I was 7 years old when my father decided we were going to become a “camping family”. Therefore, the idea of sleeping outside with nothing but a sleeping bag and tent walls separating me from the earth is not foreign to me. But trust me when I tell you – we did NOT start off as experts. There was a lot of trial and error when it came to gear, routines, and how to keep the entire family smiling while temporarily living outdoors. So I can completely understand and respect that a concern for many people sleeping outdoors, is ensuring they are getting a good night’s sleep while tent camping.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’ve certainly had my fair share of “bad” nights of sleeping in a tent. There are definitely a number of considerations to factor in that you wouldn’t have to think about in the comfort of your own home or a hotel room. But with some planning, and the proper equipment, you can absolutely enjoy restful sleep in a tent.
Getting a Good Night’s Sleep while Tent Camping: What You Need to Know
The following tips come from my own experience of about 30 years worth of sleeping in tents. These tips are geared towards those who are “car camping” (meaning you drove your car to your campsite) in private or public campgrounds, rather than camping in the backcountry – though many of these tips cross over.
So without further ado, here’s how I make sure I get restful sleep in a tent:
Wear Yourself Out
Listen, I’m a certified Exercise Physiologist, so you had to know this was going to be my first tip. Spend some of your day moving your body! Go for a hike, swim in a lake, paddle a kayak…you get the idea! Exercise, and movement, has been proven to help promote better sleep. And vice versa: poor sleep has been found to be related to a significant lack of physical activity (source).
Simply put: if you’re tired from a day of physical activity, you’re going to have an easier time falling -and staying – asleep. So move your body!
Pick Your Tent Site Carefully
If you know you are a light sleeper, then reserving a tent site jammed tightly between two RV’s and their loud generators might not be the best idea. Now, I know sometimes this is simply bad luck: you can’t always choose your camping neighbors. But you can absolutely do some research ahead of time, and try to find a more secluded, quiet spot. A few tips for making this happen:
- Look at the campground map before reserving a site.
- Reach out to the campground, park ranger, or friends who may have camped there before, and ask for recommendations.
- Take a peek at Campsitephotos.com for an actual photo of where you’re headed. Pro tip: I look at the sites on either side of my desired site, to see different angles of the potential site. It helps me determine how close together they really are.
- Try to avoid a site next to places of interest, such as trail heads, beach access, boat ramps, or the bathroom. Basically, anywhere people may be milling by your site all day and potentially all night.
Put Away Any Food or Gear that May Attract Wildlife
You know what will wake you up in the middle of the night, and send your heart rate soaring? A raccoon knocking your pots and pans off of the picnic table. Trust me – I’ve had this happen (thank goodness it was only a raccoon and not a bear).
Before climbing into your tent for the night, secure your food, your trash, and anything else that might be attractive to critters. Put them in your car if it’s close by. Deepening on where you are, you might consider using a bear canister or hanging your food from a tree. Don’t bring food into your tent – wildlife might be tempted to let themselves in to investigate.
Invest in a Quality Air Mattress / Sleeping Pad
I’m all for patchwork camping supplies and saving money where I can. But some things you shouldn’t skimp on. Over the last 30 years, while camping, I have slept on
- cheap, inflatable pool floats
- expensive backpacking, self inflating air mattresses
- queen sized, 12 inch thick air mattresses
- foam egg crates
- the floor of the tent
And I can assure you that what you “think” might be the most comfortable option, isn’t always. For example, those gigantic air mattresses? If they deflate even a tiny bit, you’ll wake up with your butt on the floor. Or worse, movement from your partner may roll you right off the bed. Plus they trap the cold air underneath you, and make for horrible insulation. Cots are often too tiny, and the floor of the tent? You’ll be feeling every single rock and root, no matter how tiny they are and how well you cleared the site, by 3 am.
While the thinner, more expensive camping specific mats or mattresses may not “look” like they’ll be comfortable, they often are your best option. Read reviews, and find products with features that matter the most to you. This (and your sleeping bag) are two key pieces of equipment that you definitely should not take shortcuts on. These key items will help ensure you are getting a good night’s sleep while tent camping.
Appropriate Weight Sleeping Bag or Blankets
Bring the correct sleeping bag or blankets for the anticipated weather. If it’s 90+ degrees at night and high humidity, you’re going to suffer in a down-filled, mummy sleeping bag. Alternatively, if the temperature dips below freezing, you’re certainly going to wish you had brought something more than the comforter off of your bed.
