Child in sleeping bag

The best things for sleeping in your tent

How to best setup your family tent for sleeping

Posted by Gav Grayston.
First Published May 2014; updated May 2023.

Are you getting started with family camping? You'll want to read these tips on what works best for sleeping, including tips you won't get at your camping store.

New to Family Camping? Here are some tips to help you sleep better and avoid getting cold at night, including an essential tip you won't find in your camping store.

If you're new to family camping, looking at all the sleeping options when you visit your camping store can get a little daunting. There are many sleeping bags, mats, camp beds, etc.  Which one is best? What should I buy?

We've put together this video below to help get you up to speed on what we found works best for a good night's sleep when camping.

YouTube Video Thumbnail

If you've watched the video, you should now know what to buy and how to set up your tent to sleep properly.

Let's recap.

What to lay on - Air Beds, SIMs, or Camp beds?

Just as important as the sleeping bag is what you will lie on. You need something that's both comfortable and also easy to get to the campsite.

1. Roll Mats

When Shell and I were kids, a Foam Roll Mat was something you slept on if you went on a school (or guides/scouts) camping trip. Even though 'camping' may be just sleeping on the floor in a village hall.

They're cheap. They're simple.  Just unroll and put your sleeping bag on top. .....but they're not the most comfortable thing to lay on.

There are some much better options (though I was surprised when one of our kid's Girl Guides put it on the kit list for a camp!).

If you're investing in family camping, avoid the Foam Roll Mat.

Roll Mats are still used for many kids' camps, but we don't recommend them for the best night's sleep.

The good

  • Cheap
  • Simple
  • Provides some insulation

The not so good

  • Not the most comfortable option
  • Can take up a lot of space to transport

2. Air Beds

An Airbed

When inflated the Coleman Comfort raised double airbed is about the same height as your bed at home.

Most people use Air Beds when family camping. These are inflatable mattresses that you pump up at the campsite.

You can inflate them with a hand pump, foot pump, or even a 12v electric pump that you can plug into the car.

Although these air beds are smaller than your bed at home, they provide a reasonable mattress that folds down small for transport.

They're not perfect, though. You need to take extra care when the ground is cold (more on that in a bit), and if you're in a double airbed, you may bounce when the other person moves (think 'bouncy castle', but not quite as bad).

We've had Air Beds for years and have been using the Campingaz QuickBed, which are relatively cheap but have survived 100s of nights under canvas.

Air Beds are a good option, but we've found better alternatives.

The good

  • Basic air beds are relatively cheap
  • Simple to use: just inflate.
  • Can be very comfortable.
  • Don't take up a lot of space when transporting.

The not so good

  • Can get quite cold at night when the air in the bed cools down.
  • When your partner moves, you get bounced around in a double air bed.

3. SIMs - Self-Inflating Mats


SIMs (Self Inflating Mats) were initially invented for the backpacking community.

A SIM will fold down smaller than a foam roll mat, but when inflated with air, they are much more comfortable than the old roll mat.

BTW, they inflate themselves to a certain degree. You often have to give them a blow to get them fully inflated.

We've been using SIMs for a few years now.

The problem with many backpacking SIMs when it comes to family camping (or camping with a car) is that SIMs are designed to be small to fit inside a backpack easily. Being smaller means, they are not as comfortable as an Air Bed (though surprisingly comfortable given their size).

Fortunately, you can get larger SIMs that are not compromised comfort for size - after all, you'll be travelling to the campsite in a car.

Some of these SIMs are more like memory foam mattresses with additional air inflation to make them bigger. I've had a test of these new SIMs and was very impressed.

The good

  • Thick SIMs can be very comfortable.
  • Much warmer at night than Air Beds.
  • You don't get bounced around at night in a double SIM.

The not so good

  • Thick decent SIMs can be very expensive.
  • Some people find them harder to put away.

4. Camp Beds

Camp Bed

Camp Beds are foldable beds.

If you find getting up off an air bed or SIM on the floor hard, you will want to consider getting a camp bed.

You can get both single and double camp beds.

I find many of them a bit too rigid. However, that's easily solved by getting one of the family camping SIMs (mentioned above) to use as a mattress on top of the camp bed.

You will need more transport space to take a camp bed than an air bed or SIM.

Another thing you'll need to check is the dimensions of your tent bedroom. Not just the width and length but also the height of the sloping area at the back of the bedroom. Many tents are designed expecting people to be sleeping on air beds or SIMs. As you are higher off the ground, you may find that the sloping area now hits your camp bed.

Camp beds can make your tent feel like home, but you need the space for them.

The good

  • Easy to get in and out of: like a bed at home.

The not so good

  • Not as comfortable unless you use with a SIM or other foam mat.
  • They take up more space in your tent
  • They are larger to transport to the campsite.

Keeping Warm with AirBeds and SIMs - Very Important Tip

So if you bought a set of air beds, sims, and sleeping bags, you could be missing one vital ingredient...

Air Beds and SIMs lay on the ground. The ground is cold (especially in Spring). Your Air Bed (or SIM) will lose a lot of heat through the ground, making the air cold inside the bed, making you cold.

One of the biggest reasons for getting cold at night is the lack of 'ground insulation'.

Insulate under your air bed to minimise heat loss through the ground

Insulate under your air bed to minimise heat loss through the ground

So unlike at home, where you may throw a blanket on top to avoid getting cold, you need to put the blanket underneath.  Counter-intuitive, eh?

