Travel with a Tent: Why Every Backpacker Should Check out of the Hostel and Camp

by wheretheroadforks

One of life’s greatest pleasures is sleeping under the stars. There’s something that just feels natural about sleeping outdoors. Imagine waking up to a panoramic view of the fjords of Norway. Or falling asleep to the sound of the waves crashing on the beach in Mexico. You just can’t get that experience in a hostel dorm. In this guide, I explain why you should travel with a tent, check out of the hostel, and spend a few nights camping on your next trip.

This is a long article. Use the links below to help navigate the page.

Why Travel With a Tent?

While planning my first trip abroad, I was facing a difficult dilemma. I knew that I didn’t want to overpack. At the same time, I wanted to bring my tent just in case I had the opportunity to camp. I knew that everything I packed I would have to carry on my back for the next few months so I wanted to keep weight down as much as possible. Everyone was telling me that I didn’t need to bring a tent for a backpacking trip to Europe. I brought the tent anyway. In the end, I was glad I did. Here’s why.

1. Camping Saves You Money

The #1 reason I started traveling with a tent initially was to save money. I’m a budget traveler. The less I spend, the longer and further I can travel. Accommodation cost is the most expensive part of any trip. Even though hostels are known for being a cheap place to stay, the cost adds up fast. Particularly if you are traveling in an expensive region like North America or Western Europe.

These days, a bed in your average hostel in a developed country costs $30 per night! Not many backpackers can afford to spend months on end traveling if they’re burning up $900 per month on accommodation alone. Even if you’re staying in expensive campgrounds, you’ll spend less than half that. In fact, most of the time when I camp, it’s free! I’ll talk more about finding a spot to camp later on.

campfire on the beach

Campsite on the beach

When traveling in a developing region like South America or Southeast Asia, for example, a tent is less of a necessity but still nice to have. A bed in a hostel dorm can be had for $5-$10. Even though a bed costs significantly less, it’s nice to be able to camp and save a few bucks. I’d much rather treat myself to a nice meal or a couple of beers than spend $10 on a bed in a hostel.

Sometimes all you need is a place to lay your head for a few hours. If you’re arriving late and leaving early, it doesn’t make sense to spend a bunch of money on a place to sleep if you’re not even going to take advantage of the facilities. Camping is great for these occasions.

Tip: A tent is an essential piece of travel gear for travel in Africa. There are very few hostels on the continent so your only option most nights is a hotel room. Many times the cheapest room goes for $25 or more. Often these same hotels allow you to camp on their property for just a fraction of the cost of a room. Traveling with a tent can save you hundreds of dollars per month if you’re willing to use it.

For more money saving tips, check out my guide Ultra Low Budget Travel: How to See the World for Less than $10 Per Day.

2. You Get to Enjoy the Outdoors When You Travel With a Tent

I’ll start off by admiring that I’m a city person. I thoroughly enjoy all of the comforts cities offer including restaurants, climate control, and comfy beds. When traveling, I always try to visit every country’s capital so I can meet local people and learn about the culture. The downside of this is the fact that I end up spending most of my time indoors at hostels, museums, bars, restaurants, markets, etc. In my mind, if you’ve only explored the cities, you’ve missed half of the country.

Area wise, most of the world is rural or wild. Every country has beautiful landscapes and natural wonders to explore. You’re going to need a tent to explore these areas because hostels and hotels simply aren’t available everywhere. Sometimes you’re just too far off the beaten track. Bring a tent allows to go outside and enjoy the environment away from civilization. To me, visiting a beautiful mountain lake is just as significant as visiting a famous monument or museum.

3. You Get to Camp in Beautiful Destinations Without the Crowd

Many tourist destinations allow camping on site for a small fee. This means that you get to enjoy the site in the early morning and evening when they’re not packed with tourists. You also get to experience these destinations during the night which few other tourists get to see.

