A primer on sleeping well in the out of doors

This article is aimed primarily at those who are getting started with camping, bushcraft etc. and will probably be old hat to all the pros out there. ;) I won’t be covering hammock camping, because I don’t have any experience with it. If you have useful info to add regarding hammock camping, please leave a comment below!

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“The matter of a good portable bed is the most serious problem in outfitting. A man can stand almost any hardship by day, and be none the worse for it, provided he gets a comfortable night’s rest; but without sound sleep he will soon go to pieces, no matter how gritty he may be.” – Horace Kephart

If you have read Horace Kephart’s “Camping and Woodcraft”, you know that he was a very practical and experience-based outdoorsman. No frills, no BS. Though some of his equipment and methods may be antiquated (he published his most famous book around a century ago, after all), a great amount of useful information can still be gleaned from his writings today, in my opinion, especially if you are fond of older-style gear and ways as I am. Kephart’s statement about sleeping outdoors is as true today as it has ever been, and my own experiences have mirrored this. Happy sleeper = Happy camper!

After trying an array of different tents, tarps, wool blankets, sleeping bags, browse beds, foam pads, animal fleeces, bivy bags and combinations thereof in a variety of temperatures and conditions and, with the aid of Old Kep, I have identified the six conditions which I find must be met in order to sleep well:

1. Make sure you don’t get wet, whether it be from rain, snow, ground moisture or perspiration. Make sure your tarp or natural shelter is large enough (and thick enough, in the case of a natural shelter) to provide effective protection against the rain, which can drive sideways in windy conditions. This isn’t much of an issue if you are in a good fully enclosed tent. A plastic sheet or sufficient natural bedding material will separate you from the dampness of the ground if not in a tent. If your bivy is not breathable, leave it unzipped part or most of the way to allow moisture from perspiration to escape so that it does not soak your sleeping bag.

2. You should be protected from the wind to prevent cold air from displacing the cocoon of warm air around you. Fully enclosed tents do this automatically, but tarps and natural shelters must be positioned so that their open side does not face the prevailing wind. Having a wind-proof bivy bag makes positioning of the outer shelter less of an issue.

3. The material around you should be thick and insulative enough to provide insulation from the cold air. The colder the air, the thicker and more insulative the material, whether it be man-made or natural materials. It’s a good idea to use sleeping bags rated to lower temperatures than you think you’ll experience, just to be on the safe side. If using natural materials, wool blankets etc., only field testing will tell you if your insulation is warm enough. A proper heating fire can negate the need for material physically surrounding the body if you go that route.

4. The material underneath you should be thick enough to provide insulation from the cold ground. In many cases, a lot more heat can be lost through the ground than through the air, so ground insulation is one of the most crucial elements to keeping warm and sleeping well. If using spruce boughs in cold weather, for example, make your bed thick (30 cm/12 in thick at least). Some materials compress a lot when you lie on them, so be doubly sure you have enough. I have heard that inflatable sleeping pads are not as effective as good foam pads in cold weather, so that’s something else to be aware of.

5. The material underneath you should be thick enough to compensate for the hardness of the ground and any objects in/on it which would otherwise be uncomfortable to sleep on. Sleeping on the ground is a lot different from sleeping in your bed at night. The ground does not adjust to the contours of your body, so it’s your body that has to do the adjusting, including on rocks, sticks and other such annoyances (which, by the way, should be moved away beforehand anyway, if possible). Sufficiently thick bedding increases comfort immeasurably.

6. There should be a layer of protection against creepy-crawlies, mosquitoes etc. at some level if they are out and about. Whether it’s a tent or tarp’s mosquito netting, a smudge fire or mosquito netting stretched over the face area of the bivy bag (my favorite method), there must be some physical or chemical barrier which prevents annoying critters from preying on you. Forgetting this crucial element in an area swarming with biting bugs can make any sleep, much less good sleep, very difficult.

These things may seem obvious to many of you, but if you are starting from scratch without much guidance, some of them may not be immediately evident. If it seems that I’m being overly thorough, it’s for the sake of completeness. If it seems I’m not being thorough enough, please share what you know! :)

After (lots of) trial and error, I’ve arrived at the following setup which works well for me (not saying it’s perfect or ideal, just that it works for me now):

Shelter: Simple tarp or multi-configuration floorless tent with plastic ground sheet (Open shelter allows heat from fire to enter.).

