*indicates products that I have not used, but would be interested to test based on experience and product information.
There are two times that I have camped outdoors overnight without a tent. One time was an unscheduled adventure involving a misplaced flashlight, a beaver dam, and dinosaur footprint site in near-freezing temperatures (it was October) with no camping gear AT ALL except for a silicone guide tarp.
The other time was a planned overnight in October with all of the right gear.
One adventure was more enjoyable than the other. I’ll let you guess which one.
A well-planned tent-less camping trip is a fun adventure! There are many tent-less camping systems, like tarps and camping hammocks. I have yet to try these systems, so I’ll talk about what we used on our trip.
There are key pieces of equipment you will need for your tent-less camping trip. You won’t be spending money on anything special: you’ll use all of this gear for tent camping!
- The Sleeping Pad
Sleeping outdoors means carrying a sleeping pad. There are a lot of options for backpacking sleeping pads. If you’ve stayed over at someone’s house, you’ve likely used an inflatable air mattress. They can be comfy, but your standard air mattress is just too big and too heavy to bring with you on a backpacking trip.
Think of a sleeping pad as the minimalist air mattress. Sleeping pads aren’t just for a cushy sleep. Sleeping pads keep your body off of the cold-sucking ground while trapping warm air from your body heat between you and the ground.
How warm is your sleeping pad? Check the R-value. The R-value tells you the sleeping pad’s ability to resist heat loss. This means YOUR heat loss. Low R-values (2 and lower) are for warmer climates and summer camping, while medium R-values (3 – 4) are great for three-season camping. If you’re winter camping (or are a cold sleeper) definitely go for a sleeping pad with a 4.5 R-value or higher. A general rule is that the higher the R-value, the thicker and heavier the sleeping pad will be. Don’t despair! We’re talking about a difference in between one and two kilograms, not dozens.
There are different types of sleeping pads: self-inflating, manual-inflating, and closed-cell foam pads. I’ll talk about what I know, which are self-inflating pads.
Self-inflating sleeping pads have a foam core. You can fold them in half lengthwise and then roll them up into a tight roll. When you roll up your sleeping pad for travel (and put it in the stuff sack), you squeeze all of the air out of the foam cells. When you unroll the pad, the empty foam cells expand and suck in air through the inflation valve. All you have to do then is breathe into the valve to get your sleeping pad just the right firmness, close the valve, and you’re set!
Pro-tip: Get yourself a silicone bag, like the MEC Pack Rat Silicone Stuff Sack, for packing your sleeping pad. Silicone bags, like a non-stick pan, glide easily over the rolled-up sleeping pad. This means you can pack and unpack quickly (and without frustration!)
I’ve always used a self-inflating sleeping pad. I’ve never had one deflate on me overnight (if you’ve slept on a standard air mattress you know the feeling). My absolute favorite is the Therma-Rest Prolite Plus Women’s Sleeping Pad. This pad has been with me for ten years. TEN YEARS. Its R-value is 3.9 so it’s great for three-season camping. I’ve used this pad in the sub-alpine where the temperatures dropped to -5 C at night in August (yup, it gets cold up there!) and I didn’t feel the ground sucking my life-energy from my soul.
Air pads* are extremely light and pack down quite small. You need to manually inflate them, but the air pump is actually a lightweight bag pump. They come in a range of R-values and pack down super-duper small. As with self-inflating pads, air pads with higher R-values tend to be a bit more spendy.
- The Sleeping Bag
Idyllic as it may seem, sleeping under the stars wrapped in your cloak like a hobbit off to visit the Lonely Mountain is not going to cut it, comfort-wise.
You’ll want a sleeping bag. Look, I’ve made due with a fire, a guide tarp, and a pile of leaves. OK, maybe not a pile of leaves, but that was an … unexpected journey.
Not all sleeping bags are created equal. Sleeping bags, like sleeping pads, have ratings. Sleeping bag ratings are given in temperatures. A -10 C rated sleeping bag is going to be a lot warmer than a sleeping bag rated at +5 C. For three-season tent-less camping in temperate climates, you’ll want a sleeping bag that is rated for below freezing temperatures.
Pro-Tip: The temperature rating on a sleeping bag doesn’t mean that you will be snug as a bug in a rug using the bag at that temperature. It means that you will SURVIVE at that temperature. It’s a country mile between comfy and surviving.
Personally, I like a down sleeping bag. They compress down beautifully in a compression stuff sack for stowing in your pack. Down is crazy warm for its weight. Down is also very durable: a well-cared for down sleeping bag will last over a decade. My old MEC Raven -7 C Mummy Bag is still going after fifteen years.
