Sleeping in a tent can be daunting, especially if 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.
So in this post, I’ll be going over all my tips to help you sleep comfortably in a tent. You can use the list below to jump to the section most relevant to you:
- What prevents people from comfortably sleeping in a tent?
- Choosing a tent
- How to be comfortable sleeping in a tent
- How to stay warm
- How to turn your quiet your thoughts and shut out external stimulus
- Additional items to keep in your tent
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.
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Choosing a Tent
Does the tent you use affect how you’ll sleep at all? In general, I’d say no. Though there are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind when choosing a tent to ensure you are setting yourself up for a good night’s sleep.
Consider how many people you’re likely to be sharing a tent with. I have a 2-person tent, but I will only use it with another person if I know them really well. Otherwise, I prefer to use a 2-person tent for two people. I find it’s more comfortable to have a little extra space on either side of me.
If you have a tendency to feel claustrophobic, choose a tent that has a lot of headroom and elbow-bent tent poles. What are elbow-bent tent poles?
Well, some brands have designed their tent poles to be bent at the ends. When the tent is set up, the poles stick up perpendicular to the ground and then bend towards the centre-top of the tent. This gives your head a little more room when you’re lying down and is helpful for people who feel claustrophobic or don’t like sleeping with something so close to their head.
I like the Marmot Limelight for this reason. It has elbow-bent tent poles and is a super tall tent.
Weather Resistant + Well Staked
If your tent is leaking, you’re probably not going to sleep very well. When choosing a tent, read reviews online. If the tent has a tendency to leak, there will be plenty of people reviewing it.
That said, you also need to ensure you’re staking out your tent well. The fly should be staked out such that the fly isn’t touching the mesh part of the tent.
A lot of people say the MSR Hubba Hubba NX leaks, but I’ve been using this tent for years and have never noticed it leaking (even in big thunderstorms). This makes me think a lot of people aren’t correctly staking the tent.
Tip: Never spray bug spray near your tent. The chemicals in the bug spray can degrade nylon and DWR and will reduce or eliminate the waterproofness of your fly.
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.
Use a good quality sleeping pad
A good sleeping pad can make a huge difference when it comes to getting comfortable. If you’re at all concerned with sleeping well, avoid the blue foam sleeping pads and the foldable, closed-cell sleeping pads. They typically aren’t that comfortable.
Instead, you’ll want an inflatable sleeping pad. 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 quite similar. It’s durable, comfortable and packs really small.
The Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite is a good sleeping pad if you really need to pack lightweight. It packs really small and is thicker than the two sleeping pads above, though it’s a little more expensive.
If you’ve had trouble sleeping in a tent in the past, or you’re a side sleeper, you may want to consider an even thicker sleeping pad. The Klymit Static V is a great option in that case. You can even get a little rechargeable pump to inflate it.
Also, while sleeping pads are a bit expensive at the time of purchase, they do last a long time and are easy to repair.
Worried about lower back pain? 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. Alternatively, you can sleep on your side and place something in between your knees. I’ve found both of these helpful in relieving my own backpain.
Use a camping pillow
As much as I rough it in the outdoors, I still like to be comfortable. Even on my ultralightweight backpacking trips, I bring a camping pillow. Outdoor brands have come a long way in making super comfortable pillows that can be packed small in your pack
I used the same camping pillow between my first long camping trip in 2010 all the way until 2020: the Therm-a-Rest Compressible Pillow. It is extremely comfortable and has a soft micro-suede feel to it. The only reason I stopped using it is that it packs a little too large for my backpacking trips.
Now I use the Sea to Summit Aeros. It’s an inflatable pillow which means it can pack super small (about the size of a fist). It also has down along the top, which makes it more comfortable than a purely inflatable camping pillow.
Whichever you choose, I encourage you to bring a camping pillow to help you sleep comfortably in your tent. Nothing wrong with a little luxury!
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 – you don’t want blood rushing to your face!
That said, still be aware of where you’re setting up your tent relative to your surroundings. Don’t set it up under a large and leaning tree; don’t set it up in an area that will flood if it rains.
Frankly, if you have a sleeping pad like the Klymit Static V Luxe, it doesn’t really matter if there are roots underneath. The sleeping pad is so thick you won’t feel them.
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. So I have spent a lot of time perfecting my sleep system so I never have to be cold again.
To help you sleep warmer, I have a few suggestions:
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 / 16 F in the summer, which seems like overkill in the summer, 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, though the Western Mountaineering AlpineLite (20 F)is a better option if it’s in your price range.
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 wool) 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 my favourite sleeping clothes.
If it’s late summer or autumn, I’ll also bring a down jacket into the tent with me. I don’t usually need it, but if I am really cold that night I’ll put it over my chest, underneath the sleeping bag.
Tip: The clothes you wear to bed should NEVER 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.
Use a sleeping pad with a higher R-value
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.
You may have noticed that sleeping pads have an R-value rating. This is a measure of how heat transfers from one side of the sleeping pad to the other. The higher the R-value, the warmer the sleeping bag (and usually, the thicker the sleeping pad).
A thicker sleeping pad with a higher R-value (like the Therma-Rest LuxuryMap) will provide better insulation between you and the group, keeping you warmer.
Place a hot water bottle in your sleeping
If you want some added warmth before you get into bed, you can boil water and put it in a hot water bottle (or a Nalgene water bottle). Ensure the lid is securely on and then put it in your sleeping bag. It’ll warm your sleeping bag up for you before you even get in!
I used to be against using a Nalgene water bottle in my sleeping bag; it felt risky (what if it leaks) and I’ve long believed your sleep system should be warm enough for the conditions without aids.
But then I was on a camping trip that was WAY colder than I was expecting. I needed the water bottle to be warm enough to fall asleep (and I even woke up in the middle of the night to boil more water and refill the water bottle). Definitely not ideal, but it did get help me fall asleep.
How to Quiet your Mind (and 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.
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 them 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.
Bring a book or kindle
In addition, I also like to bring a book or a kindle with me. It helps to wind my energy down after a long day of hiking or paddling. I used to always bring a book but I’ve been bringing a kindle more often now. I like that I can read it without using my headlamp.
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, earplugs 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).
Additional Items to Keep in your Tent
Here are a few additional items I like to keep in the tent with me, plus some final tips to try to help you fall asleep.
I pack some melatonin in my first aid kit, so if I’m having a hard time falling asleep I’ll take a little of it.
For solo campers – I’ve never taken melatonin when I’ve been camping alone, usually because I’m so exhausted I don’t have any trouble falling asleep. Though even if I was struggling to fall asleep, I still don’t know if I’d take melatonin. If something happened in the middle of the night, you’d want to be alert and I think melatonin would prohibit that.
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!
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.
Final Thoughts – How to Sleeping Comfortably in a Tent
I hope these tips prove useful to you and help you sleep in a tent more comfortably. It can take a little time to master, but hopefully, you’ll be sleeping well in no time!
Additional Resources for Camping
- Camping 101: The Ultimate Guide to Camping for Beginners
- 10 Best Backpacking Sleeping Bags – 2020 Guide & Reviews
- The Best 2-Person Tents for Backpacking (2021 Guide & Reviews)