Outermost sleep system layer: waterproof bivy bag, unzipped to allow moisture to escape.

Inside the bivy bag: one or more sleeping bags on top of climate-appropriate sleeping pads/animal fleeces (Having the sleeping pads inside the bivy prevents me from rolling off them, which I often tend to do.).

In summer: mosquito netting stretched over the area of the bivy bag near my face

Here are a few other ideas which can help improve the quality of your night out:

  • Placing a bottle full of warm to hot water in your sleeping bag can help keep up the temperature inside.
  • Keeping a clean bottle with a tight-fitting cap (“pee bottle”) inside your sleeping bag can allow dudes to answer nature’s call without having to heave their sleeping setup (sorry ladies).
  • Drinking a bit of hot tea before bed can help keep you warm for a while after going to sleep.
  • If you wake up a bit cold, “exercise” inside your sleeping bag (sit-ups etc.) to heat yourself and the bag again.
  • If your clothes are not especially dry, change them before going to bed to avoid bringing extra moisture with you into your sleeping bag.
  • Keep extra socks handy (footy? ;)) in case your feet get chilly overnight. In colder conditions, long underwear, gloves and a balaclava may also be useful.
  • Don’t set up camp in a recessed area, if you can avoid it, because it will likely be colder than surrounding areas.

Great suggestions from readers:

  • From wgiles: “In cold weather, I almost always use a microfleece bag liner to stay comfortable even if I’m sleeping in long underwear.”
  • From Ross Gilmore: “Even one piece of damp clothing in the sleeping bag will make for a cold night. That’s why i am very much opposed to drying things out in the sleeping bag. If I want to keep something from freezing, I will put it in a plastic bag and then in the sleeping bag.” And: “If you use [a pee bottle] you will have a much better night. You lose huge amounts of heat then you get out of the sleeping bag.” Also: “In the last few years inflatable pads have come a very long way in terms of providing insulation and preventing bottoming out. Even fully deflated, the pad offers about 1.5R insulation, which is similar to what one would get from a closed cell foam pad.”
  • From Duncan: “Even in my arctic mummy bag, I always find that my head gets cold through the night (I can’t sleep with my head inside of the bag.) To remedy this, I’ve found that a good wool or synthetic toboggan [i.e. beanie] and a long thick beard do the trick.”
  • From OZme: “About the ground insulation, it is also important when sleeping on hammock. Of cause it is then not a “ground” insulation but it is as much or even more noticeably important to have good insulation under. Compressed sleeping bag really looses its insulation property. Oh, and about the pee bottle. Make sure to have large enough bottle. If you pee more than the bottle capacity, that will be a disaster..:)”
  • From dagraper: “I would also like to add: location, location, location. Think about where you set up camp, it can make the difference between a good night’s sleep or a hellish nightmare of a night.
    – Make sure you’re not in a natural depression, which might collect rains.
    – Make sure you’re not camping on or nearby a game trail, if you’re not keen of nightly visitors.
    – Stay away from stagnant water…or be prepared to host insect visitors alot!
    – Look up ! Any dead branches ? Remove them first or camp somewhere else. A good wind could send them crashing down.
    – Look around for natural wind protection and make sure your shelter is positioned to keep the wind from blowing right through.
    I do use inflatable sleepings pads, in combination with a ‘bag’, in which I slide both pad and sleeping bag. It does not just keep them dry and clean, but also adds another layer to keep out the cold.”
  • From Richie: “For cold weather, put on clean dry socks before climbing into your bag each night and try lip salve to prevent dry lips.”

Hopefully this information will help someone getting started with this type of thing and save them a headache or two. Please feel free to submit any other tips and suggestions you may have, and I’ll incorporate them into this article!

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15 comments on “A primer on sleeping well in the out of doors

  1. wgiles says:

    I use self inflating sleeping pads and find it very difficult to sleep soundly because they allow parts of my body to contact the ground. My experience would probably be different if I could put some loose material under the pad, but I have generally used them at established camp grounds where you can’t find material for a pad. Dry is essential. If you are damp, your insulation won’t work as well. In cold weather, I almost always use a microfleece bag liner to stay comfortable even if I’m sleeping in long underwear.

  2. Ross Gilmore says:

    Very well written. You can always tell when someone writes from experience rather than just repeating what they have read. You’ve clearly had the experience.

