Outdoors / Buying Guide

Comfort Under the Stars: A Guide to Sleeping Comfortably in Camp

         

Camping is supposed to be different from being at home. We choose to do without creature comforts like heated rooms, Wi-Fi, and a stocked fridge because the whole idea is to live, for a time, out in the natural world.

Even so, a few trappings of civilization are necessary for comfort and survival. We need protection from thirst, hunger, and the elements. These things are not hard to accomplish: wear the right clothes, arrange for a tent or similar shelter, and carry (or filter) water, food, and some basic cooking gear.

At the end of the day, we face what might be the most challenging aspect to living comfortably in the outdoors: getting a good night’s rest. It’s been a long time since human beings were used to sleeping on the ground.


The stars are your ceiling.
 

Fortunately, ingenuity and technology have given us some very good options for sleeping under the stars. Whether you’re car-camping, pack-rafting, or backpacking, it is possible to awaken refreshed and pain-free, ready to enjoy the day ahead.

Sleeping Bags and Pads

Bedding down in a bag on a pad is the arrangement that comes to most people’s minds when they think of camping. That’s especially true for backpackers, who don’t have the option of lugging a portable bed miles deep into the wild.

The ground is hard and cold, but modern bags and pads can make a nap on terra firma bearable and even enjoyable. It starts with the pad. Don’t even think of skipping this vital piece of gear. Using a good sleeping bag on bare ground is kind of like sleeping in Egyptian cotton sheets on a hardwood floor. The best sleeping bag in the world will not be comfortable without something between you and the ground. By the same token, even a mediocre bag can be satisfactory as long as you have a decent pad underneath it.


Camp cots are a comfortable way to get you up off the ground for a good night's rest.
 

The simplest sleeping pads are sleeping-bag-sized pieces of closed-cell foam. They are popular with backpackers because of their lightness (usually well under a pound) and portability. They’re durable and don’t require any inflation. But as mattresses go, they’re pretty Spartan—better than nothing, but far from luxurious.

A more comfortable option is a self-inflating pad. These consist of open-celled foam inside a sleeve of nylon or polyester. They don’t really self-inflate; when unrolled, the foam inside simply expands back to its original size. You can add air through a valve to make the pad firmer. When it’s time to break camp, you roll or fold up the pad, squeezing out air and compressing the foam. Self-inflating pads are the bulkiest kind of camp pad, which is not usually an issue for car camping but is a significant concern for backpacking. Some modern designs have reduced weight to a little over a pound and packed dimensions to about a foot long and six inches thick.


A self-inflating pad packs easily and provides a cushion of air and foam under your sleeping bag.
 

Air mattresses (known as air construction in the outdoor recreation business) are the most compact kind of sleeping pad. They blow up like a pool toy, either by mouth or with a foot-operated or battery-powered pump. They are very comfortable and easy to carry, but they’re not as durable as foam pads or self-inflators, and blowing them up can be something of a project.

When shopping for a sleeping pad, pay attention to their warmth as well as their softness and support. Many brands publish R-values, just like the insulation in your home.

Having selected your mattress, you can turn your attention to a sleeping bag. Again, some are great for car camping but no good for backpacking. If you’re carrying your shelter, bedding, food, cooking gear, and clothing on your back, lightness and portability are top concerns. If you’re setting up camp near your vehicle, you are free to bring a big, bulky bag and enjoy it.

Sleeping bags come in two basic shapes: rectangular and mummy. Mummy is the style of choice for backpackers because it is smaller and more portable. It is also preferred by cold-weather campers because they have less “dead air” inside the bag to heat. In addition, most mummy-style bags have hoods. Rectangular bags are bulkier and heavier, but they allow more freedom of movement. It’s nice to be able to roll onto your side during the night. Some people find mummy style bags too constricting.


Rectangular sleeping bags are bulkier, heavier, but provide more freedom of movement inside; mummy bags pack more easily, have hoods, and are more efficient in cold weather.
 

For summer camping, when nighttime temperatures aren’t likely to go below 50 degrees except at the highest altitudes, most sleeping bags offer adequate insulation. Campers can fine-tune their sleep temperature through their choice of what to wear (or not to wear) to bed. In cold weather, however, certain features of sleeping bag construction can have a significant impact on a camper’s comfort.

Most sleeping bags are insulated with one of two materials: synthetic fill (often polyester) or natural down. Down is considered a warmer insulation, and has the added advantages of being lighter and more compressible so you can roll the bag into a tighter bundle for transport. But down is also more expensive than synthetic insulation, and it has one potentially serious drawback: if it gets wet, it loses much of its insulating value. Down fill also dries out relatively slowly compared to synthetic material. Some bags, such as the Kelty Ignite 20 / EN 16 Sleeping Bag, use down treated with a hydrophobic finish that resists moisture and retains more of its loft than natural feathers when exposed to water.


