Although it’s not exactly the time of year to be thinking about rallies and bike camping, I decided to write an article covering the tips and techniques I’ve learned over the years about how to sleep outside. It’s more than simply plopping a $20 bargain basement sleeping bag on the ground and crawling inside.

Sleeping bags and pup tents were not built for comfort, they were built for survival, for getting by. While you can’t expect the experience to match a high-end king size mattress under a down comforter in your own home, there are some things you can do to make the experience a bit more comfortable. Here are some things I’ve learned through years of backpacking.

Preparation

What you do before you hit the hay can have a big impact on how well you sleep once you do.

Go to bed (and get up in the morning) at the same time every day of the week, even on weekends. Sleep experts recommend this approach to everyone whether you’re sleeping in a tent or in your own home. I’ve adopted this approach and find that I wake up at the same time every morning, ready for the day. Plus, the quality of my sleep is a lot more consistent. I also don’t have a problem getting up to go to work on Monday mornings, either.

Wind down before bed time. Don’t engage in intense activity, or even conversation, in the half hour or hour before bedtime. Don’t exercise or do anything overly strenuous for at least an hour beforehand.

Don’t consume caffeine after mid-day. Keep it to mornings only if you can.

Boudoir To Go

How well you sleep depends a lot on your gear and how you set up camp.

Sleeping bags are rated for the lowest outside temperature they’ll keep you comfortable. Not all manufacturers are truly honest about the ratings they assing to their sleeping bags, but a good rule of thumb is to buy a bag rated 10-15 degrees colder than your intended use.

Mummy bags will keep you warmer than rectangular shapes. If you like to sleep on your side or in a curled position, move the entire bag with your body rather than move your body within the bag.

Use a smaller pillow than you’re used to. It only needs to be about 12-16” long, and maybe 6” thick. I take a polar fleece jacket and stuff it into its own sleeve. Also, put the pillow under your sleeping bag, not inside it. You’ll sleep warmer that way.

Uninsulated air mattresses are not very warm. Invest in an insulated model, such as the “Insulated Air Core” model from Big Agnes (www.bigagnes.com). [Highly recommended] Another idea is to place a closed-cell foam pad on top of your air mattress. This adds extra comfort and insulation without adding a lot of bulk to your gear bag. Keep in mind: direct contact with the ground will steal your body heat much faster than the air will.

Don’t wear sweaty socks to bed. Put on the next day’s socks before crawling into your sleeping bag.

Wear a soft fleece stocking cap and pull it down over your eyes. This will keep your head warm, keep your face from feeling sticky when pressed against nylon sleeping bag material, and will keep things dark for your eyes.

Wear foam ear plugs. They keep camp critters weighing ounces from sounding like ravenous carnivores weighing hundreds of pounds. They also keep you from being disturbed by roads or any other late-night human activity.

It’s not a good idea to have a campfire if you’re not awake and watching it, but if you need to keep a fire going through the night, set your body’s alarm by drinking a lot of water before going to bed. When you have to get up to go the bathroom, stoke the fire, drink some more water, and go back to bed.

Tents are meant to keep you dry and keep bugs from driving you crazy. They’re not meant to keep you warm, so get rid of that expectation. The best they can do is block wind from making you even colder.

If you want to be woken up by the sun, place your tent in a spot that will be exposed to the sunrise. If you want to sleep in, make sure it will be in the shade until late morning. If it’s particularly cold outside, early morning sunlight on the side of your tent will be welcome added warmth.

Sleep Aids

Sometimes there’s nothing you can do to get a good night’s sleep. When sleep is crucial but just doesn’t want to happen, there are some ways to assist the process.

Avoid alcohol. Although many people feel sleepy when they drink, alcohol can actually reduce your quality of sleep. Instead, use an over-the-counter sleep aid. Many people find Tylenol Nighttime to be very effective, especially if they have any sore muscles from the day’s activities. They also make a Simply Sleep formula that has the same sleep aid minus the pain reliever.

Warm decaffeinated tea is a great late night snack before going to bed. Decaf chai tea is especially effective. If you are in a campground with hot showers, take one within 30 minutes of going to bed. As your body cools down, it makes you sleepy.