Sometimes, the idea of roughing it in the great outdoors primes our minds to think ‘uncomfortable’ and ‘rough’. Some even impart an air of austere purity to suffering while out in the backcountry. But should this be the case? Should being comfortable be reserved for “soft” experiences? Contributor Jason Thienel reminisces on rough nights at camp and how some quality “soft” resting better helps him prepare for some pretty hardcore days of ultrarunning and rock climbing.

camping at night

I was pretty comfy, sleeping in my sleeping bag when my partner said, “Hey dude?” He woke me up, but I pretended I couldn’t hear him.  “Dude!”  This time he nudged me. Again, there was no reason I could think of that I needed to wake up and talk to him, so I didn’t say anything.  “Dude! There’s a skunk in the @#$&ing tent!“

Two of my best pals and I had hiked all day and set up camp at a backcountry site high on the plateau of Eastern Tennessee.  It was early fall and despite the fact that leaves were already covering the trail, it was quite warm.  We were new to this backpacking thing, so our bodies felt achy and depleted from a long day on the trail.  

Our packs were way too heavy, and the gear we were using was a but a small step above what Grizzly Adams would have been happy with. (If you don’t know who Grizzly Adams is, it’s worth looking up.)  We found a spot just below a ridge next to a primitive fire ring and set up a faded brownish-yellow 1979 JC Penny tent that was far from waterproof.  On a previous trip, heavy rain poured all night long and soaked us and our sleeping bags.

I unfolded my brand new Therm-a-Rest ZLite. It was probably my only piece of gear that didn’t come from a yard sale.  I was proud of this piece because it was only ¾ length, very light weight, and aligned with my minimalist approach.  I sat down on it at the edge of the tent, eating the bag of trail mix Taylor had packed for us.  Trey asked for my help with the fire, so I set the bag down at the edge of the tent and completely forgot about it.  It was a warm night so we left the front flap of the tent open for ventilation and quickly fell asleep–a situation apparently too tempting for a skunk to pass up. 

When I first started camping and backpacking as a teenager, I felt that I needed to be “pure” to the discipline.  Most of the time I slept without a pad, directly on the ground. Instead I would pile up leaves under the tent to give myself a cushion and a bit of insulation.  I went without a stove and cooked only on the fire.  Most of the time, I would just cowboy camp without a tent next to the fire.  On one of my early trips, backpacking through the Smoky Mountains, a guy at a backcountry site noticed these things, and said, “You don’t have a stove?!  Man, you are going to learn a lot from this trip.” Turns out he was right.  I used to feel so wrecked after camping and, at the time, I thought that it was part of the experience, as if feeling like crap on a Monday made me more cool or more hardcore.  I would say to my co-workers, “Yeah, I slept in a tent this weekend,” like it was a badge of honor to pair with the crick in my neck. It didn’t have to be part of the experience, I was just really bad at it.

After spending many, many nights in the backcountry or in campgrounds, I’ve slowly learned to adjust and get comfortable using gear to make my time more pleasant.  Maybe my desire for comfort comes from the fact that I am getting older, and my joints are getting creaky.   Resting better gives me the ability to take on bigger objectives and more miles with a smile on my face. But the same is true for anyone, at any age or fitness level: sleeping well is key to playing well. 

My adaptation to nice gear came very slowly.  I remember looking at a stove many times at the store before finally giving in.  Each trip to the backcountry I took, there would be another chink in my purist armor.

setting up camp kitchen in vanMy wife and I still go backpacking from time to time, but we bought a very small adventure camping trailer that we use as a basecamp when we trail run or rock climb.  We sleep like we are in a 4.5-star hotel in that thing and I don’t feel bad about it at all.  I’ve learned that if you rest better, it makes everything about your experience outside more enjoyable.

Camping can mean different things depending on who you talk to.  To some people, “camping” means sleeping in an RV and watching TV after dinner.  To other folks, it means sleeping in a harness and pooping a wag bag 20 pitches up a wall in Yosemite.  Others might just enjoy sleeping in a leaky tent curled up next to a skunk.  There are also different reasons why people camp.  It can be just to get away from the city and sleep under the stars, to be closer to your project or big objective for the day, or just because it’s cheaper than a hotel.  

I once watched a family roll into a campground around 7pm and set up camp.  They were close enough that I overheard them say there was a hole in their queen size air mattress that barely fit in their tent.  The next morning as I was gearing up to run some big miles in the mountains, they packed up and headed home.  They were there for less than 12 hours, and probably had a terrible nights sleep.  It made me realize that it makes no difference what your gear setup is, sometimes you just need to sleep outside and drink a beverage by the fire.  Those folks learned a lesson that night, and hopefully got another mattress.  Or at least made sure the hole was patched before they headed out again.

view from inside van

Whatever your idea of camping is, here are three simple ways to make your time more enjoyable, and help you rest better.

3 Tips for Resting Better

ultralight sleeping pads and cookware

1. Sleep on a good pad, ya dummy!

You know how they say you should spend good money on a mattress for your house because you spend like a third of your life there?  I feel like you should apply that same principle to camping.  When you camp you spend a good amount of your time sleeping, so your camp mattress should be warm and comfy.

resting better in sleeping bag on multiple sleeping pads

2. Get warm and stay warm.  

One of the mistakes I used to make was to wait until I was freezing to layer up.  It’s much easier to stay warm than to get warm, so put that puffy on before the sun goes down.

resting better with backpacking pillow sleeping pad and bag

3. Take a pillow.  

Camp pillows can be extremely small and lightweight these days.  My attitude used to be, I can just wad up a shirt or use my down jacket.  In some cases that works fine, but a pillow can make your rest so much better.

I’m not sure why we didn’t get sprayed by that skunk all those years ago.  The three of us tucked our heads in our sleeping bags and kicked at it until it left, fully prepared to get sprayed.  We zipped the tent up and probably didn’t sleep much at all, expecting it to come back. These days I have my camping setup dialed and I rest like a champ.  I like to play hard and I like to rest even harder.  I work for a small local outfitter and my time in the mountains is limited and precious.  It is important to me to pursue my outdoor endeavors well rested and focused.  Even though I use gear that my teenage self would be disappointed in, I think he would be proud of the adventures I take.

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Updated. Originally published February 8, 2018.