Tent Sleeping 101: The Most Comfortable Way to Sleep in a Tent

Published on 06/13/2023 · 9 min readAfter a long day in the wilderness, it feels amazing to hunker down for a good night’s sleep. Camping Expert Eric Bergdoll outlines the most comfortable way to sleep in a tent so you can achieve restful slumber on your next outdoor adventure.
Eric Bergdoll, Camping Expert
By Camping Expert Eric Bergdoll

Photo by Peter Vanosdall

Everyone with more than a few nights of camping experience can tell you a horror story of a popped sleeping pad, a heavy pack, a collapsed tent, or a wet sleeping bag. While in rare cases, this is unavoidable due to the unpredictable nature of the outdoors, the right gear, the right location, and a few tips and tricks can all but eliminate these occurrences and secure restful slumber for every night of your camping trip.

Picking the Proper Tent Size

Photo by Scott Goodwill

Deciding on a camping tent size is really a matter of space vs. warmth. A tent of the same type with more space will hold more air for your body to keep warm, making it harder to stay as warm as you would in a smaller tent. On the other hand, in a smaller tent, it will be harder to do various living tasks, such as changing clothes or packing backpacks. Tent vestibules (the area around the tent doors that’s sheltered by the tent’s rainfly) help with the gear storage issue but add to the total space inside the tent, making it less warm. More spacious tents also tend to be heavier than those with less space, which may not matter if you are car camping but will have an impact if you are backpacking and every ounce counts.

Taller people will want to pay close attention to the length of a tent’s interior, as nothing is more frustrating than being unable to stretch out at the end of a long day. Most lightweight backpacking tents tend to have an approximately 84-inch long floor and will vary in width based on the tent's capacity, but taller people should look for something closer to 90 inches for maximum comfort.

For more on maintaining your warmth in the Great Outdoors, read How to Stay Warm While Camping.

Choosing the Right Location

Photo by Eric Bergdoll

Finding the best location to pitch a tent is critical for comfort and is something that takes a little practice to truly master. With a couple of helpful tips, the right gear, and a little practice, you can find good sleep almost anywhere.

1. Find a flat space. The most important part of deciding on a location to pitch your tent is finding somewhere relatively flat.

Pro Tip: If you can’t find anywhere flat enough, it is possible to make some adjustments to stop you from rolling out of bed, sliding downhill, or damaging your tent. Take extra clothes, roll them up, and stick them under the downhill side of your sleeping pad to avoid rolling. Shoes can also be used for this purpose.

2. Clear the area. After securing a flat surface, the next step is to clear the area of anything that could damage your gear or cause discomfort. Clear away any sticks or small rocks. If your campground has tall grass, walking the entire base of where you plan to pitch the tent to thoroughly check for any rocks, sticks, or sharp objects is always time well spent.

I will never forget one moment on the first night of a 30-day backpacking trip when, without paying attention, I set my ground cloth (a small tarp for sleeping under the stars without a tent) and sleeping pad on a rock. The sound of the air hissing out from the hole it created will forever be burned into my brain and will always remind me to check for rocks before setting up!

3. Use a footprint. To protect the base of your tent from getting dirty or torn, I highly recommend using a tent footprint, tarp, or ground cloth (a specific tarp cut to the size of the tent’s floor). This will act as a barrier between the bottom of your tent and the ground, thus increasing the long-term durability of your tent and sleeping pad by protecting them from dirt, sand, debris, twigs, and water.

If you are worried about camping in the rain, read How to Stay Dry and Comfortable When Camping in the Rain.


Sleeping Bags

A comfortable sleeping bag is the most important part of a sleeping system and is essential for a warm and comfortable night’s sleep on all but the warmest summer nights. Sleeping bags tend to be insulated with down feathers, synthetic fibers, or a mixture of both. Down sleeping bags are more packable and usually lighter weight, but struggle with a loss of warmth when wet or loss of loft when compressed for a long time. Synthetic sleeping bags are a little less compressible and slightly heavier but offer consistent warmth when wet or after being compressed.

Selecting a bag with the right temperature rating based on the weather forecast is important for comfort. If you own a sleeping bag that isn’t quite warm enough for the expected overnight temps on your next trip, obtaining a sleeping bag liner can make a huge difference. A high-quality Thermolite sleeping bag liner can enable a sleeping bag to work in conditions of up to 25 degrees colder than its normal temp rating. I wouldn’t advise pushing it to the temperature limit with a liner, but it is a great insurance plan if you are a cold sleeper or in case temperatures get to be cooler than expected. If you are car camping, a quilt or extra blankets will also do the trick!