Some of my favorite sites that allow camping include:

  • Hierve el Agua in Oaxaca, Mexico- This is one of my favorite places in the whole country. The best part is that camping is allowed for just a couple of dollars per night. This site gets packed during the day. Staying the night allows you to experience the peace and quiet of the morning and evening as well as catch a killer sunset over the surrounding hills. For more info, check out my guide: How to Visit Hierve el Agua.
  • Sossusvlei, Namibia- Here, you have to stay in a proper campground. The best part about camping in the Namib desert is the view at night. There is absolutely no light pollution so the night sky looks spectacular. I could clearly see the milky way and the southern cross. I think I was the last one to go to sleep in the whole campground. The sky was just too impressive.  Check out my guide to visiting Sossusvlei here.
  • Maasai Mara, Kenya- Most people think going on a safari in Africa costs thousands of dollars. Not if you camp. I stayed in my tent just outside the park gates and went on a full day safari for less than $200 including accommodation, guide, food, and park entry. 
Tent set up under the milky way

Camping under the milky way

4. You Can Travel Further With a Tent

When traveling with a tent, you are carrying your accommodation around on your back. You are completely self-sufficient. You don’t have to fear not being able to find a hotel or hostel at the end of the day. This removes a lot of stress and allows you to travel places that you otherwise wouldn’t get to go. Sometimes it may take a bit of searching and asking around, but you can always find someplace to camp at the end of the day. Even if it’s out in the bushes next to the railroad track.

Tents set up by railroad tracks

Camping by the railroad tracks while bicycle touring

Bringing a tent also opens up the possibility of alternative modes of travel. For example, you can hitchhike, bicycle tour, or even walk from one town to the next. If you don’t quite make it to your next destination, no worries. You can always camp out somewhere along the way.

Another benefit to traveling with a tent is the fact that you have the freedom of having a choice of where you want to stay. Maybe the only hotel option available is a bed bug-ridden dump or a hotel that is way out of your price range. If you have a tent, you have a third option. Maybe there is a nice campground nearby. In this situation, the choice is easy.

5. While Traveling With a Tent, You Get a Break From Hostels and the Backpacker Crowd

I’ll start off by saying, I love staying in hostels. Over the years, I’ve probably stayed in over a hundred. Hostels offer a comfortable place to stay for a reasonable price. Fellow guests are often an interesting mix of people from around the world. With that being said, I have to admit that sometimes I start feeling like a stereotype when staying in hostels. Backpacking has become a bit of a meme lately. I enjoy camping because:

  • You meet a different type of traveler- I have nothing against backpackers because I am one, but it’s nice to get away from the hostel crowd once in a while and do something a bit different. When staying in a campground, you meet a completely different type of traveler with different interests and experiences. People who camp tend to be a bit more outdoorsy and adventurous.
  • Traveling from city to city by bus and staying in a hostel doesn’t really feel like much of an adventure- It’s the same thing that all of the other backpackers are doing. Going camping changes up the trip and makes it feel a bit more exciting. Camping outside in a tent is an adventure in itself.
  • Backpackers can get annoying- I’ll just come out and say it. I get tired of meeting fellow backpackers. Every hostel has a few annoying stereotypes. For example, a hippy guy, guitar guy, and story topper can be found at pretty much every hostel. With that being said, the vast majority of backpackers are interesting and overall great people.
  • Camping gives you some privacy- Sleeping in a dorm every night gets exhausting. Particularly if you get stuck with an annoying roommate. It is nice to get some solitude once in a while. Camping in a tent offers privacy as well as some peace and quiet.
Hostel dorm

Hostel dorm

6. When Camping You Get to See Something Different

Most tourists arrive in a country and travel along a set tourist trail. This is the trail that group tours, overland tours, and most backpackers follow. In some countries, it’s difficult to explore off the trail destinations.

When you don’t have a tent, you’re tied down to staying in hotels and hostels, you are limited to visiting parts of the country that have that type of infrastructure. Rural areas, national parks, and undeveloped regions just don’t have hotels available. Having a tent allows you to go out and see something different.

For example, instead of traveling straight from a country’s capital city to your next destination, you can stop off in a national park or campground. This allows you to see something different because you have the ability to camp when you travel with a tent.

How to Find a Campsite While Traveling

The great thing about camping is that you can do it almost anywhere. With practice and a bit of luck, you’ll always be able to find a suitable spot to pitch your tent. Even while traveling in the busy summer season. It may take an hour or two of searching to find a campsite, but I’ve never failed to find a decent spot.

