Camping in comfort when you live with chronic pain: begin with the bed

Growing up, my family took more camping vacations than any other kind. We went annually with the same people—friends with kids my age. Even when we moved to a neighboring state, we traveled for hours to camp with them.

These are golden memories for me, and it’s the kind of tradition I’d like to re-create for my own kids.

Camp Coleman Instant Tent 6

Coleman Instant Tent – 6 person model (Retail $180)

Lately, the trick has been figuring out how to travel the way I want to, experiencing the world at large, when my body has developed an autoimmune condition that sporadically surprises me with painful symptoms.

Camping for people of all abilities

Should a person with occasionally debilitating joint pain risk going camping?

Pardon my French, but:

Hell, yes!

Getting outdoors is a healthy pastime that should be accessible to everyone. We all benefit when the natural world is better appreciated. People who have experienced wild spaces are more likely to preserve and protect them.

Time spent in nature is good for all of us. It reduces stress and inflammation, improves eyesight and concentration. Going into the forest may even prevent cancer!

And then, in particular, I’d argue that people with autoimmune conditions should take part in every leisure activity they enjoy whenever symptoms allow.

On an acquaintance’s blog, I watched a video lecture by a doctor aimed at the lay audience of people with chronic pain. The physician described a vicious cycle wherein patients feel terrible, find themselves forced to rest up, begin to feel a bit better due to the rest, then over-do it catching up on chores which leads to another flare up of symptoms. They never get to enjoy their own lives.

He prescribes a better way to live: when the chronic pain patient feels better, s/he should resume a balanced mix of life’s activities, including spending some of that time on leisure. The long term result is better health as well as a higher quality of life.

But how does a person with limitations—even intermittent ones—venture safely into primitive conditions? Is it possible? Does it require expensive, specialized equipment?

Comfort 101: begin with the bed

For someone like me—and, I suspect this advice would hold for many healthy people over 40—the most vital piece of equipment to make camping a comfortable prospect is the bed.

If I don’t sleep, I have more pain.

Sound familiar to anyone else?

I can handle some increase in physical exertion, but only if my body has a chance to rest under suitable conditions.

Eight hours supine on a soft surface makes for a pretty good respite.

Here’s my own solution to restorative sleep in the great outdoors. It’s called the Cam-O-Bunk XL, and it is made by Disc-O-Bed. Full retail price in the USA is $370, but I got mine at Costco for significantly less.

The Disc-O-Bed Cam-O-Bunk XL bed has three major advantages over other cots I’ve tried:

  1. It is oversized and comfortable. You don’t sleep on a painful metal bar. Not by design (some cots have a support bar down the middle) or due to small size.
  2. This is a sturdy, heavy, metal-framed cot. I can lean on it to get off the floor without causing it to tip up or flip over.
  3. They come in pairs, usable alone as twins or stacking to make bunk beds, which can save floor space in the tent.

Sleep quality first, but space is an issue

If the cot were any smaller, it might not meet my needs for comfort. Any larger, and it wouldn’t fit in my tent. These really hit a sweet spot for a small- to average-sized adult. I’m 5′ 3″ tall and wear a ladies’ size Medium.

The sleep surface (the stretched canvas sling upon which your body rests) is 35” wide x 79” long. For comparison, a standard twin mattress is 38″ x 75″.

Keep in mind that I’m committed to sticking with a tent of moderate size.

Our “cabin style” Coleman Instant Tent is hardly a backpacking model—it’s six feet high at its peak with a 9′ x 10′ footprint, designated a “6 person” tent. It is far, far smaller than many currently available family models, though. It fit easily in every campsite we’ve visited, leaving us ample room to reserve most of the space for outdoor recreation.

Camp Disc-O-Bed Cam-O-Bunk XL stacked - 1

Top bunk is level with tent window at 32″ high

If my cot were any smaller, it might actually work against our best use of space. Here’s why:

A third, full-size adult can sleep on the ground using an oversized (by backpacking standards) self-inflating air pad perpendicular to the Cam-O-Bunk. His feet just extend somewhat under the bottom bunk if he sleeps fully stretched out.

The bottom bunk is 11″ off the floor, though clearance will decrease some in the middle under areas of the bunk sleeper’s greatest weight.

I used the same ALPS Mountaineering Summit Air Pad XXL wrapped in a white sheet for these photos, both on the top bunk, and on the floor. It measures a hefty (for camping gear) 30″ x 77″ x 4″. This, layered over a basic foam pad, was my camp bed in its entirety before I bought the Cam-O-Bunk. It’s thick enough for tolerable side sleeping by a woman with ample hips.

We don’t need two “rooms” as found in many larger (8+ person) family tents; the seam where the zip-open wall/divider is sewn is often the first spot to leak. Our tent has sufficient volume for sleeping, storage, and dressing, but we were having trouble optimizing the space we had. By adding the Cam-O-Bunk, we’re using limited space much more efficiently without resorting to up-sizing the tent itself.

Two of us have gained more comfortable beds; all four of us will have more space to spread out while we sleep.

A sturdy piece of furniture to get me off the ground

I also need some means of getting myself up off the ground in case my hand, wrist, or knee joint(s) decide to act up during a family camping vacation.

