Sleeping options while in the backcountry

Getting off the grid can be one of the joys of life.  Being outside, physically active, and enjoying hobbies like hiking, fishing, or exploring is what it is all about.  But one of the challenges of being in rugged country can be figuring out where and how to sleep.

Luckily, there are many options for sleeping in nature, and each with different advantages and investment levels.  Best of all, they are not mutually exclusive.  One method may be better for one trip, while another may best fit the next trip.

We are going to review the pros and cons of four different types of sleeping arrangements for the backcountry, what we like about each, what we don’t, and what situation each may be best for.

Sleeping options while in the backcountry

Ground Tents

The most basic and common way of sleeping in the backcountry is in a trusty, old-fashioned ground tent.  Ground tents are great because they are inexpensive, easy to store when not being used, and relatively easy to pack and carry, especially if you have a newer model. 

A good ground tent can cost anywhere from $100 to $300, depending largely on the size of the tent (i.e. how many people it sleeps) and the features and materials.  Some tents are made of incredibly light material that is also tough and resistant.  They cost more.  Tents that do not have as much built-in engineering will cost less.  The right option for you really depends on the conditions you normally camp in, and how light you need the tent to be.  If you typically hike several miles in to your camping spot, a light tent can be a huge benefit.

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If you use a ground tent, there are a few things that you need to invest in along with it.  A waterproof barrier is key, even in dry areas, because the ground often creates condensation at night.  And if it rains or if you are sleeping on any ground frost, you can expect that the bottom of your tent will get wet if you do not set out a waterproof barrier properly.  Additionally, because the ground under the tent tends to be uneven, rocky, and generally uncomfortable, you will most likely want some sort of pad under your sleeping bag.  The best ones are inflatable and tiny when not in use.

Enos and Suspended Tents

A riff on ground tents that has been gaining popularity in recent years is the suspended tent.  A popular brand is Eno, but there are many others.  Suspended tents are simple, light, and actually pretty comfortable to sleep in.  They pack into about as small a package as you can possible have for sleeping in, making them great for those camps when you are hiking-in many miles.

Suspended tents usually a little more expensive than ground tents, on a foot-for-foot basis, but they are still pretty affordable compared to more involved options.

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Suspended tents can present a couple challenges, however.  One is that, obviously, you need trees in order to use this method.  While many camping areas in the Northwoods have plenty of trees to choose from, some areas of the mountains or desert may not have enough areas where you can find two suitable trees in close enough proximity to hang the tent or Eno.  The other challenge is that you really don’t have “floor space” to keep things in while you are camping.

Roof Top Tents

For those with more of a budget, a Roof Top Tent can be a gamechanger as far as roughing-it in the outdoors.  They aren’t cheap - $1,000 to $3,000 or more, but considering the comfort and convenience, for some people exploring the backcountry they can be the right choice.

A Roof Top Tent (we will refer to it as an RTT) is a unit that attaches to the roof rack of your vehicle.  It typically folds-in to a pretty compact box when not in use, but when you need to sleep, it folds-out into a relatively spacious and comfortable tent. 

There are hard-sided and soft-sided RTTs, the soft-sided variety typically being much more affordable (generally speaking).  The hard-sided RTTs provide a little more protection for the unit while cruising down the highway, and they also fold-out into a usable tent faster.  The soft-sided RTTs don’t have the same protection, but are still quite tough, and usually less expensive.  Either one can be a good fit.

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You will need a couple things with your vehicle in order to be able to use an RTT.  First, you will need a vehicle large and strong enough to handle the weight and size of an RTT – they can often weight 120 pounds or more.  Second, you will need a roof rack that also has the specs to be able to handle the RTT.  You often see RTTs on SUVs, Jeeps, and trucks, but smaller ones can work quite well with sedans and wagons too.

What do we like about RTTs?  Lots.  They are extremely comfortable – they often come with a high-quality mattress built-in.  How often can you camp on an actual mattress?  And because they are elevated, you don’t have to worry about rocky ground beneath you, or moisture working its way in from below.  They are also quite durable, and give you more space and comfort than a ground tent.

What don’t we like about them?  Well, they are expensive, so they don’t fit everyone’s budget.  They are also elevated, so you will need to be able to access a ladder, which is fine for most outdoorsy people but a factor for some.  Finally, since they are fixed on your vehicle, you can’t exactly hike-in miles to that beautiful inland lake to camp.  You need to be at a spot that you can drive to.

Camper Cabins

Camper Cabins made a major impact on the backcountry world, at least in the USA, a few years ago.  Many state parks began offering camper cabins as a rental option for people, and the more popular ones actually became booked-up pretty solid in peak seasons.

A camper cabin is basically a structure that provides a roof and very basic sleeping quarters (you might need a sleeping bag) inside a natural area like a state park or forest area.  They are usually quite rustic and pretty small.  Not intended to be a true cabin or cottage, consider them more of a safe place to sleep and rest instead of carrying a tent. 

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Camper cabins sometimes include electricity, but often they do not.  To give you an idea of cost, the Minnesota state parks have many camper cabins throughout the state.  They typically cost between $55 and $75 a night…. So are not inexpensive if you are on a budget, but for those who are only going to camp a few times a year, it might be smarter than investing in a bunch of gear like tents or RTTs.

An obvious con of the camper cabin is that you are tethered to areas that offer them.  Many state parks, national parks, and forest areas across the country have stunning campsites throughout their area, but may not offer a camper cabin option.

Kevin Smith

About the Author

Kevin Smith

Ahoy there! The name’s Kevin Smith, the proprietor of this little travel and outdoors blog. The outdoors has always been a passion of mine since I was a kid as my parents were avid campers themselves. They taught me everything I know when it comes to camping, hiking etc. and I would like to do my part by imparting my know-how to like-minded individuals who enjoy the same hobby as me. I started this website in the hopes of helping other people when it comes to answering questions, giving tips and recommendations focusing on the camping niche. Along with some close friends of mine, we are here to help you make the most out of your outdoor experience. Enjoy your stay and enjoy the wild side!

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