Any advice for long-term tent camping?
July 8, 2010 3:35 PM   Subscribe

Any advice for long-term tent camping?

I'm considering living in a tent for at least one month this winter, but possibly up to six months, albeit in a very non-primitive location. There will be showers, toilets, drinkable running water, washing machine, a kitchen, refrigerator, even access to electricity, and I will have a car. But as far as sleeping, I will be sleeping on the ground in a tent.

Weather should be somewhat mild during this time, some rain but not a ton, no snow, with an average monthly low at 48F, highs ranging from 60s to 80s. It does get below freezing approx. 30 days in the winter though.

So mostly I'm looking for advice regarding comfortably sleeping in my tent in the long-term. What kind of tent should I buy? How big (I was thinking 3-person)? Canvas or Nylon? Footprint or under-tarp? How do I maintain it? How do I keep it dry? How do I keep it clean? How can I make it more comfortable?

I have a 10-degree (comfort) sleeping bag from REI, I think it's this one or similar. I like it, except I feel like I need more neck support - what kind of pillow should I get for this?

What kind of air mattress or sleeping pad should I get? I kinda dislike the huge air mattresses because they seem to distribute weight weirdly. I need something I can comfortably sleep on for months at a time.

As far as clothing, I'm planning to bring long underwear, smartwool socks, a knit cap, etc. for cold nights. Warmer clothes for the daytime. Any other suggestions for clothes?

Any other miscellaneous advice?
posted by CallMeWhiskers to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (24 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
before you're in a long term situation, take the advice you get here, purchase wisely (buy used, there are a lot of folks who buy equipment and hardly use it), and TRY IT OUT for a few weekends before you start this adventure.

and, closed cell foam pad to sleep on... not an air mattress (unless the weather is warm).
posted by HuronBob at 3:47 PM on July 8, 2010

If you have some time before this project, I would strongly suggest getting the Dwelling Portably compendium or some of the other resources on this page. People who have been doing this stuff for much longer than a month or six can give you some ideas of what works in the long term.
posted by jessamyn at 3:50 PM on July 8, 2010 [4 favorites]

I have a memory-foam sleeping pad that is awesome- it's very comfortable, and compresses down into a quite small stuff sack when not in use. Last time I went camping I had that, while my friend had an old piece of carpet padding. Let's just say we had pretty different experiences, comfort-wise.

My general advice would just be to go to an outdoors store and ask them. We have a place in L.A. called Adventure 16 that is fantastically helpful; not sure how widespread they are though. REI is good too I imagine.
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:50 PM on July 8, 2010

Get a good battery light for your tent. Possibly with a couple sets of rechargeable batteries. You'll do a lot of reading. . .
posted by Danf at 3:51 PM on July 8, 2010

It sounds like you have this well-thought out. Some of this you are just going to have to figure out for yourself, honestly. What I've noticed from long-term camping in the field is that everyone has their own camping style. BUT To address some of your questions:

I would suggest making a sleeping bag lining out of a cotton or bamboo sheet. I have found after a few weeks of camping my sleeping bag gets SUPER funky, and if you have a sheet you can launder it on the regular, and keep your sleeping bag clean.

Also, make sure you don't wear shoes in your tent, and get a nylon tent with an outside awning, to stash boots, etc. for when it rains. Get a tent and mattress-pad repair kit. A brush and dustpan will help keep dirt under control. Take advantage of sunny days to take the rainfly off and air the tent out.

In terms of pads, maybe use two? One a ridge-rest or other insulating one, and then a thin air one on top. When I long-term/car camp I use that, with a blanket on top of the pad. Super comfy, not weird air-puffy. Is there any reason why you can't just bring a normal pillow? That's what I would do.

Clothes: wool is sturdy and warm when wet. Cotton sweaters are not what you want here, even if it doesn't rain a ton.

