Kunal Eapen had never been camping before, so when he signed up for Bitcamp he wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The digitized outdoorsy scenes featured in the marketing materials were nothing like he actually encountered last year: a sea of tables festooned with wires and laptops surrounded by participants’ sleeping bags, stretching across the Terps’ home court.

Not quite the traditional deep woods experience.

The more than 1,200 “campers” signed up for the sixth annual Bitcamp (kicking off tonight with a 7:30 p.m. opening ceremony) can expect similar roughing-it conditions. For 36 hours, teams of one to four participants from around the country will use technology to design and build new products prompted by a common challenge, but based on their passions.

In the past, submissions including an app to optimize parking traffic and a keychain to replace credit cards and key fobs took home top prizes.

This year’s theme, “Build With Purpose,” encourages attendees to pursue projects that address real-world social problems. Participants will be tasked with the Compass Challenge, allowing them to go in any of four directions: They can take on sponsor-proposed causes of creating tech advances for mental health, education and energy, or opt to pursue their own causes.

Eapen collaborated on a team last year with classmates from the Human-Computer Interaction master’s program at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies. While he was fully dedicated to finishing its virtual-investing platform prototype for a tech company sponsoring the hackathon—there wasn’t much time in the sleeping bag at this campout—it was working with others that made the event so memorable.

“When you’re in the same building for that long, you’re bound to speak to other people,” Eapen said. “I liked seeing what others were up to, sharing all the cool things they’re working on.”

Beyond the competition, the networking experience is key. When Sumanth Neerumalla returned for his third Bitcamp last year, he didn’t submit a project. Instead, he hung out with peers from the University of Maryland Baltimore County, talked to sponsors and met campers from different schools.

“It’s not supposed to be an intense marathon,” Neerumalla said. “Show up, make sure you have a good time, learn something new … make it what you want.”

But for those who have their head wrapped in code for 36 hours, Sunday afternoon can come as a relief.

“It was nice to see sunlight when we walked back out,” Eapen said.