You wake up in the middle of pitch-black night in the great outdoors, only something's different -- specifically, the wind picks up and your bed begins to sway in a way that's both comforting and unnerving. Suddenly you remember it: You're suspended 70 feet (21 meters) in the air from a tree. "Yes, that's right," you think. "A thin sheet of nylon is the only thing between me and a fatal fall to the forest floor." Instead of panicking, you look up and remember why you wanted to sleep here in the first place: From the highest branches of a tree, the silvery swath of stars above seems almost close enough to touch. Comforted, you close your eyes and let the breeze gently rock you back to sleep.
The idea of sleeping in a tree is certainly nothing new. Books like Johann David Wyss's "The Swiss Family Robinson" (1812) and Edgar Rice Burroughs "Tarzan of the Apes" (1912) romanticize life in the forest canopy and continue to capture the young imaginations of backyard tree house builders around the world. And in fact, tree dwelling isn't just a product of fictional literature or children's playtime. The Kombai, an isolated tribe living in the forests of Indonesia's Papua region, have slept in trees for centuries. They build tree houses high above the jungle floor to escape heat and mosquitoes and to protect themselves from floodwaters and hostile neighbors [source: BBC].
And nowadays, camping out in a tree has become a form of recreation for thrill-seekers. Some are tree climbers catching some Zs in specially-designed hammocks while others are vacationers curling up in cozy treetop suites. But all are looking to take their snoozing to a higher level.
Roughing it in the Treetops
Scientists believe that the common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans slept in the trees, but it's been awhile -- some six million years [source: University of Cambridge]. So, you'll need to brush up on your climbing technique and purchase some special equipment before you go tree camping.
The first thing you'll need to do is choose a good tree in which to camp. Find one with plenty of open spaces between the branches. For maximum stargazing, climb a hardwood in the winter when leaf-off will give you a clear view of the sky. Just make sure the tree isn't bare of leaves because it's dead; a rotting branch could mean a premature end to your tree camping adventure. Of course, to sleep high in a tree you'll need to climb it first. This task requires specialized equipment like rope, pulleys, throw lines and ascenders, as well as a healthy knowledge of knots like the Blake's hitch, Prusik knot and figure eight. Be sure to find an experienced tree-climbing veteran to teach you the skills needed to use these tools and techniques (and read How Tree Climbing Works).
Once in the tree, climbers have two main options for sleeping arrangements. One is called a tree boat, a lightweight, rectangular hammock designed so that a rope can be attached at each corner and tied to different branches, typically in the same tree. These four anchor points make the bed exceptionally stable -- you can even stand up in it -- and more importantly, they prevent you from rolling out at night. Another option for tree sleeping is a portaledge, a flat nylon platform supported by a rectangular aluminum frame. These can be disassembled, carried up a tree by a climber and reassembled, or simply put together on the ground and hoisted up in the tree where it will be ready when the climber gets up to it. Whichever option you choose, try to set it up during daylight when you can see better and are therefore less likely to make mistakes.
Tucked away high in the branches of a tree, you'll need to be prepared for a number of scenarios. Bring a mosquito net and rainfly in case unwelcomed bugs or inclement weather disturbs your snoozing. If low temperatures threaten, pack an inflatable camp pad to help insulate your backside from the cold. Perhaps nature's greatest inconvenience to tree campers, however, is when it calls. Since climbing down in the dark to use the bathroom isn't a particularly safe option, you'll need a container in which you can, well, you know.
Whether you're setting up, sleeping, or using your makeshift bathroom, remember to always stay tied into your safety harness. Tree climbers call these saddles, and they're similar to the harnesses that rock climbers wear. Ideally, you should tie the saddle to a tree branch that's not also supporting your hammock. This will help to prevent a nasty fall, even if a branch supporting your bed were to break. And it will keep you safe in the unfortunate event that you unconsciously decide to do some sleepwalking!
An Easier Way to Sleep in the Trees
If buying a bunch of tree climbing equipment and learning a bunch of new skills sounds like a bit too much of a hassle, don't worry. There are plenty of companies out there that will do some of the work for you, whether you're planning to rough it or looking for an experience with a few more amenities.
