Getting back to nature is one of the last remaining pleasures we as Americans can all agree on. The great outdoors, however, is not a place to be taken lightly. Every year campers tragically die in situations that could’ve been easily avoided. Thankfully this is rare. What’s more common is that every year countless campers endure nights of terrible sleep thanks to poor preparation.
Staying alive or just staying comfortable in the wilderness is all down to how prepared you are to handle the elements, both materially and mentally.
A good night’s rest is all about staying warm and dry. Below we take a look at some tried and tested advice on how you can achieve this. Some of these tips will help you sleep better and some might just save your bacon…
Get your bag sorted
Choosing what goes in your bag carefully is essential. This is camping 101 stuff, so we aren’t going to dwell on it too much – just make sure you’ve packed sufficient layers of insulating clothes like wool and synthetics that if one gets wet, you have a fallback.
And heed this next one carefully – always bring extra socks and a decent thermal hat. Those extremities can get awfully cold once the sun goes down.
Speaking of bags – choosing the appropriate sleeping bag is going to play a massive role in how well you sleep.
If your bag is overly warm for the conditions, you may start to sweat, which will lead to you losing heat as the night goes on. On the flipside, if your bag isn’t warm enough to start with then you will struggle to maintain a healthy body temperature.
What’s the answer then? If in doubt go with the warmer option. If you start to overheat, you can always shed some layers, that’s what they are there for.
Down sleeping bags are more expensive than synthetic bags yes. They do however keep you warmer than the alternatives. Plus they are more comfortable. It’s like sleeping in a pile of ducklings…in a good way!
The big downside of down (forgive the pun) is if you get those feathers wet you could be in serious trouble as they will be next to useless until they dry out again. So, if you do go down (sorry) this road, please ensure you have tried and tested stuff sack system in place to keep it all dry.
Use your bag wisely
A sleeping bag is a just an insulated sack, you just climb in and zip it up right? Well, yes and no. When it gets really cold out there, there are a couple of extra things to take into account.
For one, if it’s really cold out make damn sure you use the drawstring to pull the hood tight around your face. This will prevent heat being lost from that head of yours and around your neck. By all means, still stick your hat on but make use of that hood, that’s what it’s there for.
Don’t, however, pull the bag over your mouth. It may seem like a good idea to breathe into the body of the bag. Is your breath warm after all? Right and wrong, breath is warm when it leaves your mouth but it’s also full of moisture and all that moist air is just going to evaporate and lower the temperature inside. Always ensure your nose and mouth are poking out.
I know they take up a bit of extra space in your pack, and for what they seem so thin that you can still feel each and every tiny stone beneath you – don’t, however, underestimate the roll sleeping pads play.
The ground at night is one big heat sponge and over the course of a few hours, it’s going to sap every last tiny bit of heat from your prone body. The half inch of insulation provided by even the most lightweight sleeping pads can be a lifesaver. In some cases quite literally.
If you have a little bit more carrying capacity, then I fully recommend a more substantial sleeping mat. For a helpful guide on what’s on offer have a look here.
Prepare for a soaking
Even if there’s not a single cloud in the sky and not a drop of rain forecast for the next month, still prepare to get wet. Firstly the weatherman has been wrong before and he will be again.
Secondly, getting wet is not all about what falls from the sky. There are many ways moisture can ruin your day. You could slip off that log crossing the river. Your water bottle could leak. Morning dew can easily drench your pack. And you own sweat can soak you from the inside out.
Having a dry set of clothes to change into at night can in some cases mean the difference between life and death. Always have at least one dry base layer wrapped up in a stuff sack in your bag. This way if things go soggy you will at least have some insurance.
Don’t for a moment rely on the rain cover that came free with your rucksack. Use it by all means but be warned they often aren’t fit for purpose. Most experienced campers will utilize a system of reliable stuff sacks and refuse bags. Yep, the good old bin bag can do wonders!
Dress for bed
Knowing what to pack is an essential part of camping but knowing when to wear what is an equally vital skill.
If it’s a cold night it might feel like a good idea to wear the clothes you have been hiking into bed, they are already nice warm after all. This is a bad idea. Even if it might not feel like it the clothes you are wearing are likely damp. If not from the weather or external conditions, they will be from your sweat.
Moisture in whatever form will evaporate from your skin overnight and when it does it will lead to drop in your body temperature. So to combat this before bed, make sure you change so your driest items of clothing are against your skin. Again baselayers are perfect for this.
Get into your bag warm
Sleeping bags are great for retaining heat. So if the night looks like it’s going to be a cold one, make sure you get into your bag warm. Go for a brisk walk before bed. Do some press ups or a set of jumping jacks. I don’t care what you do, just get that body temperature of yours up.
Be careful however to not go overboard and start to sweat. You might feel all toasty when you get into your bag, but as we told you above, sweat will evaporate over time and cool you down.
Late night snacking is highly encouraged
Forget everything you know about healthy eating, when you’re out in the wilderness and the temperature is dropping dangerously low, calories are your best friend. The more, the better.
For your body to heat up all the cold air, you’re breathing it requires extra energy than normal. If your body runs out of fuel in the night, you are in for big trouble in the form of hypothermia.
Always have a supply of snacks in your pack. Energy bars are perfect but so is anything lightweight and high in calories. Trail mix is also great. Personally, I like to devour a good handful of gummy bears to help me nod off.
A late night feeding will kick-start your metabolism and give your body the extra energy boost it needs to stay warm and make it until morning.
Ah, the age-old problem of, ‘what do I do if I have to pee?’
It’s good form to eat as close to the bed as possible, the same is not true of your liquid intake. Try to curtail your hydration the hour or two before bed. My advice is to skip the water and juice and instead sip a nice hot drink slowly – hot chocolate works for me.
Limiting your liquid intake will reduce the chances you will need to face the cold and go for a pee in the night.
If you do get that call of nature, then don’t fight it. We all know that fighting the need to pee in the night is a futile exercise. One solution is the use of a pee bottle, but be very careful. And whatever you do, don’t mix it up with your water bottle. Nobody wants that!
If you do have to head out. Don’t try to rush this. Put on your extra layers, ensure you have your footwear on and try to avoid touching the material of your tent – the last thing you want to do is get your sleeping layers soaking wet with dew.
Well, there you have it – 8 tips to keep warm and dry and have a better night’s sleep in the great outdoors. And remember while this article has primarily been about comfort, each tip above can also help you when the shit hits the fan and your life depends on it.
Be safe out there and say hello to Mother Nature for me!