Sleeping Outdoors is a Skill

Sleeping Outdoors is a Skill

Sleeping outdoors on backpacking trips is a skill just like navigating, camping, packing, layering, trip planning, and all the other skills that backpackers need to learn to enjoy backcountry trips. While sleeping outdoors is not a skill that’s taught in outdoor programs or even recognized as such, it’s something you want to master so you are alert and energetic on multi-day backpacking trips. It can also be very enjoyable, restorative, and something to look forward to that’s the opposite of the harried sleep cycle you have during the work week.

Why is Sleeping Outdoors Difficult?

When most people start backpacking, they have problems getting a good night’s sleep. That’s normal because: you’re probably going to sleep much earlier than usual, in a strange place, in a strange bed, in a natural setting with animals and nighttime sounds, and without a warm, dry place like a bathroom, to pee at night. That would unnerve anyone.

Like all skills, you have to learn how to sleep well outdoors and it will take some time, experimentation, and repetition to get it down. Here are some of the biggest hurdles people encounter when it comes to sleeping outdoors and some suggestions about how to overcome them.

  1. Bedtime
  2. Bed
  3. Nighttime Sounds
  4. Bathroom
  5. Night Table

1. Bedtime

Most backpackers go to sleep pretty early, like right after dinner or at sunset. This will be an abrupt transition if you like normally stay up late during the week. So how can you get sleepy enough to fall asleep early?

Chances are you already pack Benadryl (those pink pills) as part of your first aid kit
Chances are you already pack Benadryl (those pink pills) as part of your first aid kit.

I can think of two techniques:

  1. Exhaustion, which is what I mainly rely on by putting in big days, where I hike more or less non-stop from early morning to early evening.
  2. Benedryl or an equivalent sleep aid, which is what I used when I started backpacking and had problems getting sleepy because I was going to sleep much earlier than usual. Using a sleep aid is not as natural as falling asleep on your own, but you can wean yourself off of it eventually when you’ve trained yourself to go to sleep earlier.

A sleep aid, like Benedryl, can also be useful if you’re hiking with other people and don’t control the trip plan or the schedule. It’s easy to carry and flushes out of your system quickly, so you can function normally the next day.

If you use a pillow at home, use one backpacking
If you use a pillow at home, use one backpacking.

2. Bed

When you start backpacking, you’re going to be sleeping in a bed that you don’t use regularly. You can make it more like your bed at home though, which can help you relax.

  • If you use a pillow at home, bring one backpacking.
  • If you use a blanket, get yourself a quilt or a hoodless sleeping bag, which is a lot more like a bed than a mummy sleeping bag. That way, you can sleep on your side, stomach, or back, without contorting your natural sleep position.
  • Bring an inflatable sleeping pad which is also much more like a bed.
  • If you sleep in pajamas at home, wear sleep clothes like a thin long sleeve jersey and lightweight long johns.
  • If you wear a fleece or wool cap to bed at home, wear one for camping too.
  • If you read a book before bed, bring something to read (the light of a smartphone can make it harder to go to sleep). I like to “read” by listening to Audible books, but usually only last 20 minutes before I doze off.
  • and so on.

3. Nighttime Sounds

The sounds of the night can be very disturbing when you’re trying to fall asleep outdoors. When I first started to backpack, I was freaked out by every little sound in the woods around my tent. I even bought one of those lanterns with a motion detector as an on-switch, so it would light up and scare a bear away if it approached my tent while I was asleep. It never did go off, as bears have much better things to do than harass sleeping backpackers.

The easiest way to get used to scary nighttime sounds is to ignore them by wearing earplugs. I still carry earplugs in my first aid kit, but only need them to block out the noise of nearby boy scout troops or snorers in hiking hostels and lean-tos. Mack’s Pillowsoft Silicone Earplugs work great.

4. Bathroom

Going to the bathroom at night can be quite intimidating if you have to leave your tent and tromp around in the dark. It’s the kind of thing that will keep you awake thinking about it.

