What is the Best Thing to Sleep on while Camping?

What is the Best Thing to Sleep on while Camping

When I started camping, one of the things that put a damper on my efforts was the sleep arrangements.

I could sleep like rubbish. My back would hurt and remain stiff, putting me in a sour mood for the rest of the day.

I imagine I wasn’t the only one. Most new campers will usually go through that phase.

However, there’re a couple of tricks that can make your nighttime more comfortable.

A nice sleeping pad, warm sleeping bag liner, inflatable camp pillow, and some noise cancellations are tickets to a night of comfortable sleep in the wild.

Nowadays, I sleep like a baby, and I’ll share how I’ve managed to turn the tide into a good night’s sleep.

1)      What to Sleep on

1)      What to sleep on

The first thing to consider for a comfortable sleeping experience is what to sleep on.

There are various options, from foam pads, inflatable air mattresses, and camping cots to camping beds.

You can even forego all that and sleep on the ground, but that will also be a great way to contract hypothermia!

If you’re not a frequent camper, I suggest you go with an air mattress and pack a few more blankets.

It’s not the option for the dedicated campers.

See, an air camping mattress is nice, the problem is every single one I’ve used seems to deflate partially through the night, leaving me with a shitty sleep.

Most will lose air pressure as the night grows and form a sag that kills your back.

But the greatest drawback, at least in my opinion, is air mattresses do nothing for insulation.

The air medium in the camp mattress does a little to protect you from the cold ground. It absorbs the cold, and your body becomes colder through the night.

If you’re camping through spring, fall or winter, I’d suggest you place a blanket underneath the air mattress.

We usually put a closed cell foam pad at the bottom of the air mattress, which saves us from hurting our backs while keeping us from getting cold.

My best sleeping experience is on a foam pad.

Foam pads are durable and generally inexpensive. But more importantly, the pads provide insulation from the grounds.

Stay away from the self-inflating pads. They’re convenient to carry and use, but just like air mattresses, they don’t insulate well and don’t provide a real lift off the ground like a true air pad.

In short, the self-inflating air pads are a bulk of a foam pad without the padded feel or insulation. They carry an air pad leak risk without air cushion lift or packability.

Cots are also another great option. They’re off the ground, which helps with insulation, especially in weather, and protects you from tent visitors like snakes.

Cots are sturdier and provide better sleeping support. Plus, the canvas fabric creates a hammock-like shape when laid on-very bed-like.

And if you’re a restless sleeper, the concave shape helps to keep you in one position.

But just a word of warning: if you are sleeping in a cot, bring an extra layer to put under your sleep bag, even if it’s remotely cold.

I’ve a 20-degree rated bag and still feel the cold draft under when I don’t have an extra layer. A sleeping pad under the bag will protect you from the cold draft from freezing at night.

2)      High-Quality sleeping bag

2)      High-Quality sleeping bag

I’ve camped in the Canadian East Coast, Montreal, and surrounding mountains, and nights here usually hover around -5c to 10.

But my trusted sleeping bag, paired with socks and top layers, covers me from the cold. I’m a cold sleeper.

But a sleep bag isn’t the only method to keep warm. There’re quilts and mummy bags.

I love quilts for my summer backpacking trips. Their greatest draw is how non-restrictive they feel.

Unfortunately, they’re not to be trusted when temperatures dip below 45c. They’re not as warm as other sleeping options.

Mummy bags seem like the perfect fit for extreme weather conditions. I wouldn’t recommend their use on anything below freezing.

A sleeping bag seems like a perfect compromise between the two.

I’m a big fan of sleeping bags because they’ve a soft sleeping pad, which is as important as the sleeping bag itself.

It’s a crucial addition, especially since I’m getting old. The pad provides more cushion, and I’ve no problem with my back or neck.

The sleeping bags are also well-ventilated than your normal blankets and will trap heat inside your body, making the experience nice and toasty.

We lose most of our body heat through conduction (touching something) or convection (air moving across our body).

When you dress up, you drastically reduce these heat-loss effects. Sleeping bags, in particular, are designed with materials that are poor heat conductors, which also means they’re great insulators.

So, it means the slow down the heat loss problem.

Even then, not all sleeping bags are created equal. You must pick sleeping bags with a good heat rating. It’s usually expressed in R.

