Categories: CampingGuides & hacks

The Essential Guide to Sleeping *Comfortably* Outdoors

The plight of the sleepless camper is something we’ve all been privy to, at one time or another. So, if you’ve ever spent the whole night rolling around inside your tent or woken up shivering in a fog-laden swamp, this list is for you. Because whether you spend the next day hiking for miles or just marinating in the sunshine, everything’s a lot tougher when you’re already beat. Here are a few tips—from set-up to sundown—to get you a great night of sleep outdoors.

1. Let’s Talk Gear

When you camp, you put a lot of trust into your equipment, and your comfort can depend on what you pack. Choosing the right tool for the job can make a huge difference in your camping experience. At the end of the day, your gear is your call! But doing a little research beforehand can’t hurt.

Monica Semergiu at Salmon Creek Ranch, CA

Sleeping bags

There are tons of different sleeping bags out there, and picking one out might feel intimidating. We’ve broken down the basics for you to get you started. Know that you may need to buy (or rent!) different camping gear for different seasons, elements and temperatures. Sleeping bags especially!

  • Down vs. Synthetic
    As far as coziness is concerned, material can be a determining factor. Once upon a time, down was the only way to go for warmth, but synthetics have caught up since. Goose-down bags tend to be more compact and packable than synthetic ones. That said, they often boast a higher price tag. Most synthetic bags are made of polyester fill (much like the fluffy guts of plush toys), which means they won’t trigger allergies that down bags might. However, both are durable and both will keep you warm. If you’re looking for a basic, cheap, dependable camping bag, synthetic might be your best bet.
  • Shape
    There a few different shapes of bags available, and they all have their advantages. The mummy shape–think of a cozy camping cocoon–will warm up quickly and take up less room in your tent and your pack. Rectangular bags are a bit roomier, but don’t always have hoods that tighten around your head. Barrel-shaped bags give you a middle ground between these two designs, and are a great option for campers who dabble in backpacking.
  • Temperature Ratings
    Take a look at the numbers that appear on your bag to understand its resilience to cold temperatures. Generally, bags are rated in degrees Fahrenheit. You can find bags rated from -20°F to 40°F, and everything between. Essentially, you’ll stay warm until the temperature drops below that range. A safe bet is a bag that’s rated lower than the lowest temperature you think you’ll encounter. You can always insulate or ventilate, but overcompensating is a good idea, just in case!

Sleeping Pads

While the patch of grass under your tent might seem soft in the light of day, you might find yourself wanting an extra layer between you and the ground. Sleeping pads are a great option if you want some added comfort.

  • Air Pad
    While many air pads require you inflate them yourself—via lung or pump—this means for the most part they take up very little room. The really compact and durable ones tend more expensive than other sleeping pad options. If you’re car camping, you can afford a little more weight for some extra comfort. There are also ultra-lightweight backpacking versions that take up significantly less space and may also run a little more pricey than other options.
  • Self-inflating
    These pads are equipped with a valve that makes inflating fast and easy. They tend to fall in the middle when it comes to price and weight.
  • Foam Pad
    These are cheap, simple, and don’t take up much room. If you don’t mind a slightly stiffer surface than inflatable pads, this is a great option. And while fixing a punctured pad is easy enough, there’s no risk of that with foam.
  • Size
    Standard pads are 20 inches wide, but lengths can vary. Full-size pads—typically 72 inches—should sufficiently fit you from shoulders to feet. But if packability is key, ¾ length might work just fine.

Tents and Tarps

Brie Watson at Sagewinds Farms near San Diego

Whether you think of your tent as sanctuary or simple shelter, you can find one that fits your needs. From compact backpacker models to monumental family-sized ones, there are plenty to choose from. Your tent style will likely depend on the kind of camping you’re doing, where you’re headed, and who’s coming with you. And while most tents are waterproof on their own, anyone who’s forgotten their tarp on a wet night won’t make that mistake twice. For a fairly cheap addition to your camping gear repertoire, a waterproof tarp can add a layer of protection between you and any wet grass you might be sleeping on.


Even when you sleep indoors, waking up with a cramped neck is no fun. There are a few options for those of us who like a little support.

  • Buy It
    Compact and lightweight, a camping pillow is a great thing to have around. They can be on the pricey side, but there are both inflatable and stuffed options available.
  • Bring It
    If you have the extra room in your pack–or if you’re car-camping–a pillow from home will do the trick. It’s good to consider materials here, and maybe bring along a synthetic pillowcase that won’t absorb moisture.
  • Improvise
    When packing light is a major concern, there’s one time-tested pillow alternative that fits the bill: stuff your clothes into a sack.

Lisse Lundin at Rinc Ranch, CA

Earplugs and Eye Masks

In the event that the owls above you decide to party all night, or the coyotes on the hill suddenly have a lot to say, bringing a pair of earplugs along isn’t a bad idea. Another easy addition to your gear bag is an eye mask, which is especially useful if you’re camping in Alaska, Iceland, or other areas where the nights aren’t always dark!

Find places to rent camping gear near you

2. Prepping Your Campsite

When you get to camp, it’s important to pick as flat a spot as possible. You don’t want to wake up with all your blankets, water bottles, and tent-mates tucked into one corner, and you probably could do without anything outside the tent rolling your way while you snooze.

Another thing to keep in mind while scouting for your space is how close you are to rushing water. For some, the subtle switch  of a river or stream might soothe them to sleep; for others, it might be just enough white noise to keep them up all night. Regardless of what soundscape suits you, remember that things might seem a little louder when night falls. Make sure you place your stakes somewhere that gives you a head start to sweet dreams.

Once you’ve decided on your new digs, think about setting up your tent early. Even if you can pitch your tent with your eyes closed, it never hurts to have everything in order once you start yawning around the campfire. Plus, getting everyone’s tents up with plenty of daylight left gives you a chance to clock any possible obstacles–stakes, ropes, fire rings, coolers full of tomorrow’s breakfast–that you definitely don’t want to trip over.

3. Pre-Sleep Rituals

Photo by Emily Thomas at The Intrepid Wild of Temecula, CA

When you’re ready to call it a night, these three tips will help you sleep a little sounder and safer.

  • Drink some tea
    After you lick the last bits of marshmallow and chocolate from your paws, you might have a hard time winding down and getting to sleep. Pack a few sachets of chamomile, spearmint, or nettle tea for a soothing sip before bed. (A calming blend of all three will do wonders.) And there are some great camping teapots to choose from, like the Titan Tea Kettle, which is super lightweight and stands up against the heat.
  • Pack up food
    Before you zip up for the night, make sure all your food and waste is securely bundled into bear bags. Keeping these at a safe distance from tents–or stringing them up a tree–keeps critters away, and leaves you safe and sound. Even the most innocent raccoon makes for a spooky visitor at three in the morning.
  • Keep your gear near
    Finally, make sure your water bottle, toilet paper, and flashlight are tucked into a nearby tent pocket for easy access. (Pro tip: Before you get too comfortable in your layers, take that TP for one last trip behind the bush to reduce the chances of a late-night tiptoe through the woods.)

There really is nothing like an early, coffee-filled morning after a good sleep outdoors. So goodnight, sleep tight, and wake up right!

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