I’m writing a series on the basics – how to get started outdoors from square one, from venturing out your back door to pursuing fish to survival. My hope is that this will be of benefit to some who’ve dreamed for years of getting out of the urban/online lifestyle so prevalent nowadays or maybe to simply inspire some young people to run wild a bit more. My hope is also that it will be a joy to share all this – drawing on much from my younger days and perhaps helping the author to recapture the sheer joy of exploration, of finding trails and diverging from the highways for a bit.
I know the woods of western Pennsylvania better than I know anywhere else so I’m going to write all of this as though I’m talking to people who live here in Pennsylvania. Most of this material, by far, will apply equally well to the rest of the eastern forest, some of it to the western forests and maybe even some to the broad plains in between.
Just go out and do it. That’s the first step.
If you haven’t done this before, there’ll be an ice-breaker night when you have to simply roll out a sleeping bag on the ground and lie down in the darkening forest, knowing that you’ll still be there when daylight breaks again. This short piece in my “Just the Basics” series is written to solo campers, by the way. Communal camping typically offers much more light-hearted nights out with friends around a campfire and I don’t really have any advice to offer on this variety. I’m probably not very good at it.
This is about how to spend nights alone in the woods. Keep this new adventure simple at the outset. Don’t get bogged down in techniques and gear. You could lay down on the forest floor in what you’re wearing with just a blanket over you most nights and you’d be fine. Any refinement beyond this is just extra.
While all of what I’m about to relate should sound simple, it’s not just offhanded speculation. There aren’t many people who’ve spent more nights alone in the wild than the author. And the first night, when I was fourteen, involved taking a pillow and blanket out behind mom and dad’s house in upstate New York to a sort of stick shelter I’d thrown up in the hedge separating us from some apartment buildings. I survived till morning and thought I’d like to try it again sometime. I slept out alone the next year in south Florida and the next year I spent a couple of dreamy nights in the Tennessee forest. I found that nothing came close to threatening my life (nothing I knew of) and I wondered whether I could feel completely at ease out there someday.
My total lifetime nights alone in the woods now totals something more than 800, including a series of walks through the woods from Georgia to New Brunswick and a fairly recent eight and a half month walk across the continent. And I am at ease in the dark woods now.
You’re going to need a place first, before arming yourself with gear. Your early camping exploits can take one of two forms: camping at official campgrounds/campsites or camping where you want or “stealth camping,” which sounds a bit sinister but it’s fairly accurate. Other people are inclined to suspect the worst if they know you’re rolling out the bag or throwing up a tent in an unofficial place. For me though, the official campsites are very rare exceptions. Sleeping where you want to generally isn’t difficult so it should be understood that for the rest of this tutorial, we’ll be discussing stealth camping, though much of it can apply equally well to a campground.
You will likely do much more camping if you understand that you can camp at random places all over the map as opposed to making reservations, paying fees and showing up at appointed times and places.
It’s difficult to describe here all the potential types of places a person could camp. Try along streams or rivers. Try just inside the hedge line along a highway. Abandoned lots. Abandoned industrial sites. Along rail trails. Tall grass behind businesses. Anywhere that has trees and isn’t posted against trespassing. That’s worth noting too. I don’t trespass if a place is obviously posted and neither should you. If nothing else, you’ll have more peace of mind while sleeping if you’re not worrying about being discovered.
For your very first nights, leave yourself an easy “out.” This probably means camping near home or wherever your group/family is staying. At least don’t camp far from a road. In case of unexpected severe weather or severe cold, you should be able to escape.
In all kinds of outdoor pursuits, people focus way too much on their gear, depending too much on the stuff rather than training themselves. A much wider range of equipment can work if you learn to use what you’ve got and take on a mindset of making the best of it – of adapting. Virtually all of your equipment can be acquired from thrift shops or Walmart. So, my recommendations will be general in nature rather than pointing anyone to specific merchandise or retailers.
Here’s what you’ll reasonably need to get you off the ground, though, as stated earlier, you could head to the back yard with a blanket and you’d probably be alright.
Backpack: First you’ll need something to stow all the rest of it in and port it to your chosen site. You might expect that with the minimal gear you’re starting with you could get away with a tiny pack but this probably isn’t the case. Think about the sleeping bag and tent if you’re taking a tent. You need a pack at least big enough to stow these or to lash them to the outside of.
Light: Headlamps are certainly the most convenient and probably the most compact form of light. I’ve used about every brand there is and would use any of them again though I dislike an overly complex light with too many modes/features. In tense or half-asleep situations it can be difficult to remember whether you press twice while twisting your wrist and hopping on one foot to get the white narrow beam.
Tarp: You may want to start with a tent from the get-go but as a matter of starting as simply and inexpensively as possible, we’ll talk about tarps. Most nights in most parts of the country, it won’t be raining so I suggest simply rolling out your bag with the tarp lying next to you in case you start to feel drops at some point in the night. However, you might just want to start by stringing up the tarp tent-style with a rope (preferably para-cord) above you. A tarp pulled over you in the middle of the night will be better than nothing but it will shed water imperfectly. Tightness and a steep “roof” angle are imperative to staying dry in serious rain.
Sleeping Bag: Bags all have temperature ratings, usually expressed as ISO numbers, which is approximately the lowest air temperature you should expect to use the bag at and still feel at least comfortable through the night. Err on the side of caution here at first, bringing a bag that is rated for colder temperatures than you expect to face. If you’re camping directly out of a car or walking in only a short distance, there’s probably no need to worry about the bulk or weight of the bag and you can just carry a very cheap but heavy bag or a heavy bag rated for very cold temperatures. With a bag that’s too warm, you can always unzip. As you continue to shop for bags, you’ll realize that there’s normally a trade-off between warmth and weight and you’ll need to think about this as you begin to take on longer hikes along with your camping.
