Everyone’s had that camp experience. The one where you spend the night tossing and turning on the hard ground, the cold so deep in your bones that you feel like you might never be warm again. Finally falling asleep with the first glimmer of dawn, only to wake up an hour later because the tent has turned into a furnace.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be like that.
The most comfortable way to sleep in a tent is about one thing: preparation. And we’ve got a bunch of tips that can make a huge difference!
- Use a good sleep system, including a camping pad, a sleeping bag, and a pillow.
- Set up your camp on a flat, dry spot, away from bugs, animals, and noise.
- Dress appropriately for bedtime, and set up your sleeping environment with spare layers, water, and a flashlight.
- Go to bed tired, warm, and well-fed. Turn off your cell phone and don’t forget one last bathroom visit.
- Relax, enjoy the experience, and don’t stress.
The key to a comfortable camping experience is having the right gear to sleep in and on.
Those films where the cowboy stretches out on bare ground by the campfire, kicks his boots off, and drifts off contentedly with his head on his arm? All lies. Sleeping on the ground is really uncomfortable without something between you and it.
Broadly, there are three kinds of sleeping pads — air beds, foam mats, and self-inflators.
An air mattress is often the most comfortable sleeping pad for a camping trip, especially for side-sleepers. Backpacker models can be incredibly light and compact.
An air mattress has three main downsides. Firstly, while they’re comfortable, they don’t insulate you very well — and seasoned campers often use foam or fleece mattress toppers.
Blowing them up can also feel like a lot of effort at the end of a long day, but there are various pumps — both electric and manual — that can take some of the sting out of it.
Finally, they’re prone to punctures. Buy a cheap air pad and you might wake up at 4am to find yourself wallowing in a sort of half-deflated bouncy castle.
Also referred to as “closed-cell mats,” foam mats are the simplest and cheapest type of sleeping pad, much favored by boy scouts. They usually fold or roll, and they’re light but bulky — so you’d normally strap them to the outside of your backpack.
Closed cell foam mats provide great insulation, and they often have a reflective coating on one side (which should face upwards). However, they don’t provide much padding and some folk find them uncomfortable.
These contain a combination of foam and air pockets, and are a good compromise. Popular for backpacking, these mats pack down small. They usually provide better insulation than an airbed but without as much cushioning.
Once you’ve worked out what you’ll lie down on, you need to decide what you’ll lie down in. For most campers, that’ll be a sleeping bag.
The two most common shapes are the envelope and the mummy.
Envelopes are square shaped, and are mostly used as car camping sleeping bags. They’re bulkier and don’t usually have a hood, but you’ve got much more space to move around in them.
The mummy design makes you look like a long-dead Egyptian pharaoh, and is standard for backpacking sleeping bags. It has an adjustable hood and fits the shape of the body, tapering towards the feet. Mummy bags are warm for their weight, but the snug fit can, at times, feel restrictive.
Make sure you get a bag that fits your body type. Ultralight designs, for example, will sometimes be uncomfortably tight for the beefier camper.
Some sleeping bags may come in various lengths, while other brands or models might have a wider fitting.
Remember zips too — most sleeping bags have a single side zip, and they’re frequently available in left- or right-handed versions.
The most important thing about a sleeping bag is its insulation. This is measured in two ways.
The cruder method is the “season” scale. A one-season bag is for high summer, while a four-season bag is for full winter use.
More helpful is to look at the bag’s “extreme comfort” rating. This is a temperature scale showing the range in which a bag will keep you comfortable/alive.
Down v Synthetic
There are two kinds of insulation: down (feathers) and synthetic.
Down usually gives better warmth and is lighter weight, but it loses much of its insulation if it gets wet. Synthetic insulation is cheaper but bulkier.
If you’re car camping, a cot or camp-bed can be a super comfortable way to sleep. Just remember that it’s easy to lose precious body heat if you don’t insulate under yourself.
One popular camp hack is to use a fishing bedchair. Designed for fishermen who are going to be spending a long time on uneven riverbanks, these highly adjustable contraptions are a sort of cross between a cot and a camp chair.
Hammock campers are the great evangelists of the outdoor world — they claim you’ll never sleep so comfortably when camping as you do in a tree.
