How to best setup your family tent for sleeping

September 3, 2019

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.

Let’s recap.

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.


Roll Mats

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 - Pros and Cons

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

  • Cheap
  • Simple
  • Provides some insulation

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


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 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 - Pros and Cons

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.

See Also
Here are a few of our Air Bed reviews.

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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.

SIMs - Pros and Cons

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.

See Also

And here are some of our Self-Inflating Mat reviews.

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Robens Sunstone 120 Up Close
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Camp Beds

Camp Bed

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).

Camp Beds - Pros and Cons

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.


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, which in turn, makes you cold.

One of the biggest reason for getting cold in the 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, 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.

The Best Set-up for Sleeping in a Tent?

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.

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 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 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 zip of the bag undone, and even sleep on top of it.

Article on sleeping bag temperature ratings

The Secret to Sleeping Bag Ratings

Click here to learn more about sleeping bag temperature ratings.

Mummy Sleeping Bags

Easy Camp Devil 400The 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 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.


Square Sleeping Bags

Coleman BreckenridgeSquare shaped sleeping bags provide you with a lot more leg movement than mummy shaped 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

Air Bed 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.

Kampa Junior Air Bed - ideal for small childrenThe 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!)

Child-Sized Sleeping Bags

Child Sleeping Bag - Vango PenguinYou can get child-sized sleeping bags. Both big brands like Outwell and Vango make them, along with a few other brands.

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….

Alternative to Child Sleeping Bags

Tie a knot in an adult sleeping bag to make it fit a small childIf you have some spare adult sleeping bags, you could simply tie a knot in the bottom of the sleeping bag (so that your child doesn’t sink down inside the bag), and use that instead.

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!

7 things to make nighttime better for kids when camping

7 things to make nighttime better for kids when camping

Click here for some more tips on making night time better for kids when camping.


Getting Started with Family Camping Series

Continue reading; click on the next article in the series.
  • Camping with Kids

    Why you should be adding camping as something you and your family do, what we consider the ‘right way’ for camping with kids, and also some pitfalls to avoid

  • How to pitch a tent

    If you are worried about pitching a tent - don't be. They are quite straightforward these days.

  • Choosing the right family tent

    There are many types of tents available for different sizes of familes, different ages of children, and how often you go camping. We give you some pointers to help choose the right tent.

  • Setting up your sleeping area

    We've learnt the hard way on what makes a good night's sleep for the family at the campsite. Read these tips on how to best set-up your family's sleeping area.

  • How to set-up your camp kitchen

    You need somewhere safe to cook and feed your family. Doing this in your tent is not recommended. We show you how to set-up a camp kitchen.

  • How to set-up a gas camping stove

    There are different types of gas camping stove. Some are small and simple, and some are larger and need a gas regulator. This guide shows you what to get.

  • How to cook using a campfire

    Want a more traditional camping experience? Here are some tips for cooking using a campfire.

  • Camping Check-list

    Here's a useful check list of things to take camping.

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Gav Grayston
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Gav Grayston Contributor

Father to 3 kids, who loves getting out and about (hiking, running, camping, cycling, canoeing...) Co-founded Get Out With The Kids to help other parents enjoy the outdoors with their family.

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  1. Enjoyed reading that although you need to check out fishing sleep bags. They’ll beat any 4 season hands down.

  2. Sorry to be a pinickity but you lie down not lay down. I.e. you lay the sleeping bag down on the floor the lie down inside it.

  3. The best things I ever bought for camping were two TF Gear Super King 4 leg fishing beds. Very large but I have a trailer. £170 each, but I can’t put a price on a good nights sleep. An engineer friend extended the legs for me, an extra six inches, perfection. All our sleeping bags, pillows, mattress toppers aand cool weather gear, go in vacuum suction bags,a small air pump with reverse is all you need for packing up. Love the website, even though I don’t camp with kids.

  4. Hiya fellow campers! I have tried all types of bed combos over the years, I usually camp for 1-2 weeks at a time and I love my sleep. The best I have found is a fishing camp bed. For some reason they are not targeted at campers, but the one I have is padded, has telescopic legs to counteract slopes and large feet that won’t damage the tent floor. My sister and I both get cold easily and have found these beds very comfy and warm. We also use the bed sandwich combo, pack a double duvet in a vac-pack bag (you can also put your pillow in and it squishes down to nothing), then you have an under layer of duvet, the sleeping bag, then a top layer of duvet. Snug as bugs! For extra luxury in autumn we have EHU and put a low wattage electric blanket under the first duvet layer. Yum Yum love camping!

  5. We, the Harpers, think your website is fantastic. What a great guide! After trying all forms of beds, we have recently purchased a thick memory foam mattress and covered it with an old sleeping bag to provide us with many more, ache free camping trips. We pack this first and it is compressed by the weight of the tent therefore taking up little space.

    • Hi Jo, Glad you like our website 🙂  Great idea on the memory foam.  The Outwell Dreamboat I bought includes memory foam so I know from experience that the foam makes it much more comfortable at night 🙂

  6. Great Guide thank you.

    The best pillow setup we have found after many years of camping and a very fussy pillow sleeper (my wife!) is a combination of:

    1. Exped air pillow as the under pillow –
    2. Thermarest Compressible pillow as the top pillow

    (for absolute luxury buy the “XL” size – they still pack down pretty small.

    These pack down much smaller than pillows from home, are not as cold, and dry out much more quickly.

    The Exped air pillow is unlike other air pillows in that it has a flat centre so it retains the top pillow (other air pillows have a “belly” so that any top pillow just slides off and is useful because you can easily adjust the height you want your head… ideal if you get a cricked neck if the height isn’t “just right” (like my wife).

    The Thermarest compressible pillow is made from the foam offcuts inside the mats and so are very soft and compressible but still with a good level of support and provides warmth, comfort and acoustic insulation (if you have ever tried to sleep with your ear against an inflatable pillow you will know what I mean!).

    Expensive yes, but much more pack-able than pillows from home (a real consideration if you are taking two pillows per family member) and I personally think more comfortable than my home pillows… oh and my wife is happy which is the main thing.

    • Thanks, Mark. I’ve got a couple of new Thermorest pillows that I’m hoping to try very soon.
      Vango has also made some new pillows that look good. I hope to try one of them too when they become available.

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