    Two things that struck me on which you are very right. The first is the importance of staying dry. It makes a huge difference. Even one piece of damp clothing in the sleeping bag will make for a cold night. That’s why i am very much opposed to drying things out in the sleeping bag. If I want to keep something from freezing, I will put it in a plastic bag and then in the sleeping bag.

    The second, a pee bottle is very underrated. If you use one you will have a much better night. You lose huge amounts of heat then you get out of the sleeping bag. This is also part of the reason I gave up on using a fire during the night. I found that having to tend the fire was negating all the heat I was losing out of the sleeping bag. Now I just rely on a properly rated sleeping bag.

    I like to use an open floor, enclosed shelter (GoLite Shangri-La 3). It has all the benefits of a tarp, but it provides better rain protection, and much better wind protection. This way I can ditch the bivi. Without the bivi I get a lot less condensation. For ground insulation I use a Thermarest NeoAir All Season pad. In the last few years inflatable pads have come a very long way in terms of providing insulation and preventing bottoming out. Even fully deflated, the pad offers about 1.5R insulation, which is similar to what one would get from a closed cell foam pad. You are very right, people often underestimate how much natural insulation they will need to get the same effect. You need at least a foot thickness, and probably closer to two feet.

    Great post. Thanks.

    • Thanks for the great tips, Ross.

      Definitely agree with you on the floorless enclosed shelter, of which I use two different types. Honestly, I’d rather not use a bivy either, but I have been camping in a storm on a very dry treeless fell where the ground did not absorb the rain quickly enough and a good deal of water flowed under my tent. I was not using a ground sheet then, but even if I were, I’m sure some water would have flowed onto it and soaked my sleeping bag. I was happy to have the bivy! :) I do get some condensation in the bivy, but it’s really not that much if I leave it unzipped. Good points on ground insulation as well. Yep, with natural materials, the thicker the better!

  3. I think if you are going to have that hot tea, you would regret not taking that bottle in with you pretty soon.

  4. Duncan says:

    Excellent post as always! Even in my arctic mummy bag, I always find that my head gets cold through the night (I can’t sleep with my head inside of the bag.) To remedy this, I’ve found that a good wool or synthetic toboggan and a long thick beard do the trick.

  5. OZme says:

    excellent post. Wish you have posted this when I started. so I did not have to find out hard way :)

    About the ground insulation, it is also important when sleeping on hammock. Of cause it is then not a “ground” insulation but it is as much or even more noticeably important to have good insulation under. Compressed sleeping bag really looses its insulation property.

    Oh, and about the pee bottle. Make sure to have large enough bottle. If you pee more than the bottle capacity, that will be a disaster..:)

  6. dagraper says:

    I would also like to add: location, location, location. Think about where you set up camp, it can make the difference between a good night’s sleep or a hellish nightmare of a night.

    – Make sure you’re not in a natural depression, which might collect rains.
    – Make sure you’re not camping on or nearby a game trail, if you’re not keen of nightly visitors.
    – Stay away from stagnant water…or be prepared to host insect visitors alot!
    – Look up ! Any dead branches ? Remove them first or camp somewhere else. A good wind could send them crashing down.
    – Look around for natural wind protection and make sure your shelter is positioned to keep the wind from blowing right through.

    I do use inflatable sleepings pads, in combination with a ‘bag’, in which I slide both pad and sleeping bag. It does not just keep them dry and clean, but also adds another layer to keep out the cold.

  7. [...] a recent post, I shared some ideas on how to sleep soundly in the outdoors. Today’s post will cover some [...]

  8. Richie says:

    I haven’t had a single nights sleep for some years whilst ground sleeping. I bought a Therarest Neoair mat which offers R-3.2 insulation; I bought a couple of Goretex bivi bags, some new UL tents etc, but eventually I gave up.
    For the last 18 months I sleep like a baby in a hammock.
    My alpkit down bag is of no use without Decent under insulation as it compresses under hips,shoulders and bum.
    A foam roll mat is essential IMO.

    For cold weather, put on clean dry socks before climbing into your bag each night and try lip salve to prevent dry lips.

    • Thanks for the comments, Richie! I have been hesitant to try hammocks, mainly because I toss and turn a lot while sleeping and often sleep on my side. Maybe I’ll give it a real try this year!

      Thanks for the suggestions, as well!

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