The Wild Frontier #11: Sleeping under the stars


My latest column in Prospect magazine is all about ditching the tent and the bulky equipment and sleeping under the stars. A bivvy bag is helpful if you want a little bit of protection from the weather – but remember why you’re outside in the first place. The photo above is from an idyllic night we spent on the cliff’s edge near Skaill, Orkney, having taken some inspiration from the brilliant Alistair Humphreys.

Full text after the fold, or on the Prospect site here.

Sleeping beneath the stars—the art of camping without a tent

Have you ever slept outside, with nothing separating you from the sky above? If not, now that summer is finally here, I think it might be time for you to try it out.

My partner and I are moving to Orkney, the lush green archipelago off the north coast of Scotland, later this year. Last week we took the ferry across the Pentland Firth to start our house hunt, and it seemed like an excellent excuse to spend some time in the open air, on the beautiful Orcadian coast. There are charming guesthouses there, of course, but with excellent weather expected any time indoors seems like a bit of a waste. So we packed minimal equipment, ditched the car in a parking space by the beach, then headed out along the cliff path to find a nice spot to bivouac.

Bivouacking is camping, basically, but without the tent: take your mat and sleeping bag then simply pop them inside a thin, rainproof shell (“bivvy bag”) that should protect you from any light rain (or heavy dew). It’s a simple set-up, but a liberating one: no fiddling around with pegs or poles, and no canvas to block your view.

And what a view. By the time we found the perfect site, it was getting late—but the Sun doesn’t set until after 10pm this time of year. It lowered itself, blazing red, into the waters of the Atlantic as we watched from a grassy flat wide enough to fit two bodies safely; a few feet away, the ground dropped away to create a sheer, craggy inlet (known locally as a “geo”) where fulmars chuntered and catcalled to each other from their rocky ledges.

As we rolled out our mats and blankets, we attracted the attention of the locals. That is: a herd of cattle in a dozen shades of dun and tan and buff, who queued curiously along the fence line to watch our novel kind of nest building. The oystercatchers too came to have a look, piping their shrill cries and bouncing through the tussocks. But after a while, after we slid into our green bags and settled down to doze, the neighbours lost interest and returned to whatever business they had to attend to.

There we slept, a salt breeze running its fingers through our hair, the birds muttering their bedtime stories, the muffled sounds of the cattle grazing quietly in the field beyond.

Now, there’s no getting away from it: the sleep you get while bivouacking is of a different quality to that in a bed. But not worse. It’s lighter, more episodic. I drifted in and out, semi-conscious of the constant washing of the wave upon the rocks and the shifting watercolour of the sky—which, so close to solstice, is never truly dark. The night passed slowly, deliciously. Tentless, you see and savour everything. Last time we did something similar, we woke to see three baby otters playing on the beach—we wouldn’t have seen that had we been zipped away.

There’s a tendency among outdoors enthusiasts to get caught up in questions of equipment. The right kit can make an arduous experience much safer and more comfortable; a stormy night in a bivvy bag, with no extra shelter, could be miserable indeed. But focusing on kit and comfort can distract us from the aim of our expeditions, and insulate us from the very thing we’ve gone to experience. Plus, too much kit, and the thought of packing and carrying it all can be a daunting enough prospect to put you off.

A bivvy bag, on the other hand, plus other bare essentials for a night outdoors (a sleeping bag that packs down small, a blow-up rollmat), can be thrown into a tote bag and stashed in a cupboard or under your desk for a quick getaway. The adventurer Alastair Humphreys has been advocating just this. In his inspiring book Microadventures, he calls on city dwellers to dash off after work to snatch a night in the woods or up the nearest hill, then be back at your desk for 9am.

By cutting kit and preparation to a minimum, we can slot some microadventures into the wild into everyday life. But keep an eye on the forecast, eh?


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