It was never hard to tell who the rookies were.
When my sons first joined Boy Scouts, it was common practice for their troop to take the newest recruits – and usually their fathers — camping right away. That meant tenting in March.
It’s an unforgiving month by nature.
Still, enthusiasm was always high. This was big kid stuff, after all, at least from the perspective of the 11-year-olds. They were hanging with teens, a part of their group, one of the gang.
We met on Friday evenings, after work, then headed to the campsite. It was usually dark when we arrived.
That had its own brand of romance.
Multiple beams of light would dash and dance through the woods, creating rollicking, playful shadows, as headlamped heads swiveled to and fro. Excited, giggling, laughing voices – disconnected from any identifiable body in the dark — filled the night air. Tents would go up, some more quickly than others, sleeping bags would be unfurled and gear would be stowed.
In the meantime, someone would get a fire going. Soon after, snacks would be distributed.
At least for some, anyway. Morning would always reveal – in brutal, haggard, convincing fashion – just who was rested and who was not.
Picture a television zombie. You know, the ones with black, sunken eyes, pasty skin, that thousand-yard stare, stooped posture and a slack jaw.
Yeah, we always had a few of those on our March campout. You’d offer them coffee – from arm’s length, at least – and hope they might recover before the morning’s hike.
It’s not surprising, really. No matter how much you love camping, there’s a big difference between your comfortable, familiar bed at home and sleeping on the ground in a tent.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be a stark one, though. In fact, sleeping well outdoors is entirely possible. There are ways to make a night or nights in a tent not only bearable, but comfortable, even on the increasingly chilly edges of summer.
Here are some thing to consider.
Get a good sleeping bag. Sleeping bags come with temperature ratings. A 50-degree bag, alone, doesn’t cut it when nighttime temperatures will be in the 30s. Likewise, a 0-degree mummy bag is way too hot for summer camping. Get one appropriate for the conditions you’ll be in.
And if you’re not sure what that will be, get a sleeping bag liner that you can use or not, depending on the weather. They add a few degrees of warmth.
Pay attention to shape, too. Some people feel too confined in a mummy bag, for example. Get one that fits how you sleep.
Use a sleeping pad. Pads – be they self-inflating, foam or of other construction – serve two purposes.
First, they provide a cushion that’s softer than the hard ground beneath you. No one likes a rock or root in the small of their back all night.
Second, they offer insulation. The ground gets cold and will suck warmth from your body. A pad prevents that from happening.
Dress appropriately. Before crawling into bed, put on dry clothes, especially socks. If they’re warm, all the better. Your body won’t waste energy trying to heat them up.
A knit hat is often a good choice, too. An awful lot of heat escapes through your head, so if it’s cold, put a cap on.
Just don’t overdo it. Pack on too many clothes and you might end up sweating. At the very least, you’ll be uncomfortable.
Use the restroom. You think it’s a pain to get up in the middle of the night to make a bathroom run at home?
Think about having to make the same trip when it means having to climb out of your bag, unzip your tent, find a flashlight, then navigate through the dark woods. Pray you’re not in a hurry.
Go to the bathroom right before bed, then, just before climbing in your bag, try going again.
Eat to sleep. No one would, at home, give a child a handful of chocolate right before bed and expect them to sleep. Likewise, few adults drink coffee or similarly caffeine-right drinks right before bed.
So don’t do it at camp either.
If you’re going to make s’mores, have them after dinner, as dessert. Then, before bed, choose foods that are better at inducing sleep. Cheese, fruits like bananas and cherries and bread are better options. A glass of milk can help, too.
Choose silence. Falling asleep to the sound of an owl hooting is enchanting. Lying awake all night because everything outside the tent sounds, at least in your mind, like an opportunistic bear looking for an easy meal – say, someone cocooned in a sleeping bag – is not.
And that’s not to mention the camper in the next tent over who snores like a rumbling, roaring about-to-blow boiler.
A pair of those foam earplugs – you can buy half a dozen pair for a few bucks in any sporting goods or hardware store – can make a huge difference.
Pack a pillow. Maybe you can sleep well with no pillow, or with just a sweatshirt balled up beneath your head. Or maybe not.
Your options may be limited if your backpacking. But if your car camping, your favorite pillow from home is a nice creature comfort that can make a lot of difference.
Use your water bottle. If you have a water bottle that you’re sure doesn’t leak, fill it with hot water before going to bed, then pack it in your sleeping bag. It becomes a hot water bottle, one that will warm you and your gear, promoting sleep.
Tuck it against your body, between your legs or against your core, to get the maximum benefit.
If it gets cold, or you take it out of your bag at some point during the night, stand it up upside down. Then, if your water freezes, the ice will be at the bottom and not the top when you flip it back over in the morning.
Finally, make sure you’re really tired. It gets dark early the later into fall we get, of course. Don’t feel the need to rush off to bed as soon as the sun sets, though.
That might be hours earlier than you go to bed at home, where a flip of a switch keeps the lights burning.
Stay up, enjoy the campfire, enjoy the company, look at the stars and make the most of your time outdoors. Then, go to sleep around your usual time. Stick to your body’s regular routine.
Do those things and yes, it’s possible to sleep well outside, on the ground, in nature.
Don’t be the zombie-like rookie. It scares the children.
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