How to pitch a tent and sleep in comfort under the stars

Get a good night’s sleep outdoors by staying dry, comfortable and on the level.

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Camping represents the cornerstone of Scouting: Kids love sleeping on the ground in a tent or under the stars. But for some adults, “sleeping out” doesn’t offer much in the way of an enjoyment.

No matter how hard you might try, sometimes finding a level spot to pitch your tent is impossible. Inevitably, the ground slopes or offers a bunch of lumps. Worse, heavy rain can cause a middle-of-the-night washout.

If you want to get a good night’s rest, the key to comfort is how you pitch a tent and prepare your bed. 

A SLOPING SITE
Conventional wisdom advises that you pitch your tent with the head end uphill, and then pile clothes under your legs to level the site. But this creates a hammock effect that may produce a morning backache.

A better plan? Pitch the tent perpendicular to the drop (one side lower than the other). Then, level your sleeping pad by placing clothes under the downhill side. You’re creating a “level trough” that’s much more comfortable to sleep in than a “hammock.”

PROTECT AGAINST FLOWING GROUNDWATER
If you’ve pitched your tent in a low spot and it rains hard enough, groundwater will flow into your tent. Old-timers controlled water flow by digging a trench around their tent — a procedure that causes serious soil erosion and, consequently, has become illegal everywhere. Instead, place an over-sized plastic ground cloth inside your tent. Make the ground cloth large enough to flow about a foot up the sidewalls of your tent.

Any groundwater that gets into your tent will be trapped beneath the plastic sheet, and you’ll stay dry. Old ideas die hard. You might think it’s crazy to put the ground cloth inside your tent, but try it and you’ll never get wet.

COVER YOUR SLEEPING PAD
On summer nights, forego the sleeping bag and lay directly on your air mattress or foam pad — except the plastic/nylon covering on these pads becomes too hot and sticky. The solution: Make a fitted-cotton flannel cover for your pad. The cotton wicks away sweat, guards against punctures, and prevents the pad from sliding around on the slick plastic groundsheet below.

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Cliff Jacobson is a Distinguished Eagle Scout and the author of more than a dozen top-selling outdoors books.

4 Comments

  1. I like to camp out in the back yard with my Cub Scout as soon as the weather turns “warm.” It was 70* during the day but dropped to 40* at night. I did not stay warm. My son did. He has a better sleeping bag than I do. My question is: when is a good time to give up the tent and try sleeping under the stars?

  2. Well, I think any time is a good time as long as it’s not raining. If you have a warm sleeping bag and a good foam pad and plastic groundcloth, you’ll be fine in any temperature. My wife, Sue Harings, loves cold weather camping: her record for sleeping under the stars is 29 degrees below zero. She slept just fine. Tips: if you have a marginally warm bag, wear wool long johns and a wool stocking camp to bed. If it’s super cold, try two pair of wool longs. Down booties help too. Place a sweater or scarf over your face when you sleep in bitter cold weather. The sweater will let air in and CO2 and moisture out. Better to do this than to tuck your head inside your sleeping bag and fill the bag with moisture from breathing.

    • For extra head warmth and breathability I use an over sized towel.One end tucked under the mattress/pad so it won’t slip–the other end over my face as necessary.

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