Sleeping Pads

Photo by Jack Sloop

Sleeping pads are often an overlooked aspect of a sleep setup but can have a significant impact on sleep quality. To promote good sleep, a sleeping pad elevates you above the hard ground. This is especially important when the ground is cold because the cold ground will quickly pull your precious body heat, which will result in a cold night’s sleep even with a sleeping bag that is warm enough. The insulating effect of a sleeping pad is referred to as its R-value and is similar to the insulation you find in houses. A higher R-value will make a big difference in the amount of body heat that is reflected back to the user.

Many different types of sleeping pads for camping exist, from small, ultralight, closed-cell foam pads, to lightweight, self-inflating air pads, to camp cots, to full-on queen-size air beds or air mattresses, which are a good option for car campers in search of luxury and top-quality sleep. Balancing the weight and durability of a sleeping pad is important as well, as some of the lightest models can get tiny leaks, forcing the user to wake up in the middle of the night to reinflate the pad. Check out The Most Comfortable Sleeping Pads for more information!

Pro Tip: On really cold nights, double up your sleeping pads for double the R-Value (read: double the insulation!)

Camp Pillow

Photo by Eric Bergdoll

Camp pillows are even more overlooked than sleeping pads and can be as complex as an ultralight, inflatable camp pillow or as simple as rolling the clothes that are already in your pack up into a t-shirt. The most comfortable way to bring a pillow with you when backpacking is to stuff an inflatable pillow (which weighs just a few ounces) into a clean t-shirt. This has been my go-to method ever since I purchased my inflatable pillow a couple of years back, and it easily fits into the compression sack of a sleeping bag.

Pro Tip: Don't have an inflatable pillow and don't want to spend the money on one? You can also secure a good night’s sleep by rolling up a puffy jacket (preferably a synthetic one if you drool...) into the shape of a pillow and stuffing it into the head of a mummy bag. This was my go-to strategy for years until I spoiled myself with an upgrade to a camp pillow.

Other Tips and Tricks

1. Take care of your gear. Time spent maintaining camping gear can be pretty minimal. If you buy high-quality gear and take care of it, camping equipment can be very durable and last for years and years, but if you abuse it, often it will kick the bucket after a single season. As I mentioned before, I always make sure to use a footprint with my tents to keep them out of the mud and water.

Sometimes it is necessary to pack a wet tent, but it is important to pull it out of the stuff sack and let it dry out as soon as possible to prevent the growth of mold and the deterioration of the fabric. One awesome benefit of modern free-standing tents (which most tents tend to be these days) is the ability to shake the dirt out of them before breaking them down. This is a must for keeping things tidy. Another rule of thumb is to have a plan for when your gear needs repair. A sleeping pad repair kit with some seam grip is great for repairing rain flys (the outer waterproof shell of a tent), sleeping pads, and jackets. A tent pole repair kit is also a great item to bring along in case you have a broken-pole emergency.

Photo by Alan Carrillo

2. Use a hot water bottle for extra warmth. Staying warm can be tricky when temperatures are cold. My favorite trick is to fill a Nalgene bottle with boiling water and a tea bag, or even better, hot chocolate, and stick it into the foot of a sleeping bag with the lid on tightly before getting in the bag. This will make things nice and toasty when the time comes to get ready for bed. And the best part about the hot water bottle, especially when it’s filled with hot chocolate, is if you wake up in the middle of the night, you can drink it to warm back up. Win-Win!

3. Bring along earplugs and eye masks. A couple of other items that could be helpful to bring along for a good night’s sleep are earplugs to zone out snoring tent mates and eye masks for those bright full-moon nights.

4. Bring lighting for when it gets dark. A headlamp, lightweight lantern, or flashlight will provide light at your campsite, making it easier to set up camp, cook, clean up, get ready for bed, or venture into the woods to go to the bathroom once the sun goes down.

Pro Tip: When trying to keep gear to a minimum out in the backcountry, make your own lantern! My go-to is wrapping a headlamp to face a Nalgene, milk jug, or another water bottle. This makes for a great tent lantern to light up your campsite without any additional items to bring!

5. Pack bug spray or mosquito nets. Some areas can get buggy, especially in the summer months, and nothing sucks the fun out of camping like the constant presence of mosquitos, gnats, and other flying bugs!

Photo by Eric Bergdoll

Following these tricks and tips can be a game-changer in unlocking a comfortable camping experience and can greatly improve your tent camping experience. With just a little time spent getting the hang of things, you can make the nights you spend camping, away from the distractions of lights and technology, even better for sleeping than those you spend in bed at home! If you need to get geared up for your best night's sleep on your next camping adventure, reach out to a Camping & Hiking expert here on Curated for free, personalized advice and recommendations.

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