Eight Do's and Don'ts for Getting a Good Night's Sleep in a Tent

In the summer of 2008, I got the absolute worst night's sleep of my entire life. I was a guide/organizer for TerraMar Adventures and signed up to co-lead a trip to the Dingman's Falls area of northeastern Pennsylvania. Our group stayed in the group camping area at Dingmans Campground, which is essentially a large, open field. After a long day of hiking, swimming and playing outside, I was ready for bed. A rowdy group at the other end of the field wasn't, but in spite of their antics, I managed to fall asleep. A loud snoring neighbor in a tent nearby woke me and couldn't manage to get back to sleep. I ended up in the back seat of my car with the windows cracked in the parking lot, but couldn't get comfortable and started counting the minutes until the sun came up.

Sound familiar? Though I'm still no expert at getting a solid night's rest despite snoring neighbors and other noises that wake a light sleeper, I've managed to come up with a few things that help.


Do choose your campground carefully. If you know you're a light sleeper, choosing a popular campground at the height of the season may not be the best option. Look for nearby options if they're available. And as much as I love Devil's Tombstone in the Catskills as a jumping-off point for Devil's Path, sleeping right next to a major area road isn't ideal. Be sure to scope out what's around the campground too.

Do choose your site carefully. Most campgrounds cluster tent sites together, but it can still be hard to escape the noise of running RV generators. If you need quiet to sleep well, choose a site far away from designated RV sites. As awesome as it can be to have a 20-foot walk to the bathroom, to the camp store, or to the campground's main scenic attraction, sites close popular places are usually noisy. If you make reservations online, some websites will show which sites are taken already. Choose a neighbor-free spot, but know that there's no guarantee other sites won't fill up.

Do manage your expectations. Bottom line? It's a campground. There are going to be people around, cars driving through, and other campers hoping to enjoy the outdoors. There's going to be a base level of noise, and the more you manage your expectations of peace and quiet, the better.
 

Don't forget your pillow. One of the worst things to wake up to in the middle of the night is a cramped neck, and I know I fall asleep a lot faster if my head is resting comfortably. And if I fall asleep fast, there's hope for getting a full night's rest. If you have space in your pack, two of my favorite portable options are the Therm-a-rest Compressible Pillow and the Cocoon Air-Core Ultralight Pillow. If you're car camping, bring the pillow you sleep on at home; you'll have the space for it.

Do invest in multiple pairs of good earplugs. If you know your tent mate snores, or your campground is next to a highway, earplugs can be life-savers. Most drug stores and grocery stores carry cheap options and I generally go with foam sets like this because they're more comfortable. And get a bunch. They don't last long and I always end up losing a few during trips.

Don't skimp on mattress pads. After a few trips with a cheap foam mat from a hardware store, I learned my lesson. Invest in a lightweight, durable, comfortable sleeping pad like the Therm-a-rest Neo Air All-Season, my current favorite. I've taken it car camping in lieu of a heavy inflatable mattress because it's just that awesome. And if you're in a campground and a backpacking pad isn't enough, there's no reason to forgo comfort. Bring the blow-up bed with you.

Do make sure you can manage your body temperature and do bring the right sleeping bag. Even if you've got the right campsite, the right tent and the right sleeping pad, having the right sleeping bag and layering system can be the difference between a good and awful night's sleep. If it's warm out, leave your  20ยบ bag at home and opt for something thinner, like this. And wear wicking layers or Columbia's Omni-Freeze ZERO to sleep in so you don't overheat. If it's chilly, bring a warmer bag and consider cuddling with a Nalgene full of hot cocoa. It'll keep you warmer and if you do wake up, you have hot cocoa ready.

Don't pitch your tent in the wrong place. When you're backpacking, look for a site close to a water source on solid ground, and safe from hazards like falling tree limbs and rocks. Clear rocks, sticks and other debris from the site before you pitch your tent, (ouch!), and steer clear of tree roots if you can. Make sure the tent is on a level, compact surface. Be aware of water flow patterns; camping on flat, sunken ground might seem like a good idea until you find yourself underwater during a rain storm. I speak from experience. 

