How to Sleep Better in the Backcountry

Often, the first complaint I hear from new backpackers is that they can’t sleep in the woods. Nothing quite sucks the life out of backpacking like knowing you’re going to sleep terribly, if at all, when you get out there.

Let’s see if we can fix that. Here are some tips.

Upgrade your sleep system

I can’t stress this one enough. If your’e not comfortable, how can you expect to sleep well?

Upgrade your sleeping pad. This is where most people skimp on gear, and it’s in my opinion the most important aspect of your sleep system. If your’e a cold sleeper, get something insulated. If your’e a hot sleeper, on warmer months (above 35 degrees) you can try a non-insulated sleeping pad. The most comfortable pads are, in my opinion, the Big Agnes Insulated Q core, and the Big Agnes Double Z. Other good options are the Big Agnes Air Core (insulated or not), and the Kelty PDa. I’ve also had some success with Thermarest pads, but they’re not my favorite. Get something that’s thick enough that you will not touch the ground when laying in any position. “Quilted” baffles will distribute your weight more evenly and prevent pressure points. Great if you have hip or back pain. Vertical baffles typically offer a firmer sleep surface sensation, while horizontal baffles often feel “softer”.

Get a warm down sleeping bag. If you’re cold, your body will often resist falling to sleep, because your body temperature drops even further when you sleep. You need to stay warm to sleep well. Find a bag that is rated 10 degrees below what you expect to camp in. Consider how you like to sleep. Are you a tosser? A larger bag with more room will suit you better than a snug mummy bag that will restrict your movement. Sleeping bags that connect to your sleeping pad will keep the sleeping bag in place while you move inside the bag. Quilts are a great option for warmer weather, as they allow more freedom and less weight, while providing a home like comfort. A great example of a good quilt is the Sierra Designs Backcountry Quilt.

Get a decent pillow. A wadded up jacket isn’t a pillow. Stomach and back sleepers require flatter pillows, while side sleepers will require something thicker. Pillow Guide.

Sierra Designs Backcountry Quilt

Hike harder, camp harder

If you’re tired, you’ll sleep better. Get up early the day you camp, and hike most of the day. Stop for meals and breaks, but don’t nap. When you’re at camp, keep moving and active. Play games, gather firewood, adjust your tent, joke with friends, whatever keeps you moving.

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Embrace habits

When darkness comes, fall into a similar habit to that of home. Usually watch T.V.  before bed? Try reading until your bedtime, or even pack in a tablet with pre-loaded movies (headphones please). Workout before bed? Do push ups and jumping jacks. If you’re used to snacking before bed, certainly make sure you do the same in the woods. Just remember to hand your food before you nod out.

Avoid going to sleep much earlier than you do at home. This will throw off your circadian rhythm, and result in poor quality sleep.

Clean up

You’ll be amazed at what the little moral boost from being clean can do for a nights sleep. Clean up before bed. Brush your teeth, wipe down with unscented baby wipes, wash your face, and change your clothes. Just being clean can relax and offer comfort to ease you gently into sleep. Bonus, being clean will keep your sleeping bag clean too, so you’ll not have to deal with a stinky sleeping bag later on.

Pick a better location

Like at home, you’ll sleep better if you’re in a location that you’re comfortable with. Don’t sleep near the water if the crashing waves keep you up, but do if the sounds of tossing water lulls you to sleep. Don’t camp on exposed cliffs if the wind bothers you, but do if you’re used to sleeping with a fan. Don’t camp in the leaves if you mind the sounds of little critters scurrying around your tent, but do if you like the sounds of nature. Find somewhere that feels like home, and don’t push your boundaries if you need to feel secure to sleep well.

Mind over matter

This is where a lot of new backpackers start to stumble. Don’t analyze the sounds in the night. You’re going to hear noises in the woods, and that’s a fact of life outside. “What was that?!”, the question that will keep you up all night. If the sounds are anything less than grunts and thuds, it doesn’t matter. Make sure your scented items are hung, or tucked away elsewhere in a bear can, and rest assured that nothing in the woods wants anything to do with you. If you find yourself getting panicked from tiny footsteps around your tent, stop, think it through, breath calmly, and relax. Go back to sleep.

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Matter over mind

Thinking it through not working for you? Try drowning it out. Ear plugs are a popular solution to deafening all those creepy woods sounds. Headphones with music, quiet enough to not disturb those around you, are also a great idea if you’re able to sleep with music in your ears. I wouldn’t use your cell phone however, you may need the battery later.

Sleep with a companion

A simple way to feel more secure in the woods is to no go alone. Significant other, friend, or pet, it doesn’t matter. Having something else in there with you will calm your nerves, help you to settle in, and lull you away knowing that you’re not going it alone.

Sleep alone

Let’s do a 180 here. Sometimes the sounds of another person tossing, turning, chatting, breathing, snoring, or just running in and out for midnight tree watering sessions are enough to irritate some into a terrible night of sleeplessness. Grab a solo tent, and pitch it away from everyone else in camp. Find a nice little nook that those other two and three man tents can’t squeeze into, and enjoy the semi-solitude. This is even a sound method for couples who just need their space when sleeping. There’s no shame in putting a little space between the snoring hubby or chatty lady.

A cool breeze always puts me to sleep.

A cool breeze always puts me to sleep.

Suppliment

Many find that simply eating or drinking certain comfort foods will help them to sleep. Things like hot chocolate, tea, milk, or other at home comfort foods will help you nod off if these are things that help you at home. Talk to your doctor here, but there are many over the counter supplements that will help you nod off if you have issues that keep you awake. Me, personally, I have allergies that cause my nostrils to close up a bit when sleeping outside in the fall. It’s hard to sleep when you can’t breath. A little Motrin makes the difference, and off I go. Desperate times, and a little Benadryl finishes me off. Again, I’m no doctor and I’m not making recommendations, except to talk to one.

At the end of the day

Don’t cut yourself short on sleeping. Don’t shave weight if you know that doing so will have a negative effect on your sleep. Sleep is far more important than a few ounces less in your pack. Find your comfort zone, relax, stay warm, and you’ll do just fine. With experience, you’ll find yourself at home, and comfortable in the backcountry.

Sleep well!

Feel free to post any thoughts or tips in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.

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