Or, The Unexpected Benefits of Sleeping Without a Tent.
ONE OF MY goals this year (aside from successfully publishing The Earth Beneath My Feet) is to sleep out at least fifty-two times. That’s once every week on average. Fifty-two mountain nights. As quests go, it should be easy, right?
Once upon a time it would have been. Twenty-five years ago, sleeping outdoors was a common occurrence. A hundred nights a year was typical. Often I managed more – some years far more. My record was set in 1998 during the second half of my walk across Europe. On that occasion I spent the better part of ten months sleeping in the wild, right after eight months of doing the same the previous year. What a satisfying time that was! My relationship with indoors was wonderfully neglected.
Compared with that, fifty-two nights doesn’t sound excessive – or especially difficult to achieve. But it is significantly more than I’ve managed since becoming a parent. Which is by choice, I should add – this isn’t whining! Everything has its season, and the season for wandering in freedom and sleeping in the lap of nature for extended periods belonged to a time when responsibilities were few. It ended when I willingly chose to become a parent. For sure, giving up long journey’s meant giving up a huge part of who I’d become, and it could have been rough – if what I gave it up for wasn’t so magical. At one time I imagined that nothing could fulfill me the way mountains did. Which is hysterical now, looking back. How little I knew of all life could be!
Marriage and parenthood delivered unsuspected rewards, but also restrictions and duty. My wife knew who she was getting when she said ‘yes’. After all, I was on a 6,000-mile walk when we met. But my children had no say in it. They deserved a father who was around, not one who was forever absent with his head quite literally in the clouds. To bring children into the world but then put oneself first and head off alone into the wild for weeks on end wasn’t something I could do. Staying home was my choice.
But the season is now shifting – change is blowing in. My children are older, and although long trips still remain a few years off, weekly nights out are no longer quite so disruptive. A quick overnight escape into the hills doesn’t have nearly the impact it once would have. When I go late and return early I’m barely even missed.
(And I guess I could feel sad that I’m not being missed. But honestly, I see it as something to celebrate!)
If the impact on my family is minimal the impact on me has been profound. Before beginning the Fifty-Two Night Quest I already felt in tune with the land and its moods. I stepped onto it most days. It was a frequent part of my life. But, meaningful as that connection was, it turns out it was nothing to what I now feel after so many nights out. Unexpectedly, I now feel a closeness to nature I haven’t felt in years. I feel better tuned to sunrise and sunset; know what the phase the moon is in; have a strong feel for the progression of the year, for winter’s fluctuations, for the gentle unfurling of spring, for the many subtle changes the land undergoes each week. I feel better connected to something real, something vastly bigger than I find in the world of people, and because of it life seems better balanced, powerfully centered, and even thrillingly enhanced. And all from a few brief overnight escapes. And as said, it is very unexpected.
I have a hunch that much of this is down to the manner of the nights out: to sleeping beneath the stars instead of within a tent. With no barrier in the way the treasures and secrets of the night-time realm are sinking deep. At any time I merely have to open my eyes to instantly find myself at home in the real world, and the wonder and magic of it comes tumbling in. Unexpectedly, ‘no tent’ now feels normal. More than that, camping with a tent suddenly seems like a very odd choice indeed. When there is no weather or biting insects why hide away from the place I’ve come to visit? Why carry extra gear? Why bring a barrier? I never expected to feel so anti tent. But honestly, I now resent it when I need it. Again, unexpected…
Neither did I expect to sleep so comfortably in camp. Until the Quest began I’d come to accept that comfortable camp nights were confined to the past. So hard had the ground become during my less than frequent backpacking trips that I imagined I must have been tougher in my youth, and that at fifty-plus my body simply wasn’t capable of finding comfort on the ground. But yet again, I was impressively wrong. Sleeping on the ground every week has altered the surface, transforming it from painfully hard into luxuriously soft, so soft that it now feels… well, right, as though it is where I’m meant to be sleeping. And on top of that, just as a tent seems silly, so retreating indoors to sleep now feels plain wrong. Unnatural even!
(After all, as a species we didn’t evolve inside modern houses did we? And yes, I know we didn’t evolve with big fluffy sleeping bags at out disposal either. But I’m sure you get my point…)
And then there is the way each day starts from a bivvy: waking naturally; quietly watching the first pale streak of dawn light the horizon; watching it blossom and grow; celebrating a splash of intense light as the sun crests the horizon; suddenly feeling warmth upon one’s face; throwing one’s few possessions into a small rucksack; and then striding off purposefully across the wild earth through cold, clean air, leaving no sign of one’s presence behind; feeling free and alive, body in motion – there are few more positive ways to begin a day than that. The sun is up, I am walking, and the world is before me! Yes!
One final unexpected benefit from my Quest springs to mind: my perception of place. The confining nature of Covid’s restrictions and lockdowns has often made the world feel smaller than it once was, and over-crowded. (I can only imagine how psychologically damaging this has been for people who truly are stuck indoors surrounded by millions of people.) But sleeping outside one night each week has changed this reduction and crowding of place. Heading outside to sleep, to wide open spaces, to nature, and lying quietly and still once there, listening to the wind, to the murmur of small creeks, breathing unfiltered air, surrounded by space and solitude – has rendered the world a much bigger place again, bigger and impressively uncrowded. That change in perception of place is monumental; its significance can’t be overstated. I don’t feel I live in a world of people – I feel as though I live on the edge of a world of people, and so tangibly close beyond that human world is a wonderful, natural, thrilling emptiness. The medicine of that perception is soothing and healing beyond words.
I wish I could share it with everyone. I wish I could take all those who cannot touch nature out into nature…
But that’s my goal anyway – fifty-two mountain nights. A new habit. An intentional habit. A habit that takes work, that still has to be fought for a little on the home front, and sometimes takes great stealth (to reclaim my rightful home upon the ‘owned and managed’ earth), and immense care (to cause no damage and leave absolutely no mark when I’m there), but a habit that is proving unexpectedly rewarding and hugely beneficial.
I hope you try it, even if just once. We don’t belong indoors in beds. We really don’t!
(Important Note; if you do step into the wild to sleep, or even visit briefly by day, PLEASE consider that you have an absolute duty and responsibility to leave no sign you were ever there. This is CRITICAL. Travel gently, travel softly. Wild places may look rugged, and they are… but they are also easily damaged and diminished. Don’t just learn leave no trace principles… make them your guiding principles. The mountains will benefit, future visitors will benefit, and your own journey will be a thousand times better for it. Thank you.)