The first section of my Arizona Trail By Any Means adventure: Backpacking passages 18 and 19 through the Superstition Wilderness.
Sleeping under the stars.
Sounds magical, right? Lots of us say we do it – but then we go ahead and put a rain fly between us and the night sky. I think that’s a real shame. Here are 5 reasons why I love to ditch the tent on my trips in the desert southwest.
1. Get to Know the Night Sky
In my years of camping under the stars, I’ve learned the constellations and how they move through the sky. I’ve become intimately familiar with the phases of the moon, and I’ve seen more meteor showers than I can count.
I’ll never forget seeing a total lunar eclipse in the predawn light from my sleeping bag, or watching the Geminids glow blue and green from a campground in Lake Mead.
I took this photo from the summit of Kendrick Mountain on a balmy November night.
2. It Makes the Outdoors Feel Like Home
Nothing makes me feel more connected with nature than sleeping out. It’s like your campsite is your bedroom.
Sometimes I miss the days when I worked for a conservation corps and would sleep out a couple hundred nights each year. I was acutely aware of the phase of the moon and the weather, and felt a connection to my surroundings that I’ve never since replicated. I came close in 2018 though!
This photo was taken in the Grand Canyon, before settling in for a night of cowboy camping on top of the Redwall.
3. Sunrises From Your Sleeping Bag
There’s nothing like being woken up by the predawn light, then watching the sun fill the landscape with color in front of you – all without having to get out of your sleeping bag! It’s my favorite way to start the day and I feel privileged I’ve been able to see so many sunrises this way.
This photo was taken from my sleeping bag while camping below the Vermillion Cliffs in northern Arizona.
4. Less Stuff to Carry
You can spend a lot of money on lightweight gear – or you can just carry less stuff. That can mean bringing a small tarp instead of a full tent – or not bringing a shelter at all if the forecast is good (Note: I always have my groundsheet as an emergency backup).
For bikepacking this matters even more than backpacking. Space and weight are at a premium and anything you can leave behind will help – especially on our rocky singletrack here in AZ.
This photo is from Colorado Trail trip. I had a small backpack in addition to the bags you see. I did carry a tent for Colorado, but the photo still shows how little space I had to pack!
Putting up a tent doesn’t seem like a big chore – until you get used to camping without one. Get to camp, roll out your groundsheet, pad, and sleeping bag, and you’re done! If you’re bikepacking, you can sleep right next to your bike and have easy access to all of your bags, right from your sleeping bag.
This might seem like a small bit of convenience, but it’s very important to me. The easier it is to camp, the more I’ll camp. The more I camp, the happier I’ll be. It’s a pretty simple recipe.
This campsite was on the top of the Tapeats Sandstone in 75-mile canyon. After a long day of hiking, I was set up and ready to sleep in just a couple minutes. I also went stoveless for maximum simplicity.
And that’s a wrap! I hope you enjoyed those photos, and perhaps it will inspire you to ditch the tent and join the cult of the cowboy on your next trip out! It’s a wonderful way to experience the desert southwest.
Speaking of wraps … you should always have a backup plan. In that last photo you can see my groundsheet – a piece of heat shrink film from a window insulation kit. In a worst-case scenario I can drape that over myself and hold it down with rocks. It’s not perfect and I end up a bit damp from the condensation, but it’s enough to get through a night. That actually happened the night I took that photo, and it was just fine!