Tips for Sleeping Outside Alone
Camping solo may not always be easy, but it'll always be worth it
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Welcome to Tough Love. We’re answering your questions about dating, breakups, and everything in between. Our advice giver is Blair Braverman, dogsled racer and author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Have a question of your own? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have done some car camping and beginner’s backpacking in my life, and I want to deepen my relationship with the outdoors. How can I take things to the next level? I would love to do a solo excursion of some kind for a week or a long weekend, but with so many choices it’s hard to know where to begin. I want to challenge myself, but not bite off way more than I can chew and end up feeling defeated. Maybe more than anything I want recommendations for how to experience nature that will remind me why I am putting time and effort into getting to know it better.
You know how people talk about wishing they could forget their favorite book so they could experience reading it for the first time again? That’s how I feel about what you’re doing. You’re not just setting off on a great journey, but you get to do it for the first time, and I’m so excited for you. That’s not to say that every step of the way is easy; there are always gonna be mosquitoes. But you have the opportunity to open your world in a way that’s fun and challenging, and that will bring you closer to something that is, for many of us, incredibly meaningful.
If you’re not already, dig into media about the natural world, in whatever format you like best, whether that means watching documentaries, reading books about animals or botany or expeditions, or following foraging accounts on TikTok. Use the content for inspiration; notice what intrigues you, and what you’d like to try yourself. You could be drawn to nature from a scientific angle, a spiritual one, as a means to adventure, or some combination of the above. You might like its simpler, more introspective rewards: figuring out where and how you feel your best, and who you become when you have the space to just be.
For your first activity, I’d recommend spending a single night alone outdoors. Sleeping alone outside is a true basic: once you’re comfortable with it, you’ll have a ton of options. But it’s also an adventure in its own right: a chance to step outside your comfort zone, and in the act of finding—or seeking—footing, better realize the bounds of your own possibilities. After all, nature isn’t a safe place or a dangerous place; it’s an indifferent place, which can feel scary when you’re not used to it, but that’s also what makes it such a comfort. A night feels long while it’s happening, but it’s over quickly. You can build a lot of confidence in a relatively short period of time.
The point is, everything that happens is good, because everything that happens is information that will help you know yourself and your preferences better.
This doesn’t need to be a backpacking trip—heck, you can sleep in a backyard if you have access to one. But the key, I think, is going somewhere surrounded by nature where you can’t see people and you know you won’t be interrupted. Hang a tarp (or pitch a tent), roll out a sleeping bag, and turn off your phone.
Your first night alone probably won’t be restful; you might wake up sporadically, or you might not sleep at all. Bring a light and a book, or just embrace the moment—listening to bugs and critters, watching the moon and stars move across the sky. You’ll find that dawn starts long before sunrise, as the edges of the sky turn from black to ultramarine; you’ll hear the rising songs of birds. If you’re inclined to journal, this is a great time for that, but you can also see what happens if you leave your mind undistracted for a while. Where do your thoughts go? You’re giving yourself space, mentally but also physically, and space is one of the best gifts that nature can offer us. It takes us out of ourselves, just for a bit, and returns us with—hopefully—a tad more perspective and peace.
If you hate the experience, it doesn’t mean you’re not outdoorsy; it means you’ve learned more about the kind of outdoorsiness that works for you. Maybe you’ll love day trips, but value a good mattress at night. Maybe you get too deep in your head when you’re alone, and would rather have a companion. Or maybe you love the solitude. Maybe you’ll think, this is great, but it’d be fun next time to wake up somewhere new: to watch the sunrise over a mountain, or listen to waves while you sleep. The point is, everything that happens is good, because everything that happens is information that will help you know yourself and your preferences better. And knowing yourself—what you need, what challenges you, and what you’re really looking for—is the foundation for every great adventure.