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Sleeping Outdoors: How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep

Basil in Scotland
Basil in Scotland

Some people go backpacking for the adventure, some live to climb new mountains and some just like the simplicity and solitude. I like all of those things, but my favorite part of backpacking is sleeping. During the week, I  get about 6-7 hours of sleep a night. But on the trail, I sleep between 9-11 hours. That’s a huge difference and something I look forward too.

It helps that I’m usually drop-dead exhausted after a day of backpacking. Since I tend to camp wherever I want, stealth style (but still in accordance with local regulations), I’m not constrained by stopping at shelters or campsites. My main constraint is daylight, and while it helps if water is close by, I don’t let that limit my choice of a campsite. If I know I’m going to do a dry camp, I’ll fill my backup platypus and carry a little extra water (see dry camping) to get through dinner and breakfast. An additional 2 liters is usually enough.

I’ve also stopped drinking coffee and alcohol on the trail, which can interfere with your sleep cycle. I used to bring that stuff along, but I’ve since decided that I don’t want anything to alter my experience of the outdoors.

I also have some rituals that I observe before I go to sleep that help ease the anxiety of sleeping in an unfamiliar place. First, I change long underwear (top and bottom) before getting into my sleeping bag. I do this to keep my bag clean, but putting on this layer helps triggers the pajama memory from my childhood.

Next, I make sure all of my gear is organized in the same way every night so that I can find things if I wake up without getting disoriented. My glasses go into shoes near my head, along with an led light. All of my other loose gear is stuffed into my pack and placed alongside my hips. And of course, my bear bag is hung with all of my nibbles safely tucked away in it. I have a slightly different ritual when I’m camping in a hammock, but it’s also a well-defined system.

I almost always wear a polypro hat or balaclava to sleep except on hot summer nights.This is something I do a home too, since we’re misers with the heat. Finally, I bring earplugs with me to block out all of the nighttime woods noises that would otherwise freak me out. I decided a few years ago that I’d rather not know about the huge critter stalking through my camp at night or worry about stormy weather.

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  1. Great post! The pajamas idea sounds like something that would really work. I'll have to implement that.

  2. I carry cotton underwear and in summer a cotton tank top to sleep in. I just cannot wear synthetics at night! Both are UL and pack down to nothing. I also carry liner socks I only wear in my tent – so I keep my bag clean/stay warm in non-sweaty socks :-)

  3. It's so true! We just returned from a six-day camping trip, and, boy, did I sleep well. I'm such a satisfied tired at the end of the day when backpacking or base-camp hking, and I love sleeping in that little blue cocoon. I usually get all cozy in the tent and read by headlamp for awhile, then often sleep straight through till dawn.

  4. Dry camps. Dry stealth camps. Ahhh. A bit of work to find, but worth it. No stray poo paper. No garbage. No angry, hungry critters. No fuss. No trouble.

    Some of the best places in the world are those that no one else even glances at.

  5. No coffee??? I had no idea I'd been emailing with a LUNATIC!

  6. LOL at all the comments. Great post with the mark of an organised man. Not sure about wearing a balaclava to bed at home (unless my wife has a home invasion fantasy!!)

    Keep up the great blogging

  7. Hi Phil,
    Just am enjoying some of your many posts. I did a search here too as I enjoy your comments about 'solitude'… That is something I have always appreciated about my treks, hikes, and climbs. Send me an email off some time so we can catch up. Always enjoy chatting with a fellow adventurer,

  8. I think earplugs would really help me sleep better, too, but I’d be so paranoid!

  9. Those things do well to alleviate your anxiety and keep you organized. For comfort though, a hammock is the way to go. In most places, it also opens up campsite selection as well.

  10. Whisky.. Lot’s
    You will get a great nights sleep..

    Downside, your head will hurt like a ***** the next morning.

  11. Ah, ear plugs. Amen to that! Because oh, yes, the night noises of record-breaking bears searching for my tasty self have freaked me out plenty of times! Love the plugs!

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