Admitting this is actually embarrassing for me. When my joints aren’t flaring, I’m strong enough (and flexible enough) to rise from sitting cross-legged on the floor to a standing position without using my hands at all.

I’ve always been proud of that trick, and it happens to be a quick, cheap method of evaluating a person’s overall health.

Without one sturdy piece of furniture on site, it is possible that I could find myself alone in the tent and literally unable to get up. My wounded dignity aside, such a situation can hardly be counted as enjoyable recreation.

Possibly excepting the mirth that watching such a scenario unfold could provoke in an onlooker, but I’ll assume that, if I were in pain, even my family would be more sympathetic than amused. Maybe.

Clothe yourself without contortions

Saving space is nice, from an organizational standpoint, but also necessary if one’s joints sometimes flare up and prevent performing contortions.

In order to dress in a typical tent shared by a family of four, bending, twisting, and kneeling are all unavoidable maneuvers. Usually, I can do all of that; sometimes, now, I simply can’t!

Here’s how the inside of the same 6-person Coleman Instant Tent looked before I got the Cam-O-Bunk XL:

The scrap of dark green tarpaulin floor space visible in the photos above represented the entire open area in our previous set-up. It was directly in front of the door. You could step into the tent without landing on a bed, but that was about it. Reaching one’s clothing in a suitcase meant crawling across the bedding.

The combination of the Coleman 6 person Instant Tent with the Cam-O-Bunk XL gives us an open area of about 3′ x 5′ for standing/dressing directly beneath the 6′ peak of the roof. The third adult-sized person (DS1) sleeps with his feet under the bunk (the gold blanket in the photo), and our little guy (DS2) still fits on a 3/4 length air pad (red sleeping bag) perpendicular to the door.

Camp Disc-O-Bed Cam-O-Bunk XL four beds

Clothing is packed in soft sided luggage when we go camping, so the bags can slide under the bottom bunk and out of the way when not in use.

What price accessibility?

This combination of tent and bunk bed/cots is $550 at full retail. Today on Amazon.com, $512; a similar setup from Costco.com is $510. I paid $455.15 by waiting for sales.

While not trivial, this doesn’t represent a major price increase over standard camping equipment for the fully able bodied. It’s easy to find high end tents that cost this much by themselves.

This budget does assume the camper already has suitable bedding. Sleeping bags are warm and convienient, but regular sheets and blankets can be sufficient in moderate conditions. Even my stretchiest knit fitted sheets wouldn’t stretch to fit on the Cam-O-Bunk, however. You will want to use an air mattress or foam pad on top to make twin sheets work well.

I prefer to camp without too much equipment, but not at the expense of comfort. A few key pieces make all the difference.

I’m happy with our tent, and we’ve used it for six years without complaint. I suspect many tents could serve equally well.

The Cam-O-Bunk XL cots, on the other hand, appear to be uniquely well-suited to my arthritic needs. They are better built than most. They are bigger than most. They are sturdier (to lean upon) than most.

For getting my creaky joints outdoors, that’s priceless.

Aside from the cost, the only other down sides to either my preferred tent or my favorite cots are weight and size. Both of these directly impact on the stability and comfort of the Cam-O-Bunk. I don’t think you can make a more useful bunk bed if you reduce either.

For the tent, we pay the weight/size price for an affordable shelter that goes up in mere minutes. This compromise may well be a poor one for other families, especially those who drive smaller vehicles. All of this fits easily in a minivan.

In both cases, I would advise anyone with chronic pain or joint issues to be aware that an able-bodied companion may be necessary to assist with carrying and setting up such heavy equipment. I personally struggle with impatience, but 67 lbs of metal bunk beds is not safe for me to maneuver unaided.

Thank heavens for robust, healthy kids and helpful husbands!

4 thoughts on “Camping in comfort when you live with chronic pain: begin with the bed

  1. You’re a brave woman. I have never gone camping with my wife and kids, only ever hiking/climbing by myself or maybe one, or two, select masochists. When my family went on holiday when I was a kid, and now as an adult, there were/are pools, hot-tubs, and hotel restaurants involved.

    The only bending and twisting involved is to avoid having to get my wallet out.

    • It’s funny how to some people, what my family does barely counts as camping. (We don’t hike in, and we stay at state parks with running water…) To others, I’m braving primitive wilderness like my foremothers on the Oregon Trail. 😀

      I love to sit around the fire at the end of the day. That’s quite magical, especially with the kids. I mean, not so much when they fling flaming marshmallows around, but after they’ve done that and gotten still and sleepy, it’s lovely.

      My insomnia eases, too, when I’m outside 24/7 for a few days. That’s fascinating. (Not enough to sleep in my yard at home or anything, but fascinating.)

      • I get that, I know exactly what you mean about the evening camp fires. We’re lucky enough to be able to do that on the land around our home. To my kids, sitting on the grass by the lake and having lunch in the open air is enough pioneering spirit for the summer season. They put the kayaks in the water and disappear for hours on end (we live surrounded by acres of woodland on three sides, and a lake on the other), which is great… but kayakking always finishes with lunch/supper by the lake, and home for a hot shower. Hardly “roughing it in the wilds”. I think if I suggested any kind of actual camping away from beds, air-conditioning, showers, and wi-fi signals, there might be a mutiny (possibly led by my wife)… THAT is where you are brave.

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