Car camping sleeping bags with an R-value of over 3 are great, and higher, even better, especially for the alpine winter camping trip.

It’s also important to keep away from the cheap picks. I know the temptation of cheap sleeping bags is high, but my suggestion would be to buy once, cry once.

It’s painful at first, but you’ll be glad not wasting more money buying the cheap options, regretting it, before you eventually cough for better options.

3)      Beddings and Pillows

3)      Beddings and Pillows

You could tag along with your favorite home pillow if you are RVing or car camping. It gives you comfort, and the space is worth it.

However, your outdoor gear space will be limited if you choose a home pillow, especially if you’re backpacking.

Instead, choose a camping pillowcase, either the small, compact pillows or inflatable pillows.

I’m a big fan of the inflatable pillows. They’re lightweight and packable. Marmot and Sea Summit are some of my favorite budget pillow brands.

Plus, some inflatables are fluffy. They’re still packable, but their fluffiness provides comfort similar to home pillows.

The Nemo brand comes to mind for such pillows.

The fluffy pillows are expensive, but if you camp in a cold climate or have a puffy jacket or clothes, you could stash them inside a pillowcase. It might be lumpy, though.

In my opinion, the ideal pillow for camping should pack down next to something and be fluffy enough to work even for side sleepers.

In short, a camping pillow should provide a luxurious sleeping experience and shouldn’t promote any neck issues or pain. 

And when deflated, it should fit the size of a hot pocket!

The other important thing when selecting a pillow for camping is that you need to try sleeping on it at home to experience how it feels.

Listen to how comfortable it feels and whether it makes annoying sounds against your ears, potentially turning you off.

Similar to my suggestion with pillows, my first preference for beddings would be home beddings.

Of course, sleeping bags are critical for keeping you warm, but their usage can only go so far.

Camping beddings are versatile and serve more than just keeping you warm.

For example, sometimes sleeping bags may get too warm, which is where beddings come in. Depending on the heat, you can add or remove a layer of tent bedding.

And the good thing with using home bedding is they don’t have a claustrophobic effect like the sleeping bags do. They’re comfortable, less confining, and will bring some familiarity to your sleeping experience.

Secondly, you could use your bedding to complement your sleeping bag. Simply add a bedding cover to your sleeping bag for warmth and body heat.

Beddings are also handy when you need to cozy up your kids. It can’t happen in a regular sleeping bag.

Plus, bedding can also be laid on the ground as an insulating pad for your sleeping bag.

Simply put, there are several benefits to choosing camping beddings, even if you’ve a quality sleeping bag.

However, you mustn’t bring any bedding that takes longer to dry because of wetness or dampness.

4)      Camping location

4)      Camping location

I’ve a bad back and a side and back sleeper.

My problem is no matter where I sleep; I’ll inevitably wake up with mild comfort on my back and neck.

Now, if that sounds like you, I’ve a solution.

Consider your location when sleeping outdoors.

See, in as much as backpacking, sleeping bags and foam pads provide some form of cushioning against the ground, it doesn’t help if the ground itself is lumpy and uneven.

And that’s usually the case for most camping grounds.

So, for the chances of a comfortable and back pain-free sleeping experience, you need to choose a level ground free of lumps, rocks, and such.

I know you can’t control the ground cover, and it sucks, even on the relatively flat ground.

However, you should start by avoiding the hard ground with rocks and other obstacles. It will cause so no sleep nights.

Eliminating the rocks and tree stumps isn’t only good for your sleep, but it ensures you don’t have to worry about the integrity of your sleeping pads getting compromised.

Even with the best sleeping arrangement, you’ll not feel well-rested on uneven ground.

However, with something to ease the ground, setting your sleeping bag on flat ground will go a long way to providing a nice experience when you sleep in a tent.

If you can’t find a nice, flat spot, orient your sleeping arrangement so that your head is higher than your feet.

Even then, the gradient shouldn’t be that huge. Otherwise, the slant may trigger your “I’m falling” fight or flight response every time you sleep.

5)      Manage the noise

5)      Manage the noise

One of the things that kept me from wanting to camp was the noise.

While I found the natural sounds such as wind, water, and rain calming, other noises simply scared me to insomnia.

But I found a couple of solutions to help with that.