A front porch is a handy place “to go from” without leaving the immediate vicinity of your tent
A front porch is a handy place “to go from” without leaving the immediate vicinity of your tent

While you can leave your tent to go pee at night, you really don’t have to if you have a pee bottle or container to hold your urine until the morning to dispose of it. You can also just pee out the door of your tent or from a pad placed in front of it like a porch if you’re out of earshot of others and have some visual privacy. This can take a lot of the anxiety out of nighttime bio breaks so you can get back to sleep quickly.

5. Night table

At home, you probably have a night table next to your bed with a lamp, a clock, your glasses, or a cup of water. Similarly, you can arrange gear inside your tent or hammock, so it’s easy to find in the dark.

I have a standard way of organizing essential gear so I know where it is if I need it at night.
I have a standard way of organizing essential gear so I know where it is if I need it at night.

For example, I wrap the strap of my headlamp around my wrist when I’m camping, so I don’t have to search for my headlamp if I wake up in the dark. I keep a bottle of water within easy reach, put my glasses into my shoes or a tent pocket so I don’t roll onto them at night, and keep a pouch with my phone and other personal items inside the tent along the side of my sleeping pad. The rest of my gear, I pack in my pack and stow in the tent vestibule or under my hammock tarp so it’s out of the way.

Wrap Up

Learning how to sleep well outdoors takes some practice because it’s very different from your normal sleep experience at home. But when you develop a repeatable system for getting to sleep and staying down until morning, it can turn into one of the most pleasurable and restorative aspects of your backpacking trips.

See also:

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  1. Never thought of it as a skill, but that makes perfect sense!

  2. Do you have any issues sleeping on tent platforms/hard surfaces as opposed to on the forest floor? I had an issue the last time I went out where we slept in a shelter and I had very sore shoulders the next morning. I have a Nemo tensor, but the pad was not enough to save my shoulders as a side sleeper. I am wondering if the wood platform was the equivalent of sleeping on a mattress without a box spring.

    • IME, Zack, platforms are definitely less comfortable than soft ground and make my shoulders sore, even with a comfortable sleeping pad. I prefer the old-school thermarest that has a foam core but is also inflatable, which I have found to be more comfortable than a plain air mattress or a foam one.

      • I use earplugs like the author suggested. I would like to add something to that as I’m hypersensitive to noise. Find a pair that fits comfortably and try them out ahead of time. I’ve found that after rolling and inserting, some expand to a very uncomfortable size. I won’t name any particular brand because this isn’t a promotion, but my best experience has been an online purchase not available in stores that I know.

        I think maybe even a more useful tip is to buy one of those heart attack nitrate pill bottle things that go on your keychain, put your earplugs in it, and clip it to your pack. You’ll never forget to pack it.

        Finally, I’m surprised the author suggested Benadryl. That will get you to sleep, but you’ll want to sleep the next day away. Bill Cosby didn’t need Quadudes, just Benedryl. Try the generic of sominex *****without diphenhydramine*****. That’s the same thing in Benedryl that might as well be a date rape drug. Take only half of one the first night. I think the active ingredient is something like doxycycline succinate.

        • Sorry – that’s bullshit. Benedryl is perfectly safe.

        • All medications affect different people differently. One should test them at home in a safe environment, not take them for the first time on the trail. I find a low dose of Benedryl just makes me slightly drowsy and leaves me groggy in the morning, but I’ve seen one person become heavily sedated by the same dosage, while a few people reportedly find it a stimulant. My main adaptation on the trail is to sleep far enough away from other people so I don’t hear them at night.

        • Diphenhydramine is perfectly safe – kids can even take it safely. I think you are confusing it with rohypnol (aka, roofies).

        • It’s prescribed regularly in hospitals to get people to sleep.

        • Nothing is “perfectly” safe. Benedryl (Diphenhydramine) is generally safe for most people in the recommended dose but can have side effects for some people particularly when mixed with alcohol or with overuse.
          Another perhaps more benign “safe” sleep aid is the supplement, Melatonin, often used to help with jet lag.
          If you don’t normally use these things I think it is wise to try them at home first.

