Sleeping in a tent can be daunting, especially it you’re new to camping. Even if you aren’t new to camping, it can still be challenging to fall asleep and that can take to fun out of camping entirely. I used to really struggle to fall asleep (and stay asleep) myself, but now I’ve spent more nights sleeping in a tent than I can count and I have some good tips for other campers struggling to get some shut eye.
What prevents people from comfortably sleeping in a tent?
There are a variety of reasons why it can be difficult to fall asleep while you’re camping, but here are the four reasons I most often encounter:
- Being physically uncomfortable
- Being cold
- Being unable to quiet your thoughts
- Being distracted by outside stimulus (i.e. light, sounds)
If you’re new to camping, think about which of these reasons you’re most concerned about. If you’re a camping regular, which one most often happens to you? In order to find a solution, you need to know the root of the problem.
How to be comfortable sleeping in a tent
If you aren’t in the habit of sleeping on an inch of air off the ground, it can seem crazy that people enjoy camping so much. Trust me when I say this: it is possible to have a comfortable sleep on the ground. All it takes is the right equipment.
1. Use a good quality sleeping pad
A good sleeping pad can make a huge difference when it comes to getting comfortable. Sometimes it takes a little trial and error to find the one that is best for you, and I’ll be honest, they’re pretty pricey. My advice is to rent one from a place like MEC or REI and try it out for a weekend. If you like it, great! If you don’t, you can try again with another one.
I used the MEC Reactor 3.8 for approximately 100 nights, both guiding and on personal trips and I really liked it. I now use the Therm-a-Rest Pro Lite (Therm-a-Rest is the market leader in backcountry bedding) which is incredibly durable, comfortable and packs really small. The Therm-a-Rest Neo Lite is a good sleeping pad if you really need to pack lightweight.
Also, while sleeping pads are a bit expensive at the time of purchase, they do last long time and are easy to repair. I punctured mine and MEC quickly repaired it for free.
Worried about lower back pain? Place something under your knees
If lower back pain is keeping you up, place a rolled up sweater, a pillow, or a stuffed dry sack under your knees. The slight bend in your knees can relieve pressure on your lower back and make you more comfortable.
2. Use a camping pillow
As much as I rough it in the outdoors, I still like to be comfortable. I’ve taken the same camping pillow with me on just about every camping trip I’ve ever been on (the Therm-a-Rest Compressible Pillow). It makes me immensely more comfortable, which helps me fall asleep.
The option I use (on the left) contains foam inside and compresses pretty small. If you need even less space however, inflatable pillows (like the one on the right) are comfortable but take up less space.
3. Choose a good tent spot
Try to choose a tent spot that is generally flat and free from roots or rocks. I know, I know – easier said than done. If you’re camping in a popular national park, there will be designated tent spots that are typically very flat and smooth. However, if you’re a little more remote, your tent situation might not be the best. Make use with what you can, but remember if there is a slight incline, have your head on the slide with higher ground – don’t want blood rushing to your face!
How to stay warm sleeping in a tent
Being cold is something I have experienced far too many times. I generally get very cold at night, especially when I’m camping. I can feel my shoulders and chest tense up and even if I do fall asleep, I usually wake up with a sore back and neck. To help you sleep warmer, I have a few suggestions:
4. Use a sleeping bag with a low temperature rating
My number one recommendation is to buy a down sleeping bag with a lower temperature than you think you’ll need. I use a sleeping bag rated to -9 C in the summer, which seems like overkill, but it’s actually wonderful. I usually end up sleeping with it unzipped and only half on my body, but occasionally it gets cold enough that I am thankful I have it.
If you’re struggling to fall asleep because you’re cold, this is the easiest way to fix it. I currently use the MEC Delphinus Sleeping Bag.
5. Wear base layers (& more) to bed
Another strategy is to wear high quality base layers to bed. This includes a pair of tights and a long sleeve shirt or t-shirt. If you’re cold at night, you want the warmest material (Merino) and you’re only wearing them in your tent so you don’t need to be too concerned about the durability. Smartwool Merino 250 Base Layers are by far the best base layers I’ve ever tried.
Additionally, you may want to wear a light fleece sweater, a wool hat or buff on your head and wool socks on your feet. You lose a lot of heat through the top of your head and your feet in the night.
What about the old fill-your-Nalgene-water-bottle-with-boiling-water-and-stick-it-in-your-sleeping-bag trick? This is a common recommendation people make for staying warm at night (especially winter camping), but in all honesty, I’m far too paranoid about getting my sleeping bag wet, so I have never tried this trick myself.
Tip: The clothes you wear to bed should NEVER EVER EVER go outside.
The one exception to this is if you’re leaving your tent to pee in the middle of the night. Don’t wear your sleeping outfit by the campfire. Don’t wear them outside while you’re making breakfast. When outside, your clothes pick up pollen, dust, campfire smoke – it isn’t healthy to sleep in this. Plus, you don’t want to risk them getting wet. Only use your sleep clothing when you’re sleeping IN a tent.
6. Use a thicker sleeping pad
A lot of people don’t realize that the primary purpose of your sleeping pad isn’t to keep you comfortable. The purpose of your sleeping pad is to keep you warm. The sleeping pad essentially elevates you and inserts a layer of insulation (air) in between you and the cold, hard ground. A thicker sleeping pad (like the Therma-Rest LuxuryMap) creates more separation between you and the ground, keeping you warmer. Keep in mind, however, that an extra thick sleeping pad will be considerably larger to pack and is a better choice for car camping.
How to quiet your mind (& your surroundings)
Just like at home, sometimes your mind is unable to quiet itself to the point where you can fall asleep. I’ve combined this section with being distracted by outdoor stimulus, because my top tip for each is the same.
6. Use meditation techniques (guided or unguided)
There are techniques you can do on your own, like counting your breath or progressive relaxation that help people fall asleep at home and in the backcountry. However, I’ve found that this isn’t very helpful to the people who really struggle to fall asleep while camping. Instead, I recommend people download some guided meditations onto an iPod and listen to it while they fall asleep.
“Recommending technology in the wilderness? How could you, Mikaela?” I know, I know – controversial. However, if a little technology is the difference between making or breaking someone’s camping experience, “bring on the iPod!” I say.
7. Use a sleep mask and/or ear plugs
If you find yourself distracted by noises outside your tent, but don’t think you need a guided meditation to help you fall asleep, ear plugs also work. I’ve personally never done this because I’m usually the guide and I need to be able to wake up if something happens. I also wouldn’t recommend using earplugs if you’re camping by yourself. However, if you’re with another person, earplugs may be an effective strategy to help with sleeping in the tent.
Alternatively, if you are in an area that gets sunny really early in the morning, and this is shortening your sleep by too much, you can try using a sleep mask (or embrace the early morning).
Other quick tips for sleeping in a tent
Here are a few other tips to try help you fall asleep.
8. Avoid liquids before bed
You don’t want to be woken up or forced to leave your cozy sleeping bag because you have to pee!
9. Keep mosquitoes out of your tent
You want to be quick and speedy getting in and out of your tent. You also want to make sure there aren’t any holes or openings that could let these pesky bugs inside.
10. Take melatonin
You can always take a tablet of melatonin before bed. Since I’m constantly traveling, I actually always have a little on me just in case.
I hope these tips prove useful to you! Anyone else have strategies for falling asleep in a tent? Comment them below!