With a clear sky overhead at our hilltop campsite, we left the tents in our backpacks and rolled out our sleeping bags. Darkness surrounded us as we tucked in for the night. Lying back, we were treated to a bright, vast spread of stars with the Milky Way glowing across the heavens. Meteors streaked across the sky.
We awoke at dawn as sunlight touched our faces. After a quick breakfast, we packed our gear and were on our way. If camping is about being at one with nature, we could not have felt any closer or any happier.
Wherever you do it — a mountain ridge, an open field, the shore of a lake — there are few invitations as satisfying as, “Let’s sleep out under the stars.”
Looking ahead can make camping without a shelter a highlight of many Scout journeys. Start with a weather forecast.
Watch the Weather
Open-air sleeping is best with cloudless skies. When conditions are marginal, you can set up tents and bed down near them, staying close enough to move inside at the first drops of rain.
Consider the phase of the moon, too. A full moon can illuminate your camp, bringing nocturnal surroundings to life. Stars will be most visible during the opposite lunar phase when there is no moonlight to wash out the brilliance of the constellations.
Sharing open air with mosquitoes and other biting insects can make a night truly miserable. Early Scouts fought them off by sleeping close to smoky campfires, wrapping their faces in blankets or just giving in to the torment.
Instead of dousing yourself in repellent before bed, invest in a pop-up mosquito net tent or a tent with large net panels. You can pitch them without their rain flies and watch the night sky from inside a bug-free zone.
Check ahead with land managers and others who know an area well to learn if nocturnal animals — especially bears — could be a concern. For example, at Philmont Scout Ranch, which is home to rattlesnakes, mountain lions and bears, tents are required for treks.
While the thin fabric of a tent isn’t much of a physical barrier to curious critters, it can discourage them from doing more than sniffing around your campsite and then moving on. Keep any food, trash and smellables at least 50 feet away from where you’ll be sleeping.
Making an Open-air Bed
When sleeping outside looks good, choose a spot that is level and gives you an unobstructed view of the sky. Brushing aside small sticks and stones can make your bed more comfortable. There’s no need to remove pine needles or other ground cover that can protect the soil and cushion your sleep.
Spread out a ground cloth and put your sleeping pad on top. The cloth will block ground moisture, and the pad will provide insulation and comfort.
If you didn’t bring a camp pillow, make one by stuffing clothing into a stuff sack or a zipped-up fleece jacket. Stow your flashlight in a shoe where you can reach it easily. If you wear glasses, you can tuck those into your other shoe when you’re ready to sleep.
Dealing With Dew
Cool nights can condense moisture from the air, sometimes enough to dampen a sleeping bag and anything else left out. Dry your bedding in the sunshine before you pack up. If you’re on an overnight campout, you can carry everything home to dry before putting it away. Packing up gear while it’s still wet and never airing it out will invite mildew.
Hammocks and Bivvy Bags
Sometimes carried by mountaineers as emergency bivouac shelters, bivvy bags are envelopes of breathable, waterproof material that fit loosely over sleeping bags. They’re like tents without the extra room. They can help provide views of the night sky while still protecting you against the elements.
Hammocks offer sleeping that’s not just open air but actually up in the air. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for using the hammock and take care not to damage the bark of trees you might use as anchors.
Staying safe and comfortable can make sleeping under the stars a fantastic adventure. Rather than counting sheep as you drift off, you can have an infinity of stars.
One More Thing: What About Requirements?
Sleeping outside can instill confidence, skill and satisfaction. It can also count for advancement. The nights required for the Camping merit badge can be done this way: “Sleep each night under the sky or in a tent you have pitched.”
Enrich open-air experiences and work on the Astronomy merit badge by bringing along star charts or downloading astronomy apps to help identify stars, planets and constellations.
Robert Birkby is author of three editions of The Boy Scout Handbook, two editions of the BSA’s Fieldbookand the newest edition of the Conservation Handbook. Find him at robertbirkby.com