Guide to Rooftop Camping in the City

By Janet Upadhye on August 5, 2014 7:32am 

BROOKLYN — Sleeping under the stars doesn't mean you have to leave the city.

Pitching a tent on your rooftop is a fun way to rough it without the dirt and bugs that accompany traditional camping. If done right, it can be almost as good as the real thing.

Rooftop campers can roast marshmallows on an electric grill, relax in a hammock and tell ghost stories — with a bathroom just downstairs.

Brooklyn artist Thomas Stevenson, a pioneer in rooftop camping, leads groups of approximately eight strangers on expeditions through his company Bivouac.

He spends his weeks visiting friends' rooftops, usually above artists' studios in Bushwick and Williamsburg, and alerts campers to the location just hours before the excursion.

This summer has rarely hit scorching temperatures, but Stevenson said sleeping on the roof has long been an economical way to stay cool on hot summer nights.

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"There is a long history of being on rooftops in the summer; it has been going on for over 100 years," he explained.

"In the time before air conditioning, it was comfortable for people to sleep on rooftops and fire escapes. But it is more than just that. Even though you are sleeping maybe six feet above where you normally sleep, it is a completely different experience."

Stevenson, who has camped on rooftops in Brooklyn more than 60 times, said one of his favorite things to do is "stay up all night and watch the sun rise over the city."

His next trip is open for registration at Bivouac NY. Stevenson provides tents and guidance, while campers are expected to bring sleeping bags, mats and food to share. There is a $200 refundable deposit to hold a spot on the trip.

For those that want to rough it on their own, DNAinfo New York made a list of everything you need to know to rooftop camp in New York City. Just make sure to clear it with your landlord first. 

Sleeping and Shelter

Tents are easy to pitch on a rooftop. Most modern tents simply require the actual tent, poles and a rain fly. Check your bag before heading up to the roof to see that all of the parts are there. 

If the weather is extreme, you may want to re-think your rooftop camping trip since you can't secure your tent to the ground with stakes and it could fly away. If the weather is normal, you're good to go, but make sure to weigh the tent down with items heavy enough to keep it in place. 

Find a good spot not too close to the roof's edge and preferably with a nice view of the sky or the city skyline on the horizon. If it's windy, face the tent's front flap away from the wind to make it easier to pitch. Be sure to put your gear inside the tent so it doesn't blow away.

Also consider facing away from where the sun will rise in the morning, to keep your tent from overheating first thing in the morning. Depending on the roof, there might be nothing between you and the early-morning sun.

If you don't have a tent, New York nights are usually warm enough to roll out a sleeping bag and sleep under the stars.

Bring an air mattress, sleeping mat or even yoga mats to make the hard surface more comfy.

The roof will usually be very hot at the beginning of the night but will cool down, Stevenson said.

You can find tents at your local camping, sporting goods store or Target for anywhere from $30.

Bathrooms

The great thing about rooftop camping is you can still use your own bathroom.

Supplies

DNAinfo New York compiled a shopping guide for summer camping featuring everything you need to go on a camping trip on your roof. Check out the selection of mess kits, sleeping pads and mini-lanterns. 

Mosquito nets are a great way to keep the urban bugs out of your sleeping area.

Activities

You may not be able to build a fire, but there's lots of other camping activities that are perfect for your roof.

Some rooftops have posts or overhangs where you can set up a hammock. Bring camping chairs, cards, musical instruments, yoga mats, beer and conversation.

"On our camping trips people share their life stories, eat food together, maybe drink all night," Stevenson said. "It is an experience so different from regular life."

Food

New York City fire code prohibits the use of propane or charcoal-fueled grills in apartment buildings or other residential buildings, but electric barbecues are legal to use on the roof.

Stevenson suggested cooking food at home and bringing it up to the roof. But don't miss out on roasting marshmallows on the electric grill.

The View

The best part about rooftop camping is the view, so sit back and enjoy.

“There’s nothing like staying up all night and watching the sunrise over the city from your tent,” Stevenson said. “Everything looks different from the vantage point of a rooftop."

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