        • Cosby himself claims he used Benadryl on one of his victims but this hasn’t been substantiated. If he did, it probably was a massive dose, larger than the recommended limit. I’m guessing it was something else since it’s been said (by him, I believe) that they were “blue pills” and IME Benadryl and its generic versions are usually pink.

          In any case, Benadryl isn’t likely to affect someone badly unless they have an allergy to it. It doesn’t actually help me sleep very well so it wasn’t the right solution for me, but plenty of people use it for help sleeping and it works for them.

        • I am sensitive to Benadryl (correct spelling). I sleep for 12 hours and am unsafe to drive, use a chef knife, or walk around my neighborhood unescorted for the next day.

          If someone has used it before and knows they don’t have aftereffects, great. Anyone else should test it at home when they have a full day to recover afterwards in case it affects them the same way.

          Some people react to prescription sleep aids by sleepwalking, which would be dangerous on the trail.

        • I stopped taking Benadryl too. I would get what I call “Benadryl Dreams”, weird strange unpleasant dreams akin to being stuck in some sort a Red and Stimpy cartoon.

        • I use the silicon diving Earplugs. There’s a brand called macks. Love them

    • AT shelters are wood platforms also. Was using a Nemo Tensor and also found 3 inches thick wasn’t enough for side sleepering – and I’m pretty slim. Check out Pariah Outdoor Recharge XL mattress. At the weight of 26oz, it’s only 5oz more for that extra inch (4in thick) of clearance needed for side sleeping comfortably. The The Pariah Recharge XL is a great mattress!

  3. Good topic and info shared. My add is if you need to pee, it helps to force yourself to just get up and do it. Otherwise, it just keeps you awake. And chances are, you’ll fall back to sleep very quickly once you do it. Happy peeing.

    • I completely agree. Even now I still find myself fighting it at times. It’s hard to force yourself out of a cozy warm sleeping bag, but once I do I fall back asleep instantly.

    • Same here. I fight it for a while and then think, “If I just got up and did it, I’d be back asleep now!” That finally gets me out of my comfy spot… which gets less comfortable by the minute when I fight the power of pee.

    • Yes! And if by some miracle you actually do fall asleep again, you’ll just wake up a short time later and have to pee again anyway.

      • I should clarify: if you manage to fall asleep without getting up to pee, you’ll just wake up again a short time later still having to pee.

    • Yes. I’ll actually go ahead and drink water near bedtime so that I’ll have to get up and pee early enough so that I can get back to sleep.

    • Had to smile at, “…bears have much better things to do than harass sleeping backpackers.”

      You obviously haven’t spent much time camping in the ‘Dacks!! ???

      Great article!

    • I actually plan on a midnight call if nature. I stage and loosen my boots so that I can slip into them, ID the location route to it while it is light so that I can do it in the dark. Then if nature calls, it is easy to just do it and then get back in the bag

  4. This is all very good advice! I would like to add that if you regularly have trouble sleeping, it’s worth it to talk to your doctor about. I have had trouble staying asleep (waking up 2-3 times per night every night) for over 10 years. Did a bunch of sleep tests to see if I have sleep apnea (neg) and my doctor prescribed a mild sedative that is not habit-forming and doesn’t leave me drowsy the next day nor have weird side effects like causing sleepwalking or sleep phone-calling nor any of the other things that regular sleeping pills can cause. It has been a life changer. I know everyone’s different, but there can definitely be concrete physical reasons for having problems sleeping and it’s definitely not a bad idea to get advice from a medical professional about it. I probably annoy my friends who complain about sleep problems when I tell them to ask their doctors about it (though I do leave well enough alone after a couple of times and just express sympathy to them because boy do I know what they’re going through).

