14 Tips to Successful Sleeping in a Tent with Back Pain

Have you stopped camping because your back is not as forgiving as it used to be? I can’t blame you, tent camping with a bad back can be a brutal hobby, but I think we can both agree that quitting is not an option here. Your back just needs some support, and that’s exactly what I discuss in this article—the best sleeping system for camping with a bad back.

But there’s some bad news. I can’t give you a straight answer to the ‘how to solve my back pain?’ question. Everyone’s body is different and what may work for you can worsen the pain for others. Take my parents for example, who are both struggling with lower back pain. My mom broke her back a few years ago in a car accident, and my dad is just an old fella. They each found a different solution to the same problem. My mom gave up on the tent and invested in a decent hammock, which solves the problem for her. My dad on the other hand, is terrified when he sees a hammock but sleeps peacefully on a camping cot.

Now it’s your turn to try different things and find what works for you. I’ve scoured Reddit, Quora and other forums for people with the same problem as you. Here’s what they recommend doing:

Sleep on a camping cot

Many people on the forums mentioned that this was THE solution for their back pain problem. Camping cots are raised off the floor, offering more support. They also make it less painful to get up in the morning.

The biggest downsides of camping cots are their size, weight and set-up time. They’re usually pretty heavy and bulky and are in most cases not an option for backpackers. These days, however, more and more ultralight camping cots are appearing on the market. They’re packable and quick to set up, making them suitable for backpacking.

And if you find your camping cot uncomfortable, just put a sleeping pad on top. Many people on the forums claimed that this works great.

A camping cot
The combination of a good camping cot and a sleeping pad could be the solution.

Try to sleep in a hammock—it may be the solution you’re looking for

Although this article is about tent camping with a bad back, many people on the forums have switched to hammocks and are very happy with their choice. However, there were also a few people who claimed that hammocks only made the situation worse.

This got me interested, so I read HealthLine’s article about hammocks, which said that “many of the purported benefits for adults are anecdotal.” This means they’re based on personal experience and have not been researched well enough to be considered a fact.

Many people claim that sleeping in a hammock relieves pressure on their shoulders, back and butt. Theoretically speaking, this is because the surface is more flexible, meaning there’s equal pressure on all parts of your body.

In addition, people claim that hammocks:

  • Promote deeper sleep
  • Reduce insomnia
  • Shorten sleep onset

three campers sleeping in their hammocks

But even so, some people claim that it amplifies their back pain. So the only way to really find out is to try it yourself. Buy or rent a hammock, hang it somewhere in your backyard and sleep in it for a few nights.

Here are a few opinions about hammocks that I found in comment sections or forums:

“My hammock is comfier than any bed I’ve ever slept in. No pressure points and I don’t have to crawl in and out of it. Never have to stoop over or bend while setting it up or taking it down either. It’s now my standard shelter (except in extreme cold).” (source)

“I have two herniated discs in the lower back and once I started using a hammock I won’t trade for anything elsewhere it’s possible. I bought a hammock tent and insulation and couldn’t be happier.” (source)

“Hammocks and water beds are deadly to my back. Larger size to allow changing position and thicker pad on the cot helps me.” (source)

Hammocks are not always an option

In some cases, sleeping in a hammock is not the best option:

  • If there are no trees or poles to attach your hammock to.
  • If it’s too cold.
  • If you’re group camping. You can’t sleep next to each other, which may be a downside for some people.

In these cases, you might want to think of another solution—or make sure your destination is hammock-friendly.

a plain grassfield
How will you set up your hammock at this campsite?

Use an air pad with enough support

Soft sleeping mats like cheap air mattresses won’t do you much good; quite the opposite in fact, they will only result in more back pain and stiffness. Quality air pads (like this one) have air cells that act as cushions. These are not only super comfortable but also support your back.

So it’s important to choose an air pad that stands out in both support and cushioning, and these are usually the more expensive ones. However, I’m sure you can find a supportive sleeping pad for a reasonable price if you do your research well enough.

Rent sleeping pads, hammocks and camping cots before buying one

I’m not expecting you to buy a dozen sleeping pads just to find out which one works for you. That would cost you way too much money. Instead, rent a sleeping pad so you can test it. You can find many websites that do this, and it’s a great way to find the one you need.