It does take some getting used to, though, so make sure to try it for a night or two before you commit to a week-long camping trip.
Doubles or Singles?
If you’re camping with that special someone, consider whether you’re going to get a double mattress/bag or use two singles.
Big double air mattresses do tend to lose air during the night (except for the best camping air mattresses like the Exped Megamat). On the flip-side, if you use two singles then someone is going to spend half the night falling down the gap in the middle (unless, of course, you use a coupler like this one from Sea to Summit).
Don’t Forget Your Pillow
Bring one from home, use inflatable/compressible pillows, or even just improvise one by stuffing your sleeping bag case with clothes.
Setting up Camp
Often, it’s the choices you make before you even unpack your tent bedding that can be the difference between good sleep and bad in the great outdoors. (Ironic, isn’t it, that the most comfortable way to sleep in a tent is actually influenced by decisions you make outside your tent…)
Choose the Right Tent
Have you ever come across a three-man tent that actually fit three people in comfort? Thought not.
When you’re buying a tent, the rule of thumb is to go at least one “person” bigger than you actually need. The more room the better, especially for a family tent.
You’ll also want to think about groundsheets and mosquito netting. These things add weight, but they will also help you sleep much more comfortably, and are a no-brainer for car campers.
Survey and Clear Your Campsite
The story of the Princess and the Pea could well have been written about camping.
Check your campsite for lumps and bumps, look for soft grass, and make sure you clear away rocks, pinecones, and sticks before you pitch up.
Because if you don’t find them now, then you’ll notice them in the night.
Consider Sun and Shade
In hot weather, try and camp in some shade that will keep the sun off the tent first thing in the morning. In colder conditions, do the opposite.
Find a Flat Pitch
It’s not always easy to find flat ground, but it’s worth getting as close as you can. Camp on a slope and you’ll spend half the night slipping downhill.
Don’t Camp on Damp Ground
Even the best tent floor can only keep so much moisture out. Damp ground is colder to sleep on, and it’s only a matter of time before you end up with a wet tent.
Avoid Bug/Animal Nests
We once unwittingly camped right next to a nest of lemmings, who became so angry in the night that we had to get up at 11pm and move our tent. True story.
Some noises can be quite soothing. Trickling streams… chirruping crickets… wind in the trees.
Others, not so much.
The family with the howling toddler and the yappy Pomeranian… the group of bros chugging beers… main roads… rail lines.
You get the idea.
A good night’s sleep in a tent is all about setting yourself up for success before bedtime. Here are a few tips.
What you wear in your sleeping bag can go a long way towards giving you a comfortable night.
It doesn’t matter if you’re wet and uncomfortable all day, so long as you sleep dry and warm at night.
Stash any wet clothes well away from your sleeping area.
Wear Clothes (or Don’t)
In the long-standing debate about whether to wear clothes in your sleeping bag or go “natural,” there’s no right answer. Just wear what helps you sleep comfortably.
Some campers like to wear long underwear, and many have dedicated sleeping clothes. The main thing is to just not overdress at bedtime. You can always put extra layers on during the night.
Wear a Hat
In colder conditions, you might want to wear a warm hat like a beanie, particularly if your sleeping bag doesn’t have a hood.
Wear a Muffler/Neck Gaiter
If your face gets cold during the night, it might be tempting to put it inside your sleeping bag. The trouble is that your breath will cause condensation in the bag, making it damp and reducing the insulation. Better to have something around your neck that you can just pull up to keep your nose warm.
Ear Plugs and Eye Masks
You might not need ear plugs or an eye mask to fall asleep when camping, but it’s best to have them on-hand just in case.
Think about how you set up your sleeping area and the space around it.
Go to Sleep Warm
If you’re warm when you get into your bag, then you stand a much better chance of keeping your body heat for the rest of the night. Some campers even pre-warm their sleeping bags with a hot water bottle.
Know Your Cold Spots
Cold spots will depend on how you sleep. Side-sleepers, for example, often get cold hips. These areas can be insulated with extra blankets or clothes.
If you’re prone to cold feet, consider wearing socks or putting extra insulation at the foot of your bag.
Keep Some Water Close
Everything is more effort during the night, and if you wake up thirsty, you’ll thank yourself for leaving a water bottle within easy reach.
