Hi everyone! Question – has anyone else ever struggled to fall asleep in a tent? When I was a kid at camp, I was unable to fall asleep and it made me dislike camping for the first few years. Over time, however, I found strategies that completely resolved this. I can now say I sleep better on the ground than I do in a bed. I’m being completely serious here. The quality of my sleep is better in a tent than it is at home. So today, I want to share some of the strategies that helped me and have helped the people I’ve guided on my trips.
The first step is identifying what is keeping you awake.
There are a number of reasons why you’re struggling to fall asleep, but in my experience they usually fall into one of four categories:
- Being physically uncomfortable
- Being cold
- Being unable to quiet your thoughts
- Being distracted by outside stimulus (i.e. light, sounds)
Think back to when you were last in a tent. What was keeping you awake? Were you constantly re-positioning yourself? Were there crickets or cicadas making a ruckus outside? Where you thinking about the day or what’s going on back at home? Once you’ve identified the reason why you can’t fall asleep, you can skip down the that section for some tips to fix the problem.
How to get comfortable
This is simultaneously the easiest and hardest problem to solve. There are a few strategies that work in the majority of cases, but if that still doesn’t work, it becomes a lot harder to identify a solution. Here are a few of my suggestions for improving your comfort. But if you’ve tried any or all of them and still have issues sleeping in a tent, send me a message and I can try to give you a more nuanced recommendation.
1. Use a good quality sleeping pad
A good sleeping pad can make a huge difference when it comes to getting comfortable. Sometimes it takes a little trial and error to find the one that is best for you, and I’ll be honest, they’re pretty pricey. My advice is to rent one from a place like MEC or REI and try it out for a weekend. If you like it, great! If you don’t, you can try again with another one.
I have used the MEC Reactor 3.8 for approximately 100 nights, both guiding and on personal trips and I really like it. You can also go with one from Therma-Rest (the market leader in backcountry bedding) as theirs are very high quality as well.
Also, while sleeping pads are a bit expensive at the time of purchase, they do last long time and are easy to repair. I punctured a hole in mine at the end of a trip (no idea how I managed to do this) and it is currently at MEC now being repaired (for free!).
Low back pain? Place something under your knees
If lower back pain is keeping you up, place a rolled up sweater, a pillow, or a stuffed dry sack under your knees. The slight bend in your knees can relieve pressure on your lower back and make you more comfortable. I have had lower back pain every since I injured it on an insane portage in 2017, so I do this at home with a pillow. I actually find I don’t get any lower back pain when I sleep on the ground though. So I guess it depends on the person.
2. Use a camping pillow
As much as I rough it in the outdoors, I usually don’t rough it that much. I’ve taken the same camping pillow with me on just about every camping trip I’ve ever been (the Therma-Rest Compressible Pillow). It makes me immensely more comfortable, which helps me fall asleep.
3. Choose a good tent spot
Try to choose a tent spot that is generally flat and free from roots or rocks. I know, I know – easier said than done. If you’re camping in a popular national park, there will be designated tent spots that are typically very flat and smooth. However, if you’re a little more remote and a little more backcountry, your tent situation might not be the best. Make sue with what you can, but remember if there is a slight incline, have your head on the slide with higher ground – don’t want blood rushing to your face!
How to stay warm
Being cold is something I have experienced far too many times. I generally get very cold at night (and during the day too), especially when I’m camping. I can feel my shoulders and chest tense up and even if I do fall asleep, I usually wake up with a sore back and neck. To help you sleep warmer, I have a few suggestions:
4. Use a sleeping bag with a low temperature rating
My number one recommendation is to buy a down sleeping bag with a lower temperature than you think you’ll need. I use a sleeping bag rated to -9 C in the summer, which seems like overkill, but it’s actually wonderful. I usually end up sleeping with it unzipped and only half on my body, but occasionally it gets cold enough that I am thankful I have it.
If you’re struggling to fall asleep because you’re cold, this is the easiest way to fix it. If you’re curious, I use the MEC Delphinus Sleeping Bag. (You may have noticed by now that I buy a lot of MEC branded products – they are good quality and tend to be significantly cheaper than the alternatives).
