This post is aimed primarily at those who are getting started with camping, bushcraft etc. and will probably be old hat to most of you. I won’t be covering hammock camping because I shall be covering that in a later post.
“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. 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.
After trying an array of different tents, tarps, wool blankets, sleeping bags, browse beds, foam pads, animal fleeces, bivvy bags and combinations thereof in a variety of temperatures and conditions, 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 bivvy 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 bivvy 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 bivvy bag (my favourite method), there must be some physical or chemical barrier which prevents annoying insects 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):
Shelter: Simple tarp or multi-configuration floorless tent with a plastic ground sheet (Open shelter allows heat from the fire to enter.)
In the 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 men to answer nature’s call without having to leave 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 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.