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Camping in Comfort for Older Men and Women
I have enjoyed camping my whole life, and I don't intend to stop just because I'm now pushing 60. I will admit, however, that there are several things about camping that have become more difficult as time goes on. Things like sleeping well, using the bathroom when there isn't a bathroom, and getting my old bones in and out of the tent have become more challenging as I have gotten a bit older. But I'm not letting that keep me from enjoying a night under the stars!
Older campers shouldn't back away from tent camping just because of a few discomforts -- with the right adjustments and adaptations, we can get just as much from camping as our younger fellow-travelers.
The Challenge: Sleep and Rest
As we get a little older, one of the first things that goes is the ability to sleep through the night. According to the US National Library of Medicine, our sleep patterns change when we age. Not only do we have a harder time falling asleep, but we wake up earlier: "Less time is spent in deep, dreamless sleep. Older people wake up an average of 3 or 4 times each night. They are also more aware of being awake... often because they spend less time deep sleep." [medlineplus.gov]
If you're like me, this is absolutely the case. It's not just getting up to use the bathroom (although that certainly is a factor!). It's also a matter of waking up in the wee small hours of the night, and then not being able to get back to sleep. If the bed is uncomfortable, or it's too hot or too cold, or if the pillows aren't right, then forget it -- the night is often completely lost.
When I'm camping, I'm really susceptible to this problem. While it can be beautiful and meaningful to sleep in a tent on a clear night, with the rain flap off and the stars shining, it can also mean any number of disturbances, from night birds and crickets to bumps and lumps under the sleeping pad.
Here are a few of the sleeping issues I have encountered as a gentlemen well past fifty who finds himself living like a boy scout for a week or two.
This Is the Camping Mattress I Use
Sleeping has always been the hardest part of camping for me and my partner. Either the mattress is comfy but way too big and heavy to carry, or it was light and small but too thin to protect us from the bumpy ground.
Finally I found this Sleepingo camping mattress. Packed up, it's about the size of a water bottle. Rolled out and blown up, it's a think but tough and amazingly comfortable mattress. For my older bones, it's just about the only thing that lets me camp out like I did thirty years ago.
A while ago, after a week of sleepless nights in a hot tent in Arizona, I came across a solution: a good battery powered fan. It may sound head-slappingly simple, but I'm amazed by how many of my fellow campers complain about the heat at night and never think of this solution.
Camping Sleep Issue Number One: Temperature
According to Sleep.org, the optimal tmeperature range for a good night's sleep is between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit. Lower than that and you'll need a good blanket; much higher than that and you'll need a fan, at least.
When we're camping, a blanket is no problem -- you're probably already in, or on top of a sleeping bag, and you can burrow down and be toasty warm. I have camped out in temperatures down into the twenties, and while the first ten minutes or so are really cold and chattery, once you warm up a little, you're fine -- in fact, some of my best nights of sleep while camping have been in cold weather.
Hot nights, on the other hand, can pose a real problem. Once you're down to you're birthday suit, you're pretty much out of options. I recently tent-camped in Panama, and the nighttime temperature and humidity were pretty brutal. There's almost no way to get a good night's sleep in those conditions -- unless you have a secret weapon.
My Hot-Weather Camping Secret Weapon
A while ago, after a week of sleepless nights in Arizona, I came across a solution: a good battery powered fan. It may sound head-slappingly simple, but I'm amazed by how many of my fellow campers complain about the heat at night and never think of this solution.
A decent battery powered fan will run for several nights on one set of batteries. The batteries mine uses are D cells, which are admittedly quite heavy in a backpack, but it's absolutely worth it (if you bring along a power bank, which I recommend for a number of uses, you may also find a fan that runs by USB or 12V plug). The added weight will pay off nicely in a far better night's sleep.
For us older campers, who may have trouble getting through the night in the best of circumstances, a good battery powered portable fan blowing a cool breeze on your back or in your face is almost a necessity. I can almost feel it now -- it makes bedding down on a steamy night an actual pleasure.
Camping Sleep Issue Number Two: Bumpy Ground
Us older campers likely already have an ache or two in our lower half, especially in the hips and knees. If you're hiking or backpacking, it's likely that your joints are already wondering what you're trying to prove, and are shouting a little bit. The pain that feels worthy and bearable as we hike can become a real problem when we try to sleep in a tent.
It goes without saying that a good camping sleep pad is critical to a good tent experience. I have used several, but I really like the newer models that are tough, comfortable, and roll into an amazingly small package. My Sleepingo inflatable sleeping pad rolls up smaller than a water bottle, and it's just the right thickness to get me through multiple nights on the ground.
My Bumpy Ground Secret Weapon: a Hip Ditch
Us oldsters (sorry, being ironic here) can also benefit from an old-fashioned trick that really works. When you have selected your tent location, set it up and climb inside to experiment with different sleeping spots. Once you have one you like, move the tent aside and dig a shallow hole for you hips. You may also dig one for your shoulders, but it's less important.