I hope that helps, sounds like fun! (at least, I hope you are doing this for fun reasons)
posted by Maude_the_destroyer at 4:01 PM on July 8, 2010

Based on my experience with just this (living out of a tent for 2-3 months at a stretch in my former archaeological career), I'd suggest moving your tent around every week or two, even if it's just six feet over. Once the tent's down, the stuff below it starts rotting and building up moisture very quickly, and that seeps through the bottom. Even with a ground cloth.
posted by The Michael The at 4:12 PM on July 8, 2010 [5 favorites]

The summer staff I know who live in tents for months on end all have either air mattresses or real ones, with a duvet, sheets and real pillow. A sleeping bag gets annoying and fiddly (and even with a liner, is likely to get more gross). If you can be comfortable sleeping every night on a teeny narrow thing designed primarily for portability, that's great - if not, and you'll be in the same place for a long time, it may be worth going for something more substantial. I personally find the little canvas army-style cots quite comfortable, and if there's no possibility that you'd be inviting company back to your tent, something like that might work out. And that would give you a whole three inches of storage space underneath it!
posted by Lebannen at 4:13 PM on July 8, 2010

Best answer: Taking your questions in order:
Type: consider a 'family camping' tent, or one that will allow you to stand up inside. You'll feel less claustrophobic.
Poles: Also, get a tent with aluminum tent poles; the fiberglass ones invariably fail, usually when you least need/want them to.
Rain fly: Many family camping tents have what we (at {famous camping retailer} used to call a "yarmulke rain fly". That is, they only cover the top of the tent. You have two options here - you can try to find a tent with a full rain fly, or you can rig a tarp over the tent. Many, many people go with the latter.
Vestibule: Also try to get a tent with a vestibule, and extend the tarp you use under the tent to this area. Put a camp chair out there and you can take off wet jackets, dirty shoes, what have you, leave them in the vestibule and not track things into your tent. If the weather is nasty, you can cook there too (though not directly on the tarp!).
Cleaning Get a small whisk broom and pan and sweep your tent every day -either just before you go to bed or right before you leave in the morning. This will keep down the level of detritus that filters in. See also: Vestibule
Tarp/footprint I've always used a canvas tarp under the tent. Get a good tarp, with tight pores, and not a cheap one with light plastic on one side. Canvas is durable and breathes, which is important in the wet.
Cot If you get a tall tent, then consider getting a cot to sleep on. the Mr and I car camp a few times a year, and we use a cot with a therma-rest mattress on top. It's nearly as comfortable as bed, and better insulated. Plus you can use the space under the cot as storage/floor space (which is 'lost' if you're sleeping directly on the ground). An added bonus is that it's easier to sit up and swing your legs over the side of the cot to get up (bathroom in the middle of the night, for example).
Therma-rest This is not an option. There are other brands to choose from, and they're mostly pretty reliable, but I like Therma-rest the best (great guarantee). Get the plushiest, longest, thickest one (also try to get one with a non-stick side so you don't slide around on the cot. If you can't find one, get some of the non-slip stuff sold for drawers and put a length under the therma-rest). You're not backpacking, so weight/space really aren't a huge concern. This will provide padding and insulation, but not be a PITA like an air bed.
Pillow If you've set up your space with a cot, why not just use a regular pillow (or whatever you'd normally use)? That's what we do when we're car-camping. It's familiar and gives me exactly what I need in terms of neck support.

You're on the right track - think in terms of layers and you'll do fine. Stick with wool or good synthetics though, if there's any chance you'll get wet. Cotton is miserable when wet, can lead to hypothermia, and takes forever to dry.

Seam seal your tent seams! I cannot stress this enough! Especially the floor seams - this is where the worst leaks can occur. Buy extra seam sealer and be prepared to refresh on a nice day.
Tent lighting: Consider a candle lantern - there's a three-candle model that shed a surprising amount of light, and provides the added bonus of warming your tent slightly (a lot, actually - on a cold night especially).
posted by dbmcd at 4:16 PM on July 8, 2010 [8 favorites]

The two biggest problems I have with sleeping in tents are temperature and comfort.

Cold is easy to deal with, just layer up. Heat is a bit trickier but I've found Magicool to be pretty much indispensable, though expensive.

Tent-wise, I've yet to find anything more comfortable to sleep on than a British Army camp bed. Airbeds tend to be more hassle than they're worth, in my experience.

