The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

September 25, 2012

Night at the Aquarium on a Plastic-Free Camping Cot

It’s hard to find plastic-free versions of a lot of camping supplies.  Plastic makes things lightweight and easy to carry in a backpack.  I don’t camp a lot, so usually my strategy to avoid new plastic is to borrow from friends or find things second-hand via Freecycle, Craigslist, yard sales, or thrift stores.   At Burning Man last month, I slept in a nylon sleeping bag on a foam pad, both of which I have had for many years.  And while the sleeping bag has held up very well and will last me many more years to come, the foam pad was a big fail.  Maybe it’s because I’m not as young as I used to be, but I woke up every morning with an aching back, sore in places I didn’t even know I had.

So when the Monterey Bay Aquarium invited me to come and give a presentation during their Plastic Pollution Summit last week — and as a bonus, sleep overnight in the aquarium in the exhibit of my choice — I knew I had to get moving to find an alternative that wouldn’t feel like a cement slab.  Sure, I could have looked for a secondhand air mattress or camping cot, but since I was going to be giving a talk on plastic-free living, I wanted to see if a plastic-free alternative existed.  So I thought… how did people camp before plastic?

I asked eBay, and eBay answered me with a plethora of vintage army cots made from wood, metal, and cotton canvas.  (If you purchase via this link, My Plastic-Free Life earns a small commission!) Zero plastic.  This cot has been around since decades before I was born and is still going strong. (Note: If you follow the link to look for cots on eBay, make sure you choose one that has the wooden end bars.  Those bars keep the canvas stretched taught and prevent the frame from folding up around you.)

Granted, it’s a lot bigger and heavier than the modern polyester and aluminum cots sold in sporting goods stores.  I wouldn’t take it backpacking, that’s for sure.  But for car camping… or sleeping in an aquarium… it’s perfect.

The cot was perfectly comfortable.  And sleeping in the aquarium was amazing.  Here are a few pix of my view Friday night after lights out, as well as a few I took as I wandered around the dark museum waiting to get sleepy.  (I’m not used to going to bed at 11:30pm.)

The aquarium has a display of plastic trash art as part of its educational program on ocean plastic pollution.  I’ll write more about that in a separate post.

My next search will be a good plastic-free tent alternative.  But I have until next summer to figure that one out.


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First of all, it should be an amazing experience to spend a night in a aquarium. Amazing pictures.

Yeah, the cot is super sturdy and will probably last decades. I have been using a Coleman Converta cot ( for 5 seasons already and will not switch to other one anytime soon. It is cheap, yet sturdy. No maintenance, no adjustments. Just pack it in your trunk and unfold it once arrived on site.

All the best to you…


This brings back memories of a music festival I attended about 20yrs ago. When I was asked if I wanted to go for the weekend I asked where we were staying. The answer was in a teepee. I had to go just to check out the experience. First was jumping on a privately owned bus with about 20 people, all who were supposed to be staying in the teepee to my amazement. When we got there jobs were divided up. A man had made the teepee himself, it was all natural, and huge. I was amazed as long wooden posts… Read more »


What about building a small yurt? plastic free, and fun looking.


Before they had plastic tents they had canvas. And Canvas Tarps. I have an old Canvas Tent that was my MIL’s got it just as my plastic tent bit the dust. Never liked the plastic tent, it was noisy, it leaked (the rain cover did’t cover the whole thing). It was lighter and easier to set up that the canvas (with metal poles) one but the Canvas one is just nicer. I have two plastic tents (also from my MIL) for backpack camping. With proper care they will last me for some time :)


I’m totally jealous, this looks like so much fun!


I’ve wanted a real canvas army surplus tent for Burning Man for years. It’s the best solution I’ve seen, much more comfortable than an RV, IMHO. I went in one and it was like a house. You could also build a Yurt, there is one on instructables called “Yurt without steel” that I’ve wanted to build.

Karen Lee

I love those army cots!!

Healthy Home Magazine

Ooh – camping in an aquarium sounds amazing!!! Oh, and love the cot idea too instead of inflatables.

