How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep When Backpacking

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 each 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 reservoir 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 inter long underwear (top and bottom) before getting into my sleeping bag or under my quilt. I do this to keep my bags clean, but putting on this layer also helps trigger 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 and I give my headlamp to my stuffed animal for safekeeping. All of my other loose gear is stuffed into my pack and placed alongside my hips. And of course, my bear bag is hung a good distance away with all of my nibbles and smellables 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 at home too since we’re misers with the heat. Finally, I bring earplugs with me to block out the sound of heavy rain on my tent or tarp and if I’m feeling nervous about a huge critter stalking through my camp at night. I rarely use earplugs anymore if I’m camping alone, but they can become indispensable if I’m sharing a campsite or sleeping in a bunkroom with people who snore.

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