There are all sorts of things you can put underneath: fleecy blankets or throws, picnic rugs, and even some old foam roll mats if you still have any 😉

I have also put some foam packing material underneath our youngest's bed and a large fleecy blanket.

This simple measure has a big effect on keeping warm. If you can, put another layer on the top side of the air bed too.

And while you're thinking about making your tent warmer, you may want to get a tent carpet. It's a shame that most tent carpets also don't cover the bedroom area.

Once the insulation underneath is done, then consider insulating on top. If it is a cold night, you want to insulate the beds.

It went down to a mild frost at night in several recent camps. We even put our coats over the sleeping bags, which greatly helped.


Don't wear too many layers in your sleeping bag.

Instead, put layers over your sleeping bag that can easily be removed.

If you wear too many layers, you'll sweat, but the moisture from sweating will make you very cold.

The Best Set-up for Sleeping in a Tent?

Some argue that the best set-up in a tent is a camp bed, with an air mattress on top and a blanket on top.

With a camp bed, you are kept from the cold ground and therefore don't get as cold.

If a camp bed is something you could take and use, then this may be the best setup for your family.

Which Way to Lay in Your Tent

Check the slope when you are pitched for a better night's sleep

Check the slope when you are pitched for a better night's sleep

You can lie in your bedroom opposite the door or with your head by the door. It doesn't matter.

On a few tents, the back of the sleeping pod (bedroom) slopes and sags a bit, so sleeping with your head at that end may mean you get some inner tent in your face.

However, one very important factor is how you lay: you want your head slightly upward rather than downwards, where your blood will rush to your head.

Sounds obvious. But it can easily be overlooked when you're pitching your tent.

Even the flattest of campsites will have a slight slope to them....and we've found that some of the best family campsites do not have bowling green flat pitches.

So, after pitching, before you set up the beds, take a moment to lie in the bedrooms and find which way is up. That's where your head should go.

BTW, you may find that sometimes, 'up' may differ from bedroom to bedroom if your pitch has several different slopes.

Sleeping Bags - Types and Styles

Sleeping Bag Ratings

Sleeping bags are rated in seasons.

  • 1 Season - Very warm summer nights
  • 2 Season - Cooler summer (i.e. British Summers!)
  • 3 Season - Spring to Autumn camping
  • 4 Season - Winter camping

We camp from Spring (usually Easter time) through to early Autumn. (September camping is great BTW).

For us, 3 Season sleeping bags are the best, though Shell has been using a 4 Season sleeping bag (ladies, you will get colder than men, and you may want a warmer sleeping bag).

A 3 Season sleeping bag may be too warm in summer, but on warm nights we leave the bag's zip undone and even sleep on top of it.

Click here to learn more about sleeping bag temperature ratings.

Mummy Sleeping Bags

Mummy Hood

Here is the insulated mummy hood on the Robens Icefall Pro 600. Notice the baffle at the back to help keep your body heat in the bag.

The mummy-shaped sleeping bags are the ones with hoods. They also tend to get smaller towards the feet.

You may want to consider such a sleeping bag if you are camping in the cooler months as they are more 'efficient'.

Sleeping bags don't warm you up. They work by keeping your body heat inside, and your body keeps you warm.

The mummy-shaped sleeping bags are designed to minimise the loss of body heat. You can seal the hood so that only your face is exposed.

The downside is that you may feel a little too constricted in these types of sleeping bags.

Square Sleeping Bags

The Coleman Basalt Sleeping Bag

The Coleman Basalt Sleeping Bag is a square-shaped sleeping bag. (OK, technically, it is a rectangle!)

Square-shaped sleeping bags give you much more leg movement than mummy-shaped sleeping bags.

The problem is that many square-shaped sleeping bags are only 1 Season, so be careful when shopping for a square sleeping bag.

There are exceptions, though. We've been using the Coleman Breckenridge double sleeping bag, which is a 3 Season sleeping bag.

It's also the first double sleeping bag we've ever tried.

We've been so used to mummy sleeping bags that we thought we'd kick each other, but it's been OK, even if a little less space than a full-sized bed at home.

The square shape was much more comfortable than my mummy sleeping bag.


Most camping pillows can be a disappointment. The best solution is to take pillows from home.

Unfortunately, this can take up a lot of space in the car.

The backpacker's approach is to fill your sleeping bag's stuff sack with clothes and use that as a pillow.

Special Considerations for Small Children

Air Bed for Small Children

We've found that small children (babies, toddlers, preschool) tend to move around too much when they sleep. So if you've made a nice insulated Air Bed, guaranteed they'll end up off the air bed and on the cold floor at some point.

The solution to this problem is to get one of these junior air beds with raised sides.

We've been using one of these air beds for years, which works very well.

They're slightly wider than an adult single-airbed, so consider that with the number of berths in your tent.

Child-Sized Sleeping Bags

You can get child-sized sleeping bags. Both big brands like Outwell and Vango make them, along with a few others.

Alternative to Child Sleeping Bags

Tie a knot in an adult sleeping bag to make it fit a small child

Tie a knot in an adult sleeping bag to make it fit a small child

If you have some spare adult sleeping bags, you could tie a knot in the bottom of the bag (so that your child doesn't sink down inside the bag) and use that instead.

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