What's the difference between these bag types? Bags designed for camping are typically cut wider, offering more roll-around room (good for comfort) but less efficiency for retaining body heat (not so good on extra-chilly nights).
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Find a style that meets your comfort needs. Your choices:
Self-inflating foam pads: These compressible mattresses feature spongy foam housed within a waterproof nylon shell. A twist valve is located at one end. When opened, air rushes in to fill the vacuum and the foam expands. You may need to blow into the valve a few times to get the pad's cushioning to a desired level. Backpackers typically choose pads that are 1" to 2" thick (and sometimes 2.5"); pads 3" and thicker are targeted at car campers. Fitted sheets are available for some pads.
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Air pads: Air, not foam, provides the cushioning here. A model such as the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir requires 2 dozen or so lung blasts to fill it, which is the tradeoff for the NeoAir's under-1-pound weight. Air pads from Big Agnes and Exped offer greater insulation value but add a little extra weight.
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Foam pads: These pads use dense, durable foam known as closed-cell foam. A well-known example is the Therm-a-Rest Ridge Rest, popular among backpackers for its low weight (less than 1 pound for a 72" pad). Closed-cell foam pads are particularly effective when sleeping on cold, frozen or snow-covered ground, or when sleeping on rough surfaces that could puncture an inflatable pad.
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Air mattresses: A deluxe way to sleep when camping in a campground. Just don't forget the foot pump (or, with some models, an electric pump) or you may exhaust yourself trying to inflate it with your lungs.
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Cots: For use in campgrounds, on supported bike rides and at research camps or similar long-term use. They keep you a comfortable distance from cold or rocky ground. Many sleepers also toss a pad on top to boost cushioning or insulation.
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Hammocks: An acquired taste, but hammock enthusiasts love them. On cool nights, some sleepers toss in a pad as an insulation buffer. Some ultralight backpackers pair hammocks with tarps and ditch the tent.
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Tent location. Make sure your tent floor is sitting on a flat, obstacle-free, durable surface. Avoid placing it atop back-gouging roots, rocks or pine cones.
Mentally prepare for new surroundings. Embrace the experience. Yes, you have voluntarily abandoned your comfortable bed in order to immerse yourself in the outdoors. The bathroom is no longer 8 paces from your bedside; it's now 6 sites down the campground loop. Be OK with that. The joy of the experience will override any temporary inconveniences.
Physically adapt. Two things often take urbanites by surprise on the first night of a camping trip: 1) How cool temperatures get after sundown, and 2) how dark the night sky is. So be prepared: Keep insulating clothing layers and a headlamp and/or flashlight handy. Hang an LED lantern inside your tent as soon as you set it up.
Appreciate the uniqueness of the moment. Most of us live tethered to modern conveniences. When camping, certainly do all you can to ensure your comfort, but also realize that for a few nights you have the opportunity to experience the world around you from a new, outdoor perspective. Look at the stars. Listen to the quietness. Relax.
Store all food and scented toiletries securely and outside of your tent. Food-storage rules vary from park to park. Learn what they are and abide by them. Take care not to be sloppy with food. Collect any that spills and place it in approved receptacles. Nothing scented goes inside your tent. Do not spit out toothpaste near your camp (or expect visitors if you do). If camping where bears are active, do not sleep in clothes that may have accumulated food odors.
Repeat familiar routines. If brushing your teeth is your final act before turning in each night at home, do the same in camp. It will trigger a feeling of normalcy to your otherwise new surroundings.
Wear dry clothing. Change out of any damp or sweaty clothes and hang them from a branch or clothesline overnight. A good sleepwear choice while camping is long underwear, top and bottoms, plus clean socks. They feel cozy and warm, and they minimize the transfer of body oils to your bag.
Tip: Another way to keep your bag clean—insert a sleeping bag liner. They’re nice to have if you're too tired to clean up completely.
Avoid overdressing before you hop into your bag. Wearing bulky clothing inside a bag can actually reduce the bag's ability to efficiently trap body heat. Instead, drape items such as a jacket on the outside top of your bag for an extra layer of insulation.
Tip: Bring an old comforter from home to serve as an extra layer. A familiar bedding item from home is often reassuring to children.
Eat something (a meal or light snack) before bed. On cool nights, the process of digestion warms you internally. It's your body, not your sleeping bag, which generates the heat you need to sleep comfortably.
Do a little light exercise before bed to get your blood stirring. Try 5 or 10 sit-ups inside your bag. Just don't exercise to the point where you get sweaty or become wide awake.
Drink some water. Don't overdo it, for obvious reasons, but keeping yourself hydrated aids blood circulation and diminishes the possibility of headaches at higher altitudes.
Use your sleeping bag hood or wear a beanie/stocking cap. With your entire body zipped inside a bag, your head and face are the body surface areas where heat can radiate away.
Avoid listening to night sounds too closely, particularly if you're new to the outdoors and are easily spooked. The night woods are full of strange sounds that can seem threatening but are not really. Small critters can make a moose-size racket. Animals occasionally wander into campsites after sunset to search for food. Relax; these animals are more apprehensive of you than you are of them.
Tip: If night sounds really unnerve you, try camping near moving water. Rushing water's "white noise" helps mask ambient sounds.
Prepare for late-night restroom trips. Place a light source and a pair of sandals or camp shoes near your tent door before you bunk down. If you tend to get thirsty at night, keep a supply of water nearby. Put a patch of carpet or artificial grass outside the tent door to serve as a sandal- or foot-cleaning doormat.
Air out your bag in the morning, if time permits. This removes any moisture that might have accumulated inside overnight.
On warm, balmy nights, you may not even zip up your sleeping bag. Often campers will just tuck their feet into the bag's footbox and drape the bag over them. If you expect warm nights, bring a sheet and/or a light blanket from home. It might be all you need.
In cold weather, here's a good list of pointers, including some tips addressed earlier in this article:
Contributors to this article include REI staffers Lori Boyer, Carolyn Burnham, Rene Costales, Kristen Lloyd, Heather Martin, Steve Nagode, Lynn Parton, Lauren Shimamura and Liza Tewell.
By T.D. Wood
Read Author Bio
Last updated: 02/18/2014
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