In this section, I outline all of the places you can camp and how to find them. Some are legal and some are illegal. Some cost money and some are free. Chances are, wherever in the world you are, you can pitch your tent at one of these places.

Mountain view while free camping

Beautiful view while free camping

1. Camp for Free Legally While Traveling

Many people don’t know this but a few countries have laws that allow you to legally camp for free pretty much anywhere. These beautiful laws are called ‘right to roam.’ The idea is that every person should be free to experience nature and enjoy the country’s land, even if it’s privately owned. I think this is a great idea and hope more countries adopt it in the future.

At this time, only a handful of countries have ‘right to roam’ laws including Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Scotland. In these countries, you can pitch your tent and camp almost anywhere as long as you’re just passing through and you don’t disturb the owner. For a list of countries where you can camp for free, check out this awesome article from Wisebread.com.

Some countries allow free camping on certain government land. You just have to check local regulations where you’re traveling. For example, in the United States, you can camp for free in National Forests and Bureau of Land Management land. You are permitted to camp for up to 14 days before you have to move on to another site. For more info on where you can camp for free in the US, check out this guide from Freecampsites.net.

A few simple rules you have to follow when free camping include:

  • Respect the environment- Don’t litter. Don’t destroy plants or animals. Basically, use ‘Leave No Trace’ practices to the best of your ability. For some guidelines on Leave No Trace, check out this article from lnt.org.
  • Don’t camp or walk near someone’s home or business- Try to find a secluded area where you aren’t bothering anyone. You should stay at least 500 feet away from any inhabited buildings.
  • Obey local laws- Don’t start a fire if there is a ban. Don’t hunt or fish without a permit.
  • Stay only temporarily- Don’t spend more than two days when camping in one spot if you are on someone else’s land. If you plan to stay longer than two days, you should ask permission from the owner. Depending on the country, you may be able to stay longer on government land.
  • You are allowed to forage for fruits, berries, etc in some cases- Check the local rules to make sure you aren’t poaching.
  • You can build a campfire if wildfires aren’t a risk- Check the local laws before you build a fire.

2. Wild Camp While Traveling

Also known as rough camping or stealth camping, wild camping is another free camping method. Basically, you just find a hidden spot, pitch your tent, and stay the night and hope that nobody finds you or asks you to leave.

Usually, wild camping is illegal. The idea is to not get caught or noticed. You can wild camp pretty much anywhere. Forested places are easiest to find a suitable spot. It is also possible to wild camp in urban environments though it is a bit more tricky and dangerous.

Two tents set up in the forest in Washington State wild camping

Wild camping in Washington State with my friend

Wild Camping Tips

  • Arrive after dark and leave before the sun rises- You’re less likely to be discovered in the cover of darkness.
  • Try not to use your flashlight- It gives away your location. People can see the light from miles away at night.
  • Don’t make a fire- It gives away your location.
  • Make sure no one sees you enter your camp- If you’re camping just off the road, take a look around to make sure no one is watching you. Wait for any oncoming cars to pass. If someone sees you enter your camp, depending who it is, they could rob you later, or call the police to have you kicked out.
  • If you’re camping near a road, look for sites above the road- It’s harder to be seen. Most people aren’t looking up when driving.
  • Leave no trace- Don’t leave trash or damage the environment.
  • If you’re asked to leave, pack up and go- There is no sense arguing. You are most likely in the wrong. You can, however, explain what you’re doing and hope they invite you to stay.
  • Don’t be too paranoid- Most people just leave you alone if they discover your tent. In fact, they’re probably more afraid of you than you are of them. I know if I stumbled upon a random tent in the woods, I’d be afraid to approach.

3. Camp at a Hotel or Hostel

Many hostels and hotels allow you to camp in your tent on their property for a reduced rate. For example, if a hostel charges $10 for a bed, they may allow you to camp for $5. In this case, you still have full access to the hostel’s amenities such as bathroom, kitchen, and common area.

This is a great option because you have access to a shower and don’t have to worry about someone bothering you in the middle of the night. Some places offer camping on their price list but most of the time you have to ask.

