Camping 101: Getting a Good Night’s Sleep

Tammie Dooley from Solo Road Trip

This is part of a series on camping by Tammie Dooley. Check out her other articles about knowing what to pack and campground etiquette. If you enjoyed this series, be sure to subscribe to enjoy future articles.

Badlands, South Dakota

Badlands, South Dakota. Photo taken in the USA by Hayden Carlyon.

With fuel prices being the lowest in 4 years and vacation budgets being a non-factor in a lot of people’s minds right now, the stage is set for summer camping trips to be the boon. As our inability to spend on a foreign vacation destination is pitted against our need to have a break, we have an opportunity to rediscover the campground. Camping meets our need for frugality as well as our desire for rejuvenation.

From the Bare Basics to Glamping

As a long-time camper I’ve morphed over the years from a pup tent with a ¼ inch mat to cushion me against the ground to a more luxurious camping experience. Once or twice a year the one-man tent and the mat still come out for a backpacking foray to fish for wild trout in backcountry streams, although the mat has grown to a ¾ inch thick cushion. Once a year for a 10-12 day stay my husband and I pull out all the stops and glamour camp – “glamp” – in a remote part of Wyoming. The rest of the time, our camping experience falls somewhere between these two on the comfort scale.

There is single piece of equipment that sets apart the long glamping trip from all the other camp-outs: the tent.  For the Wyoming annual outing we purchased a 10 ft. x 18 ft. tent, large enough to enter from either end standing upright all the way through. We dubbed it the B.A.T. -  Big Ass Tent.  The initial cost was $300. We’ve used it 4 times, which breaks down into a lodging cost of about $8 per night ($300 / 40 nights).  The effort expended to set it up precludes using it for shorter trips.

For simplicity’s sake, you may want to start with car camping. Simply put, car camping means you’re not hauling all your equipment on your back for the duration of your stay, which means weight is a not an issue.

In a future article on backpacking we’ll cover some tips and tricks for trimming the weight of your pack while still managing a degree of comfort in camp.

Getting Started

Since a good night’s sleep is critical, this article will cover the basics for that. In my opinion, once you have that down, everything else is a piece of cake. If you’ve had plenty of rest, you can handle the other potential mishaps that are inherent to interaction with the great outdoors.

Let’s assume you want to pursue camping outings in the range of say 2-5 nights, you don’t want to do the crawl around on your hands and knees routine, and you’re starting from ground zero or your equipment is outdated.

Here’s a list of basic items I recommend you consider.

•    A tent in the range of 9 ft. x 12 ft. with a large “D” opening on the side (not end) will provide a moderate amount of space and be quick to set up.  You’ll want to ensure there’s a gear loft and gear pockets in it for storage. Tents have come a long way in the ease to set-up department. Color codings on the tent poles, amenities such as gear lofts and pockets, and various ventilation extras will surprise you if you’ve not seen a new tent in the last 5 years.  A new tent purchase comes with everything you need to set it up (rain fly, stakes, instructions, poles, guy wires, etc.), with the exception of a ground cloth.  However, I recommend purchasing a separate set of heavy-duty tent stakes in lieu of those that are included. You’ll need to purchase a ground cloth, which does NOT come with the tent.  The ground cloth should be a heavy duty plastic tarp, about the same size as the footprint of the tent (bigger is better here because you can tuck under the excess – too small and you’ll still have a wet tent floor which is what you’re attempting to prevent). This is laid on the ground first; erecting the tent over it and then tucking any visible ground cloth in under the tent once the tent is completely staked (do not stake the ground cloth to the tent!). The ground cloth is critical to keeping the floor of the tent dry in rainy weather, or even heavy dew.  If the tarp is larger than the tent and you leave the ground cloth showing it’ll gather water which will seep in between the floor of the tent and the ground cloth, and you’ll have a wet floor.  Misery will be the result.  A rain fly keeps the top dry, a ground cloth the bottom. Both are critical.

•    A hammer for pounding in stakes should be thrown permanently into the tent bag.

