Sleeping in a Tent: A Greenhorn’s Comprehensive Guide

Sleeping in a tent
Written by Sean Nelson

Camping can be a great adventure, and is one of my personal favorite ways to get away from it all. You can organize a spectacular backpacking trip (a fantastic use for all those vacation days you’ve got left), choose tents as your lodging to make road trips cheaper, or simply assume the mantle of weekend warrior.

Friday hits and suddenly your business casual attire miraculously turns into hiking kit as you’re instantly transported to your favorite campsite! If only it were that easy. Have no fear, though: if you’re new to this whole “nature” thing, we’re here to help.

This guide will walk you through the basics of sleeping in a tent. This includes packing (and what do buy if you don’t have anything to pack), setting up a killer campsite, and even the mystical secrets of actually falling asleep outside when you’re used to the whir of that ceiling fan in your bedroom at home.

Sleeping in chaos

Pack Smart

Like any other endeavor, when preparing to go camping you ought to set yourself up for success. Of course you’ll want your gear for whatever activity you’ve got planned, be that kayaking, rock climbing, etc.

If you’re doing car camping rather than backpacking you may also want to bring some extra goodies to make your campsite more comfortable, which we’ll cover later in the article. However, one of the best sleeping tips for campers is to pack in such a way that your tent is as comfortable as you can make it. To this end, there are three essentials for a comfortable night’s sleep:

  1. Sleeping Bag
  2. Sleeping Pad or Mat
  3. Extra Insulation

Camping gear

Let’s take a look at why these items are so important, and how to choose one if you’re buying any of this camping gear for the first time.

Sleeping Bag

If you’re just now getting around to purchasing your first sleeping bag – or have multiples to choose from when packing – there are a few forks in your path when it comes to finding the best fit. The main decision is whether you’ll need a mummy sleeping bag or a rectangular sleeping bag.

As the name implies, mummy sleeping bags conform very closely to the body of the user and normally only leave part of the face exposed with everything else, including the top of the head, shrouded inside the insulating bag. Rectangular sleeping bags are more like what you think of as a generic sleeping bag: a sort of two-ply blanket that you slip into at night.

Sleeping with sleeping bag

You’ll want to weigh your needs with your preferences when making this decision. For example, what sort of trip are you planning? If you are going on a backpacking excursion then you’ll probably want to cut the weight of your pack by ensuring your sleeping bag is as light as possible.

If you’re simply car camping for a few days, then you don’t need to worry so much about weight and can focus on comfort.

You’ll also want to have an idea of what the evening temperatures will be like in the area where you’ll be setting up camp. Generally, anything below freezing requires a mummy bag as they are far more efficient than rectangular sleeping bags when it comes to retaining heat.

If it’s going to be milder weather then a medium or lightweight rectangular bag may be all you need. These can even be unzipped on particularly balmy nights and used as a quilt which will protect you from the elements without making you sweat.

Sleeping bag

Once you’ve taken into account how warm you need to be and how light you want to pack, you’ll also want to consider price if you’ll be buying new. Sleeping bags are rated by what temperature range they are best suited for, and are also differentiated by weight as well as the type and quality of filling.

Like most high performance ultralight gear, a bag rated for sub-zero temperatures that doesn’t weigh a whole lot is going to be fairly expensive. You’ll need to decide what price point you are comfortable with and use that as a guide to find the best sleeping bag suited to your needs.

Sleeping pad

One tent item often overlooked by novice campers that is crucial to sleeping comfortably outdoors is a sleeping pad. Many write these off as being either too expensive or only for very cold weather but that is simply not the case. Let’s take a look at this table showing the three main types of sleeping pads and their benefits:

Pad Type Price Range Features
Closed-Cell Foam Least Expensive Very durable, suitable for warmer temperatures and/or car camping
Self-Inflating Mid-range; varies Inflates automatically, risk of puncturing, easy repair, good for cooler temps
Air pad Most Expensive Must be inflated manually, risk of puncture, lightest weight and folds down very small for backpacking

If you’re backpacking you’ll likely want either a self-inflating pad or an air pad as these two options are both very lightweight and can be packing down quite small for stowing in a stuff sack. Closed-cell foam is primarily for car camping because it doesn’t stow very small – that said, if you’re simply thru-hiking you can lash a foam pad to the outside of your pack without worrying that it will get ripped.