    I should add that none of the usual sleep hygiene advice worked for me; I sleep in a dark room, no devices allowed, never had any trouble falling asleep. I could be completely exhausted from hiking Mt. Washington or running a marathon and still would wake up in the middle of the night and be awake for 45 min or a couple of hours. It was extremely frustrating. Benadryl didn’t work for me either, though I do still bring it on camping trips in case I have a strong reaction to a bug bite. :-)

    But boy it’s wonderful to not be literally falling asleep at my desk every single afternoon.

  5. Everything about this is absolutely true. Peeing in the middle of the night for women is difficult. Might sound gross. I use one of those big ziplock bags and pee directly into it. Zip it up and place it outside my tent until morning. That’s the best way, other than peeing directly outside. Thanks for the article! Good advice

  6. Great post. As an allergy sufferer, I can add that allergies can make sleeping difficult in the outdoors too. I load up on my meds and will try Benadryl next trip. The other thing I do is wash the grime and pollen off my face before bed.

  7. So, add to all of the above mentioned with, extreme restless legs and complex sleep apnea. I definitely have trouble sleeping outside.

  8. About peeing. I am surprised that there is no mention of timing it. About an hour before sleeping stop drinking water, then just before you hit the hay pee everything out! You should be able to sleep all the way through.

    • Doesn’t work that well if you drank 4-5 liters of water during the day.

    • My bladder begs to differ. I can stop drinking liquids at 4 pm* and still have to get up to pee in the night.

      * I don’t do this while hiking, but I have done so at home many many many times. This was before I figured out how to actually sleep through the night, medically assisted. Now I can drink right up until bedtime and make it through the night without waking up to pee, and even if I do wake up to pee, I fall right back asleep and am still alert and awake the next day without consequence.

  9. My camping sleep time has become much more successful since I started bringing ear plugs and a sleep mask. While I could use a bandana or a hat pulled down, the sleep mask has a satiny feel and makes it very easy to drift off. Having a wide (25″) air mattress has made a difference also.

    I used to use Benadryl, but got concerned about the long-term memory effects (search for anti-cholinergic drugs and mental health). Plus I would get a rebound effect from Benadryl – after about 4-6 hours, I would wake up alert from a sound sleep (but still tired).

    Everyone’s different, those are just my experiences.

    PS for fun watch the Rhett and Link “Campin'” skit on youtube. Cracks me up every time.

  10. I camp with a Scouts BSA Troop, so no earplugs for me! Or Benedryl. As I make sure the fire is put and wait for the whispers and goggles to end, I read a book. I don’t even try to get to bed much earlier than normal. Once I start getting drowsy, I then pee, and I am usually good to make it through what’s left of the first night.

    By the second night, the Scouts are too tired to get into much trouble at night, and I am tired enough to get to sleep earlier. Of course, that’s the night I usually have to get up and pee!

  11. What about women peeing from the tent?

  12. I typically sleep poorly my first night of a backcountry trip, seemingly waking up to every sound, but better with each passing night. Apparently, this is well known psychological phenomenon, called the First Night Effect (FNE). Scientists, think that FNE may be a habit that evolved in the brains of our our ancient ancestors to provide increased vigilance when sleeping in dangerous environments (which back then I assume was pretty much every night). An interesting read.

  13. First, I would NEVER take sleeping pills on the trail. As mentioned above, they leave you groggy and half asleep the next day.
    You’ll get used to sleeping in the woods a lot faster than you think you will. I sleep far better in my hammock on the trail than I do at home. There’s no reason to convince yourself it’s going to be a problem before you’ve even given it a try. It may require “skill” for some people I suppose but I suspect for most it’s just a matter of becoming familiar. Again, it doesn’t take long.

  14. On the night of August 7, 1871, rather than using something as ear plugs, John Wesley Hardin shot a man for snoring. I don’t think he would have been a good camping buddy.

  15. Certainly a permanent cure, but not advisable!

    I never could take antihistamines; after a night (or day) or two, I would wake up with a start in the middle of the night with my heart pounding.

    I never slept well the first night of a backpacking trip; I was too fascinated by the night noises and excited by being out in the wild. After that, no problem. I just planned an easy second day.