Happy camping!
posted by Quantum's Deadly Fist at 4:17 PM on July 8, 2010

I spend 3 or 4 months out of the year living in a tent. I agree that air mattresses are horrible, I would choose the bare ground over an air mattress. Actually the most comfortable sleeping surface I ever had was one summer when a masseuse that I know lent me her portable massage pad, which was kind of like a three-section foldout of couch cushions. You could even actually try bringing couch cushions too! Failing those ideas though, I'd say bring a real mattress - you said it'll be in an urban setting or something, right?

As for miscellaneous advice, ziplocs are your best friend. Bring as many as possible. Dry Sacks are also very very useful - I have three, one is for my laptop and other electronics, second is for a spare blanket and warm clothes in case of flood/tent collapse, and the third I take to work with me (working outdoors in Northern Canada, you're almost guaranteed one rainfall per day).

If you're looking for a tent recommendation, I've had great experiences with Asolo's products. This one is very similar to the one I've been using for three years now (and it was actually passed on to me by a friend who used it for two or three years before that).

Final miscellaneous tip: if you find it really cold at night or when you wake up in the morning, put the clothes you plan to wear the next day in your sleeping bag at night. That way you have more insulation while sleeping, and your clothes are already warm when you put them on. Personally, I've mastered the art of getting dressed in my sleeping bag and I'm proud of it!
posted by mannequito at 4:32 PM on July 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Get a tent you can stand up in. I have used a Springbar tent and it was great. Expensive, but great. Might be overkill for your purposes.

Second the advice to get lots of ziplocs. Also get big plastic storage bins and keep all your stuff in that.

When I'm car camping, I never use a sleeping bag: I use a big air mattress and inflate it to be very firm. I use regular sheets and blankets. I have found that these can crack in very cold weather (they're invariably made of cheap vinyl), which is bad. I might look into using a cot in your position.
posted by adamrice at 4:49 PM on July 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I sleep in a yurt, which is just a big tent in terms of climate. You mention that electricity is available - if you can tap into it with an extension cord then an electric overblanket makes for a cozy bed even on really cold nights.
posted by anadem at 5:11 PM on July 8, 2010

are there 2 trees, roughly 12-20 ft apart, that can support your weight? or can you dig one or more posts? then i would sleep in a hammock (eg warbonnet, hennesey), ideally under a giant tarp with room to stand up and cook in.

do you have access to firewood? can you have a controlled fire? can you build something temporary? then build yourself a rocket mass heater for $5 to $100 and hang alongside it. making a rocket stove is way, way easier than it sounds.
posted by paradroid at 6:38 PM on July 8, 2010

Mr. metaseeker spent 3 months in a tent by a lake in Montana, albeit in the summer. He says:

Moisture is your enemy, not cold. Buy a good quality 4-season nylon tent and put seam sealer on all the seams.

Instead of a footprint, use a tarp, so you can have covered ground in the foyer. Always take your shoes off in the foyer, or else the tent gets dirty real quick.

It'll be too cold for bugs, so no worries there.

On preview, what dbmcd said.
posted by metaseeker at 7:53 PM on July 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

In your position, I think I'd get something like this, a folding foam sleeper chair for sleeping.
posted by lemniskate at 8:23 PM on July 8, 2010

tarps and towels!
posted by palacewalls at 8:43 PM on July 8, 2010

Location, location, location. When you set up your tent pick good spots. Level ground, free of rocks, away from bathrooms or paths. If you think it is going to rain dig a small trench around to avoid waking up in a puddle. Clear out rocks & sticks, etc etc.
posted by cuando at 9:14 PM on July 8, 2010

Based on much shorter experience (two weeks max, really), I'd reiterate Thermarest, Thermarest, Thermarest. And if you can afford the double-thick version, so much the better.

Leave your sleeping bag unzipped and spread open as far as it'll go to air out every day, if possible.

Obsessive attention to tidiness will be your friend. Imagine you're living on a sailboat and have to put everything away as soon as you're done with it.

