What's the Best Way to Sleep When Camping?
When I'm overlanding and camping, there is no better feeling than climbing into my rooftop tent at the end of a long, exciting day on a dirt trail and falling asleep surrounded by nothing but the sound of crickets, maybe a coyote howling at the moon, or even a river splashing gently nearby.
It’s rewarding because, once I climb into my sleeping bag, a feeling of satisfaction eases through my mind because I've reached my destination, I've accomplished what I set out to do that day.
And a great night’s rest is always just as essential as any piece of gear when you're on an overland trip. Because being well-rested not only puts you in a good frame of mind to really enjoy your adventure, it also ensures you are alert and ready to face to any challenges and obstacles you come across while tackling off-road trails.
So Many Choices
Choosing where you’ll sleep when you’re camping out on the trail can be a tricky decision because there are so many options, including:
- Ground tents
- Camping hammocks
- Your vehicle
- Softshell rooftop tents
- Hardshell rooftop tents
- Pros: Mostly inexpensive, nostalgic
- Cons: Time to set up, extra gear to pack
The most classic camping setup for sleep is the traditional ground tent. We've probably all camped in a tent at some point in our lives...as a kid on camping trips with our families or at backyard sleepovers with friends, and you may have some happy memories of tent-camping from your childhood.
This option used to be my least favorite for sleeping at camp because tents can take a chunk of time to set up and break down, and I just don't sleep well when the only thing between me and the ground is a sleeping bag and piece of foam. But...ever since I've discovered the Thermarest pad and pop-up tents that are quick and easy to use this is now actually my favorite way to camp for shorter trips and when I'm not bringing my wife along.
Of course, the main downside to using a tent, sleeping back, and pad is that they are going to take up room inside your rig. Depending on the size of your tent, they could take up a lot of room, so this is definitely something to consider when deciding on what sleep option is going to work best for you.
Another downside is that most tents, unless they are a four-season tent, aren't going to be comfortable in extreme weather or in high winds.
Whether you’re out for just a night or enjoying a long weekend, camping in a ground tent can be a good, cost effective way of catching some z’s on your next adventure.
Bottom line: Ground tents can be an inexpensive and convenient option if you don't mind the extra time and space they require.
- Pros: Comfortable, lightweight, easy to pack
- Cons: Can be expensive, requires trees or hammock stand
A set-up that my sons seem to enjoy is a camping hammock. They can be very comfortable and don’t take up much space at all in your rig or at camp. Although, they may not be the best choice if you’re headed to Moab or the deserts of Southern California because you need to have two trees, the right distance apart, to hang the hammock. Of course, you can always bring a hammock stand, but that's more gear taking up space in your rig.
Speaking of trees, please make sure not to damage them and only select ones that are sturdy enough to bear your weight and don’t tie your hammock to a tree with just the bare rope, which could damage the bark. If your hammock doesn’t come with a suspension system that has wide, protective straps, you can purchase them separately.
Being comfortable is key to a good night’s sleep and there are lots of variations of the camping hammock as well as several accessories to make them even more comfortable. Of course, accessories aren’t free, so anything extra is an added cost. One extra that might be considered an essential is a foam insulating pad that, when placed in the hammock, will keep you very warm, even on cold nights. Other additions can include:
- Underquilt (prevents heat loss from cold air wafting across the underside of the hammock)
- Rain tarp
- Bug net
- Pros: Inexpensive, minimal extra gear to pack
- Cons: Can be uncomfortable, especially if you're tall
The most cost-effective method, and one that doesn’t require any additional gear other than something to keep you warm, is sleeping in your vehicle. Now, this isn’t something I do because I’m over six-feet tall and I just don’t find it very comfortable. Also, with the built-in vehicle drawer system in the back of my jeep, I just don’t have the room. But it is an option (and one that many folks choose, especially when starting out), which is why I’m mentioning it.
If you have the space to lay down your back seats and can sleep comfortably, depending on your height and how much gear is in the back of your rig, this option can be extremely friendly on your budget. The only thing you need is a pillow and blanket from home or a sleeping bag. You can even throw in a foam pad or truck bed air mattress for added comfort.
Other bonuses with this method is that it’s a good way to stay warm, avoid the wind, keep out the critters, and requires absolutely no time for set-up or take-down.
Bottom line: Sleeping in your vehicle is a good, budget-friendly option that doesn't require a lot of extra gear.
