Above the streets, beneath the stars: why you should try urban rooftop camping

Urban landscapes may have different sights and sounds than traditional wilderness camping, but still can provide an unparalleled intimacy with nature

I cant be outdoors enough. Snow or shine, hot or cold, Im outside. I grew up in an active, outdoorsy family who went on day hikes whenever possible and even car-camped occasionally. As I came of age, I started venturing deeper into a diversity of environments and for longer periods of time. By the time I had graduated college, I had thru-hiked the Appalachian trail. By my mid-20s, I had hiked on hundreds of trails across five continents. For me, nothing beats backpacking into an otherwise inaccessible campsite, having your own, uninterrupted space and being self-sufficient.

That said, one of my favorite places to camp is the roof of my Brooklyn apartment building.

I am not the first to recommend urban camping, and yet the initial response out of most peoples mouths when I tell them I love it is: Here? In the city? Its a fair question given the very term urban camping presents a facade of contradiction. In practice, however, camping in a city is in many ways not so different from camping on an unpopulated mountain.

Like every environment, urban landscapes provide their own unique set of challenges, including noise, privacy and security from people (instead of bears or lions or snakes). One of the reasons I love urban camping is because of the specific elements that might not be present during traditional, wilderness camping. Ive camped in urban or otherwise populated settings as diverse as a heavily trafficked college campus quad to building balconies to, most recently, my own apartment building roof.

Tent illuminated on urban rooftop, NYC. Photograph: Jayme Thornton/Getty Images

Urban camping is in many ways a more democratic form of experiencing environments than wilderness camping. While Leave No Trace principles help reduce human impact on environments, adhering to them can often be prohibitively expensive to the point where, in modern times, access to outdoor recreation is often rendered off-limits to certain socioeconomic classes. Urban camping, on the other hand, is accessible by public transportation or foot. Likewise, it generally makes much greater use of items one may already have lying around ones home, so one can better avoid having to rent or buy expensive gear.

Furthermore, urban camping may be a good place to start for first-time campers as its remarkably forgiving; for instance, I love not having to pack in gear and food because Im only sleeping pretty close to or on top of my home. I can even sometimes order delivery to my campsite, and if I forget something, I can simply run around the corner and pick it up.

That said, I will be the first to acknowledge the privilege I have in that I possess the liberty of choice: I experience little structural violence and have never experienced homelessness. I choose to sleep outside in cities; others are nowhere near as fortunate. Additionally, as an educated white guy, authorities are, all other factors being equal, less likely to harass me; likewise, as a cis man of decent stature, I am probably viewed by most people as a unfavorable target for anything from sexual violence to robbery.

Given the previous sentence, youre probably thinking right now about all the ways you could get knifed. That means, however, you are generally aware of that tiny risk any time you leave your home. That is exactly why urban camping can additionally be a great jumping off point for people who may feel out of their shells sleeping in, say, the woods or a desert: not everyone knows what to do if a venomous snake bites, but most people who live in a city know what to do if, God forbid, someone pulls a knife on you and asks for your wallet.

Like many things in life, safety is in part a question of perspective. Is camping in wilderness safer than camping in a city? I would argue its apples and oranges: one is not safer than the other, but rather each produces its own unique challenges, and, if you already exist in an environment in some capacity, you probably already have a decent idea of the risks posed by that environment, as well as how to avoid them and ameliorate them if they do occur.

Urban camping can be more than simply a new experience: it can yield a metamorphosis. Even if its for a brief time, camping allows me to be part of a place, rather than an itinerant. Through camping, I experience an environment with an unparalleled intimacy; I hear sounds and observe the immediate world in ways I might otherwise never encounter if I had simply been passing through.

For example, Im always amazed at the heterogeneity of flora and fauna I encounter camping in cities, which are popularly but erroneously considered biological dead zones. Even if its for a brief time, camping fixes you to a place, and, through observing the habits of people and animals and machines and plants and architecture, I am afforded a first-hand view of the cogs that contribute to a functioning landscape. When I camp, I experience whole, alternate realities of a landscape. To this end, Ive come to realize that urban landscapes are not removed from nature; rather, urban landscapes pose a direct challenge to the dominant paradigm of nature-as-wilderness.

Camping, for me, is not so much having the perfect ultralight tent or hiking the greatest length of miles. Because camping is often an individualistic experience, there are few right or wrong ways to camp. Camping is such a powerful and transformative tool in my life because its manifestation is malleable. Each camping venture is what I want it to be: a movie night with friends, a romantic getaway with my husband, an opportunity to uniquely experience an environment, a family board game night, or a solitary time for reflection and recreation. I will never stop camping in the remote reaches of our planet, but I love urban camping. Urban camping is fulfilling without having to leave my proverbial backyard because I am positioning myself in a markedly different way in my environment. This change in space that allows me a change in perspective that forever surprises, delights and teaches.

How to try urban camping

You wouldnt walk into the Kalahari desert without planning ahead, so dont do it in New York City either.

Think ahead about what you want to get out of the experience and work backward from there; make a list of what items your experience will require, and then use that as a checklist to ensure you have all you gear before heading to your campsite.

  • Due largely to illegitimate fears of purportedly dangerous (or unpredictably violent or mentally disturbed or unhygienic) homeless people, in many western cities its illegal to overnight in public areas. Check your local laws and ordinances for overnight use of public spaces.
  • Always secure advance permission from the owner before camping on private property.
  • Many outfitters will rent you the gear you need, including tents, sleeping bags, and sleeping mats. That said, couch cushions, bed sheets, yoga mats, and blankets can all work too get creative. Are headlamps amazingly useful and awesome? Unquestionably. But if youre camping on your own roof, a dollar store flashlight is fine.
  • Support your local outfitter, not just because small businesses reinvest in their communities, but because they are often the most knowledgeable on what gear works best in your region and have incomparable knowledge of the best trails, campsites, conditions, and so on.
  • The secret to choosing the right gear and location for any kind of camping is to plan ahead: check the weather, and, if possible, visit or at least find out as much about your campsite in advance as you can. For instance, if you are planning a roof camp, perhaps the next time it rains, check out to see where (if at all) the rain pools. Note that as a bad place for a tent.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2016/jun/18/urban-rooftop-camping-in-the-city-summer-outings