If it’s really hot, bring a sheet set. You can lay one on top of your sleeping bag, and cover yourself partially with a lightweight top sheet. It’s a great alternative to getting into a stuffy bag.
If it’s cold, bring extra blankets to act as insulation underneath your sleeping bag.
Tents (usually – I suppose I can’t speak for all of them) don’t come with air conditioning or heaters. Being too hot or too cold can lead to a miserable nights sleep.
Don’t Forget Your Pillow!
If you are used to sleeping with a pillow, you’re going to want to make sure you bring a pillow camping. If you have the room – just bring your regular, favorite pillow. Sure, they make “camping pillows” and those may be ideal for some. But for me, nothing beats the comfort and familiarity of my regular pillow. So if I’m driving to my campsite (rather than hiking in) you better believe I pack my pillow straight off of my bed. I am a minimalist with a lot of gear – but my pillow isn’t one of those things.
Vent Your Tent!
Keep some of the vents open on your tent (depending, of course, on weather). The fresh air will not only help you sleep, but it will help prevent the buildup of condensation on the inside of the tent walls. No one likes waking up feeling like they are inside of a damp clam shell.
…But Keep the Bugs Out
Biting mosquitoes and buzzing flies will keep you up all night. Keep them OUT of your tent at all costs! Throughout the day, make sure you keep your screen door completely shut when going in and out of your tent.
If the bugs are really bad, consider wearing a non toxic bug-spray to bed. Avoid DEET and harsh chemical bug repellents in your tent, though. The chemicals can sometimes damage fabrics or eat away at protective/waterproof coatings.
Have a Bathroom Plan
The anxiety of wondering if I’m going to wake up in the middle of the night and need to use the restroom – and then figuring out how to get there – has definitely kept me up at night in the past. So, have a plan before you fall asleep. Know:
- Where the closest restroom is, and the path to get there
- Backwoods camping? Know where your designated “bathroom spot” is
- Where your headlamp/flashlight is located
- Keep your jacket, sweatshirt, toilet paper, whatever else you might need to grab in an easy to find spot
This next point may sound silly to some of you, but others will get it. If you wake up and have to use the bathroom, just GET UP AND GO! The longer you lay in your tent contemplating having to get out of your warm sleeping bag, wondering if the urge will just go away so you can just fall back asleep, etc. the longer you are delaying actually falling back asleep. Don’t overthink it: just go.
Wind Down First: Follow Your Normal Routine
If you normally go to bed around, say, 10 or 11 pm…heading to bed the second the sun sets while you are camping might set you up for sleeping disaster. Just because it’s dark doesn’t mean it’s bedtime. Take the time to wind down as you normally would. Listen to some music, read a book, or just enjoy time by the campfire. Let your brain and body relax before forcing the issue of sleep.
The best dollar (or less) that you will spend on camping gear is on a pair of earplugs. You may be someone who never needs them. Or, you may one day find yourself camping next to a pack of hunting dogs that want to sing you the song of their people all night long. Or maybe, like me, your spouse snores loud enough to shake the walls of your tent. Earplugs will absolutely help provide a quieter sleeping atmosphere.
If earplugs aren’t for you, consider some sort of white noise. Make sure it’s something that won’t be distracting to tent mates or neighbors. But items like a small fan, or a pair of headphones and a “white noise” app on your phone might help relax you into a sound sleep.
Looking for something more natural? Find a campsite next to a stream, or a lake or ocean with waves. Water moving is the most amazing natural white noise!
Remember: Practice Makes Perfect!
Don’t wait for your first night in a tent to practice these tips. When you buy a new sleeping bag or sleeping pad – set it up on your floor and give it a try! Heck, you can even set up your tent in the backyard and give the entire experience a “dry run” (pun intended, I hope it doesn’t rain on you!) . Worst case scenario, you end up back in the comfort of your own bed before the night is over. But ideally, you are able to find and make adjustments to perfect your tent camping sleep routine.
Sleeping in a tent can be a little nerve-wracking at first, but it can also be incredibly exciting. I personally love the experience of sleeping in a tent, feeling the breeze blow through the screen and letting the sounds of nature lull me to sleep. It may take a little getting used to, but I hope that you, too, can experience the enjoyment of getting a good nights sleep while tent camping!