On She Goes

Sleep Under the Stars: Why Camping Is Good for You

Camping takes me where I want to go

Mary Ann Thomas
Mary Ann Thomas
August 1, 2017
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Three years ago, I didn’t even own a tent. But when I decided to go on a cross-country bike trip, I found out camping was the easiest and cheapest option for where to sleep. In the past few years, I’ve camped in the backcountry, on solo trips, out of a car, and with a group, and glamped in yurts—and have learned that each version takes me to a different mental space nothing else can. When city life—packed with people, noise, and concrete landscape—gets to be too much, I retreat to mountains, woods, or a spot by the river, where I can see landscapes that have existed long before I ever arrived on this earth. With a forest canopy above me and a glacial lake to watch cloud reflections, I don’t need TV, Wi-Fi, or even other people. Camping costs very little and often doesn’t require much physical effort, but it gives me the opportunity to be in spaces very few people have been. Here are some reasons I’ve fallen in love with sleeping outside.

Death Valley
photo by Mary Ann Thomas

For the mind

Stargazing: During one trip on Northern California’s Lost Coast, my friend and I found ourselves with a lot of energy but very little to do once night fell. I’d bought a star-identification guide a few weeks earlier, so we turned our eyes to the sky. We spent hours identifying stars and constellations, losing track of them, and finding them again. When we got back to San Francisco, where we lived that winter, we realized we could see Leo and Jupiter rise above our neighbor’s houses on our way to work. Since then, I make time for stars. There is a moment between when the fire starts to die at my campsite and when I turn in for sleep, when I look up and realize I have friends in the sky. If I can recognize stars, things that appear every single night, darkness and wilderness are no longer something to be afraid of. Life is no longer as unpredictable when I can identify constants.

Isolation: As someone with some social anxiety, sometimes it’s a relief to just have space and time to myself. When I’m camping, I seek places where I can literally scream from mountaintops, bathe naked in a river, or pee without searching for a bathroom. Being in an isolated campground is a complete exhale of bad energy because I can do whatever the fuck I want. When there’s no one else around, it doesn’t matter how loud I play my music or whether it’s socially acceptable. I can be goofy, I can sing badly to music, I can touch the textures of every mossy tree and dance like a fool. Mountains don’t care. Epic, old landscapes don’t give a fuck what I do. Landscapes without humans remind me that in the time-lapse video of Earth, humans are just a blip. I’m constantly reminded of how insignificant humans truly are.

Camping in British Columbia
photo by Mary Ann Thomas

For the body

Breathing easier, sleeping deeper: When hiking, biking, or just sitting outside, I find that my body is calmer since there’s less stimulation. As a person with asthma, I’m sensitive to air quality. Allergy pills and inhalers can only do so much. Taking time to be away from traffic, highways, and oil refineries allows me to fill my lungs with clean air. At night, when I crawl into my sleeping bag, I fall asleep quickly, my body exhausted from getting to that very spot. After a few days camping, I notice my skin is clearer and brighter. I use fewer chemicals on my body when camping, wash my curly hair less, and am, simply, less stressed.

Drink special: Space for alcohol can be limited in your pack, so I stick to hauling my favorite: bourbon. I love a cup of hot chocolate with bourbon, and you can’t go wrong with a finger’s worth in mint tea. The heat of these drinks with bourbon instantly warms me up on a cold night. When camping, the limitations of what we have with us means that we sip more slowly and pay more attention to our surroundings. Sometimes we’ll walk down to a lakeshore and skip rocks; other times we’ll watch a slow sunset and appreciate every single burning color. Drinking isn’t the event when you’re out in the wild; interaction with nature is the feature attraction.

Working up an appetite: Hunger is, after all, the best sauce. A few hours driving down a dirt road, walking through an old-growth forest, or biking to get out of the city will work up an appetite. When I’m with friends, camping is an opportunity to exchange recipes and ideas and provide nourishment for each other. As we share a meal together, there is no TV or internet to distract us. We learn each other’s quirks and pay attention to each other’s needs. I stick to a few simple recipes, like mac ‘n’ cheese with sausage and spinach, Shin Ramyun ramen soup with stir-fry veggies, and canned chili with gooey chunks of cheddar and ripped-up bits of tortilla. Sure, none of these are gourmet, but the meals I ate while camping are among some of the most delicious and memorable.

Alabama Hills
photo by Mary Ann Thomas

For the lessons learned

Literal flames: A few years ago, I had never built a fire in my life, but I’ve taught myself how to make a fire in even less-than-ideal conditions. I love the flickering flames and how the placement of a single log can completely change the direction of heat. I love the moment when I step away from the heat and realize how damn cold it got without me even noticing. Fires allow me to stay outside longer on a cold night and cook over flames even when the gas runs out on the camp stove. There’s something empowering about being able to build your own fire, because I was socialized to think of men as fire-builders, but now I’ve got another skill to take care of myself in the wilderness.

Play well with others: There’s work to be done at camp! Getting water, pitching the tent, making dinner, collecting firewood—all of these tasks are made easier if each person chooses to help. Camping with friends has taught me how to communicate directly, how to teach my friends to use new equipment, and when to listen to someone more experienced than I am. I’ve learned to gauge people’s strengths, weaknesses, and personality traits, as well as my own, so that we can work together. These skills have translated into more social confidence when I’m not in a camping situation.

For a lot of people who aren’t into camping, it’s hard to look past the physical discomforts, like sleeping on the ground and peeing outside. But all you need is a little gear—a comfortable sleeping pad, a nice camp stove, a flask, a Bluetooth speaker, an external phone charger, and a star guide. I won’t lie; you’ll need a poop shovel if you’re not near a campground, but you get used to it. It’s all worth it when it’s just you lying beneath a deep night sky. Camping is no longer uncomfortable for me. It’s fun. It’s nourishing. It’s cheap. And it takes me where I want to go, in so many ways.