Down sleeping bags have their drawbacks. One, they’re a little heavier than a synthetic bag. Two, once it gets wet, it’s game over for warmth, and they take a long time to dry out. You have to think like a duck to get the most out of your down bag. A duck has its down feathers right up against its body, protected by the water- and wind-repellent layer of their contour feathers. The contour feathers also keep all of those toasty little air pockets trapped within the down close to the body.
So how do you keep either your down (or your synthetic) bag warm and dry when you camp without a tent? You need layers over your down, my duckies!
- The Overbag
Ducks keep wet out of their down feathers by preening: they rub oil over their outer feathers which repels moisture…like water off of a duck’s back (c’mon, I had to!) We’re not about to slather our sleeping bags with butter, so we need a fabric option.
An overbag acts like the contour feathers on a duck: it keeps the wind and external moisture off of the bag. It also helps to trap in your body heat. You can add another 5 C to 10 C degrees to your sleeping bag’s rating with a wind-stopping overbag. I have a MEC Emperor Penguin Windstopper Overbag (no longer available).
If I needed to pick up a new overbag, I’d be interested to try out either the North Face Ocelot Overbag* or the MEC Talon Overbag*. They are comparable in price and both do what overbags are supposed to do: keep condensation away from your body and your main sleeping bag while repelling external water.
I had my sleeping pad, my sleeping bag, and my overbag, but what if it got really chilly at night?
- The Sleeping Bag Liner
You can add even more warmth to your sleeping system by adding an inner layer! You can get fancy-shmancy with wool and silk liners, but I went for the least expensive one I could find, my MEC Fleece Sleeping Bag Liner (no longer available).
The polyester fleece wicks away sweat, adds a bit more warmth to your bag, and keeps the inside of your main bag a bit cleaner (it’s so much easier to wash the fleece liner than a down sleeping bag). If I needed a new bag liner, sign me up for the Big Agnes Fleece Sleeping Bag Liner*.
It’s made of Polartek recycled fleece and adds another 5 C – 10 C to your sleeping bag. Oh, and can I say that snuggling up in a cozy fleece blankie at the end of the day feels like luxury? Because it does!
What if you’re worried about all of your gear directly touching the wet ground? Or WHAT IF IT RAINS ON YOU AND YOUR GEAR?
- The Siltarp
Siltarps are basically a piece of nylon that is impregnated with silicone. They’re very light and waterproof. My very first paleontology survey in the alpine demonstrated the necessity of a backpack tarp. It was a gorgeous August day, but when we reached the summit of a mountain the weather turned FAST. We were caught in a freak snowstorm. One of our group pulled out this teeny package from their back, unfurled it, and lo! A giant tarp covered us and our gear, keeping us dry. Staying dry meant we stayed warm, and staying warm means avoiding hypothermia.
I picked up a backpacking tarp immediately after returning from this trip. The Rab Guides Siltarp 1 is very similar to the tarp I have.
Siltarps weigh less than a 1-liter water bottle and take up very little room in your pack. My siltarp is a must-have for every paleontology survey or hike. When we did our tent-less camping trip, we put our sleeping gear on one guide tarp, and used the second guide tarp as an emergency rain shelter. Thankfully it didn’t rain!
You can definitely get away with using a regular polytarp (those blue tarps that make loud crinkle noises) that you can find at your local hardware store, but they won’t pack up as small and won’t be as light. Siltarps are also less expensive than tarp shelters. You can turn your siltarp into a shelter by hooking the side loops over your hiking pole (the subject of a future post!) or running nylon cord through the loops.
I consistently use all of the gear in this post. When I camp in my bivy sack in the sub-alpine, I don’t even bring my sleeping bag: I use my sleeping bag liner and my overbag (and wear warm undies, which I would bring regardless.)
One piece of tent-less camping gear I am extremely eager to try is the camping hammock! Hammocks that hook up to trees would not work well in the sub-alpine or the alpine: the trees are just too teeny. I would use a hammock for lower elevation forest camping. Camping hammocks vary in price: this depends on whether the hammock comes with a rain fly. Since I already have a siltarp that I would use as a rain fly, I would love to try out the MEC Double Hammock with Tree Straps*!
I’d still want to use my sleeping pad, overbag, and sleeping bag liner when sleeping in a hammock. There would be cold night air underneath me, so insulation would be a must.
Have you ever gone tent-less camping? What sort of gear did you use? Did you ever have an unexpected tent-less camping trip? Tell me about your adventure!