Sleeping pad and pillow

Any sleeping pad should provide you with the optimal level of cushioning and temperature insulation for your preferences and location. Typically, foam pads are the least expensive, provide the least amount of cushion, and have the lowest R-value (conversely, Air pads have the most and self-inflating are often somewhere in the middle).

R-value is a measurement provided by manufacturers to indicate how effective a sleeping pad is as an insulator. These range from 1 to 9.5, and a typical warm-weather recommendation is an R-value of about 3. The higher the number, the less heat escapes.

However, this is different than sleeping bags because using a pad with a higher R-value than you realistically need for a given trip may cost you more money but it won’t make you overheat.

Regardless of what you choose or which factors you end up prioritizing, it is important to put some sort of sleeping pad between your body and the ground. Otherwise the ground will suck away all your body heat and possibly even gift you with a damp rear end come morning. I don’t know about you, but I prefer waking up just as warm and dry as when I went to sleep the night before. Do check out our guide on how to choose the top sleeping bag liner for more information.

Sleeping pad in a tent

Extra Insulation

Lastly, you’ll want to ensure that both you and your tent are properly insulated. During the day when you’re moving around a breeze might feel great. When the sun slips out of view and the temperatures drop, it’s quite easy to catch a chill and ruin the rest of your trip.

An easy (and cheap!) solution to the tent’s insulation problem is to place a tarp between the ground and your tent. It will stop the dampness from the ground getting into your tent and sapping your body heat as you sleep. It can also protect your tent floor from rips when camping in rocky terrain.

If you are car camping and can manage to bring two, a second tarp can be used as a canopy to create a sort of front porch to your tent, placed over top for additional wind protection, or even placed over all your food and gear as an emergency rain shelter.

Extra insulation

You’ll also want to properly insulate your body inside your sleeping bag so that you sleep comfortably. This means ensuring you set aside clean, dry clothing to wear to bed (sweat makes everything sticky, smelly and cold) and include items like socks, thermals, and a knit hat for especially cold environments.

Even if you’re comfortable when getting into your bag, slipping these items in with you means if you get cold in the middle of the night, you’ll have a hat to put on that’s already been warmed by your body heat. Much better than scrambling around in the dark for those extra socks you know you packed but can’t seem to find.

Trick Out Your Campsite

Now that you’ve gotten yourself properly packed and made it out to your campsite there are a few things you can do to help you sleep well at night. For some folks, sleeping in an unfamiliar surrounding can be very difficult.

This is even more true with people new to sleeping in tents, as just about every aspect of your sleeping situation is a far cry from what you’re used to. The best way to counteract this and give yourself the best chance of a good night’s sleep is to try to restore some of that normalcy when setting up camp.

Sleeping in tent

When pitching your tent, try to choose a surface that is smooth and level. This will keep all your gear from shifting around inside, and prevent the uncomfortable sensation of lying down with your feet slightly higher than your head (if you’ve never tried it – don’t. It’s terrible.). It also frees you from accidentally rolling over onto a sharp rock or other object embedded in the ground as you sleep.

Once you’ve found the perfect spot to set up your tent, remember the order we mentioned in the packing section above to help create optimal insulation. Tarp > Tent > Sleeping Pad > Sleeping Bag. This gives you some cushion from the ground in rocky terrain and also keeps the temperature of the ground from negatively affecting your sleep.

If you miss the tarp, you’ll probably be cold and wet. If you miss the sleeping pad, you’ll probably be cold and sore. Every step is important to stay cozy when you turn in.

Lastly you’ll want to make sure none of your gear is touching the tent walls, as these points of contact enable moisture to more readily enter your tent. It is also helpful to ventilate your tent both throughout the day and when you go to sleep.

