When you go camping, do you really need a tent? Is it safe to sleep outside without one? Why is it that a micro-thin piece of fabric makes us feel so much more secure than just sleeping on the ground?
The fact is that by and large, you are just as safe sleeping outside without a tent as you are with one. The real question is more if you will be comfortable with no protection from rain and bugs. Any creatures big enough to be a threat to you are just as much of a threat if you are inside a flimsy fabric shell.
Really what tents provide you isn’t real security, but a bit of comfort, a dry place to sleep and deterrent from creepy crawlies.
- Shelter from moisture
- Protection from bugs and rodents
- A small bit of privacy
- Protection from the sun
Why wouldn’t you want a tent? For starters, they add weight to your pack. They are also finicky creatures that can tear, get holes in them, need a nice spot to set up, and so on. For many, it is just assumed they need a tent, but that isn’t always the case.
Going without a tent means more flexibility on where you bed down, a lighter load, and for lack of a better term, a better ‘connection with nature’. There is a certain joy to sleeping out from under a tent where you can look up and see the sky above you.
Rarely though is just laying down on the ground a viable option. Even in warm, dry climates, sleeping straight on the ground isn’t a supremely comfortable proposition. This comes from someone that has taken afternoon naps on logs after particularly hard hikes before.
Here are a couple ways to sleep outside without a tent and be comfortable.
Sleeping in a Hammock
Depending on where you are going, hammocks are awesome. They get you up off the ground, give you a comfortable place to sleep on rough ground, and greatly reduces the number of things that may crawl over you in the night.
- Get’s you off the rocky, wet, cold ground.
- No poles to carry
- Very comfortable.
- No rodents/bug running across you in the night
- Can offer protection from the sun
- Great in warm weather
- Need suitable trees to set them up
- More exposed to the elements in cold or windy weather
- Takes a little practice to get set up right
Sleeping in the Rough
This is the most minimalist of sleeping situations. Not gear, no tent, no cover. Just find a place to curl up and take a nap. The up-side to this is you can drastically reduce the weight you are carrying. The downside is that you also reduce the amount of comfort you have.
Consider these downsides to sleeping in the rough:
- No protection from rain/dew
- No bedding to keep you warm
- No pad to make the ground comfy
- No protection from damp/wet ground
Now you could of course bring a sleeping bag and in dry conditions that will likely be fine, but I’d reserve this for camping in very dry climates. Waking up soaked because of dew is no fun.
Bivy sack Camping
Lying somewhere between a tent and sleeping in the rough is bivy sack camping. In its simplest terms, a bivy sack is a waterproof shell for around your sleeping bag that protects you from moisture, both falling on you and below you in the form of wet ground. The nicer ones have a cover for your face, and loop to give you headroom, and even a bug screen.
Talking about the safety of sleeping outside without a tent, the upside of sleeping in a bivy is that it protects you from rain and from the things that creep and crawl around. Nothing you can backpack with will protect you from large predators, but a bivy sack will at least keep rodents, snakes, and things with more than 4 legs from crawling in bed with you and that is my main concern when sleeping outside.
Advantages to Bivy Sack Camping
- Adds some warmth
- Protection from wet ground
- Protection from bugs/rodents if fully enclosed
Disadvantages to Bivy Sack Camping
- No room inside to keep your pack dry
- Limited area for moving around and confining
- No protection from the sun
- Collects moisture/sweat
- Really needs a tarp to protect you from rain
- No possibility of getting frisky with you camping buddy (if they are down for that)
Now I personally have never tried this, though maybe next year I will. Doing some research, it looks like the Outdoor Research Helium Bivy gets excellent marks on several review websites that actually test things and have a good rating on Amazon. With a price tag of ~$180, it may be too pricy for a casual hiker, but for anyone serious about wandering into the backcountry, it seems like a great option.
If a bivy sack isn’t your thing then another option of using a tarp as a shelter when camping. Again, as safety goes, a properly set up tarp will protect you from the elements, but won’t do anything about the creepy-crawly things that may want to snuggle up with you.
There are a lot of types of designs for setting up tarps offering a wide variety of protection from wind, rain, and moisture. None of these will offer protection from the elements that a full-on tent will, but at the same time, you have pretty significant weight savings carrying only a tarp, some cord, and some stakes.
Advantages to Tarp Camping
- Protection from the wind and rain
- Some protection from wet ground
- Protection from the sun
Disadvantages to Tarp Camping
- Takes practice to set up
- Varying levels of protection from damp ground
- Requires poles or trees to tie off to
Final Thoughts on the Safety of Sleeping Outdoors Without a Tent
Hopefully, you will see from all this that when we are talking about big mammals like bear, cougar, Bigfoot, and so on, a tent isn’t going to offer you any significant protection over any other style of camping.
When it comes to the safety of sleeping outdoors, the main considerations are the smaller creatures that may want to crawl in bed with you as well as the weather. What tents provide is a measure of protection from the elements, but as you can see, there are a variety of ways to achieve protection from the sun or the rain/wet besides just a tent.