Prepare for Midnight Bathroom Trips
Everyone’s been there. Lying awake for hours, wondering if the urge will pass. It’s cold and dark out, and morning’s not that far off, right?
Here’s the thing. Morning is always further away than you think, and a bathroom trip in the night is absolutely worth the trouble.
Make it less of a struggle by setting yourself up with a flashlight, slip-on shoes, a jacket, and anything else you might need nearby.
Have Extra Clothing and Blankets
No-one wants to start rooting through bags for a sleeping bag liner at 3am. Place extra bedding and spare layers within easy reach so you can adjust your insulation if you need to.
Eating and Drinking
Experienced campers don’t always agree on how much you should eat or drink for the best night’s sleep in a tent, but here are a few things to think about.
Rehydrate, but Not Too Much
Rehydrating after a day’s activities is a balancing act. You don’t want to wake up thirsty, but you also don’t want to be tiptoeing to the bathroom every half hour.
Have a Hot Drink Before Bed
A hot drink last thing should send you straight off into Neverland. Something without caffeine is best.
Go Easy On the Alcohol
Alcohol relaxes you and can make it easier to drift off to sleep in the first place, but it also dehydrates you and disrupts your sleep patterns.
To Eat or Not to Eat?
Some campers insist that you should eat a good meal right before bed, while others say that you should avoid heavy meals for at least a couple hours.
In truth, it doesn’t really matter, and when you eat is more likely to depend on other factors like what you’ve been doing during the day.
The most important thing is just to get a decent feed, especially if you’ve been exercising.
Just like at home, your bedtime routine can set you up for a good night’s sleep or a bad one.
Go to Bed Tired
This is the single best tip anyone will ever give you about sleeping comfortably in a tent. Just as “hunger is the best cook,” a worn-out camper will sleep much better than one who’s still buzzing.
Visit the Bathroom
You’ll regret it later if you don’t.
Don’t Go On Your Cell Phone Last Thing
Cell phone use can disrupt your sleep, and, apart from anything else, camping is an opportunity to sideline your digital life and enjoy living in the moment.
During the Night
Nights under canvas can fly by or they can seem to last forever. Here are a few helpful tips to get through the small hours.
Use the Hood On your Sleeping Bag
If you’ve got a mummy-style bag, tightening up the hood will help keep your head warm (and give you great hair).
It’s Coldest Before Dawn
The time you’re most likely to wake up cold is also the time when it’s just about to start warming up again. Which is a happy thought.
Take Your Cues from the Sun
Camping is about reconnecting with natural rhythms, and it’s easiest to sleep and wake when the light tells you to. There’s no point sitting up in the dark then trying to lie in the next morning as the sun turns your tent into a pizza oven.
Don’t Worry if You Can’t Sleep Straight Away
It might take you a while to drift off, and that’s ok. Worrying about it won’t help, so just focus on relaxation and deep breathing.
Don’t Believe Social Media
Outdoorsy Instagram accounts are a pack of lies. People don’t really get good sleep on the edge of a cliff, pitched on hard rock in an uncluttered tent with fairy lights and no rainfly.
A tent is different to your boudoir at home, and might take a couple days to get used to.
You may find you sleep lightly or wake up more often during the night, but so long as you stay calm, relaxed, and comfortable, the Sandman will find you sooner or later.
What is the most comfortable way to sleep in a tent?
Pitch your tent on flat, dry ground and make sure you’ve got a good sleeping system. This includes a camping pad, sleeping bag, and pillow.
Also, go to bed tired, warm, and well-fed.
How Can I Make My Tent More Comfortable?
The most comfortable way to sleep in a tent is to invest in a warm sleeping bag and a good camping pad to sleep on. Don’t forget inflatable pillows too!
What Do You Sleep On When Tent Camping?
There are three main kinds of sleeping pad for camping: air mattresses, foam pads, and self-inflating mats. Some campers also choose to sleep on cots or fishing bedchairs.
What’s the Best Way to Sleep On the Ground When Tent Camping?
You’ll want to make sure you’re well insulated with a camping pad (e.g. an air mattress with a mattress topper) and a high quality sleeping bag. An inflatable pillow is also a good idea.