Move Aside, Van Life: Why I Chose the Tent Life

Room to Spare: Living in 22 Square Feet

I mean your van is cool and everything, but can you park it on the top of a mountain peak? Boom! Point: Tent! No I'm only half teasing. I am super jealous of all you Van Life folks out there. Your vans are pretty swanky, economic, efficient, and downright cool. Plus you can cram a whole lot more in there than I can smash into my backpack, so you have me on that one. Also, I know alot of vanners also backpack so just know that any teasing I dish out is coming from a place of love and perhaps jealousy rather than mockery. However for the next several hundred words or so I'm gonna do my best to capture the essence of what its like to go one step further down (up?) the minimalist spectrum - Tent Life.

Surely many of you who subscribe to The Outbound are probably of somewhat similar minds and are no doubt aware of the increasing popularity of minimizing your life. I mean, you have the tiny house movement (also awesome), and then you had the van life movement which seems to be only growing in popularity. But lets not forget whats been around since the dawn of the stick and leaf - TENTS! Thats right! I know...its trendy to drive around in your decked out retro van (can you hear the passive aggressive jealousy in my tone?) but I want to give a quick unshowered head nod to those still keeping things old-school...my backpacker bretheren/sisteren(?) The truth about all us minimizers is we're all after the same thing (experience chasers) - only getting there in a slightly different way. Ok, now that I've got that out of my system...lets talk tents!

I won't bore you with an analysis of tent brand names. Instead, lets simply get down to the reality of what its like to actually LIVE in a tent. (But if you actually DO want my tent brand opinion, I'm happy to share for what its worth)

Mobility: Probably the most obvious and best part of living a lifestyle in a tent. If you don't like where you slept the night before...move! Hell if you get into your tent and you don't like where it is at that moment...move immediately. With backpacking tents nowadays, most of them barely weigh a pound, so the burden to move it has become nearly nonexistent. For me, this aspect of living in a tent was the most appealing. "Oh look a mountain!" Want to go sleep on top of it? DO IT! Because you can! And if I were to venture a guess, the aspect of mobility is shared with all you lucky people who have minimized to living in a van. Amiright? I mean, think about it. It affords you the opportunity to have a new million dollar view EVERYDAY! Tent and van living are probably the most successful remedy from having a stagnant life.

The First Few Times Hurt: If I were to venture a guess, I'd imagine the most common argument for NOT wanting to live in a tent is the perception that its uncomfortable. Well. I'll hand this one to you. I cannot rightly look you in the face and tell you its the same as sleeping on your adjustable mattress. Its not. But. As the days, weeks, and months flow by, you don't even remember what it feels like to sleep on a mattress. In fact, sleeping on a soft mattress is one of the easiest creature comforts to abandon. I will try to equate this to something perhaps more relatable. Ah ok. So you know how when you have a really good workout and the next morning you feel that dull pain across your muscles. Think of it this way. That pain isn't going to kill you. Instead it helps you become conscious of your body. The pain serves as a constant reminder that you are ALIVE! "Yeah thats right...I worked hard for this!" Pain is a unique feeling reserved for the living. So don't be rocks! But really, that pain really doesn't last that long. By the end of the first few days, you don't even acknowledge it anymore. And after the first view months you wouldn't have it any other way. Why? Because you've come to realize that that small amount of pain is well worth waking up to some of the most grandiose views the world has to offer.

Adaptability: One day you might be sleeping in what feels like an oven and a week later you will feel like your sleeping in a freezer. There is no air conditioning in the wilderness so you'll have to prepare for the worst before your feet start kicking. For me, I could not afford a 4-season tent. And frankly it would have been a bad choice for me since I would be spending a major part of the year NOT in the winter. So lugging around all that extra weight would have been a royal pain in the arse. Well the great thing about backpacking is you don't have to solely rely on your tent to keep you warm. In this case, the tent isn't what is "adaptable." In this case...its you! The tent is your first level of protection against the elements. After that, it boils down to your level of preparedness. Will you have brought enough layers to keep your body temperature from dangerous levels? While you're living in a tent, life becomes a much more conscious decision rather than an auto-pilot process you take for granted. Know where your hiking. Know the weather. And don't presume if its hot during the day, its going to be hot at night. Be adaptable. 

Crowded: Really, 22 square feet is not that much space. Obviously. But in reality, you don't NEED much more. I mean you're clearly not going to be living a life of material luxury, but I can guarantee you will be waking up to a better view than any metropolitan penthouse real estate can afford you. When you strip yourself of all your normal creature comforts, you find that you aren't surrounded by that much stuff anyway. Let me level with you for a second. I like THINGS. I'm not some 21st century prophet suggesting the only way to live a full life is to abandon your iPhone and other luxury items. Not at all. But if you do want to start minimizing your footprint, you might want to consider sacrificing a few of those things. Like a bandaid, folks! It'll hurt at first but eventually the wound will heal. Anyway, so yes, a 22 square foot backpacking tent does not leave much room for things other than yourself. Generally speaking I would have my sleeping bag, a mat, a knife, and maybe an extra layer of clothes if the weather/region warranted it. Oh and occasionally my boots to keep them from turning into blocks of ice (which usually happened whether they were/weren't in my tent). Thats about it. Now of course my food would be somewhere out of reach of hungry critters and my backpack would be just outside my tent. This level of tidiness did not start off that way. It was a lesson in letting go and with each new park I learned to give up more. Baby steps. 

Secure: No, I don't necessarily mean that the tent itself is secure. In fact, in a lot of ways it can protect you from almost nothing. Snow could collapse it. Wind could whip it. The Sun can degrade it. The cold and heat can penetrate it. Even a bear could eat it! No, believe it or not, this aluminum frame cobweb can really do very little to protect you from the more harsh of elements. However, over time, you begin to get this sense of invincibility from your tent. Despite its inadequacies, there is this strong (false) sense of security when you enter into your tent at night. Perhaps its a mental type of security. Over time, you begin to put more and more faith into your tent that everything scary on the other side of the flimsy fabric will stay there. It doesn't matter if its true or not...you begin to convince yourself that it is. After days, weeks, and months in your tent, even the snowiest, windiest, coldest, and bear-iest of nights won't prevent you from sleeping soundly. 

Nothing is Guaranteed: So I already touched on the lack of mattresses in the wilderness but thats just the tip of the iceberg. Many of those creatures comforts that you and I have grown so accustomed to will simply have to be left behind. But don't be discouraged. Think of it as trimming the fat and building muscle. In this section you'll see a lot that could be overlapped with being "adaptable." Now I think this is a massively important topic that I would like to devote an entire journal entry to so I'm gonna give you the spark notes here. Water, food, and warmth are simply not a promise that Mother Nature can deliver on. Much of it must be earned and worked for rather than given to you. (Insert topical political quip). Furthermore, unlike many who participate in society today, wastefulness in wilderness survival is a flawed choice that could potentially prove fatal. Learning to treat food and water as a tool for fueling your body rather than a comfort will keep you alive. 

P.S. I'm re-reading through this and see how it could certainly be painting a grim picture for many. Though I promise you, the hardships and pain are temporary, while the rewards of unmatched landscapes and bolstering of self-accomplishment will be everlasting. So get out and remind yourself of what if means to LIVE and not just exist. Oh yeah...and tents are cool! 

P.P.S: Hygiene: Yeah you better just pray for rain or a nice creek.

Published: November 10, 2016

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Mike QuineExplorer

Washington DC

...a year long journey through the American landscape of our National Parks. Disengaged from societal pursuits to set out alone and face the uncertainty guaranteed by the Wilderness. Hardening both hands and mind thro...