4. Ask Permission to Camp

Another way to find camping is to simply ask someone if you can camp on their property. Surprisingly, many individuals and businesses will allow you to camp if you are clean, pleasant, and ask nicely. If you camp outside of a business like a restaurant or a convenience store, you’ll probably be expected to buy something there. I do anyway out of courtesy.

Occasionally someone just offers you a place to camp. For example, while I was fixing a flat tire on my first bicycle tour last year, a man told me that I could camp on his property if I didn’t have any place to stay or if I had any problems with the tire. I didn’t take him up on the offer because I wanted to cover a bit more ground but it was very nice of him and unexpected.

5. Ask Police or Firemen

This depends entirely on the country. In many places, police and emergency workers are very friendly and helpful to tourists. Sometimes they will allow you to camp outside the station. Sometimes they will help you find a suitable place to camp.

It’s kind of comforting knowing that the police know where you are camping. That way, you know nothing bad will happen to you in the night. Who would commit a crime at a police or fire station?

Tents set up at a campground in Iceland

Campground in Iceland

6. Stay in a Campground

Most cities and tourist attractions have a campground nearby where you can pitch your tent for a fee. Many have bathrooms and a small shop. Prices range from just a couple of dollars for primitive sites to over $30 for full-service campsites in expensive countries.

Most campgrounds don’t require reservations but it is a good idea to make one anyway just in case. They do fill up, particularly during holidays and in the summer. Camping is becoming more and more popular as hotels get more expensive.

Even if they’re full, many campgrounds will find a space for you to pitch a small tent. Some campgrounds have space reserved for hikers and bicycle tourists who are traveling without a vehicle. This is common in National Parks.

Additional Camping Gear to Bring When Traveling With a Tent

If you just plan to camp occasionally during your trip and the weather is decent, you can get by sleeping on the ground in your tent. To make camping more comfortable, you may want to pack a few additional items other than the tent when traveling.

  • Sleeping bag- Even in warm climates, it can get cold at night. For example, when I was camping in the Namib Desert, the temperature got to nearly 100 degrees during the day but fell into the 40s at night. You’ll want a good sleeping bag if you plan to camp often. I bought the Kelty Cosmic 20 Degree Sleeping Bag on Amazon and really like it. Check out my full review here. If you’re looking to save some weight, consider a quilt instead of a sleeping bag. 
  • Sleep mat- Sleeping on the ground is uncomfortable and cold. A sleeping mat adds a bit of cushion and prevents the ground from sucking the heat out of you. I have the Klymit Static V Sleeping Pad It packs pretty small and has held up well so far. For my full review click here.
  • Camp stove- It’s nice to be able to at least boil some water for noodles, pasta, rice, eggs, potatoes, etc. Along with some veggies and a bit of seasoning, you can make a decent and cheap meal with those ingredients. Boiling water also allows you to make tea and coffee which is a nice treat on a cold morning. I use a simple alcohol stove that I made from a tuna can. For instructions to make your own from a soda can, check out this cool guide.
  • Water filter- Water is heavy and sometimes it’s tough to buy in rural areas. I like to carry a water filter just in case. It allows you to filter water from lakes, rivers, wells, and the tap and makes it safe to drink. I recommend the Sawyer Mini. I’ve had mine for a few years and am really happy with it. Check out my full review here.
  • Camp pillow- If you plan to camp often, I recommend you pack a small pillow like the RikkiTikki Inflatable Camp Pillow. These take up very little space and greatly improve comfort while sleeping. Alternatively, you can use balled up clothes as a pillow. 

Unfortunately, these items add bulk and weight to your pack. Not to mention, they’re expensive. Particularly ultralight models. I think it’s worth it to bring a full camping setup while traveling with a tent. Having a sleeping bag and mat greatly improve sleep comfort. You’ll be much more likely to camp if it’s comfortable and warm. Good quality camping gear lasts many years and eventually pays for itself.

Sleeping bags in a tent while winter camping

What is the Initial Gear Cost to Travel With a Tent?

One drawback to traveling with a tent is the fact that you have to buy some expensive gear to get started. If you don’t know whether or not you’ll even use it, it can be a difficult purchase.

