Am I safe to solo camp without a tent?
February 23, 2009 12:02 AM   Subscribe

Solo tent-less camping - safety tips?

I'll be doing field surveys in the southwest US: deserts, forests, mountains, usually near water sources. I intend to try going tent-less to save time, weight, etc... but since I'll be all alone and in the middle of nowhere, I'm a little concerned about the possibility of animals wandering into camp.

The reason this comes up, two stories:

1. A friend woke up with a rattlesnake in her bag once (tentless).

2. Another friend, camping in the same region, has often found Mountain Lion tracks near camp in the morning.

So that's all I've got. Two anecdotes that don't sound too frightening, but my bigger concern would be something along the lines of a Mountain Lion coming and snuffing me out in my sleep. Bears aren't a huge concern and I'm not really worried about them anyway, but I suppose if they were hungry and I was asleep... Thoughts?
posted by crazy finger to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (19 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
In the southwest, you probably don't have to worry too much about bears eating you - if they're around they'll just be after your food.

I've slept out in the desert (on top of a tarp) a bunch of times and never had an issue with snakes or anything else. My main enemy those nights was the wind. I think you'll most likely be okay.

As a sort of alternative, some tents can be set up with just the rain fly, the ground cloth and the tent poles, which eliminates the body of the tent and can save a bit of weight. Most modern tents set up fairly quickly, so I'm not sure where you're going to save so much time that it would be worth worrying about. Are you at least going to have a bivy sack?
posted by LionIndex at 12:20 AM on February 23, 2009

I don't know if this would work for you, but my wife and I backpack with Hennessy Hammocks. While we don't have this particular model, there is one that weighs only 1lb 10oz. We have the standard model, which weighs just shy of 3 pounds--still lighter than a tent, especially as you don't need a groundpad.

They're ideal in the forest, since you can string them up as a hammock. But, if you don't have any trees handy, they can be pitched into neat little bivvy sacks with your trekking poles. With the snakeskins and a bit of practice, rigging them between trees takes me less than five minutes. They're also very nice because, for the most part, ground-crawling creatures like snakes and bugs have no way to get into the shelter.

Another option is something like a golite shelter. I hate the company, personally... but, they do make a modular shelter system that is pretty light. However, if you use all the pieces of their system, it weighs more than the hammock I linked above.

On the other hand, if by "tentless" you mean "shelterless"... I don't have any experience for you. I wouldn't dream of backpacking without a shelter. Even if that shelter was just a tarp. A night of torrential rain, followed by a chilly day can literally kill you.
posted by Netzapper at 12:22 AM on February 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

tents won't protect you at all from bears, lions, etc.

as for all the other issues, just google "tent vs tarp" and you'll have more than enough wisdom from the internets to confuse you for three lifetimes.
posted by randomstriker at 12:35 AM on February 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

Ditto that tents won't protect you from animals.* The key thing is to not camp right where you cook and to not have food with you right there in bed. I spent two summers camping without a tent in Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, and never had trouble with snakes or mammals. I did have terrible trouble with mosquitoes in a few locations and twice woke up with my face and eyes swollen from all the mosquito bites.

* Anecdote: someone once ran into a house where I was couch-surfing saying he'd been woken up when a bear's paw slashed through his tent. This is because he decided to protect his candy bars by putting them under his pillow.
posted by salvia at 12:48 AM on February 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I do this a a fair bit, my fear is tiger snakes, but I figure- hell I'm asleep, what ever crawls or slides over me better not wake me up- but seeing the milky way stretched out like that is too good to pass up.
posted by mattoxic at 2:47 AM on February 23, 2009

I love sleeping out on a tarp when I have the luxury of knowing the weather will stay clear. (Being unable to sleep because the moon is too bright is a fantastic annoyance!)

I've never camped that way in the desert, but I've done it in bear country aplenty (and mountain lion country) with nary a problem. Your snake anecdote gives me pause, but I guess if you don't find that "too frightening", then go for it.