- Pros: Quick and easy set-up and take-down, very comfortable, no extra gear to pack
- Cons: Expensive, added weight to your vehicle, reduced fuel economy, requires climbing up and down a ladder
Rooftop tents are another option and it's one that I get asked about a lot. If you do a lot of overlanding and camping from your vehicle, a rooftop tent (either a hardshell or softshell design) is a great choice but they are the most expensive of all the options and the heaviest.
If you’re more of an occasional camper, you might be better off going with a more inexpensive option like a ground tent, hammock, or the back of your overland vehicle. For me though, I am constantly out adventuring so my rooftop tent has gotten a lot of use and has been well worth the investment.
I love sleeping in my rooftop tent because has a built in mattresses that is really comfortable and helps me sleep like a baby. Another thing that I really appreciate is how easy rooftop tents are to use, streamlining setup and break down, which is very convenient because we move around to new campsites often on multi-day adventures.
Something else to think about is that you do have to climb up and down a ladder. So if mobility or heights are a concern, you should definitely give some thought to whether you (and whoever you may be sharing a tent with) are going to want to use a ladder every time you need to get in and out of your tent.
And because any rooftop tent will add weight to your rig and make it more top heavy, you will not only be adding to the wear and tear on your vehicle, and decreasing your fuel economy, you'll also be impacting your maneuverability. It might not make a huge difference, but it will make a difference.
So, if you're thinking a rooftop tent is the way to go, the next question is...softshell or hardshell?
Softshell rooftop tents are usually more affordable than the hardshell versions because they are mainly covered with a sewn PVC material instead of fiberglass or aluminum. Also, softshell tents are usually roomier than the hardshell ones because they typically fold out and over the side of your vehicle, providing you with more space.
Think of a softshell tent as a ground tent that’s on the roof of your vehicle with a built-in mattress. And, like ground tents, these have a pop-up fabric canopy that provides a lot of head room inside. If you’re sleeping family-style on your off-road camping expeditions with two or more people, softshell rooftop tents offer plenty of room.
One down-side to a softshell tent is the setup and pack up, which will take you about five minutes for each process. Still, it’s faster than setting up most ground tents and doesn’t take up any storage space inside your vehicle.
Another downside is that they look a little like a brick sitting on top of your vehicle and there is nothing aerodynamic about them; you will feel the wind drag with a softshell rooftop tent, it will add wear and tear to your rig, and your gas mileage will suffer.
Bottom line: Softshell tents are a great option for adventure-seekers and multiple people who will be out on the trail for days at a time and are willing to spend some extra money on this type of setup.
Lastly, I want to talk about hardshell rooftop tents, which is what I have used with my Patriot Campers X1N off-road trailer. I’m going to be honest; these are almost always more expensive than softshell rooftop tents.
That’s because hardshell rooftop tents are rugged, tough, and built to withstand the bruising impact from the weather, and wear and tear from the road. They’re designed to be durable and look sleek on top of your vehicle. Unlike the giant box style of softshell rooftop tents, hardshell options are typically low-profile to reduce wind drag.
A big perk of hardshell rooftop tents is that they are typically super easy and fast to set up and pack away. All you have to do is undo a couple of latches and it pops right open. I can usually set one of these tents in 45-60 seconds.
The downside of hardshell rooftop tents is that they typically aren’t as spacious as the softshell models. Most hardshells can sleep two adults comfortably...three would definitely be a crowd.
Hardshell rooftop tents are a fantastic option if you spend a lot of time overlanding and are looking for a rugged, quick, and reliable home-away-from-home, a place to lay your head, shut your eyes, and catch some dreams at the end of day on the trail.
Bottom line: If you spend a significant amount of time camping off-grid and want a place to sleep that is very comfortable, very easy to setup and break down, and built to last, then a hardshell rooftop tent can be a good investment.
A Good Night's Sleep
When it comes to choosing where to sleep when you’re camping off the grid, it’s really a matter of personal preference because only you can decide what’s most comfortable for you and how much you want to spend.
All of the options I’ve discussed (ground tents, hammocks, in your rig, and rooftop tents) are popular among campers, overlanders, and fellow adventurers. Some are more comfortable than others, some are easier to set up, and some are more expensive, but it’s really all about what best fits your needs and your budget.
I’ve done more than my fair share of sleeping in some really uncomfortable places on deployments aboard ship and with the Marines and, as far as I’m concerned, a good night’s sleep is priceless.
When I’m overlanding and deep in the backcountry filming my adventures, being able to sleep comfortably is what keeps me going (that and TrailRecon coffee because you know I need my morning cup of caffeine to start the day off right).
Overlanding with great people in the great outdoors is always a memorable experience, and being well-rested and ready for whatever comes your way just makes everything that much better.