Camping Basics: How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep

​Whenever I mention to my friends that I’m off on a 10 day camping trip there are usually two reactions: those who think it’s “fantastic” and follow that with “I wish I could do that…” (well, what’s stopping you?).

And those who would rather stick pins in their eyes than sleep in a canvas tent with “all sorts of monsters” outside.

I love camping. The sounds of the bush at night, the lack of light pollution and the feeling of breathing air that isn’t full of vehicle fumes or air conditioning normally means I sleep soundly.

Then again, I’ve been sleeping in tents regularly since I was about 7 years old.

For the novice camper, the idea of trying to get a good night’s sleep in a flimsy looking tent can be a daunting prospect. However, it can be boiled down to a few simple tips.

  • Be Organized

  • When you arrive at your campsite, set up your tent (or have someone do it for you) on a level piece of ground. Make sure there are no spiky plants or stones under your footprint, and clear away any clumps of vegetation.

    Stow your backpack (or duffel bag if you are on a supported trip) and take out what you will need for the evening: your sleeping clothes (see below), your toiletries, and of course your sleeping mat and sleeping bag.

    Keep a torch or headlamp handy, so that once night falls you aren’t scrambling around wondering where everything is.

    Unless you are really short of space, try not to have your sleeping mat right up against the side of the tent: if it gets cold or damp at night, condensation can collect and drip onto you if you are sleeping right up against the side.

    Lay out your sleeping bag so that the fill can “re-loft” (fluff up) after being packed away in your pack all day.

    Find a secure location for your food. If you are camping in bear territory, you’ll have a brought a bear canister (won’t you?).

    If you are in a National Park in Africa, you don’t want baboons and elephants attracted by your sweet treats.

  • Sleep Wear
  • Wear dry, clean(ish) clothes. OK, while it’s not always possible to bring your favorite pyjamas from home, do at least bring something in case all your hiking clothes are soaking wet after fording that river.

    Clean long underwear and socks can make a big difference to how you feel on your first night in an unfamiliar tent.

    Remember, that even on the hottest night, actually being outside can be chilly. Well, possibly not if you are camping on a beach at the equator.

  • Stick to your Routine
  • If you normally drink a bottle of gin before you go to bed, try to do the same thing when camping.

    No, don’t.

    But do make sure you eat supper (stating the obvious, but going to bed hungry isn’t going to help your sleep efforts), and avoid caffeine. Making sure you are well hydrated (but not needing to pee every five minutes) means you won’t be waking up parched in the middle of the night.

    If you normally drink water in the night - make sure you’ve got a water bottle handy.

    Whilst I normally like to switch off electronic devices when I’m out, the one exception to this is my Kindle. I love reading before I go to sleep - and if it’s something you normally do at home, then stick to this routine.

    Thankfully, a nice backlit screen is easier to navigate than a headtorch shining on a heavy hardback book.

  • Pee before you go to bed
  • Twice. And decide what you are going to do about night time calls of nature. Personally, I’m not a fan of waking up at 2am, and wondering if that rustling noise is a hungry lion before I leave my tent to empty my bladder.

    I always keep a wide-mouthed Nalgene “pee bottle” in the tent. Honestly, it’s only pee, you can bleach it out when you get home.

    If you do need to leave your tent in the night, make sure you’ve got shoes handy by the front of the tent, and your headlamp/flashlight to hand.

  • ​Consider Earplugs
  • if you know that the odd scuffling of a small critter is going to keep you awake with visions of elephants.

    Personally, I like to hear the sounds of the bush, and so long as your food is safely stowed, you shouldn’t have problems with bears knocking on your tent door.

    Obviously, if you are in a busy public campsite with people coming and going, and kids screaming, ear plugs are an absolute must.

  • Fitness
  • Make sure you are in shape for the hiking that you will be doing. If you arrive at your campsite exasperated and exhausted, because the most hiking you’ve done this year is an hour to the shops and back - an 8 hour trek in the bush is not going to help you sleep.

    A long day on the trail if you are out of shape can translate into some aches and pains which won’t help you sleep.

  • ​Stay Warm

  • In the midst of summer this is irrelevant advice. But getting cold at night is one of the main reasons that people struggle to sleep when camping. Camping on the side of Kilimanjaro, at 17,000ft, it’s about as cold as it gets, and here is what I do to stay warm in those extreme conditions:

    - Obviously, have the right sleeping bag rating and a suitable sleeping pad

    - Put hot water into your drinking water bottle, and hold that near the core of your body or at your feet

    - Wear a hat, as much heat is lost through your head

    - Make sure that the neck baffle and hood of your sleeping bag is secured, preventing heat loss from your neck area

    - Put (dry) clothes in your sleeping bag with you to minimize air spaces (and warm your clothes for the following morning)

    - Drink a warm beverage before retiring to warm you from the inside out.

  • ​Tent Mates
  • Tent mates are a thorny issue. Sleeping next to stinky, snoring tent mates is not going to help your quest for a good night’s sleep. On some trips it’s inevitable that you’ll have to share with someone you don’t know, have some earplugs on hand.

    For this reason, if I’m backpacking with people I don’t normally sleep near to, I carry my own 1-person tent (and pitch it as far from the others as possible) and on organized trips (eg Kilimanjaro) I pay up for a single supplement.

    Getting to know your tent mates beforehand if you are planning a trip can be a good idea. Although your spouse may take a dim view of you “practicing” sleeping with them before your trip(!)

  • Fix your Sleep Problems at Home 
  • If you have difficulty sleeping at home - in your own bed - being in the bush in a tent is not going to be easy.

    Personally, I wouldn’t take prescription medication when I’m camping - and it is certainly NOT recommended if you are sleeping at any elevation - so do take this into account when planning your camping trip.

Sleeping in a tent is not everyone's idea of a comfortable way to spend the night. But camping can be a wonderful way to get out into nature and take a break from the stresses and strains of everyday life. 

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