One way to experience "canopy camping," as it's often advertised, is to hire a guide company to set up a bed for you and provide the basic training you'll need to climb up to it. There are a number of outfits like this in the United States, including the Pacific Tree Climbing Institute in Oregon, Dancing with Trees in Georgia, and Touch the Sky in Maryland. They also offer amenities like home-cooked meals, morning coffee, and even hot peppermint-scented face cloths to enhance your treetop experience. This type of adventure has caught on elsewhere in the world as well. In Brazil, Tropical Tree Climbing will take you 100 feet (30.5 meters) up in the Amazon rainforest during a three-day tour that also includes hiking through the tropical woodlands, fishing for piranhas, swimming with river dolphins and bird watching.
If a real bed is more your style, you don't have to give up the dream of camping in a tree. There are all kinds of tree house hotels that offer comfortable accommodations high in forests around the world. Take the Treehotel in Harads, Sweden, for example. Here, you can stay in one of five "treerooms" supported by the trunks of tall pines that are designed in a variety of curious shapes including a UFO, a bird's nest, and a 13-foot (4-meter) cube covered in reflective glass. Inside these unusual quarters are beds and eco-friendly toilets that incinerate waste at a temperature of 1,112 degrees Fahrenheit (600 degrees Celsius) [source: Treehotel]. Just as eccentric are the Free Spirit Spheres on Vancouver Island, Canada. The rooms at this unique hotel are spherical pods ranging from 9 to 10.5 feet (2.7 to 3.2 meters) in diameter that are suspended from the trees in the lush coastal rainforest [source: Free Spirit Spheres]. Complete with a table and bed, these round rooms are insulated, heated and even boast built-in speakers. Climbing into the room isn't a problem at either of these tree lodges: All are accessible by stairs, ladder or bridge.
As you can see, there are a lot of ways to stay in a tree, whether you're the do-it-yourself type who likes a little danger or more the cautious type who enjoys new, but comfortable experiences. Either way -- happy tree camping!
When I was a kid, my family lived in a house with a half-acre of dense forest just beyond our backyard. I spent a lot of my childhood back there, building trails, forts and even the occasional tree house. When one of the large oak trees on this plot fell over, I used some scrap wood to construct a rickety platform high on a branch that angled up from the massive fallen trunk. I then rigged an elevator to raise and lower supplies from the ground to this "tree fort." It was an impressive feat of engineering, but I never got the chance to camp out up there. My parents moved out of that house long ago and someone eventually built a new home on that wooded half-acre, but armed with what I learned from writing this article, maybe I could find another tree to sleep in one day.
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More Great Links
- BBC. "The Kombai." March 2008. (June 13, 2012) http://www.bbc.co.uk/tribe/tribes/kombai/index.shtml
- Free Spirit Spheres. Homepage. 2012. (June 13, 2012) http://www.freespiritspheres.com/index.htm
- Jenkins, Peter. "Extreme Tree Climbing." Tree Climbers International. December 28, 2011. (June 13, 2012) http://treeclimbing.com/index.php?option=com_zoo&task=item&item_id=8&Itemid=169
- Link, Matthew. "Sleep in the Treetops." Time Travel. August 26, 2010. (May 13, 2012) http://www.time.com/time/travel/article/0,31542,2013689,00.html
- McKinley, Jesse. "Berkeley Tree Protestors Climb Down." The New York Times. September 10, 2008. (June 13, 2012) http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/10/us/10tree.html?_r=1
- Moritz, Robert. "How to Climb a 1,000 Foot Tree." Popular Mechanics. March 16, 2011. (June 13, 2012) http://www.popularmechanics.com/outdoors/recreation/hiking/how-to-climb-a-1000-foot-tree
- New Tribe. "FAQs." 2012. (June 13, 2012) http://www.newtribe.com/faq.html
- Treehotel. Homepage. 2012. (June 13, 2012) www.treehotel.se
- Tropical Tree Climbing. "Tree Climbing Eco Tours." 2012. (June 13, 2012) http://www.tropicaltreeclimbing.com/home/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=95&Itemid=175&lang=en
- University of Cambridge. "Earlier Relatives May Have Climbed out of Family Tree." 2011. (June 13, 2012) http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/earlier-relatives-may-have-climbed-out-of-family-tree/