Kelty Ignite 20 / EN 16 Sleeping Bag
 

Along with the type and amount of filling, the way a sleeping bag is made can have significant implications in cold weather. Basic summer-use bags are often made with what’s known as quilt-through construction: a layer of fill is sandwiched between the liner and shell fabrics and all three layers are sewn together in lines of stitching. Cold spots often form along these stitching lines. A better alternative for cold-weather camping is a bag made with offset quilt construction: layers of fill are sewn to the liner and to the shell so that the stitching is offset and a more even consistency is achieved. Sleeping bags meant for cold-weather use often include a draft tube along the zipper to prevent heat from leaking out. Some mummy bags are equipped with a draft collar, an insulated tube at the shoulders that prevents heat from escaping from the bag’s opening.

Sleeping-bag manufacturers have always striven for greater warmth. Of course, there’s such a thing as being too warm, as anyone who has kicked their way out of a heavy bag on a muggy summer night can tell you. Some sleeping bags have extra zippers at the foot end to allow more ventilation. Most have two-way main zippers that can be opened at the head, the foot, or both, when necessary. Of course, you can just unzip a bag and spread it out as a comforter—snug it up if you’re cold or fling it off if you’re warm. One piece of gear that can be helpful in both warm and cold weather is a sleeping bag liner. Used as another layer of fabric inside a bag, a liner can add as much as 15 degrees of warmth, depending on its material. And in the warmest conditions, like that muggy summer night, you can use the liner instead of a sleeping bag. A liner also helps keep the inside of your sleeping bag clean.


Grand Trunk Silk Sleep Sack (Single)

 

Getting off the Ground: Cots and Hammocks

Then again, you don’t have to sleep on the ground at all. There are two excellent alternatives—one that’s good for car camping, and another that’s good for car camping, pack rafting, or backpacking. We’ll start with the former: a cot.

If you’re car-camping and have sufficient space in your tent, you can enjoy a fine night’s sleep on a cot. Many modern models have clever designs that don’t involve uncomfortable crossbars. There are perfectly serviceable cots at every price point, from the Kamp-Rite Economy Cot to the Teton Sports Universal Camp Cot, which can support a robust 400 pounds. A nifty idea is the Kamp-Rite Tent Cot—an off-the-ground tent for one (or two) that comes in a number of sizes and configurations.

No backpacker would want to lug any of these over a trail, but if you’re using a vehicle or vessel to get to camp, a cot can be a real back-saver. There is at least one model that might appeal to backpackers: the Therm-a-Rest LuxuryLite UltraLite Cot, which uses an innovative design, packs down to just 5 x 17" and weighs a little over four pounds—less than most sleeping bags and pads.


Therm-a-Rest LuxuryLite UltraLite Cot

 

The other alternative to sleeping on the ground is a hammock. In recent years, hammock camping has soared in popularity. Hammock campers say they sleep like babies, gently rocking in the breeze, and awake refreshed with no stiffness.

We’re not talking here about rope hammocks with spreader bars—the ones that are so likely to spill you and your iced tea onto the lawn. Modern hammocks with gathered ends weigh very little and pack down as small as a 1-quart Nalgene water bottle, so they add little weight, and even less volume, to one’s pack. A hammock can serve as both a place to sleep at night and a seat during the day. In fact, for a sizable number of backpackers, a hammock replaces not only a sleeping bag and pad, but the tent itself. They simply hang a lightweight rain fly over the hammock to keep the rain off and pull up a mesh net if insects are about.

Obviously, a hammock isn’t suitable for every situation; that gentle rocking could become a wild ride in high winds, for example. You’ll still need a sleeping bag or blanket on all but the warmest nights, and a pad with a good R value is necessary in cold weather. Even so, this ancient sleep system is being widely embraced by outdoor recreationists for its comfort, portability, and simplicity. All you need is a pair of sturdy trees about 12 feet apart. And unlike cots, sleeping bags, and tents, you may find yourself using your hammock frequently at home between trips.


Grand Trunk Skeeter Beeter Pro Hammock

 

Hanging a hammock is a fairly simple endeavor. Use webbing straps, not ropes, to avoid damaging tree bark. Slip the strap around the tree at about 6 feet high and attach the hammock’s carabiner or S-hook to the other end. Repeat the procedure with the other tree. The hammock straps should hang at about a 30-degree angle. This puts the lowest point of the occupied hammock about 18 inches above the ground. If there’s any chance of rain or wind, you will need to use a rain fly; simply tie a rope level between the same two trees (below the hammock straps), drape your tarp over the ridge line and stake it down. Some hammocks, such as the Grand Trunk Skeeter Beeter Pro, come as self-contained sleep environments, complete with rain fly and mosquito netting, all in one kit.


Grand Trunk Tree Slings Hammock Hanging Kit

You’ll see hammocks advertised as singles and doubles. The double refers to size, not occupancy. Two people really can’t spend a comfortable night sleeping in a hammock, no matter how affectionate they may be. A brief canoodle would be fine, but when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep, the hammock sleeper sleeps alone.

Whether you choose a bag and pad, cot, or hammock, don’t forget a pillow. It can make a surprisingly big difference in your comfort level. When car camping, using a rectangular sleeping bag on a pad or a cot, you can simply bring your pillow from home. For backpacking, a better choice is a compact travel pillow—or a fleece jacket stuffed into the bag’s pillow pocket. Either way, a little support for your head will be a big comfort during the night.

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