In a recent study, researchers at the University of Colorado found that camping has the ability to reset our body clocks. In dragging us away from the electric lights that so disrupt the natural order and cycle of daily life, camping isn’t just good for the soul, it also apparently recalibrates our sleep patterns.
I’d go a step further. Over a course of years I’ve conducted my own ad hoc research, and I’m prepared to declare an unscientific finding that sleeping out under the stars – no walls, no roof, not even the thin fabric of a tent – is even more medicinal and restorative than a night pegged into the ground.
In the open air of night, with the stars as your ceiling, there are no degrees of separation. You’re unconscious to the world, and yet you’re connected to the world, your body and your mind shaped and contoured to fit the earth. Inside a tent you often wake in the morning and things have happened around you, but without you. Snow has fallen, or animal tracks scamper past the tent. En plein air, you’re privy to nature’s nocturnal games.
Sleeping out has provided – better and worse - some of my most memorable moments in the outdoors. In the desert outside of Khiva in Uzbekistan, I once spent a night sleeping in the sand. The world seemed empty, unpopulated, until I was woken sometime in the middle of the night by a camel licking the salt from my face. It could so easily have been the start of a beautiful relationship.
On a cycling trip with friends to Cape York, Australia’s northernmost point, I slept out every night for three weeks, covered only by a mosquito net as protection against the tropics’ thirstiest beasts. One evening, we set up camp beside the Laura River, our three tents and my mozzie net spaced along the river’s edge. As we drew water from the river, a croc surfaced. It was too late in the day to find a new camp spot, so we simply moved camp a few metres from the river, circling the tents around my mozzie net, which was quickly christened the meat safe in reference to its vulnerability and my chances of becoming croc sashimi.
There was little sleep for any of us this night as we each lay awake thinking about the prospect of death by leather. I lay on the ground, watching satellites and shooting stars scuttle across the sky, interrupted only by regular calls from other sleepless voices: “How’s the meat safe?”
The meat safe and multi-purpose bikes
But my fondest memory of the bare-earth mattress probably comes from a cycling trip across the Himalayas in India last year. Once we cleared the monsoon belt, I began to spend nights sleeping outside, rolling out my mat and sleeping bag each evening, and rolling them back up crunching and crackling with ice in the morning.
At our highest camp, 4800 metres above sea level at Tsokar Lake in Ladakh, I slept out on grass beside a spring-fed stream. Beside me, for a while, a horse grazed, a large bell clunking around its neck – it was like trying to sleep next to Notre Dame. Eventually it wandered off and I finally fell asleep. I woke as first light began to crack open the new day, and I was surrounded by animals. As I’d slept, a herd of yaks had wandered into the alpine meadow, and they now grazed around me. Light rain was falling, and I could easily have packed up and retreated to my tent, which was less than 50 metres away. For the experience of waking surrounded by yaks, however, I could happily get a little wet.
Next week I’m travelling to South Africa. I wonder what lions think of fresh meat on the ground?