The Most Comfortable Way to Sleep in a Tent

After a long day in the wilderness, it feels amazing to hunker down for a good night’s sleep. Camping expert Eric Bergdoll outlines how to achieve restful slumber in a tent.

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 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 can all but eliminate these occurrences and secure restful slumber for every night of your camping trip.

Picking the proper tent size

A view from within an orange tent looking out of the open tent door at the forest beyond.
Photo by Scott Goodwill

Deciding on 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 be 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 rain fly) 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. This is mostly an issue for backpacking, where 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 lighter weight backpacking tents tend to have an approximately 84-inch long floor and will vary in width based on capacity, but taller people should look for something closer to 90 inches for maximum comfort.

Choosing the right location

A blue tent on a mountain plateau surrounded by some trees and brush.
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.

The most important part of deciding on a location is finding somewhere relatively flat. 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. With a high-quality modern sleeping pad, you will be suspended above the ground, so slightly uneven surfaces will not be a big deal as long as the sleeping area can be made to be flat.

After securing a flat surface, the next step is to clear the area of anything that could damage gear. Clear any sticks, as well as any rocks that poke upwards. 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 before setting up. To protect the base of your tent from getting dirty or torn, I highly recommend using a tent footprint or ground cloth (a specific tarp cut to the size of the tent’s floor) for the long-term durability of your tent and sleeping pad.

If you are camping in 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.

Bedding

The author snuggled in a blue sleeping bag and sitting on an orange inflatable camping pad.

Sleeping bags are the most important part of a sleeping system and are essential for a warm and comfortable night’s sleep in all but the warmest summer nights. They 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 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 appropriate degree rating based on expected weather conditions is important for comfort. If you own a sleeping bag that isn’t quite warm enough for the expected weather conditions on your next trip, obtaining a sleeping bag liner can make a huge difference. A high-quality thermolite sleeping bag liner can let a sleeping bag work in conditions of up to 25 degrees colder than its normal degree rating. I wouldn’t advise pushing it to the temperature limit with a liner, but it is a great insurance plan in case temperatures get to be colder than expected.

A tent and sleeping pad sit on a hillside
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 ground. This is especially important when the ground is cold, because the cold will quickly pull heat from your body and 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 foam pads and air pads to full-on air beds or air mattresses, which are a good option for car campers in search of 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.

The author holding an inflatable camping pillow up against the forest backdrop.
Photo by Eric Bergdoll

Camp pillows are even more overlooked than sleeping pads and can be as complex as an ultralight inflatable or as simple as rolling the clothes that are already in your pack up into a t-shirt. The most comfortable way of bringing a pillow with you when backpacking is to stuff an inflatable pillow 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. 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.

Time spent maintaining camping gear can be pretty minimal. If you buy high-quality gear and take care of it, camping equipment can 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.

A clear Nalgene water bottle with a green lid and a mountain graphic that says "Seeking Unknown Destinations" on it.
Photo by Alan Carrillo

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!

A couple of other items that could be helpful to bring along for a good night’s sleep are ear plugs to zone out snoring tent mates and eye masks for those bright full-moon nights. For tent lighting, my go-to is wrapping a headlamp to face a nalgene, milk jug, or other water bottle. This makes for a great tent lantern without any additional items to bring.

A headlamp wrapped around a gallon-sized water jug with the light of the headlamp pointing inward toward the jug, thereby illuminating the whole thing like a lantern.
Photo by Eric Bergdoll

Following these tricks and tips can be a game changer in unlocking a comfortable camping experience. With just a little 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!

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Written By
Growing up in Colorado then later Western Pennsylvania, my family would go camping in the mountains most weekends. In spring 2015 I decided to ramp things up a notch by enrolling in a National Outdoor Leadership School semester, which consisted of 87 days in the wilderness. Since that trip, I have f...

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