New to Family Camping? Here are some tips to help you sleep better and avoid getting cold during the night, including an essential tip that you won’t find in your camping store.
If you’re new to family camping then it can get a little daunting looking at all the sleeping options when you visit your camping store. There are many different sleeping bags, sleeping 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.
If you’ve watched the video, you should now have a much better idea of what sort of things you need to buy and how to set up your tent properly for sleeping.
What to lay on – Air Beds, SIMs, or Camp beds?
Just as important as the sleeping bag is what you are going to lay on. You need something that’s both comfortable and also easy to get to the campsite.
Back 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’ maybe 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.
These days there are some much better options (though 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.
- Provides some insulation
- Not the most comfortable option
- Can take up a lot of space to transport
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 Bed’s 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 since found better ways to sleep in a tent.
- 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.
- Can get quite cold at night when the air in the bed cools down.
- You get bounced around in a double air bed when your partner moves.
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, are a lot 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 also been using SIMs for a few years now.
The problem with many SIMs when it comes to family camping (or camping with a car), is that SIMs are designed to be small to easily fit inside a backpack. Being smaller means they are not as comfortable as an Air Bed (though surprisingly comfortable given their size).
This year there’s been a redesign of the SIM for family camping. Outwell have created the Deepsleep, Dreamboat, and Dreamcatcher SIMs.
A big difference with these SIMs is that they’ve 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.
We’re now using an Outwell Dreamcatcher SIM.
Hiking SIMs are quite small, but for family car camping, you can get some very comfortable SIMs. This is what we mainly use.
- 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.
- Thick decent SIMs can be very expensive.
- Some people find them harder to put away.
And here are some of our Self-Inflating Mat reviews.
Camp Beds are simply foldable beds.
If you find it hard getting up off an air bed or SIM on the floor, you will want to consider getting a camp bed.
You can get both single and double camp beds.
We’ve not yet been using camp beds, though we are thinking about it.
Personally, 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 soon as you raise up higher, you may find that the sloping area now hits your camp bed.
This is not the case with all tents though (and our Outwell Hornet XL tent appears to be raised slightly at the back enough for a camp bed (something I’ve got to check).
These can make your tent feel like home, but you need the space for them.
- Easy to get in and out of: like a bed at home.
- 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.
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, which in turn, makes you cold.
One of the biggest reason for getting cold in the night is the lack of ‘ground insulation’.
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, in addition to a large fleecy blanket.
This simple measure has a big effect on keeping warm. If you can, put another layer on top 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 just a shame that most tent carpets don’t cover the bedroom area as well.
Once the insulation underneath is done, then consider insulating on top. If it’s going to be a cold night, you want to make the beds as well insulated as possible.
On a couple of recent camps, it went down to a mild frost at night. We even put our coats over the sleeping bags, which helped a lot.
Important: 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 actually make you very cold.
Some argue that the best set up in a tent is, therefore, a camp bed, with an air mattress on top, and a blanket on top of that.
With a camp bed, you are kept away 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.
You can lay in your bedroom with your head 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, there is one very important factor in which way you lay: you want your head slightly upward rather than downwards, where your blood will rush to your head.
Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? 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, just take a moment to lay in the bedrooms and find which way is up. That’s where your head should go.
BTW, you may find that sometimes, ‘up’ may be different from bedroom to bedroom if your pitch has several different slopes.
Sleeping Bags – Types and Styles
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 zip of the bag undone, and even sleep on top of it.
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 it’s your own body that 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.
The problem is that many square-shaped sleeping bags are only 1 Season, so be careful if you’re shopping for a square sleeping bag.
There are exceptions, though. This year we’ve been using the Coleman Breckenridge double sleeping bag, which is actually 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 that we’d end up kicking each other, but actually, it’s been OK, even if a little less space than a full-sized bed at home.
For me, the square shape was a lot more comfortable than my mummy sleeping bag. It was also nice having an extra body to warm the sleeping bag. 😉
We’ve not found a satisfactory camping pillow in all our year’s camping. 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.
We do have some inflatable pillows. These are horrible, but we found that placing them underneath the head area of the Coleman Breckenridge sleeping bag, they actually worked a lot more like real pillows. (Still not as good as proper pillows).
Special Considerations for Small Children
The problem we’ve found is that small children (babies, toddlers, pre-school), 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, and it works really well.
They’re slightly wider than an adult single airbed, but slightly shorter too.
It’s probably the last season though that our youngest will be in it (he’s growing really fast!)
Our kids particularly like the look of the Vango Penguin sleeping bag (they love penguins), and getting such a sleeping bag may increase the fun level for your child.
However, we’ve not been using any child sleeping bags….
Our youngest is currently in the Vango Wilderness 250 (yep, only 2 seasons), with another Vango Wilderness 250 unzipped and over the top as an additional blanket when it’s cold.
This is the first season that we’ve not had to tie the knot in the sleeping bag….he’s growing so fast!
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