How to Build a Camping Sleep System

Photo: Ben Herndon/ Tandemstock

Get a good night’s rest anywhere with a complete sleep kit.

Camping is like a key that opens the door to a whole new world of possibilities. Once you’re comfortable sleeping outdoors, the adventures are endless, from overnight festivals to national park campgrounds to forays deep in the wilderness. 

To open that door, you’ll need to equip yourself with a few pieces of essential gear. Don’t be intimidated or confused by all the options. Just think of outdoor sleep systems as scaled-down versions of what you have at home. You’ll need a shelter (like your bedroom), a sleeping pad (think: mattress), and a sleeping bag (your bedding). Of course, these items vary considerably depending on exactly what kind of excursion you’re planning. 

Use this guide to build the perfect camping sleep system for your needs, and get ready to walk through that door. 



Tents are the most common kind of outdoor shelter. These lightweight, portable homes-away-from-home provide privacy and protect you from wind, rain, and bugs. They work well for everything from car camping to ultralight backpacking, depending on the model and style. If you’re just getting started with camping, a tent is probably your best bet.

When shopping for tents, consider first what kind of camping trips you’ll be doing. Car camping tents tend to be large and sturdy. They’re full of features like pockets, window covers, and multiple doors, but they’re on the heavy and bulky side. Backpacking tents, on the other hand, are lighter and more compact—ideal for trips when every ounce counts. Also think about how many people will be sleeping in it. Tents come in models sized for anywhere from one to six or more people. Smaller tents will be lighter weight and more packable, while bigger tents are nice for social weekends where you don’t have to carry your gear far from the car.

One other major consideration is when you’ll be camping. “Three-season” models, which usually feature lots of mesh panels to enhance airflow, are appropriate for spring through fall, while winter campers will need a more durable “four-season” or winter-specific tent

Rooftop Tents

These shelters mount on top of your vehicle for an easy, comfy sleeping setup—no tent stakes required. They’re wonderful for everything from overnights to extended road trips, but they cost a lot more than your typical tent.

Bivy sacks

If you’re just starting out, bivy sacks can wait. But if you’re a minimalist camper who would trade elbow room for extremely light weight, they do the trick. These shelters fit closely over a single sleeper and sleeping bag/pad—and they’re not for the claustrophobic. They’re also not great for extended wet or buggy conditions.


Like the hammock you might have in your backyard, camping hammocks are rigged between two trees to create an off-the-ground sleeping system—ideal for terrain where flat ground is hard to find. They’re pretty lightweight, and with the addition of an underquilt, can be warm, protected spaces. However, it takes some practice to get used to sleeping in one, and figuring out how to rig tarps and underquilts can come with a learning curve.


A tarp is one of the more minimalist shelter options available. Most are made of coated, waterproof polyester or nylon, and they can be hung to form a tent-like shelter without a bottom (or full sides). Some come with their own poles, while others can be pitched using the trekking poles you may already have. Set up correctly, they provide a surprising amount of protection—but you’ll be more exposed to weather and bugs than you would be in a tent.

A woman sets up a tent while camping during a windy spring day at the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, California. Photo: Ben Herndon/Tandemstock

Sleeping Bag

A puffy, fluffy sleeping bag is your refuge from the chill. One of the biggest considerations in buying a bag is how much warmth it provides, a spec called its temperature rating. If you’re planning to camp in mild weather, a 30°F or warmer rating is probably just fine. In cooler climates or shoulder seasons, you’ll probably want something in the 10°F to 20°F range. The warmest sleeping bags are rated well below 0°F and are suited for deep winter and high-altitude expeditions. Also keep in mind that women’s sleeping bags are typically warmer than men’s bags. If you tend to sleep cold (regardless of gender), a 15°F bag labeled as “women’s” is more likely to keep you warm at that temperature than a 15°F men’s bag.

Sleeping bags are usually insulated with down, synthetic fill, or sometimes both. Down bags have the highest warmth-to-weight ratio, but they’re more expensive. Synthetic bags are more affordable, but bulkier. Bags are usually cut to be either rectangular, a shape that’s more affordable and just fine for warmer conditions, or in a “mummy” shape, which is closer fitting and warmer, if a bit tight for some people. Also keep an eye on length: Make sure the bag is long enough for you to stretch out completely.

A relatively new variation on the sleeping bag is an insulated quilt. It’s similar to a bag, but is at least partially open—nice if you like to stick a foot out from under the covers while you sleep. Quilts tend to be favored by ultralight campers, but warm sleepers often like them for the enhanced airflow.   

Sleeping Pads

When you’re laying in a sleeping bag, all the insulation under your body is compressed—which means it’s not insulating you at all from the cold ground. Enter the sleeping pad. These portable mats range from queen-size inflatable air mattresses to simple foam mats. Just as with the other parts of your sleep system, consider what kind of camping you’ll be doing. If you’re primarily car camping, a larger, cushier inflatable air mattress can work well (just make sure it fits inside your tent). If you’re backpacking, look for lighter, packable, inflatable sleeping pads. Thin foam mats are useful as extra insulation under an inflatable pad in cold temps, but they’re often not comfortable enough to use on their own.

Sleeping pads vary by thickness; the thicker the pad, the more cushioned it will be. And some have more insulating power, called “R value.” R value is an important spec to check if you’ll be camping in cold weather (the higher the R value, the warmer it will be). Many sleeping pads are made for a single camper, but you can also find double pads, even for backpackers. 

Sleep Tips

Once you’re outfitted with a sleep system, you’ll find there are still a few tricks and tips that will help you get a good night’s rest. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.