I know a geologist who spent a field season living in a desert cave and was comically unconcerned when the resident mountain lion came home. So I guess I'd recommend against caves as an alternate source of shelter.
posted by adiabat at 3:05 AM on February 23, 2009

In the desert areas I wouldn't worry as much about big mammals as I would about scorpions. Their sting won't seriously harm you unless you happen to be allergic, but they're still no fun. Shake out your things, check your boots, and bring a UV flashlight if you really want to avoid them.

(But I'm speaking as a person who'd rather have a snake in her sleeping bag than a scorpion!)
posted by Mouse Army at 4:36 AM on February 23, 2009

When Mia Farrow travels to Darfur, her shelter is a sleeping bag surrounded by a circle of rope. Apparently the scorpions and other assorted lovelies hit the rope and redirect. Or so says Nicholas Kristof, anyway...

I slept out in the desert in Utah with nothing but a bag and a ground pad. We woke up at dawn to the sound of rattlesnakes coming out of the scrub. Never have I been more awake more quickly.

Bring some kind of shelter.
posted by charmcityblues at 5:14 AM on February 23, 2009

Wear a whistle around your neck at all times. The noise startles critters, animal and human alike.
posted by Carol Anne at 5:22 AM on February 23, 2009

I'd start by actually comparing tents and see if there is a super light one in your price range. Be all methodical about it and ask around for reccomendations.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:14 AM on February 23, 2009

2nding the hammock idea if tree-type things are around to hang it from. I had heard the (hemp or jute)rope trick was for keeping snakes away. Something about the ropes texture being an irritant on the snakes belly. this tent is light, small and easy to set up
In the desert you would want to be waken up by rain anyway... so you don't get washed out by a flash flood!
posted by Redhush at 6:33 AM on February 23, 2009

My mistake .. Horsehair rope.... but still an old cowboy's tale and nothing to take seriously
posted by Redhush at 7:04 AM on February 23, 2009

I've woken up with a snake in my sleeping bag when sleeping indoors, so maybe that's not something you can really do anything about.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:10 AM on February 23, 2009

Why don't you consider a Bivi bag? Lightweight, will keep the bugs and snakes out. My experience is more in cooler climes, but should suit your purposes OK.
posted by arcticseal at 7:26 AM on February 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'd reccomend a bivi sack or a tarp and mosquito netting. Sorry though, if a scorpion or snake wants to get all cozy with you... they're going to.
posted by Nanukthedog at 8:11 AM on February 23, 2009

I've spent many nights in the Grand Canyon with no tent and never had a problem (although a squirrel scared the shit out of me once).

I second just buying a good bivy sack, just in case it rains. Use it in the rain, and forget it otherwise -- the extra weight will be negligible. (I don't have any product recommendation, tho, as I've never used one.)
posted by coolguymichael at 12:00 PM on February 23, 2009

Take a look at Colin Fletcher's The Complete Walker (at least one of the four editions is available in nearly every public library). Fletcher walked all over the southwest and preferred to bring a tarp instead of a tent. He writes a lot about how to feel safe and comfortable under the stars.
posted by gum at 5:18 PM on February 23, 2009

You could probably try this.
posted by divabat at 10:33 PM on February 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

You should be fine. I have a Henessy Hammock like the previous poster and it works great below the treeline. It has the advantage of an attached roof and built in mozzie net and obviously keeps you off the ground.

The only thing I dislike about it is the inability to administrate yourself (light a fire - change your clothes etc.) without crawling around in/underneath the hammock itself. An additional lightweight tarp helps open up a living area and makes life much more pleasant. (also allows you to cook well away from your zipper.

Lightweight camping is a joy. The army 'forced' me to do it at first but being able to cut your weight down by 50% or more makes it more than worthwhile.

My only additional advice is to bring a saw/parang/hatchet/whatever - you can build lean-to's/A-frames/whatever very quickly if you feel like you need more protection or if you're going to go firm in one location and you want to tart up your camp.

(If you want to YouTube Ray Mears he is very very credible for this sort of thing, (Bear Grylls is just mad and shouldn't be on TV without a responsible adult controlling him)).
posted by fingerbang at 11:32 AM on February 25, 2009

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