When we think about camping, we tend to imagine a tent. It may be that simple, triangular archetype that we never glimpse at a campsite — though it is an emoji — but it's a tent nonetheless. Camping and tents go hand-in-hand, or rather, stake-in-dirt. If this is how you envision camping, then it's time to pull your head out of the ripstop nylon and realize that it's wholly possible to camp without a tent.
Don't trust us? Then trust Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia and a highly accomplished mountain climber. A 1998 New York Times profile includes an anecdote in which he and some friends take on British Columbia's Mount Waddington without tents (or sleeping bags), choosing instead to bed down in a hollowed-out snow pit with nothing beyond waterproof shells for protection.
Then there's a photograph of Chouinard in his book, Some Stories: Lessons from the Edge of Business and Sport, depicting a minimalist campsite in Grand Teton National Park during a trip in 1958. His setup is made up of what looks like a canvas tarp with an ice axe for support. The caption is a quote: "I didn't own a tent until I was in my forties — and that's not my sissy air mattress." (There is indeed a vacant blue air pad in the foreground, presumably the photographer's.)
You don't have to be a self-proclaimed dirtbag to camp without a tent though, and it doesn't have to be uncomfortable either. Chouinard's whole schtick with tents was that they were heavy, and one could cover more distance without them. Recent advancements in outdoor equipment have made tents lighter and more packable, but the same is true of their alternatives, too.
Camp with a Tarp Instead
The classic tent alternative is a tarp. And if you're thinking of those noisy blue ones you can buy at the hardware store, think again. Today's class of camping tarps offer the same straightforward construction — they're usually rectangular and have reinforced loops or grommets spaced along the edges — but are made of the same ultralight fabrics as tents and pack down smaller to boot. Plus, they're a lot more affordable.
There are endless ways to set up a tarp for camping (you can even just plop it on the ground as a waterproof barrier and unstuff your sleeping bag on top of it). The classic setup is the A-frame. To set one up, you have to create a taut central ridgeline either by using a rope or cord strung between opposing trees or, when none are available, by using a pair of trekking poles as supports. From here, you can stake the corners of the tarp directly into the ground or use more cord to lift them higher and create more space inside. There are plenty more configurations (check out REI's guide for detailed step-by-step instructions on how to erect them).
Beyond the savings in weight and backpack space, camping with a tarp instead of a tent offers increased ventilation, views and versatility; you can set them up in some places that don't suit tents. Cons include increased exposure to the elements and bugs and a less straightforward setup (you'll get the hang of it quickly, though).
Camp with a Hammock Instead
Camping without a tent doesn't always have to entail sleeping in the dirt, thanks to hammocks. Again, we're not talking about the netted rope kind you might pitch in your yard; camping hammocks are made of ultralight, ripstop fabrics and often pack down to the size of a grapefruit.
Hammocks aren't as versatile as tarps in that their setup requires anchors. These don't always have to be trees, though — rocks and human-made structures work well if you aren't in the woods. Hammocks are similar to tarps in that you aren't confined to one way of sleeping in them, though, thanks to a variety of accessories; extra-long straps, insect nets, rain flys and underquilts can make hammock camping feasible in nearly any environment.
What's an underquilt? It's an insulated blanket that hammock campers sometimes attach to the exterior of a suspended hammock to protect from wind and cold. First timers will quickly learn that one of the cons to suspended sleeping is cold butt (unofficial term), which occurs because hammocks don't provide any insulation. When your body compresses a sleeping bag's fill against a hammock's sidewalls, it loses its ability to hold warmth. An alternative to an underquilt, which can be expensive, is to bring your sleeping pad with you into the hammock for extra protection.
Other hammock camping accessories are more straightforward. Insect nets provide bug protection (some are integrated, some aren't), while rain flys provide weather protection (tarps work for this too). Keep in mind that most camping hammocks don't come with straps, which are sold separately in various lengths and widths.
The pros of hammock camping are tent-like protection from the ground and elements, particularly when kitted out with a full suite of accessories. The downsides are that when you add all these together, a hammock camping setup can be as expensive as a tent, and they aren't appropriate for environments where anchor points are few or far between.
Skip the Shelter Altogether
The cowboys did it, Yvon Chouinard did it (though for different reasons), and you can too. There's something about laying your camping pad and sleeping bag directly onto the ground — perhaps next to the waning glow of a campfire — that just feels pure. If what you want out of your wilderness trip is that perhaps-cliché yet very-real cleansed feeling of leaving civilization behind, this is the ultimate way to get it. There's no extra gear necessary to camp without a tent in this manner, but maybe you want to consider a bug net. (And pray to your deity of choice that it doesn't rain.)