear away sharp objects to protect your pad.