How we pursue a comfortable night’s sleep outside on the ground (1,600 words).
Amos gestures towards the trimmed emerald lawns carpeting the grounds of Lusaka Backpackers in Lusaka, Zambia. We are in the communal kitchen, him making tea, me coffee. Amos, very bald and very thoughtful, suspects that Evan and I don’t always have a hostel lawn to camp on. He wants to know: When you’re wild camping, how do you find a nice flat spot?
I like how specific Amos’ question is. It is distinct from ‘how do you find a safe place to wild camp,’ or the broader ‘where do you sleep at night?’—both great questions also. If you’re more interested in reading about how to find private, safe wild camping spots, Tom’s advice is a good start.
In considering sleeping rough or ‘wild camping’, flatness is not the most important consideration. And yet it matters enough that we spend time pursuing it even when we’re tired and hungry. We mix and match these four approaches:
ASK FOR FLAT
The people who live where you’re cycling through will help you find flat spots that you may have missed otherwise. While you’re at it, get lost in translation in ways that work to your advantage.
Approach the folks at a school, a home, a church, mosque, police station or shop. Explain as best you can that you intend to sleep outside, yes really, you do. Usually you will be directed to the most comfortable spot they can think of, for they are horrified that you will spend the night outside like an animal. They are guided by their own ideas about camping, and probably aren’t lucky enough to know about ThermaRest and other small-size, high-comfort gear.
A recent night in Zambia comes to mind, where we were guided to a space we wouldn’t have seen from the road, where a football field met an open clearing with large, leafy trees.
In many cases the people you ask for help cannot bear the idea and insist that you sleep inside. And inside usually means very flat indeed!
Not into socializing with anybody in the evenings? There are more self-sufficient methods.
There are parts of the world where there’s little need to find flat. I often felt spoiled for choice in western Kazakhstan. The steppe had gentle slopes, tall golden grasses and the ground wasn’t rocky. That’s nice, what about everywhere else?
To some extent you’re working on finding flat throughout the day. As you observe and enjoy the landscapes at cycling pace, the mind also makes hypotheses about what camping might look like that evening. The mind updates these guesses as the country passes one kilometre at a time. Perhaps without realizing it, you analyze what fringes either side of the road: the trees, soil and rocks, paths and bodies of water, what sort of natural and human structures tend to appear as you pass.
Let’s not be too strict about the definition: ‘Wild camping’ is commonly short-term squatting in the dregs of human activity. Human structures and the areas around them are generally flat because flat is awesome for agriculture, construction and recreation. I cut my teeth in Kyrgyzstan, where most afternoons yielded an abandoned building to sleep in. They didn’t always have roofs, but they (almost) always had flat floors.
I’m now in a part of the world—East Africa—where abandoned buildings are rarely abandoned. I miss them, the weird stories they conjure in the imagination and the feeling that comes from sleeping in them, that I’m doing something a little rebellious.
Despair no more about the crappy weather of ‘off-season’. Visit a place when most visitors aren’t, and picnic rest stops, outdoor toilets, and seasonal restaurants can be yours for the taking. So flat.
There have been a few occasions where night has fallen, what little traffic there was has ceased, and the road itself has beckoned me, seemingly the only level place around. I can’t recommend sleeping on the road itself! As for the little foot paths that dart away from the road, well, the only way to gain experience is to try these out and sleep fitfully, tormented by dreams of being trampled by sheep and their shepherds. I don’t like sleeping on any path, no matter how small it is, how flat it is, and how tired I am.
There are better options on the road than the road itself. Sometimes there are culverts, or abandoned gravel lots where heavy machinery was once stored during construction.
Okay, okay, you want to know about the intersection of flat and deep in the bush, the ‘real’ wild camping spots . Finding a flat spot in nature begins with a hunch that one exists nearby. Choosing a moment to pull off the road and explore can feel like a leap of faith, but the day’s observations help to improve hunches. We’re also influenced by looking at topography and satellite imagery on Google Maps.
The reconnaissance begins. The bicycles are laid to rest on their sides, out of the way…wait, I’m not meant to talk today about remaining out of sight, about which I have even more neuroses. Sticking to flat: The area is surveyed on foot, pacing circles over potential spots like a dog deciding where to nap. It’s rare to find something perfect; your discoveries are either seized or cast aside depending on how much you can make flat happen.
Rocks can be lugged aside, termites and their friends evicted. Branches and shrubs can be broken or hacked off, snow stamped down, sand and soil scraped aside, long grass squished, hay of a barn sunk into. If this sounds quite destructive, that’s because it can be. If we had never done this in a national park, I’d hasten to say that here.
Tools help, and it’s always vindicating when bike touring equipment has multiple uses. My jug lids have made good shovels on a few occasions where we undertook modest earthmoving operations.
Abandoned buildings may have piles of bricks and wreckage laying about, and these can be excavated, the effort worth the reward of having walls on a windy night. In one of my many cultural missteps, I once played archaeologist with Ilona in what I later suspected was a gravesite.
There are ways to make a wider range of ground conditions workable. Pursuing flat is not only to ensure a good night’s sleep, but also to lengthen the lives of our inflatable mattresses. Having both a tarp and a groundsheet reduces the need to remove every single stone and twig with sharp edges. Or keep it really simple and don’t sleep on anything that can puncture.
If I was more of a thinker through speaking instead of a thinker through writing, I’d have simply told Amos: you just make due, because you have to. Perfectly flat comes to feel unrealistic, and not flat becomes flat-enough-for-tonight.
The first expectation to let go of is space to spread out. Because let’s not forget, a lovely camp spot ideally means space for the tent and also lots of space to sprawl cooking equipment and stretch tired legs. Give it up.
The tent gets the flattest space, and cooking is done crouched, on the look out for branches and grasses that threaten to poke eyes. This feels much more claustrophobic as soon as headlamps are turned on, the light reflecting only what’s closest. Nature appears to be closing in. To me, the vegetation seems a bit menacing and this element of wild camping is disconcerting for me.
Another way to reduce the size of the flat patch required is to ditch the pitch entirely, and simply lay mattress and sleeping bags on the ground. Where this is an option is proportional to: what pesky animals might be around, your ignorance of what pesky animals might be around, and your pessimism or optimism about the overnight weather.
If there’s a small angle, fine, just put feet down-slope. I ignored this rule and set up the tent the wrong way mere days before Amos asked me about flat. Evan the sensitive sleeper pointed out my egregious error, I argued despite the evidence, and then capitulated and offered to take the downslope position.
Flat—flat enough—finds you. The more exhausted you are from cycling or a terrible sleep the previous night, the more the bumpy landscape seems to smooth out a small space. As the sun sets and the craving for a one-pot meal erodes your will to continue, something workable always emerges.