5. Wear base layers (& more) to bed
Another strategy is to wear high quality base layers to bed. This includes a pair of tights and a long sleeve shirt or t-shirt. If you read my post about the outdoor gear that is and is not worth an investment, you’ll remember that I don’t often recommend people buy Merino base layers (expensive and not very durable). In this case however, I make an exception. If you’re cold at night, you want the warmest material (Merino) and you’re only wearing them in your tent so you don’t need to be too concerned about the durability.
Additionally, you may want to wear a light fleece sweater and a wool hat or buff on your head and wool socks on your feet. You lose a lot of heat through the top of your head and your feet in the night.
You may need to do a little experimentation on what is comfortable for you. Personally, I personally wear synthetic wool tights and a baggy synthetic wool t-shirt (my sleeping bag is so warm I don’t usually need much else).
What about the old fill-your-Nalgene-water-bottle-with-boiling-water-and-stick-it-in-your-sleeping-bag trick? This is a common recommendation people make for staying warm at night (especially winter camping), but in all honesty, I’m far too paranoid about getting my sleeping bag wet, so I have never tried this trick myself. Also, that’s fine for when you’re going to bed, but I think it’s more important that you have a sleeping set up that allows your body to keep itself warm.
Tip: I believe the clothes you wear to bed should NEVER EVER EVER go outside.
The one exception to this is if you’re leaving your tent to pee in the middle of the night. Don’t wear your sleeping outfit by the campfire. Don’t wear them outside while you’re making breakfast. The clothes you sleep in should stay as clean as possible. When you’re outside, your clothes pick up pollen, dust, campfire smoke – it isn’t healthy to sleep in this. Plus, you don’t want to risk them getting wet. Keep your sleeping clothes clean and dry!!
6. Use thicker a sleeping pad
A lot of people don’t realize that the primary purpose of your sleeping pad isn’t to keep you comfortable. The purpose of your sleeping bag is to keep you warm. The sleeping pad essentially elevates you and inserts a layer of insulation (air) in between you and the cold, hard ground. A thicker sleeping pad creates more separation between you and the ground, keeping you warmer.
How to quiet your mind (& your surroundings)
Just like at home, sometimes your mind is unable to quiet itself to the point where you can fall asleep. I’ve combined this section with being distracted by outdoor stimulus, because my top tip for each is the same.
6. Use meditation techniques (guided or unguided)
There are techniques you can do on your own, like counting your breath or progressive relaxation that help people fall asleep at home and in the backcountry. However, I’ve found that this isn’t very helpful to the people who really struggle to fall asleep while camping. Instead, I recommend people download some guided meditations onto an iPod and listen to it while they fall asleep.
“Recommending technology in the wilderness? How could you, Mikaela?” I know, I know – controversial. However, if a little technology is the difference between making or breaking someone’s camping experience, “bring on the iPod!” I say.
Until it totally died, I would carry a 2008 iPod Nano. It’s only functionality was music and I could download beach sounds and guided meditations onto it. Since it couldn’t be used for anything but that, I felt comfortable lending it to a camper if sleeping was something they really struggled with. Nowadays, I’d probably download a bunch of Headspace meditations onto my iPhone.
7. Use a sleep mask and/or ear plugs
If you find yourself distracted by noises outside your tent, but don’t think you need a guided meditation to help you fall asleep, ear plugs also work. I’ve personally never done this because I’m usually the guide and I need to be able to wake up if something happens. I also wouldn’t recommend using earplugs if you’re camping by yourself. However, if you’re with another person, earplugs may be an effective strategy for falling asleep.
Alternatively, if you are in an area that gets sunny really early in the morning, and this is shortening your sleep by too much, you can try using a sleep mask (or embrace the early morning).
Other quick tips for falling asleep
Here are a few other tips to try help you fall asleep.
8. Avoid liquids before bed
You don’t want to be woken up or forced to leave your cozy sleeping bag because you have to pee!
9. Keep mosquitos out of your tent
You want to be quick and speedy getting in and out of your tent. You also want to make sure there aren’t any holes or openings that could let these pesky bugs inside.
10. Take melatonin
You can always take a tablet of melatonin before bed. Since I’m constantly traveling, I actually always have a little on me just in case.
I hope these tips prove useful to you! Anyone else have strategies for falling asleep in a tent? Comment them below!