Ah, the great outdoors! There is not much in the world that I find more fulfilling than spending a day with nature, breaking away from the human rhythm we have created to better harmonize with the earth’s natural rhythms. I’ll admit, I haven’t always enjoyed camping the way I do now.
When I was younger, the thought of spending a day with the bugs and the dirt sounded, well, dirty. While I was not entirely wrong, I’ve learned to embrace the earthy dirt. In some ways, though, I’m still that younger version of myself.
At the end of a long day, trekking through the woods and wading in the rivers and all those other fun things we like to do while we camp, I literally hate the thought of returning to a tent to sleep. I once pleaded with my husband to take me to a hotel so I could get a good night’s sleep.
He laughed and gave me a firm no (as he should have). “I can’t sleep in a tent! It’s on the ground, for goodness sake!” On this particular trip, we weren’t camping out of the back of the car, so we had packed light. I didn’t even have a pillow! I can’t be the only one who would just rather skip the tent all together at the end of a long nature-filled day, right?
But for those of us who are toughing it out (whether we want to or not), the most comfortable way to sleep in a tent is on a cot or an air mattress (make sure it’s a quality mattress, here’s a good example). If you prefer firm surfaces, go for the cot. If you like a little bounce, go for the air mattress. For extreme comfort, get a double air mattress.
Just be sure, if you choose to bring an air mattress into colder climates, that you insulate yourself from the mattress with a mattress topper, emergency blanket, or some other form of padding — otherwise, your precious body heat will “leak” into the mattress. In fact, if you’re going to be in a colder climate, you may opt out of an air mattress entirely. They are prone to deflate in the cold.
Of course, we can’t always carry cots and mattresses, especially on longer or more strenuous hikes, when the key is to carry as little as possible. If you can’t sleep on a cot or a mattress, proper equipment and good technique go a long way to getting a good night’s sleep. Here are some tips to get you through the night on the cold, hard ground.
Scope out and clear the area before pitching your tent.
For longtime campers, this is an obvious step. But for newbies, you may not realize how disruptive a few pebbles, long hard grass, or dips and rises in the soil can be. Use nature as your guide and find areas that are already smooth, that way you can do a quick once-over to clear any debris that you don’t want to sleep on, and pop that tent up.
Try to sleep near trees to prevent the sun from heating your tent too quickly. Also, make sure that you familiarize yourself with the area. The last thing you want is to pitch your tent right beside, underneath, or on top of some other creature’s home.
If there is even the slightest slope in the ground beneath your tent, make sure that you sleep with your head on the higher side. I have watched my husband lay down on the ground beside the shelter to make sure that we all slept the appropriate direction. It makes a difference! You don’t want to wake up with all the blood pooled in your head.
Choose the proper tent.
Speaking of tents, choose the one that best suits your needs. If you’re camping alone, consider a hammock tent (link to an interesting choice on Amazon). Swinging in the trees is infinitely better than sleeping alone on the ground.
You’d be hard pressed to find a tent that isn’t weather-proof these days, but do make sure you choose the right tent for the camping conditions. If it’s going to be a warm trip, you may prefer having a more ventilated tent. For colder nights, a more insulated tent might better do the trick.
Consider buying a tent that sleeps at least one more person than you plan to sleep. So if you are traveling with two people, buy a three sleeper. This will ensure that you have the extra space to bring in more of your comfort items, or to sprawl out more comfortably, rather than being confined to tighter than necessary quarters.
Ultimately, you know what tent will work best for you. Camping is such a personalized experience, and we all enjoy different facets of it. There is no right or wrong tent, as long as you are comfortable in it. Don’t be afraid to splurge on a nicer tent that you know you will enjoy more than others.
Wear the right clothes.
Seasoned campers, hikers, and outdoorsmen know to avoid cotton like the plague. Cotton is heavy. It absorbs all of your sweat and the moisture in the air, which makes it even more cumbersome, and makes it harder for your body to regulate your temperature. Instead opt for clothing made of Merino wool, nylon, polyester, or silk.
There is much debate over whether you should sleep in layers or sleep nearly naked to retain your body heat. I’m in Camp Less-is-More, but you probably already know how you like to sleep. If you sleep naked at home with a fan and your AC blowing, you probably aren’t going to enjoy being fully bundled up in socks and a hat.
The most practical sleeping attire is form-fitting long underwear. If you remove your clothes from the day and put on fresh, dry, long underwear, you will feel refreshed and clean enough to sleep comfortably.
Keep the tent clean.
Speaking of sleeping clean, keep the tent clean. This means leaving your shoes outside of the tent, or in a designated basket inside of the tent. Leave your clothes from the day hanging outside of the tent as well. Don’t bring foods or unsecured drinks inside. Not only will this keep the tent clean, but it will also deter unwanted guests, such as bears, raccoons, and insects. Check our camping storage guide to find out more.
Before entering the tent for the night, maintain your own personal hygiene. I prefer camping in places where there is a clean water source, but I find that bio wipes or baby wipes work wonders for quick cleansing. Brush your teeth, dry shampoo your hair if that’s your thing — just get as clean as you can get. The cleaner you are, the cleaner all of your sleeping gear and your tent will remain.
Create a complete sleep system.
Regardless of your preferred gear and brands, you should create a complete sleep system: a surface, a bag/blanket, and a pillow. Like I mentioned earlier, the comfiest surface is a cot or air mattress. If you can’t carry a cot or an air mattress, there are several options on the market for insulated pads that you can add to your tent floor to create a more comfortable sleeping space.
When choosing between a bag or a blanket, it is essential to think about your own sleeping temperature. Most sleeping bags are well insulated for cooler climates and easy to carry, making them the superior choice for most campers. But, you may skip the sleeping bag altogether, opting for an emergency blanket or a regular old comforter instead. I, for one, always wake up sweating in a sleeping bag.
Finally, do not skip the pillow. Just trust me on this. Your neck will thank you later. If you can’t carry your regular bed pillow with you, don’t fear. There are several inflatable and compressible pillows on the market. Get one. Top it with a good pillowcase made from Merino wool, nylon, polyester, or silk, and you will sleep so much better. I promise.
Test your gear.
If you just went out and bought a bunch of new gear for your camping trip, do yourself a favor and give it all a test run. Go camping in your backyard and make sure everything works correctly and to your liking. If you’re a last minute shopper and you don’t have time to pitch a tent and spend the night in your yard (or maybe you don’t have a yard), at least test out what can be tested in your home. Lay on your cot or air mattress for several hours. See if you can roll around the way you would like in your sleeping bag. Make sure that inflatable pillow gives you enough support.
Tire yourself out.
Even if you don’t have the budget for fancy gear, there is one tried and true way to sleep comfortably in a tent. Get tired. Go out. Have fun. Play hard. Use your complex muscle systems to conquer that hike, climb that mountain, or kayak down that river. Make sure you drink plenty of fluid throughout the day so that your body has the tools it needs to rejuvenate overnight.
When you get back to camp, eat a warm meal, relax around the fire, and do a good twenty minutes or so of stretches. Your body will thank you.
When all else fails, just relax and revel in the wonder of nature.
If you just aren’t falling asleep, don’t sweat it. You can’t stay awake forever. Your body will eventually succumb to sleep. If you’re camping with another person or in a group, strike up a conversation. Some of my favorite late night chats with my husband were had in a tent beneath the stars. But even if you’re alone, just take the time to listen to the sounds of nature, stargaze, or meditate on your thoughts. Being one with nature in the stillness of the night is such a peaceful feeling.