Also as-close-to-obsessive-as-possible personal hygiene can be a good thing... I still remember, at the beginning of that two-week period (yes, it was Burning Man), we arrived on-playa and ran into an acquaintance. *sniff* *sniff* "You just got here, didn't you?" she said. "You smell..." *sniff* "...clean." We just thought she was being weird until a week later when the rest of our camp member started showing up and... *sniff* ...dang, but they smelled clean.
posted by Lexica at 9:21 PM on July 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I camped for 8/9 months solid a few years back, albeit in dry weather.

Get a tarp and put it under your tent. Make sure you get a tent you can stand up in and which has a vestibule with a groundsheet, so you don't bring dirt into the tent. It goes without saying that you should buy the best tent you can afford, particularly because the extra money should be spent on things like better quality material and seams.

Get an outdoor rated extension lead (your campground will probably require this if you hook up to electricity). My old tent had a small flap at the back into which we could run a power lead. Run the extension lead into your tent and connect it to a four socket extension so you can run multiple things at once. My tent light was a mechanic's light - i.e. what they hook to the hood of the car - hung upside down. It worked like a dream.

For sleeping, you need to ensure that the cold ground doesn't cool your bed/mattress. Either get a campbed or something more solid. Over a few months an airbed will probably leak, which is boring. I actually spent my time sleeping on a thin thermarest mattress, which is just about comfortable enough, but I wouldn't do it again.

Boxes: get a plastic washing up box. Get a plastic dry food box. Get a plastic pans and plates box. Get a box for knives, utensils etc. You'll need to keep your tent clear, so work out where this stuff is going to go. I kept it in my 4x4, but then I moved about every few days and if I'd kept stuff smelling of food in my tent it would have attracted animals and insects.

One of the things you'll have to think about is your bedding - when you get out of bed, nice and warm and its cold and wet outside your bedding will attract moisture. I'd go synthetic as much as possible/tolerable.

Inside shoes: have some, or you'll trail dirt in. Also, buy a dustpan and brush: it'll get used a lot. I'd also think about where you plan to hang wet clothes, like your rainjacket. You don't really want it in the bedroom part of your tent.

Cooking: you have a kitchen, which is great. But I'd consider a little stove for cups of coffee. You won't leave your tent when it's cold and traipse across to the kitchen for a brew.

Toilet: it's a bit gross, but you might want to get one of those hospitalish receptacles to save you having to get right out of your tent to go for a pee. You also don't want to consistently be having a pee round the back of your tent.

Finally, think about positioning for your tent. A flat position will make all sorts of things less tiresome. But do your homework and make damn sure that the ground beneath your tent isn't in a rain channel, or somewhere that gets sodden.
posted by MuffinMan at 12:40 AM on July 9, 2010 [4 favorites]

You've mentioned temperature and precipitation at your planned location, but what about wind? Those huge family-sized tents are mostly not really designed for any sort of high wind, unless you go more for the big expedition dome style. It only takes one day/night (and isn't it always a night) of high wind to turn a home-from-home into a flattened, flapping mess. I'd probably go with some kind of dome....
posted by Lebannen at 3:22 AM on July 9, 2010

People have told you about the seam sealant, but in case it's not clear, do it on your new tent, the first thing you do once you've put it up for the first time.
posted by Helga-woo at 5:47 AM on July 9, 2010

In addition to the excellent advice above, I'll amplify that you should pay very careful attention in site selection, particularly in regards to weather and drainage. You may, depending on the terrain, elect to proactively create some trenches or drainage channels, or elevate your site above the surrounding terrain. Consider where wind-driven rain or snow could hit your tent, and how to keep your common paths of travel from turning into a muddy mess.

Like others, I think you would be better served with a large, car-camping style tent than a small, backcountry version. I'm a fan of hanging things from the ceiling rather than having them rolling around on the floor getting wet and dirty. Look for a tent with some well-supported inside loops and anchor points where you can comfortably hang a lantern and some stuff-sacks.
posted by itstheclamsname at 5:48 AM on July 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Put the tent up and let it air out a good bit after you seal the seams. A cot will help keep your bedding dry, which will be a huge help.
posted by theora55 at 7:55 AM on July 9, 2010

Did someone already suggest a covered outdoor vestibule for your wet shoes?
posted by salvia at 8:49 AM on July 9, 2010

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