The Ultimate Sleep Setup for Car Camping
The most comfortable nighttime experience possible for vehicle-based adventures
Sleeping comfortably outdoors is the secret to having a better time outdoors. It’s something people spend years of effort and thousands of dollars trying to nail, and it’s by far the most frequent thing readers ask for my help with. So allow me to make it easy for you: this is the ultimate outdoor sleep system, offering the most comfort possible.
I’ve been doing this whole camping thing for 38 years now. In that time, I’ve slept on everything from the bare ground to mattresses in expensive rooftop tents, and I’ve done that everywhere from my backyard to the Australian Outback. Because I get to call all that a job, I’ve also had the opportunity to try a massive range of sleep-related gear. Based on that experience, this is my money-is-no-object, total sleep solution. It’s what makes my camping trips comfortable and what enables me to spend so much time outdoors. To the best of my knowledge, there is nothing better—so long as you’re using a vehicle to haul it.
It Starts with a Shelter
A good tent is one that’s a pleasure to spend time in and also one that’s quick and easy to set up and take down. For those reasons combined, it’s the Nemo Wagontop 4P that’s become my go-to shelter. Its external-pole, single-wall configuration keeps rain out as I erect it, which I’m now able to do in just a couple minutes.
Once it’s up, the Wagontop forms a cube whose interior is 6.5 feet in every dimension. Unlike most other tents, that means you can stand in it as easily as you can lay down in it. Ventilation windows around the top perimeter keep the tent cool on summer nights and eliminate condensation issues that typically plague single-wall designs. They also retain privacy while open.
Given its size and vertical-wall height, you’d think the Wagontop would be vulnerable to wind. But when I got caught in a windstorm during a group camping trip to Baja two years ago, my Wagontop was the only tent that survived the event unscathed. In those conditions, it actually fared better than smaller two-person backpacking tents, as well as traditional dome-style car-camping models. I still use the same tent today; it’s stood up incredibly well to both regular use and severe weather.
It’s remarkable, then, that the Wagontop packs down into a small duffel bag and weighs less than 20 pounds. It provides substantially more space and comfort than rooftop tents, at a fraction of the weight, packed size, and price.
You Need a Floor
Adding a floor atop your tent’s base will insulate your sleeping environment from the ground’s temperature and moisture. It’ll also protect your tent from all the debris you and your dogs will track in—and make cleaning all that up as easy as possible. It’s easy to dismiss this as unnecessary, but a floor really will add a significant degree of comfort to your shelter.
I’ve seen people use everything from foam tiles to wool army blankets for tent floors, but inside the Wagontop, it’s Nemo’s own Victory blanket that works best. It fits the interior shape and size of the tent perfectly, and its flannel top layer adds cushion and insulation, while its waterproof bottom serves as a moisture barrier.
Invest in a Real Mattress
Your mattress at home is tailored to provide a perfect amount of both cushion and support. So why don’t we ask the same of our camping pads? The big air beds most people use while car camping serve only to get you off the ground. Once you’re there, they sag in the middle, bending your back into uncomfortable shapes. The problem gets worse if you want to sleep next to someone, let alone with them.
Outdoors, a mattress must also provide significant insulation in order to prevent the cold ground from sucking the heat from your body. Counterintuitively, more insulation doesn’t make camping mattresses less comfortable during warmer temperatures, it just adds weight and cost.
The incredible Exped MegaMat tackles all of the above issues by wrapping an air chamber inside a thick layer of memory foam. That solution provides a custom level of cushion (it gets firmer than any other mattress I’ve ever slept on) and excellent support for the body. It’s also the most insulating sleeping pad I’ve ever seen, with a claimed R-value of 9.5.
I use the long-wide Exped MegaMat Duo, which at 78 inches long and 52 inches wide offers roughly the same dimensions as a full-size bed—ample space for both my fiancée, Virginia, and I to sleep on comfortably. It’s also by far the most ideal surface I’ve found (outdoors or in) upon which to have sex. The degree of bounce and cushioning provide both good energy return and solid support when things get vigorous.
What to Do About Insulation
I’ve been camping on that MegaMat since 2015, and in that time I’ve experimented with various types of bedding in a hugely wide range of weather conditions. I’ve found that the restriction created by even a two-person sleeping bag simply fails to take advantage of the full comfort and space benefits offered by the pad’s generous, totally flat sleeping surface. The MegaMat is as comfortable as my bed at home, so I decided to treat it the same way.
A fitted sheet set made from polar fleece wicks moisture and adds a small amount of insulation. As temperatures drop, I add layers of heavy fleece or surplus wool blankets, then throw a heavyweight down quilt over the top. A queen-size Rumpl is large enough to seal off the sides of the bed, even with two people in it, and provides a substantial degree of warmth. Just like with your outdoor clothing, layering this sleep system enables you to respond to varying conditions. The top sheet from the fleece sheet set is plenty on hot summer nights, but with two fleece blankets and two of those big Rumpls on top, we’ve slept in temperatures as low as 10 degrees in total comfort, while retaining the ability to roll around and spread out.
Taking a lesson from mummy bags, I also employ a throw-size Rumpl to insulate our heads on cold nights. I just tuck its edges under the top and sides of the mattress, drape it over the pillows we brought from home, and our heads and faces stay toasty.
Together, this setup is so warm and so comfortable that Virginia and I have, on multiple occasions, emerged from it in the morning fresh from a full night’s sleep and blissfully unaware that our friends have struggled through an unexpectedly cold or rainy night. With the days of risking discomfort behind us, this system enables us to spend more nights outdoors, in more extreme weather, more enjoyably.
For sure, this whole setup is expensive, but it’s also the single most empowering gear system in our arsenal.
Can You Take It Further?
I’m totally satisfied with the level of comfort achieved by this sleep system, but I’m also always looking to maximize campsite convenience or take the ridiculousness of this setup to a new level.
After the MegaMat was abraded by a bundle of firewood in the back of a truck, necessitating a field repair that’s held solid for the last two years, I wanted to find a way to better protect the mattress while it rides in or on vehicles. I found that a large ARB duffel bag perfectly fits a deflated and totally compressed long-wide Duo. That heavy-duty rubber-backed canvas sack then protects the mattress from both the weather and foreign objects, enabling us to transport it on a roof rack or in a truck bed.
And there are two other upgrades I’d like to try this year. In need of an extra guest bed over Thanksgiving, I ordered a portable metal bed frame from Amazon, sized to fit the MegaMat Duo. It’s heavy and bulky, but for a long-stay camping trip, it might justify its hassle by raising the mattress off the ground, giving us storage space for all our other stuff, and thus freeing up room inside the tent. I was also sorely tempted by the Kickstarter project that Rumpl ran a couple years back for a battery-powered heated blanket with all-night run time. The brand no longer sells those, so I’m searching for an alternative. We’re warm enough in our existing setup, but a heated blanket could boost the system’s luxury quotient even more.
But by far the most effective thing I’ve done to this system is simply to take care of it. Everything here adds up to $1,300 or more. By being careful to unpack and unfold everything at home, dry it out, and store it properly, this stuff is working as well today as it did when I first got it four years ago. And all of it has years of regular use left. It’s a big up-front investment for sure, but with proper care, it can give you hundreds of great nights outdoors.