I always bring my phone and listen to some tracks as I sleep. It helps me cancel out the noise and lull me to bed.

Ear plugs are also an incredible option. I was initially nervous about using the earplugs, but all the camping noises melted away pretty quickly when I tried them.

My wife loves listening to podcasts on the earbuds when sleeping.

Though most of the earplugs aren’t noise-proof, the muffling of the noise will greatly help you.

I’m also a big fan of camping fans, a solution I started using while still in school.

It’s a handy option, especially when you also need to control the surrounding sleeping temperature.

6)      Relax

6)      Relax

Psychologically your brain won’t rest when you’re in a new place. Not on the first night, at least.

I discovered I wasn’t getting peaceful and restful sleep until I began camping often.

So, your sleeping experience might be erratic and not so restful for the first few nights.

Every camper has some insomnia at some point, especially beginners. Maybe you’re too excited about the new experience.

But the experience might just sit for a while before you rack out and soak up the smells and sounds of nature.

It takes time to get used to, but I find that taking time to properly relax before heading to bed helps a lot.

I usually lay in the tent reading and taking some chocolate. Plus, I usually try taking care of all the pains and aches.

Hydration is also important. An achy and dehydrated body, isn’t it when sleeping on the ground.

To sum up, try doing some relaxing activities before going to sleep. A nightly routine helps. Also, practice deep breathing.

Also, keep in mind that all of these might not even help. That’s the harsh truth.

Sometimes, you’ve to accept you’re experiencing insomnia, and rather than stressing it out inside your sleeping bag, find something else to do.

Go for a walk, cook, craft a tool, or play a game. Keep your mind busy and shift your attention to your lack of sleep. You’ll eventually get tired.

7)      Eliminate all Sleep Distractors

7)      Eliminate all Sleep Distractors

Before going into your sleep dugout, you must eliminate all the distractors.

Nothing is more annoying than falling asleep; they get rudely interrupted by a mosquito sound.

Or, wake up and suddenly realize you need to take a pee.

I’m sure they’re a couple of other annoyances that usually keep you from a restful night while camping.

The insects and peeing thing are two of my greatest ones.

So, what I like to do before I sleep is take a few minutes and ensure my bladder is empty. I usually avoid liquid foods as much as possible a few hours before heading into bed.

Remember, a full bladder isn’t only an inconvenience; emptying it is one more thing to help you keep warm. A full bladder drains your body from the heat required to sustain its warmth.

Next, I carry the mosquito repellant and spray it on my body before sleeping. I also like setting up my tent further away from stagnant water bodies because they’re usually the biggest sources of mosquitoes in the wild.

8)      Warm up your sleeping bag

8)      Warm up your sleeping bag

It also makes sense to warm up your sleeping bag if you’re hoping for a comfortable night’s sleep.

The hot-water bottle method is my go-to solution for warming up my sleeping bag.

I usually bring along a few Nangalene water bottles. I then fill them with hot water before positioning them all over my tent and inside the sleeping bag.

The bottles radiate heat across the sleeping area and generally keep me warm.

In addition, I like layering myself with some clothes to sleep comfortably. However, you mustn’t need an overlayer. Otherwise, you might sweat and get cold.

An important thing is to never get in bed cold. Find something that will keep you warm, such as taking some hot drinks or even eating.

I usually do some press-ups to get my blood flowing.

Wrap Up

Wrap Up

Having some discomfort on your first day camping out isn’t unusual. Our monkey brains are designed to stay alert in new environments. It’s called the “First Night Sleep Effect.”

But once you get the hang of it, you’ll enjoy a good night’s sleep. The sounds will be more peaceful, and if you’ve your sleeping arrangement in check, you’ll wake up feeling more rejuvenated.

Even then, understand that part of camping is roughing it out. Accept some decrease in comfort and restful sleep quality.

Of course, you can mitigate this with our tips, but it’s also a good habit if you embrace the little discomfort and maintain a positive attitude.

Plus, it’ll make returning home sweeter.

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Picture of Lisa Hayden-Matthews

Lisa Hayden-Matthews

An avid Skier, bike rider, triathlon enthusiast, amateurish beach volleyball player and nature lover who has never lost a dare! I manage the overall Editorial section for the magazine here and occasionally chip in with my own nature photographs, when required.
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