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How to Sleep Tent Free When Making Camp

Five tips for a better nights sleep while camping al fresco under the heavenly stars

We'd been moving for 14 hours since leaving a camp at the base of Vancouver Island's imposing Mount Colonel Foster. Now, having just tagged the peak's high point, sunset was looming and we were only half way across the summit traverse. With a couple rappels coming up into unknown, technical and quickly darkening terrain we made the call to make camp.  

Worried about our dwindling food stash we shared a granola bar for dinner and took the last sip of our now empty water bottles. Stomach's growling, mouth's pasty, we flattened out some scree, laid out a rope as a sleeping pad and crawled into our sleeping bags.  

It may not have been comfortable, but that unplanned bivy on the edge of the mountain remains my most memorable night ever. We watched the sun set for hours across a bed of sea fog as it arced far to the north, dipping ever so slowly into the Pacific. The star show that followed - yeah, we didn't actually sleep much - was spectacular: the Milky Way living up to its name and shooting stars giving us plenty of opportunities to wish for a successful, safe and smooth finish to our adventure the next day. 

Like that night on Colonel Foster, my most memorable sleeps have all been al fresco. But unlike it, most have been planned and were far more comfortable. There is a right way to sleep tent free and after about a hundred nights in the open I've figured out how to do it well.  
Here's my advice. 

1. Watch the weather - From experience I can tell you sleeping under the stars that are covered in rain clouds is not fun. If the weather looks iffy bring a small tarp. Actually, don't tempt fate. Even if the forecast calls for zero percent chance of rain bring a small tarp. 

2. Use a bivy sack - Essentially a tent for your sleeping bag, it works like a waterproof-breathable jacket, expelling body moisture and keeping dew and rain drops away from your sleeping bag. It will keep your sleeping bag dry and thus you warm, especially important for multi-day trips. They usually have a bug net, too. 

3. Pick a worthy destination - Pitched out in the woods can be cool, but for the full tent-free effect I recommend open areas, so you can lie in bed and really see the stars. My favourite bivy spots are beaches, meadows and mountain tops. 

4. The right bedding is key - Bring a fat air pad to smooth out the bumps and spend a little extra time finding a truly flat spot (or engineering one if that's possible and an acceptable practice). The best bivy surfaces are sand and the heathery moss of remote alpine areas. 

5. Don't fall right to sleep - Plan your night so you maximize your time outside enjoying the show. These are the moments you will remember for years. Cook dinner slowly. Bring a flask and sip a night cap. Play cards. And then lie back and soak in the show. 

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