Sleeping in the Wild
What defines camping as camping and not, for example, hiking is spending the night in the wild. This means sleeping out in the wild, which of course presents several challenges, but these challenges can be easily overcome, and if done properly ensure a good night’s sleep equal or even better than sleeping at home. Let us example some solutions with the goal in mind of sleeping comfortably out in nature.
Due to a large part of camping having to do with this sleeping aspect, I strongly suggest that the would-be or novice camper take this aspect very seriously. It really can mean the difference between a pleasant trip and an unpleasant trip. There are of course many options and alternatives, but I will go over the most common and/or accessible ones. Remember the most important fundamentals of having a good night’s sleep are to be both warm and dry, and these two elements should always be achieved while camping. Only after covering warmth and dryness should one then move on to personal preferences about comfort. Staying dry is the job of a good shelter, such as a tent or tarp, so the focus here will be on warmth.
There are generally four effective methods to staying warm in the wild: clothing, sleeping bag, insulation from the ground, and fire. Fire is not always an option to keep a novice camper warm all through the night, is not possible in a tent, and also goes into a more advanced realm of survival knowledge; thus, the focus will be on the other three areas of staying warm.
Clothing is entirely up to the individual camper, and most people already have the clothing they need at home to stay warm. As such, little will be said here about clothing. One should keep the weather in mind, and dress accordingly. Extra clothing and changes of clothing are possible of course, but also keep in mind that one can also wear the same clothing worn during the day to sleep at night without having to bring as much extra clothing. An overnight trip is a short adventure, so one can always change into clean clothing after coming back home and having a nice hot shower/bath. One can also use rain gear for addtional layers of warmth.
A big debate in the diverse camping communities regarding sleep centers around sleeping bags, and from my experience more dedicated campers (especially UL campers) seem to favor down bags more. For example, there is much debate within the choices of sleeping bags, which are nearly all either made up of synthetic or down feather filling. Both synthetic bags and down feather bags have their pros and cons (but usually look the same, so I won’t put pictures as examples):
Synthetic sleeping bags
Pros: Cheaper, easier to dry off when wet, will still provide some warmth when wet
Cons: Heavier, bulkier, not as warm as down in extreme cold
Down sleeping bags
Pros: Lightweight, easier to compress/less bulky, warmer in extreme cold
Cons: Expensive, difficult to dry when wet, will not provide much warmth when wet
All sleeping bags have a temperature rating, which is the recommendations of the manufacturer, but remember that comfort is subjective and everyone is different. The temperature ratings, however, are useful to evaluate the general warmth abilities of a given sleeping bag. There are often different temperature ratings for men and women, women seeming to in general require more warmth than men. I am admittedly ignorant as to why, but from my experiences I can say that this has been the accurate.
There are summertime sleeping bags that weigh less, and offer enough warmth for warmer summer nights, around 15 to 10 degrees C. There are winter bags than weigh more and offer warmth up to extreme cold down as far as -40! Then there are bags that are known as “3 season” bags, which range in between these temperatures. My main sleeping bag, for example, has a comfort rating of 5 for men, and an extreme rating of -7.
The temperature rating can be adjusted by the user many ways. Clothing is the most obvious method, wearing more clothing inside a sleeping bag will make you warmer. But one can also bring a bivy bag (a cover for your sleeping bag that is often water resistant), a cotton or silk sheet, or small blanket to put inside the sleeping bag. These are more conventional solutions, and are very effective at providing and retaining warmth. More unconventional yet effective are using space blankets, rain ponchos, and garbage bags inside the sleeping bag for more warmth--or go "barbarian" style and stuff your sleeping bag full of natural material like leaves, moss, and grass. It is also worth noting that some campers prefer to use wool blankets rather than sleeping bags, but keep in mind that these can be both bulky and heavy.
The next important factor in keeping yourself warm while you sleep is insulation from the ground. Your body heat is sucked away into the earth due to convection, and cold air sinks and warm air rises. To combat these constant factors of heat loss in the wild, one ought to separate one’s self from the ground as much as possible to stay warm and keep warmth. There are several different methods to accomplish this, and can also be used together in combinations if needed for added protection. Here an additional option should be noted, which is to sleep in a hammock.
Hammocks present different challenges, which I will not go into here, and also require that there are two strong anchors (such as two trees) in order to function. So sleeping on the ground is a more flexible option, as there are not always two trees just the right distance apart to set up a hammock, which is why I personally do nearly all my sleeping on the ground rather than a hammock. I don't have anything against them, and they are a good option to be sure, but not if you want to sleep say, right next to a lake or in a clearing.
Before moving on to several of the most common and effective sleep/warmth aids, I strongly recommend that no matter how you choose to sleep on the ground outdoors, that you use a ground cover, such as a large piece of plastic/tarp, for waterproofing and protection from any rough things like sticks from damaging your mat and/or tent. Here is an example of a ground cover, my homemade one of tarp and space blanket:
Natural materials (pine branches, leaves, etc.):
Pros: Free, organic, ecological, readily available/zero weight in backpack
Cons: Takes time and energy to gather and build
Pros: Cheap, lightweight, non-inflatable saves some time/energy, if damaged they don’t deflate
Cons: Bulky, mediocre insulation
Note: Can be trimmed down to save on bulk/weight to torso length, as your legs require less insulation and padding
Pros: Easy to pack/compress, usually lighter weight than self-inflating mats, good insulationCons: Expensive, takes time and energy to blow up, if damaged they deflate
Note: Best used with synthetic sleeping bags, availible in both regular and "mummy" shape (picture above)
Pros: Easy to unroll and use, inflates itself (mostly), good insulationCons: Expensive, bulky, usually heaviest mat choice, if damaged they deflate
Notes: Best used with down sleeping bags, availible in regular and torso sizes
Again, comfort is subjective, so one ought to give thought to what one likes as far as sleeping goes. Some people like very soft bedding, others like firm bedding. The softest choice is an inflatable mat (or a hammock), and the firmest is just a ground cover over natural materials.There is a lot more information out there on the subject sleeping outdoors, but of course you should be careful with what kind of information you read. Just because some guy from Indiana claims to sleep inside a hole in the ground, does not mean it is true or that it is an effective or pleasant way to sleep in the wild. Always be skeptical! Due to sleeping being such a big part of camping, I strongly suggest time be taken to find the best solution that works for you, and if there is any type of gear to spend a little extra money on, I would say that a good sleeping bag and mat are things that are worth it.