The sleeping bag is probably your most important piece of survival equipment too. Remember this as you venture further afield. Don’t let it get wet – pack it in something waterproof. If you’re soaked and becoming hypothermic but have a dry bag, this will keep you alive.
Another tip at this point: In cooler temperatures, one of the very best ways to ensure warmth overnight is to eat something fatty, such as hot dogs before you sleep. Another excellent way to stay warm is to sleep on some kind of pad.
Water: Intuitive, but you’re going to want this. No need to buy $10 dollar specialty hiker’s bottles either, just re-fill Gatorade or soda bottles of the size desired.
Pocket Knife: This just comes in handy in all kinds of unexpected ways.
Tarp: If you’re sleeping without a tent, you’ll want to have this on hand to pull over you in case of rain or to set up, tent style, as previously mentioned.
Para cord: This is the most practical type of rope for a wide range of camp uses such as stringing up your tarp or hoisting food up out of reach of animals.
Food: This doesn’t require too much thought and you won’t need much to do an overnighter. Dehydrated stuff weighs much less but there’s no need to pay for expensive hiker’s meals; there’s plenty of good stuff at your grocery store in the rice/noodle aisle. Just remember to use your rope to pull it up in a tree, less because of the bears, more because of the rodents.
Adequate clothes: A change of clothes is nice, especially if you become wet. Your outfit should probably include a rain poncho.
And here are some of the first items to add as you progress:
- Tent (might be included from the outset)
- Sleeping pad
- Bug repellant
- Duct tape
- Canister-type fuel stove
- Tiny boiling pot
- Water filter
Choosing a Campsite
Here, I’m talking about exactly where to place your tent or sleeping bag. The primary consideration is one of dryness. Nothing will ruin your first nights out faster than being unprepared for rain. Don’t set up in a depression on the forest floor. Until you have a very good sense of how high streams are likely to rise following rainstorms, don’t camp in floodplains. Learn to recognize the signs of flooding over the last couple of years so that you can camp a bit higher up than where you see this. These signs include reeds that are bent and broken in the downstream direction, lack of leaf litter and piles of driftwood debris.
That being said, I do like a place that’s reasonably close to water just so that I can get a re-fill when I need it.
The flatter the spot is, the more likely you are to sleep well through the night. Having to “climb” back up to the upper edge of the tent repeatedly through the night is no fun.
If you’re camping off the beaten track, you’ll probably want a place with some thick underbrush or fallen trees to help conceal your tent. This is also why you choose a tent/tarp in drab colors and wear drab colors.
Look above your prospective site for large dead branches that might fall in a wind and look for dead trees nearby that might have the potential to drop. Overall, the risk of falling trees is low in most situations but the risk is highest when the ground’s saturated and winds are high.
Use the padding that’s available where you camp. Kick up a good pile of dead leaves before setting up and roll out your bag on top of this or set the tent here.
On all but the warmest summer nights, you’ll wake feeling chilly. The best way to counter this is to run before you do anything else, maybe along the nearest trail. Lacking a trail, try some other form of exercise. Just go until you’re about to start sweating, then stop and move on with something more sedentary, like breakfast prep.
Bugs and rodents are inevitabilities of sleeping alone in the wild. If you live in a good region for ticks (such as all of Pennsylvania) you may want to keep on some kind of repellant, especially DEET, all the time, applied to at least anywhere there’s a gap in your clothing such as ankles, waistline and neckline. Deal with mosquitoes or blackflies similarly. Learn about permethrin-treated clothes as a next step.
The other, non-biting bugs just have to be acclimated to. You’ll feel them climbing across your exposed parts every day you’re out.
The most important concept for dealing with rodents is to keep your food safe. You can do this by packing it inside something like a metal cookie tin but I find that just hanging the food over a nearby tree branch almost always solves the problem. They won’t often chew their way into tents but you will feel them crawl under you occasionally as you sleep.
We all enjoy the comfort and warmth of campfires but often it’s a better plan to go without them. Particularly if you’re stealth camping, little else is seen so easily or from such a long distance as your fire. Even if it’s not seen, the smoke may be smelled. There’s a better ways to cook too, with more concentrated forms of heat such as a gas-fueled hiker’s stove or a hiker’s wood-burning stove such as the Sierra stove or Emberlit, two of my favorites. There are better ways to warm up too such as a warm bag, creating a wind break, eating fatty things, or exercise. In many situations, campfires present a real forest fire danger, particularly in the west. On my long hikes, each lasting months, I could probably count on one hand the number of times I lit a fire rather than a camp stove.
One topic I haven’t really covered here is wild animals and I haven’t gone that direction because it’s not one of the things you’ll probably need to worry about. I’ve mentioned a few times hanging your food over a tree branch, out of reach and if you can manage this, you’re fine. I’ve slept out night after night around bears, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, skunks, snakes, and probably many others I had no idea of. I’ve never been bit.
The one additional thing I will say about the critters is that sleeping out is simply one of the best ways to get close and mingle with these creatures.
I could ramble on on this topic and someday I may, laying out more strategies to improve your camping method and getting into some more of the diverse camping scenarios available out there. I don’t like to over-complicate things though for people just getting started.
If camping were going to be as complicated as your day to day life at work, school, etc., would you even want to go?