Cheryl Wachtel

When I was young, it was a treat for me to sleep on my father’s old army cot which he would set up for me in my grandparents apartment downstairs. I loved it and remember it was really comfortable and thought it was so cool with all those wooden pieces. Who knew it would be considered ‘going green’ for sleeping outside your home. Thanks for allowing me to bring back that fond memory.


Ooh, ooh–you need one of these ! I’m trying to think of a way to justify getting one for my family :).

Beth Terry

Wow, Andrea. That’s really beautiful but crazy expensive. Also, I wonder how it would hold up in high wind situations. It is really beautiful, though. I just noticed that it is treated with a waterproofing agent. I wonder if that’s some kind of plastic. I’ll email the company and find out.


How fun! The last photo is intriguing, what is it? Right here in Bodega Bay we have ‘Carolyn’s Canvas’! Carolyn and her team will whip you up a custom tent any size, shape or color. Or they can repair a or customize a used tent if you find one. They’ve made custom covers and bags for my husbands tree service business. Their quality is outstanding and their prices, while not cheap, are fair. They can be reached at: (707) 876.3555 (tell her Merle Nelson/Nelson’s Tree Service recommended them). My husband also suggests Cabella’s for canvas ‘guide tents’. Good luck!


How about a nice net hammock? Not the kind with bars at the head and foot – just a traditional Mayan net hammock, made of hemp or cotton or what have you. So good for you.

Beth Terry

A hammock is great as long as you have something to tie it to. I couldn’t have used a hammock at the aquarium. There was a shade structure next to us at Burning Man that had hammocks set up for people to rest in during the day. They were great for short periods, but I found myself getting sore after a while since they don’t give support for the back.


@Beth Terry @VagabondAnne


@Beth Terry @VagabondAnne
You can buy metal hammock free standing stands. No tree required.
Can you sleep on your side or stomach on a cot?

Nancy Nathan Baldwin



Best place for canvas tent are military surplus. They often have a load of them, both small and enormous. Prices are great too, since it’s generally used stuff (with all the environmental advantage of buying use in bonus). I would recommend going to an actual military surplus store instead of ordering on the internet, since you can see by yourself the condition of the tent.

Charmaine Jones

i live in australia and LOVE my canvass swag, which can be a bed-roll or extended out slightly to form a mini tent if it rains. so comfortable!

Mark Peters

my family had those kind of cots for camping trips- they really do work.

Mary Jane Pace Owen

Husband and I took our 5 year old grandson for his first camp out this last summer up near Kennedy Meadows. We all slept in a tent and on the ground with air mattresses and pads. Oh my goodness! The GGs could barely get up in the morning! We decided then and there to find the old school cots. Thanks for eBay tip. Might even go to our local army surplus store and see if they have any. Love you aquarium photos! That must’ve been so cool to sleep surrounded by fish!

Susan C

Go for a canvas tent. My uncle madea huge canvas tent years ago and they still use it to this day.

Eco novice

Super cool! That looks much more comfortable than a foam pad on the ground, but I guess the ground would have to be level. And, yes, only suitable for car camping. I think before plastic people were tougher and just slept on a bedroll straight on the ground. Not my idea of awesome.


Beth, I have friends that we camp with every year that have a great canvas tent with metal poles. It’s tightly woven so it is waterproof and it has served them well for years. I’ll inquire where it came from the next time I see them.

Beth Terry

Thank you! Please do let me know the brand and where they got it if you can. I saw a few army tents at Burning Man that were tall enough to stand in. I would love something like that. I want to organize a plastic-free camp for next year.


Sadly I just talked to my friend and he said that while the tent is canvas and the poles are metal the floor is coated in vinyl :-(

It was also quite expensive. Probably something you should look for used, if at all.

Beth Terry

Thanks for checking.

Rose Chavarin

I’ve always loved the cot I slept on in 1969, exactly like this one! As for the Aquarium evening – now I must plan to go. Thanks for the pictures! :)