Your "hip ditch" should be a kind of dip only a couple of inches deep, with shallow sides. If you're on hard or rocky ground, do your best to make some kind of hole -- a small hip ditch is better than none!
When you sleep, your hips will have a place to rest, and your spine will stay straighter. Especially for those of us who already feel a little ache down there, and especially after an active day outdoors, this simple trick can make a surprisingly real difference.
A Good Run-Down of the Art of Sleeping in a Tent
Camping Sleep Issue Number Three: The Pillow Problem
I love pillows. My wife makes fun of me, but I don't care -- I want two pillows under my head, one behind my back, and one between my knees (also known as a "hug pillow" -- I may be pushing 60, but I remember the big stuffed dog I slept with as a little kid, and, well, you know).
The problem, of course, is that there's precious little room in a backpack for a pillow. Once you have a tent, a good blanket, and a ground tarp, your running out of room, right? Well, guess what: there's room.
My Pillow Problem Secret Weapon: An Actual Pillow
I decided to prioritize an actual fluffy pillow on my most recent camping trip, and I was 100% glad I did. For older campers like me, what looks like a luxury item can actually be something close to a necessity. A regular pillow packs down quite small if you put your weight into it, especially considering how critical it can be to actually sleeping, instead of tossing and turning all night. I also now include at least two pillow cases: They're small, and you can load one up with clothes to provide what amounts to an extra pillow. It takes up a lot less room than a big stuffed dog.
For older campers like me, what looks like a luxury item can actually be something close to a necessity.
The Challenge: Bathroom Trips
I realize this issue is different for men and women, and being a man, I'm lucky in this situation. I can get up, get out, stand a ways away from the tent, and let fly. If it's raining and I really don't feel like going outside, I can also use an extra water bottle (just, for the love of god, don't get your water bottles mixed up).
But let's confront the eventual necessity of going number two while camping. There are some basic rules of etiquette and ethical camping involved here. The acceptable method for solid waste in a camping situation is to dig what's as a "cat hole."
No Luxuries Like This on the Trail
My Bathroom Solution: the Cat Hole Brace
If you have cats (we have three) you know that they are surprisingly clean animals. Every time they pee or poo, they dig a little hole and then cover it up. As a responsible camper, this is what you are going to do.
As an older responsible camper, you are going to make a couple of adjustments. The main one is the location of your cat hole. Since the operation requires squatting, which is hard for us older people under the best of circumstances, you will want to choose a spot with that in mind. I always pick a spot next to a small tree, or even a good-sized rock, so I can have something to hold on to. Bracing yourself this way makes the whole unpleasant chore of pooping outdoors a little easier, if not more pleasant.
I also dig my hole well in advance of having to go, because the last thing you want is to be frantically searching for a good cat hole location while all those yummy backpack meals are looking for a way out.
This Guy Has the Right Idea...
The Challenge: Getting In and Out of the Tent
I have been camping with my teenage sons, and in many ways they have it so easy -- they sleep like a rock, they'll eat anything, they never poo, and they can hop in and out of the tent like acrobats. Older campers don't have these powers. Getting in and out of the tent is a prime example.
Getting into the tent, for me, is the easier of the two operations: I just unzip the flap and crawl in on my knees. Once most of me is inside, I turn and remove my boots, tucking them under the rain flap. Muddy, dirty boots, should never be brought into a tent, unless you want a muddy, dirty pillow, sleeping pad, blanket, socks, and so on. The dirt gets literally everywhere.
Older campers like me have a little more trouble getting out of the tent. You can't really crawl out on your knees, because you still need to put your shoes on, your back hurts, your knees hurt on the rocky ground, there are probably mosquitoes coming for you, and there could even be a snake in the vicinity. It's a vulnerable moment that we want to minimize if possible.
Tent Exit Solution: Boots First
To get out of the tent, I basically reverse the way I got in: stocking feet go outside the flap, reach out and put on boots, and do a little side-roll to hands and knees. From there I just back out and stand up. It's not comfortable, and getting the boots on your feet is the hardest part. But it's the most efficient method I have found, and when you're a little bit older, efficiency is the name of the game.
Do You Like Tent Camping?
Miscellaneous Challenges and Some Common Sense Solutions
Here are a variety of less-critical issues -- to me at least -- and what I consider to be fairly obvious ways to deal with them:
- Nighttime noise from crickets, frogs, and prowling zombies: ear plugs work wonders
- Cold temperatures at night: wear thick socks to bed, and put on a warm hat to keep your dome warm
- Blisters: band-aids
- Stings: cortisone cream
- Aches, pains, and headaches: Advil or Tylenol
- Trouble sleeping: I use an over-the-counter sleep aid
- Sunburn on the back of your neck: tie on a bandana (you'll also look cool)
- Mosquitoes: Use DEET. Alternatives will prove to be a disappointment
There are certainly other challenges you'll face when going into nature, but as an older camper, you have probably seen worse in your day!
Happy Trails to You!
The following sources were used for this guide: