Sleeping while sharing a tent can take some getting used to. It’s a different environment than home, and that alone can be disruptive to your sleep. But you’re also dealing with new sounds, sharing a tent, different and probably not the best mattress for back pain, temperature discomfort, and even the potential of wild animal encounters while you’re sleeping at night.
You can create a healthy sleeping environment and maintain healthy sleep habits with some care and planning. With a healthy sleep environment, you can make it easier to get a good night of rest while you’re sleeping under the stars.
A Healthy Tent Sleeping Environment
Creating a healthy sleep environment is essential to good sleep. You can’t expect to lay your head down just anywhere and be fine with it. You’ll need to take care in choosing your campsite, bedding, and how you will handle distractions including light and noise.
A healthy sleep environment starts with choosing a good site for your tent. Keep in mind that popular campgrounds can be noisy and disruptive. You may want to avoid a site close to the restroom, camp store, or scenic attractions, as you will likely hear other campers coming and going all night.
Flat Camping Site
You’ll want to look for a level surface to pitch your tent, as you may feel uncomfortable with your head or feet elevated higher than the rest of your body, or you slide during the night. It can be uncomfortable if your gear slides to one side of the tent as well. If you can’t find a flat site, you will be more comfortable sleeping with your head elevated.
Camping at Altitude
Be aware when camping at altitude, as doing so can disrupt sleep. You may experience altitude or altitude-induced sleep apnea. The only way to alleviate altitude-induced sleep apnea is to move to a lower altitude or take prescription medication for the condition.
Tree and Bush Clearance
Set your tent up with plenty of clearance from trees and bushes. You don’t want them to bother you by brushing against the tent in the breeze. Setting up under a tent can also be dangerous due to falling limbs, so it’s best to keep your distance.
Clear the Ground
Remember to clear the ground underneath the tent. Even if you have heavy bedding separating you from the ground, you don’t want to feel twigs, rocks, or debris underneath you when you lay down at night. Avoid setting your tent up on tree roots.
Dry Sleeping Area
Avoid sleeping in a wet tent by setting up in an area that is dry if at all possible. Bring a waterproof tarp or two so that you can set one up under your tent and/or put one over the top of your tent for rain protection.
Setting Up Before Dark
Be sure to set up early and well before dark, so you’re not rushing around with a flashlight. Make sure beds are fully inflated, bedding is ready for you to lay down, and that you have lights and any other necessities set up before dark.
Practice camp safety so that you don’t need to be overly concerned about wild animal encounters while you’re sleeping. Be aware of animal related dangers and follow recommendations for avoiding animal encounters. If you’re in an environment where you can expect bears, camp away from water, keep your food and toiletries hung up high, cook at least 100 yards from your tent, and remove any clothes that may smell like food.
Tent Bedding Choices
Much of your choice in bedding will depend on what you can carry. If you’re driving to your camp site, you’ll have the packing room available to take more substantial bedding than what you can carry if you’re backpacking to your camp site.
What to Lay On
The foundation of tent bedding is just as important as your sleeping bag, and it can make a big difference in your comfort and temperature while sleeping. Sleeping pad options [*like the Thermarest Z-Lite Sol] include:
Foam roll mats: Foam roll mats are not exceptionally comfortable, but they are cheap, simple, and easy to carry.
Air beds: Air mattresses tend to be the most comfortable option for camping, particularly when you can drive to your camp site. However, be careful when sharing an air bed with a partner, as they can be very bouncy and disruptive. Some air mattresses offer two separate sections that blow up individually, which can help reduce bounciness and rolling into each other. Or, you can choose to sleep in separate air beds while camping.
Self inflating mats: Popular with backpackers, self inflating mats are not as comfortable as air beds, but are more comfortable than foam roll mats. They can easily fit inside a backpack and inflate when opened (though some need a blow to fully inflate).
Camp beds or cots: With camp beds or cots, you can sleep off of the ground, which can be more comfortable for people who have difficulty getting in and out of bedding on the floor. Some campers put mats or mattresses on top of camp beds for added comfort. Camp beds take up more room than air beds, foam rolls, or self inflating mats, not just in packing, but in your tent.