  • Tent cost- You can buy a cheap, one man tent for around $30. Midrange tents cost around $100. Starting around $250, you can buy a nice ultralight tent.
  • Sleeping pad- For around $10 you can buy a foam camping pad. The problem with these cheap pads is the fact that they are bulky. At the $50 price point, you can buy a lightweight inflatable pad. I find these much more comfortable. For more info, check out my guide: Inflatable Vs Foam Sleeping Pads: Pros and Cons.
  • Sleeping bag- For around $30, you can buy a warm sleeping bag. The problem is that it will be very heavy and bulky. Almost too much to carry. I recommend spending around $100-$150 for a decent down sleeping bag.

You can put together a decent budget camping setup for around $150 if you shop around a bit and deal with some extra weight and bulk. For around $400, you can have a nice, ultralight setup that will keep you warm and dry through many years of use.

In terms of price, the sky is the limit. If you decide to purchase high-end camping gear, you aren’t really gaining anything in terms of comfort or durability. You are paying for lighter weight materials. The more you pay, the lighter the gear gets.

For more info on packing camping gear, check out my ultralight travel packing list.

Tent Camping Safety

Overall, sleeping in a tent is very safe. In all of my nights of camping, I have never felt in danger. I’ve heard some spooky sounds outside the tent on a few occasions, but I’m still here. There are a few precautions that you should take:

  • If you’re camping in bear country, take proper precautions with your food- Tie it up in a tree at least 100 yards away from your tent. Don’t cook within 100 yards of your tent. For more info on camping in bear country, check out my guide Bear Safety Tips: How to Avoid Bears While Hiking and Camping.
  • No fire in the tent- Don’t cook or light any candles. It doesn’t matter what it says on the packaging. Tents are flammable.
  • Consider where water flows- Don’t pitch your tent in an area that will be flooded when the tide comes in. Don’t camp in dry river beds that could fill with water during a rainstorm. If rain is in the forecast, don’t camp in low spots that could flood.
  • Don’t camp on roads or tracks- People or vehicles may pass in in the night. You don’t want to get run over while you sleep.
  • Don’t keep food in the tent- Mice and bugs can chew through the wall and enter your tent to get to the food.

For more info on staying safe in your tent, check out my guide: Is Camping Safe? Avoiding Wild Animals, Insects, and Injury. Here I talk about how to protect yourself from animal attacks, disease, hunters, dangerous weather conditions, and much more. 

Mother bear and babies walking over rocks

Before camping in bear country, read up on proper safety procedure

Reasons Not to Travel With a Tent

Tents are great to have for a long term trip where you don’t know where you’ll be sleeping every night. For some trips, bringing a tent just adds unnecessary bulk and weight to your luggage. There are a few situations where it doesn’t make sense to travel with a tent:

  • Short vacation to a city- Urban camping is difficult and dangerous. If you’re just going on a short trip, and you don’t plan to camp, you probably don’t need a tent.
  • Densely populated region- Some parts of the world are difficult to camp simply because people are everywhere. For example, finding a suitable place to wild camp in Ethiopia or India would be nearly impossible. People are literally everywhere.
  • Cheap countries- Some countries have extremely affordable accommodation options available. For example, in southeast Asia, it’s pretty easy to find a bed in a hostel for under $5 per night. Sometimes it’s easier and more comfortable to just rent a room.
  • A country where you must register where you sleep- This is rare, but there are countries out there that require tourists to stay in a hotel. They ask you to show proof of where you stayed when you go to exit the country. Usually in the form of a stamp or ticket that the hotel gives you. The only country I know of that for sure has this policy is Uzbekistan. Upon exit, you must prove that you’ve stayed in a hotel at least once every three nights.
  • Countries that require that you be on a tour- Some countries only allow tourists to enter if they are in a tour group. In this case, you probably won’t need a tent because you’ll be staying in hotels every night anyway. Examples include North Korea, Bhutan, Turkmenistan, and Iran for some nationalities. If you do camp in these countries, the tour company probably supplies all of the necessary camping gear.
  • If you are trying to travel with only carry on- I hate checking my bag but when I travel with a tent, I have to. Many airlines don’t allow tent stakes in carry-on luggage. The tent, sleeping pad and sleeping bag also add a considerable amount of bulk to your pack which makes it difficult to pack small enough for carry-on. On alternative that I have found is to pack a bivy sack.

