Camping Sleeping Hacks

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41 million Americans camp every year and most will sleep in a tent. And this inspired me to look at what do campers sleep on now.

Most tent campers will use a sleeping pad. Other popular options are air mattresses and cots. All of these provide comfort and warmth. They are essential for a sleeping bag to function to its maximum capability.

What To Sleep On When Camping?

You do not want to sleep directly on the ground. Even if you have a tent and a footprint or tarp. The tent floor will not provide any warmth. Instead, the ground will suck the heat out of your body. And regardless of where and when you’re camping the ground can be quite cold.

Even in the desert.

I remember reading this book called “Walking The Bible”, about a guy who retraced the steps of Moses from the Old Testament. And talked about how all of the animals in the desert were black. And it was because they needed to retain heat.

And as we discussed in our article about sleeping bags your sleeping bag rating assumes you will be sleeping on a sleeping pad.

Thus you must bring along a sleeping pad. A sleeping pad can be made from foam or can be inflatable. We will discuss the pros and cons of each in the next section.

There are many other options than sleeping pads. Sleeping pads are popular for solo campers.

If you are camping with your spouse or partner. Or want to have extra room if you’re camping with the kids and they want to snuggle. Then you could bring along a modern air mattress.

You could bring a cot. There are several variations on cots. Some cots are low profile and other cots are higher off the ground. Besides getting your body off the ground, a cot also provides more storage.

Finally, you could also bring along a hammock. A hammock means you don’t need a tent to sleep. But you do need trees.

The primary reason we bring along a sleeping pad or similar device to sleep on while camping is for warmth. However, you can’t deny that they also provide more comfort. In particular as an adult.

Sleeping on the hard ground is fun as a child. And you’re body doesn’t ache.

But as one of my favorite YouTube personalities talks about why he sleeps in hammocks - ‘Because I’m old and it’s no longer comfortable to sleep on the ground.”

Inflatable Vs Foam Sleeping Pads

Sleeping pads help prevent you from losing heat through conduction with the ground.

There are types of sleeping pads. I remember in the 1980s when the foam sleeping pads became popular. My mom became enamored with them. And egg crate mattress toppers. I don’t remember either one of these being comfortable.

And I recently discovered why. From listening to discussions with hikers from the Appalachian Trail on YouTube.

Foam sleeping pads only work well if you’re a back sleeper. If you’re a side sleeper then you end up crushing them and it feels like it’s sleeping on the ground anyway.

Inflatable sleeping pads work better for side sleepers. And they are also more portable.

An inflatable sleeping pad will pack to a small enough package that you can put them into your backpack. Meanwhile, a foam sleeping pad will be attached to the outside of your backpack.

Air Mattress Vs Sleeping Pad

While sleeping pads are popular, in particular among backpackers and solo campers, air mattresses should also be considered.

In particular for couples.

However, if you’re car camping, they can work for a solo camper too. My father-in-law used to take an air mattress with him on his bow hunting camping trips.

Modern air-mattresses come in self-inflating models. Or at least you can get a portable air pump that uses the electricity provided at the campsite.

Air mattresses will be more comfortable than a sleeping pad. And you can use regular sheets and blankets with them.

However, air mattresses are not created for camping. They’re designed to be used in your house. Thus they’re not as durable. In particular, on their bottoms. Thus you should consider putting a moving rug or another tarp between the mattress and the tent floor.

Sleeping Pad Vs Hammock

Another popular option is to use a hammock. Hammock camping requires forest camping. Because you need two trees to hang hammocks on.

With a hammock, you don’t necessarily need to bring a tent. Because you will hang a rainfly over your hammock to protect against the elements.

Hammocks are lightweight and pack up tightly. Survival expert Dave Canterbury suggests putting one in your emergency kit instead of a tent.

However, you need to learn how to properly hang a hammock. There is an art to get in and out of a camping hammock. And if you’re not careful, you can rollover and fall out.

You might also still want to bring a tent with you to store gear and to provide a place to change clothes.

Plus with hammock camping, you will unlikely use a sleeping bag. A sleeping bag doesn’t keep your bottom side warm. In a tent, we depend upon a sleeping pad for this. But in a hammock, you will surf around your hammock on most sleeping pads.

Thus instead you use top and underquilt.

If you want to learn more about hammock camping then you can read our article about hammocks here.

Sleeping Pad Vs Cot

There was this time when I was 11 years old and I went to soccer practice. And when I came home, my bed was gone. My parents had sold it at a garage sale. I remember my pillows and blankets all piled up in a corner.

Which normally isn’t a big deal. Kids outgrow beds. And I certainly had outgrown mine. But my parents didn’t have the money to buy me a replacement bed.

So I slept on a cot for at least the next 2 years.

And in Boy Scouts, cots were the ultimate form of camping luxury. You were not on the hard ground.

But my Dad, the Scoutmaster, forbid them on most camping trips. I think the only exception was the week-long Boy Scout summer camp. And I’m pretty sure that was because they were mandated.

Anyway, cots are similar to hammocks in that you are not sleeping on the ground. And you can set it up so that you can make a rain fly instead of a full tent with a tarp. Though most people will sleep with a cot in a tent.

Another benefit of sleeping with a cot in a tent is that you get more storage room. You can place stuff under the cot.

However, you still might a sleeping pad with a cot to prevent convection from drawing heat away from you as cold air blows under the cot.

What About Cowboy Camping?

If the weather is nice, without a chance of rain and you’re not afraid of creepy crawlies, then you can decide to sleep without a tent on the ground.

We call this “Cowboy Camping”. Because it resembles how the cowboys slept in the old Westerns. My favorite example of this is with the show Cheyenne.

Cheyenne is my favorite western. Even though I didn’t discover it until I was an adult. And 60 years after it was off the air. Growin up, I liked watching western TV shows. Channel 39 in Dallas was an independent station at the time. And every Sunday they showed “The Lone Ranger”, followed by “Bonanza”, and “Gunsmoke.”

Thus I am quite familiar with the concept of the bedroll with a head on a rock (how was that comfortable?) and sleeping next to the campfire.

However, even with Cowboy Camping, you might still want to bring along a sleeping pad. Because the ground can still suck the cold air out of your body. And of course, nobody likes to feel rocks and twigs poke them in their back all night.

If you want to learn more about cowboy camping then check out our guide.

How Many Americans Camp Each Year

According to the Outdoor Participation Report, 41 million Americans camp each year. What is surprising is that this still only represents a fraction of the people who visit the national parks. Around 318 million people visit the national parks each year according to The National Parks Service.

This means most people who visit the national parks are not camping. They must either be local day visitors or staying at hotels or in cabins.