Camping with full gear

A simple way to do this is to simply unzip one of the smaller flaps featured by most tents. This keeps it a constant temperature and prevents the humidity from your breath as you sleep gathering into condensate on the tent’s inner walls. Check out our review of the top 6-person tent to guide you.

Lights Out

Your campsite was set hours ago. You’ve enjoyed your first day at camp, laughing with your buddies as you ate dinner next to the fire. Watched the sun change color as it left the sky, and eventually everyone agrees as the fire burns down to embers that it’s time to hit the hay.

If you’re concerned about being unable to fall asleep and don’t want insomnia to ruin your trip, there are a few steps you can take to help ensure you drift off to dreamland just as soon as you close your eyes.

Earn Your Rest

It’s important to be certain that you’ve earned your rest. What I mean is, there are so many ways to be active when your campsite immerses you in nature; don’t squander that chance by reading in your hammock all day.

Nature walk

Hike some trails to take in the sights. Walk down to the water and go for a swim. Go kayaking, fishing, climbing…you get the idea. Don’t push your limits too hard, or you’ll be too sore to sleep easy.

Just make sure that you make the most out of your daylight so that when night comes and confines you to the cone of light coming from your headlamp, your body is just as ready to rest as your eyes are.

Relaxation Invites Rest

While being active throughout the day can help you sleep at night, it’s important not to plan anything strenuous too close to whatever time you plan to bed down for the night. You know that amazing rush of endorphins you feel as you finish a torturous hike and reach the breathtaking view at the summit? That is sleep’s worst enemy.

Lying for rest

You’ll want to give yourself a few hours before bedtime for your body to calm down and rid itself of these “energetic” chemicals that have been coursing through it all day. Many people take this time to enjoy what they usually don’t have time for: a nice, leisurely meal, conversation and stories, music if you have it.

Once you start to feel your eyelids getting a little heavy you’ve got a good indication that you’ve earned your rest and given your body a chance to relax and ready itself for sleep.

Put On Some Clean Skivvies

The last thing you want to do is take all this time and effort getting ready for bed, and then crawl into your sleeping bag with clothes that are sweaty and smell of woodsmoke. Any odors clinging to your clothes will cling to your sleeping bag – and if those odors are from food they may attract wildlife.

Sleeping with clean skivves

Sweat in your clothes will make you uncomfortable, ruin the insulating properties of your clothing, and break down the lining of your bag over time. This may leave you wondering about the best choice for what to wear to bed when camping.

Clean underwear (long or short depending on the season), a clean top, and clean socks, made out of performance fabric rather than cotton if you can afford it.

Embrace Life’s Small Pleasures

Lastly, if you’re a light sleeper it may be worth your while to infuse the outdoors with the comforts of home. This can mean a wide array of little extra in your tent, depending on your preferred sleep style.

If you just can’t get some shuteye without a pillow to support your neck, invest in a small camp pillow. Many options are even inflatable so that they pack down tiny. For the best camping pillow for relaxation, check out our earlier article on this to find out.

Camp pillow

If you’re light sensitive, bring an eye mask so that you aren’t woken up at 3 am by the moon’s rays breaking through a cloudbank. You can also buy special earplugs that double as bluetooth enabled earbuds – meaning you can make your environment completely silent or fill it with your white noise of choice.

What, if any, goodies you bring is going to depend heavily on what helps you sleep at night. Before you pack for a camping trip, take some time and think about what comforts you take for granted at home, so that you can plan accordingly.

It may seem like a lot of advice to keep in mind – but just have fun with it. These tips will certainly help you have a more enjoyable night of rest when you’re just starting to get used to tent camping, but there are very few wrong answers when it comes to reconnecting with nature.

Sleeping out in the night

Just get outside, do something you love, get inspired; as long as you take measures to stay safe, everything else will come with experience. Enjoy your trip!

Any other camp sleeping tips that you can share with us? Sound off in the comments!


Sean Nelson

Sean was backpacking since he was 7. He was born close to the RMNP and his father was a ranger, so life surrounded by mountains and wildlife is a norm for Colorado. He likes to explore, but prefers to stay in USA. In his opinion, there are too many trails and options in US to go abroad.