Sleeping under the stars has inspired many poetic escapes into the wilderness, yet many nature lovers have never stripped away their tent or shelter and met the night sky on such intimate terms. Having recently been enjoying a number of starry nights on Wire Mesa, I thought I’d reflect on my love of sleeping out…
I remember the first time I slept out under the stars on a late summer night, deep in North Cascades National Park. In short, I was terrified. In the early hours of the morning, I awoke to rustling, and saw shadowy, shapeless forms darting through my camp. I was alone and helpless, not sure if I should play dead, yell, or cry. I remained quiet, listening for sounds of aggression, or some indicator of what sort of beast was stalking me. The sound multiplied, and a pack – whatever had found me – was clearly arranging a strategic ambush. Still wrapped up in my sleeping bag, I managed to wiggle over to my backpack, and find my headlamp. Its light illuminated beady eyes watching me intently from the undergrowth. I held my breath waiting for it to move, and then something bolted in front of me, something I never could have imagined… The terror of my first night under the stars, was a soft, cuddly family of rabbits searching for a pre-dawn meal.
I had a few other frights in my early days of backpacking. Frenzied water beasts in the river (i.e. salmon spawning), ferocious man-eating deer outside my tent, and, of course, lurking psychopathic co-workers, tripping on their way to the bathroom. It took me some time to get used to sleeping outside, but after coming to terms with the “wild” part of my wilderness experience, I have grown quite fond of sleeping out.
The beauty of camping in the desert is it requires little or no protection from rain, snow, or biting insects, and most of the creepy crawlies are inactive in the evenings. After getting comfortable with the coyotes’ songs and finding a sleeping bag warm enough to make it through the long cold hour before dawn, I stopped bothering with a tent altogether. The only unique part of my sleeping set-up is a 3×7 foot piece of Tyvek house wrap, which was left over from a remodeling project and given to me by willing, but curious, construction workers.
In its natural state, Tyvek feels sort of like paper and makes sounds like sheet metal when you move it, but if you toss it in a front loading washing machine and run a quick wash cycle it softens up and serves as a cheap, lightweight, waterproof ground cloth. With my ground cloth, sleeping pad, stuff sack full of clothes (pillow) and sleeping bag, I can be comfortable in even the most unlikely camp spots. Sleeping on glaciers, guerilla camping in urban areas, or in run-of-the-mill designated camp sites, I find great freedom in being able to make myself at home anywhere I can find relatively flat ground.
I believe the quality of my rest is actually better when I sleep outside. I wake up with the sun, feeling fresh and ready to start my day. I don’t know if science supports the idea that sleeping out in the cold, wrapped up in a sleeping bag, is beneficial, but I find it quite therapeutic.
While living in Norway I witnessed the Icelandic tradition of packing up babies in tiny sleeping bags and putting them out in the Nordic winter for nap time. The baby I saw subjected to this treatment, returned from his nap well rested, happy, and had all of his extremities intact. I am unsure Americans are ready to start setting their babies out on the front porch for nap time, but my point is that, after adjusting to the new sounds, temperatures, and light patterns of sleeping outside, I have found it to be a very enjoyable experience. All the old environmentalist poets (Muir, Abbey, Leopold, etc.) knew the value of a night out under the stars, and it’s unfortunate many people have an aversion to sleeping outdoors.
This is my call to you, dear readers: Embrace adventure, meet the wilderness on intimate terms, and spend a night out under the stars. It may be peaceful, poetic, or terrifying, but whatever your experience, I bet it will be memorable.