Also, be sure to practice Leave No Trace principles. Every time.

I'm always, always looking for tips on how to sleep better outside. What tips do you have that I've missed? Do you have any techniques for falling back asleep once you're up? Help me out and leave a comment!

Comments

Stephen Berei said…
These are some great tips Katie! I can definitely relate. I drove out from the East Coast to the West Coast about 5 years ago and camped on the way out. I specifically, remember this happening to me in Sedona and I also slept in my car! I've also started bringing my iPod camping and listening to some soothing toons to help me sleep.
Katie said…
Glad the tips are helpful, Stephen! I definitely agree that music can help me relax, but I haven't found a pair of headphones that don't hurt my ears when I lay on them. Any recommendations? And I've also found this works best when I'm in a campground and close to power to recharge my iPod!
@onewhohikes said…
arrange your tent so that your head is higher than your feet, i.e., don't sleep "downhill."
Katie said…
SUCH a good tip! Choosing a tent site is super important, but so is making sure you arrange the tent in the right way. I've totally done this, and once you've set it up and unpacked, it's such a pain to move things around! Thanks for sharing this one.
All Peak said…
Thanks for the reminders! Going camping this weekend. Reading these gave me flashback memories of learning all these the hard way!


I rely on Unisom (1/2 pill) first two nights before my body adjusts. Also one time learned how to create a moat around my tent to keep from floating away during one midnight deluge. Joy :0)
Katie said…
I've totally done the moat thing too!! It's so much fun to hear about others who've had similar mishaps :) I was up in the Catskills and we actually dug a trench around our tent to funnel the water downhill because it was raining so hard. It's not ideal, but sometimes you've just got to do something!


Have a great trip this weekend!
Timbo said…
Great post totally agree with that and love my neo air.
Stephen Berei said…
I like the Yurbuds here http://bit.ly/15wLIIB, which are also great for running, but I tend to sleep on my back too. I agree it's definitely helpful to be able to recharge!
Environmentaly Concered said…
Digging a moat around your tent is 1940's Boy Scout stuff. It goes against nearly every Leave No Trace guideline there is. You should never sacrifice your ethics for some extra sleep....
Katie said…
You're absolutely right. LNT principles advocate for leaving things as we find them. LNT principles also suggest choosing campsites that are so highly impacted that further use won't cause noticeable lasting impacts because the area has already lost its vegetation cover.

The site we chose in the Catskills that I referenced below was wide, flat, and most of the ground cover had already been lost. We chose the site for that reason, among others, and because a site out of the flow of water from the rain storm we got caught in wasn't established. We filled the 2-3" deep trench in when we left to be sure the site was ready for others to use. Digging a trench absolutely isn't ideal, and shouldn't be regular practice, you're right, but we chose to do it to avoid impacting other areas.
Inspired Camping said…
Earplugs and great mattress are the two best tips here. Anything else I can deal with. Thanks for sharing. Great post.
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Josh said…
There's one problem with digging a moat around your tent. What happens when it overflows with rainwater?
Beth J said…
Great tips! Now we just need to teach our dogs to sleep in sleeping bags for a better night sleep so they don't bother us in the middle of the night!
zenbiking said…
There are plenty of light, inexpensive battery packs you can use to recharge an iPod. ;) As far as headphones, the non-in-ear ones work best for me (like the original iPod headphones). A thicker pillow helps too.
Katie L said…
Yes, I'm finding that about battery packs! What are some of your favorites? And I'm all about the serious pillows. Sooooo important!
zenbiking said…
I've had good luck with the Jackery products. They come in a variety of sizes (and thus power storage levels). The cases are metal, so they handle abuse a bit better IMO. I have a small single battery one for short trips, and a two battery model with a built in flashlight for longer trips.