With all of this being said, if you know you’ll pass through some places that you’ll use the tent, bring it. I packed a tent on my first trip to Europe even though everyone said it was unnecessary. Over the course of two months, I only used it a handful of times, but thoroughly enjoyed it every time. I knew that I would rarely use it, but in the end, I was glad I brought it even though it added a few pounds to my backpack.

Alternative Shelter Options for Traveling

If you’re not a tent person but you still want to camp during your trip, there are a few alternative shelter options. These are also good if you want to pack light.

  • Hammock- The main benefits of a hammock over a tent are that they are more comfortable and lightweight. You also don’t need any poles or stakes. Just some straps to tie to trees. The drawback is the fact that you need properly spaced trees or some kind of structure to tie to. For a complete analysis of hammock camping, check out my article: Hammock Vs. Tent for Camping: My Pros and Cons List. 
  • Bivy Sack- This is basically just a liner that you put over your sleeping bag to keep you clean and dry. A multitude of options are available. For a complete analysis of bivys check out my article Bivy Sack Vs Tent: My Pros and Cons List.
  • Tarp This is the most lightweight shelter option. A tarp will keep the rain off you but won’t keep the bugs out. It’s a good idea to pair a tarp with a mosquito net. Many people pair a tarp with a hammock or bivy sack for extra rain protection. It only weighs a few ounces more. For a complete analysis of tarp camping, check out my article: Tarp Vs. Tent for Camping: My Pros and Cons List.
  • Cowboy Camp- This is the most basic form of camping. Cowboy camping is sleeping under the stars without any shelter. If you’re in a place with good weather and no bugs, this is the best way to camp.
Hammock camping in front of a volcano

Hammock camping

The Best Tents for Travel

When picking out a tent, there are a few factors to take into consideration. The ideal tent for travel will be:

  • Lightweight- You’ll be carrying it everywhere you go so the lighter the better. Ultralight tents are expensive but you’ll be happy with the reduced weight on your back.
  • Made for 1 person- One man tents have a smaller footprint which makes finding a place to pitch much easier. They are also the lightest. Most one-man tents have space for gear or even a second person if you sleep close together. For a couple traveling together, a two-person tent would be best.
  • Not flashy or colorful- When wild camping, you want to blend into your surroundings. Green, beige, and brown tents are best. Camouflage prints are ok but they look too military for me. You don’t want to be mistaken for a spy something crazy like that.
  • Quick and easy to set up and take down- When it’s raining, you want to be able to pitch your tent quickly so you don’t get too wet. Most modern tents pitch in less than two minutes.
  • Durable- Your tent will take a beating when traveling. You want it to last. You get what you pay for in this department.
  • Freestanding- Some tents require stakes to pitch. This makes camping on a solid surface like rock or concrete impossible. I prefer a freestanding tent. You could camp on a concrete parking lot or a wooden deck, for example.

The Best Budget Tent for Travel

Alps Mountaineering Lynx 1-Person Tent

I have slept about 30 nights in this tent. So far, it has held up really well. It’s also quite compact and lightweight for a budget tent. Click here to read my full review.

The Best Midrange Tent for Travel

Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL 1

I bought this tent on sale at REI. I wasn’t planning on getting it but the deal was just too good to pass up. It’s one of the lightest tents you can buy at under 2 pounds. It is made of a very thin material but has held up great so far. Click here to read my full review.

Big Agnes Tent in the Front. Alps Mountaineering tent in the back.

The Best High-End Tent for Travel

Hillberg Solo Tents

Hillberg makes some of the highest quality tents on the market. They are durable and are built to last for many years. I don’t have one because I can’t justify spending the money. Maybe for my next tent. For more info, check out the Hillberg website here.

Final Thoughts on Travel With a Tent

From the time I started traveling, I almost always packed a tent. Even though I’m not a particularly outdoorsy person, I still love camping. On those few trips where I left my tent at home, I ended up kicking myself every time I spotted a killer campsite. These days, I always carry my tent, even if I know I’ll rarely use it.

After you start camping, there is no going back. You’ll save money, fall in love with the great outdoors, and experience something new every time.

Do you travel with a tent? Share your international camping experience in the comments below!

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