Camping: Get a Good Night’s Sleep

It’s summertime and if you’re like me, you’ve been looking forward to camping season.  Often getting a good night’s sleep outside of our cozy beds can be difficult and sometimes painful.  The good and bad news is there are many options for sleeping pads and mattresses. Each person’s spine and body are different so you may need to check with a physical therapist to see what works best for you. Finding the right fit for ergonomics and convenience can be a challenge, so I’ve outlined some options and ideas.

Spine Alignment During Sleep

Just like during daily activities and sports, getting your spine into better alignment helps you stay comfortable while laying down.  Getting joints and muscles into optimal positions can help your body absorb forces more efficiently and more comfortably. In an ideal world our spines would stay stacked when we lay down, but unfortunately gravity can pull us into twists and tilts that can cause discomfort.

Info-graphic of incorrect and correct sleep posture

Camping Pads and Mattresses

Navigating that rock digging into your back, a sinkhole mattress, a surface that isn’t quite level and a painful bony prominence can be a challenge. Finding the perfect balance depends on your flexibility, body shape, and individual sleep habits such as your preferred sleeping position.  A 2016 study from The Lancet by Kovacs (et al) concluded that a medium firm mattress had better outcomes for low back pain than firm mattresses, which can be applied to back country beds as well. As for materials, a 2013 study from the National Institutes of Health reported high-density foam mattresses help to better distribute pressure on bony prominences.  This can help with avoiding pressure ulcers but it may also help hips and shoulders tolerate the ground.

Cots and hammocks:  Depending on tension, may be too flat, too firm or feel unsupported. With air underneath you, it will also be cooler. This can be a good option for kids or lightweight individuals with no aches or pains to work around. 

Boy trying to sleep in hammock
Jody’s son Oliver hanging out in a hammock

Foam pads:  Size may be the limiting factor with this option.  Larger pads, like a paco pad may be more supportive but are bulky.  Slimmer foam rolls are certainly easier to pack but offer less padding.  

paco foam pad for sleep car camping or river trips
Ali’s paco pad – used for car camping and river trips

Air mattresses:  This is perhaps the most popular option you would see in a sporting goods store, ranging from a lofty feet of lift to ultralight backpacking inflatables.  Air mattresses give you flexibility to adjust firmness but may be limited due to style. As with cots and hammocks, the more air under you, the colder the sleeping surface.  

inflatable air mattress for sleep in back country
Ali’s inflatable air mattress – used for backpacking

Pillows and Padding

Like sleeping indoors, adding padding and pillows can be a helpful addition to keep your spine in alignment.  Pillows are a physical therapist’s duct tape and can be used to bolster areas that need a little more support.  

Ali trying to sleep on a stack of 8 camp mattresses
“How much money have I spent on camp pads? Oh well, it’s worth it!”

These are just a few ideas to help you get out and enjoy the benefits of the great outdoors–and get a better night’s sleep.  If you have pain that persists, come in and we can do a more specific evaluation to get you back outside. Sweet dreams!

The Lancet: Effect of Firmness of Mattress on Chronic non-specific low back pain