However, it’ll cost you much more online than at your local gear store, and I couldn’t find a website that rents out camping cots. So you may want to visit your local camping store and explain your situation to them. I’m sure most of them will allow you to test their sleeping pads, hammocks or camping cots before buying one. 

If you’re interested in other ways to get your gear cheaper, click here and it’ll take you to a subtitle in one of my articles: 6 ways to get your gear cheaper.

For rent

If a high-quality air mattress doesn’t work, try a foam sleeping pad

Although foam sleeping pads are not nearly as comfortable as air mattresses, they do provide a lot of support for your back. They evenly distribute your weight and lift you off the ground if you choose one that’s thick enough. The thicker, the better, but don’t forget to pay attention to weight and packability if you’re backpacking. 

What about memory foam sleeping pads?

Again, for some people these work wonders and for others they’re not the solution. That’s because their body contours to the mattress in a way where the spine is not properly aligned. However, generally speaking, memory foam sleeping pads are a great way to deal with back pain.

Try adjusting the air-level of your air mattress

Some people on the forums mentioned that adjusting the air-level of your air mattress can help. Let some air out until you find a comfortable position.

Pump your air mattress right before bed

For others, letting air out doesn’t work but pumping their air mattress to the maximum right before bed does. It’s really all about experimenting until you find something that works for you.

If you sleep on your back, place a pillow under your knees

This will reduce stress on your spine and support the natural curve in your lower back, which should result in less low back pain. 

In case you’re backpacking, bringing a second pillow is not worth it. Instead, bring a dry bag, stuff in some clothes and use that as a pillow.

If you’re a side sleeper, put a firm pillow between your knees

Since lying on your side can hurt your spine, experts advise placing a firm pillow between your knees. It makes sure that your upper leg doesn’t pull your spine out of alignment, resulting in less stress on your hips and lower back. For optimal results, pull your knees slightly toward your chest. 

In case you’re backpacking, bringing a second pillow is not worth it. Instead, bring a dry bag, stuff in some clothes and use that as a pillow.

a drawing of a spine
Keep your spine aligned.

If you’re a front sleeper, place a flat pillow under your stomach and pelvis area

Again, this will raise your spine, keeping it in the right position. If you like to sleep on your stomach, you may also want to use a flat pillow for your head or use none at all. You should also know that out of all sleeping positions, this is the position that can damage your back the most. 

In case you’re backpacking, bringing a second pillow is not worth it. Instead, bring a dry bag, stuff in some clothes and use that as a pillow.

If you’re a back sleeper, place a folded shirt under your lower back

It adds support and takes the strain off your lower back. The person advising this tip mentioned that he wakes up feeling like his back is more rested and relaxed.

If the pain is unbearable, take a non-addictive pain reliever

On one of the forums, someone advised ibuprofen and Naproxen Sodium. Just make sure you never consume it with alcohol.

Get in and out of bed slowly and avoid jerky movements

The same can be said for turning around while sleeping. A bad back is not made for sudden moves, so treat it with care.

a billboard that says slowly please

Be careful with your back in other ways as well

While you should pay attention to it while sleeping, know that the sleeping part is just one aspect of comfortable camping with a bad back. You should pay attention to other things as well. For example, strengthening your core, having a camping chair with lower back support, staying hydrated and making sure you lift heavy things correctly

Check out this article for more information on camping with a bad back.

Final words

Back pain sucks, and I know you want to deal with it as fast as possible. Unfortunately, the hard truth is that nobody can give you a straight answer to the ‘how to solve my back pain?’ question.

Sure, I can give you some tips that may help but everyone’s body is different. There has also been far too little research on this subject to jump to conclusions. Some of these tips can work wonders, while others will only make your back pain worse.

So the best advice I can give you is to test different things until you find something that works for you. Many stores will allow you to test their products before making a purchase, so make use of this option.

I truly hope that you find something that works for you. Camping should be an activity that everyone can enjoy doing. If you have any tips to add, please post them in the comments below, and I will add them to this article. 


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