•    Bedding has also come a LONG way. Several years ago we began searching for a way to get the bed off the floor of the tent and discovered they now make frames that stand about the same height from the floor as a normal bed. The frame we purchased from Cabela’s has a pocket into which you insert an inflatable mattress so you never have to worry about sliding off the frame. Tip: partially inflate the mattress then insert into the pocket before topping it off. We purchased a Queen size Coleman inflatable mattress and the Queen sized stand and now camp with a bed that sleeps almost as well as any bed you could hope for.  Another wonderful advantage of the frame is the storage underneath.  We shove tons of stuff that won’t be needed until the tear-down under the bed and out of sight.  The frame folds neatly into its own container for storage.
The 9×12 tent I spoke of previously holds a Queen sized bed with plenty of walk around room.

Tip: Inflatable mattresses expand and contract with temperatures.  To keep the bed comfortable, take the time to add some air at the end of a cool day.  But be careful! If the temperature swings are broad, overfilling can potentially result in a busted seam during the days rising temps.

•    Look for a mattress that comes with a BATTERY powered inflating unit (Coleman includes these with their beds) since there won’t be an electrical outlet in your tent!  Purchase plenty of appropriate batteries for the unit. DON’T FORGET THE BATTERIES.

Perform a test run of setting up the bed/frame/mattress at home just to make sure everything works.

•    Since we sleep on a Queen sized bed at home, sheets are not a factor. I’ll grab a set of sheets and the appropriate blankets from the closet just prior to a trip. Take more blankets than you think you’ll need. Even though you’ll be in a tent, 3-season tents typically mean part of the “ceiling” is mesh.  The rain fly will keep you dry, but you’re sleeping in the great outdoors. You can always remove cover but if you don’t bring it, you can’t add it.

•    An inflatable mattress repair kit should be thrown permanently into the bed container.

•    I sleep with my head elevated so I bring pillows from home.

•    A small LED headlamp is indispensable in camp and I wear mine around my neck during the day so that at nightfall I’m not searching for it. But since we’re talking about sleeping comfort, that sweet little headlamp means you can read in bed for a bit before drifting off to the sound of crickets or frogs or owls or nightingales or loons or all of the above.

•    Finally, here are a few other assorted things that are useful in a tent: a mirror with a handle of sorts that you can hang from the tent ceiling against one of the walls; an inexpensive indoor/outdoor rug for the floor of the tent – it’s useful at the entry and feels so much better underfoot than the plastic tent floor; and a battery operated lantern that never leaves the tent.  If you have to exit the tent at night, use your headlamp (great because they’re “hands-free”).

Oh yes, KIDS!  Assuming they’re old enough for a separate tent (and I have been with all the above recommendations for you), a basic tent with army cots and blankets (again this means you have some storage space beneath the cot) or sleeping bags/pad will have them thinking they’re in heaven.  Hang a small headlamp around their neck, put some flashlights in their tent, and nighttime entertainment will never be an issue.

In the next article we’ll cover basic equipment for the rest of the camp site and additional tips to make camp-outs something you want to incorporate into your spring, summer, and fall.

About the author:

Tammie Dooley’s preferred mode of travel is on foot or by 4WD. All done solo, of course. Her blog, Solo Road Trip, is an attractively designed invitation to follow along on her journeys.

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Discussion »

  • #1marina k. villatoro

    You know I was a big camper at one point. I camped in many places in the US, but lately they just seem to be almost dangerous. At least in Central America, there is very little protection. and the campsites with protection almost cost as much as a room in a hostel, so we always opt for a room.

  • #2Clay Mama

    Great tips! Lots of experience coupled with knowledge of subject and superb writing ability culminate in a wonderful article. Look forward to more!

  • #3Glamping Girl

    Great article. I never knew about the portable frames. I’ll definitely be looking into getting one of those this season!

  • #4Solo Road Trip

    so many more people would camp (I think) if they had the sleeping situation down. Camping equipment is so inexpensive these days, although if you start with nothing and attempt to purchase it all at once, you’ll disagree with that statement. The bed and bedding is the highest priority. I’d start there and add on as you go.

  • #5Camping

    Can I take my mattress with me??

  • #6Tracy J

    Camping is one of the more rewarding ways to spend a holiday. My husband and I have been camping regularly ever since we got married. A tip for the ladies: remember not to pack too many clothes especially for and extended period as they will always wash or dry clean!

  • #7camping girl

    hi well this is a good article but what if you need to sleep in a tree because your friend and you are seeing how will go in to the tent first!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!????????????????????????

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