Sleeping Bags and Pillows
Your sleeping bag [*like the Lamina or LEEF] is another important choice in camp bedding. Sleeping bags can minimize the loss of body heat and create a soft sleeping environment. You’ll want to choose a sleeping bag that is comforting for you and appropriately rated for the weather you will encounter.
Mummy sleeping bags: Mummy sleeping bags will minimize the loss of body heat and can be sealed so that only your face is exposed, but you may feel constrained in this type of sleeping bag.
Square sleeping bags: Square sleeping bags may be more comfortable and offer more leg movement, but they can be too cold in winter months. However, you can get double square sleeping bags and share it with a partner for added warmth. This can be more comfortable and familiar if you’re used to sleeping with a partner next to you.
Sleeping bags differ in their insulation. With down insulation, you will be warmer and the sleeping bag will compress for packing very easily. However, down is susceptible to clumping and losing insulating abilities when it is wet, so you’ll want to look for water-resistant down. Synthetic insulation is bulkier and heavier, but it will continue to insulate when wet. Synthetic insulation tends to be cheaper as well.
It’s usually best to take a pillow from home if you have the room to pack it, but they can take up a lot of space. Inflatable pillows are an option, or, if you’re short on space, you can fill a sack with clothes. However, it may not be exceptionally comfortable, and if you’ve been camping for a few days, it could get smelly.
Keep in mind that when using bedding foundations that touch the ground (such as an air bed), you will lose heat. You’ll need to put a blanket under you to stop heat loss. You should also take care to choose a sleeping bag appropriately rated for conditions. Adding blankets or coats on top of your sleeping bag is a good idea, but be careful not to wear too many layers in your sleeping bag, as you may sweat and then become cold from the moisture.
The sounds of nature may be comforting and lull you off to sleep, but often, that’s not the case while sleeping in a tent, especially if you’re at a busy camp site. You may be jarred awake by unusual sounds from nature at night, or more likely, from your neighbors or sleeping partners. They may rustle, snore, cough, and make other noises at night that can make it difficult to sleep soundly.
You can look for a site near a creek for white noise, or use earplugs to get silence. You may want to use headphones to play white noise recordings.
You may not think of camping as an especially bright environment, but there can be light disturbances, particularly the moon, or lamps set up for safety on the camp grounds. Look for sites that will block the moon or other sources of light with trees, or simply use an eye mask to block out light.
A Healthy Camping Sleep Routine
A healthy camping sleep routine is as close to your home sleep routine as possible. You’ll want to stick to your sleep schedule and keep up with your nighttime rituals as much as possible so that you can trigger familiar sleepy feelings.
Remember to practice healthy sleep hygiene. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, big meals, or exercise too close to bedtime, as these can keep you up and disrupt sleep.
If you’re having trouble sleeping, practice relaxation breathing, yoga (check out Gaiam Active Yoga for gear), or meditation. Take the time to acknowledge and appreciate nature for a calming effect before sleep.
Be aware of sleep problems you experience at home, and don’t expect them to disappear while you’re sleeping in a tent. Seek treatment for sleep disorders before camping.
Tips for Better Sleep While Camping
Consider sleeping in your tent inside your home before you leave to acclimate to the environment and sleeping on the ground.
Be careful about drinking too many fluids before bed. Consider going to the bathroom twice (30 minutes before bed and then again right before bed) so that you can reduce or eliminate bathroom trips in the middle of the night.
Stay clean so you’re not offended by smells while trying to sleep. Use baby wipes, sponge bath in a creek, or take advantage of a camp shower. At the very least, get into clean clothes or pajamas for sleeping.
Bring along any sleep aids you usually need at home, such as a CPAP machine, white noise, earplugs, eye mask, or sleeping pills.
Get plenty of exercise during the day. You may be so worn out, you won’t be bothered by shortcomings in your tent sleeping environment.
About the Author: Sara Westgreen is a researcher for the sleep science hub Tuck.com. She sleeps on a king size bed in Texas, where she defends her territory against cats all night. A mother of three, she enjoys beer, board games, and getting as much sleep as she can get her hands on.