    I probably should change my username; I’m now a great-granny twice over, and my “hiking” is limited to around the block or the too few “accessible” trails, with a walker. Old age, unfortunately, catches up to all of us!

    • You are the one who led me to this site a decade or so ago. You mentioned Section Hiker in another backpacking forum, I checked it out… and never left. You have my best wishes, GreatGrannyTwiceOverHiker.

  16. No mention of winter camping. I’ve done more of that I think than than summer. Winters at Mt. Rainier can make for a long season of camping in the snow. Plus no bugs, and a lot less people. After camp is all set up, dinner eaten, it’s time to put on the snowshoes, headlamp, and a Botta bag full of wine, and time to do some cruising around in the night time, without the weight of the pack. Boozzin’ and crussin’ we called it.

  17. The MOST effective technique for me has been listening to my breaths.
    Since discovering this; I am asleep in few MINUTES !!

  18. Great topic.
    Seems that we all share a lot in common in trying to resist the need to get up and pee in the middle of the night. As much as I always both feel and sleep much better after doing so, I always seem to lay there in my nice warm bag thinking that I can make it until the morning, but in the meantime I keep waking up every so often in some discomfort. As all have said, it best to go and enjoy the relief, but I’m sure, like most, I will continue to try and make it till the morning. Happy dreams to all!

  19. THC gummies! Indica strain gummies, possibly with cbd, work very well. Eat one or two an hour before bed and you are good to go.

  20. Great article.! I’m one of those folks who sleeps so much better outside than in, so on backpacking trips always sleep well (storm’s aside). One of things I enjoy is winter trips, in part because you portably get close to 12 hours rest each night! Summer less so, as once the sun comes up so do I. Here that is around 430 to 5 am. One suggestion if you can; practice at home. I often will set a tent up on a deck and sleep outside, even in winter (if not too cold or wet).

  21. What camping pillow is shown in the photo?

  22. For some strange reason I always slept better in a tent. It seems to be a more restful sleep.

  23. I laughed pretty hard!

  24. Sunshine Daydream

    I usually have a restless first night which I attribute to altitude adjustment. I live at 4500′ but usually spend my first night on the trail at 7500′ or higher. I’ll toss and turn for the first hour and then sleep for short periods before waking periodically throughout the night. Usually exhausted the next day. As the trip progresses I feel as though I’m getting acclimated and eventually sleep more soundly.

  25. I never sleep that well the first night (and that’s the only night for overnight trips, which are what I do most often). Switching to a hammock has helped me sleep much more soundly once I do fall asleep.

    Timing is the big factor. For trips where I hike into the night and don’t setup camp until 10, sometimes I sleep better. Or trips where I had to get up really early like 4 or 5 am the day of the trip. But both of those have drawbacks – having to find a good spot and setup camp with a headlamp; vs feeling groggy during the first day of the hike from too little sleep the night before.

    I still tend to have to get up 2-3 times to pee, vs rarely doing that at home. Even though I’m sweating a ton during the day, I’m drinking way more water than I normally do and I definitely pee a lot more on hiking trips, day and night.

  26. Another method I’ve done, which I don’t recommend unless you love night hiking like me but does work, is hiking straight through the first night. Then I pitch camp at some point in the afternoon/early evening depending how tired I am, and I conk right out immediately.

  27. Interesting article and comments. I sleep about as well outdoors as at home in bed. Fortunately, I have never needed sleep aids such as pills or earplugs. At my age (just shy of eighty) I do have to get up two or three times in the night to answer the call of nature. And I tend to rehydrate in camp in the evening. I fall asleep well and get back to sleep easily after getting up in the night. As for the ear plugs, I enjoy the night sounds, mostly owls, often loons, Canada geese, sometimes turkeys in the early hours, frogs and peepers in the spring, and the wind in the trees to name just a few. I once heard a bittern’s “pump er lunk” in the night– not to be missed. Years ago, I used to sleep poorly the first night of an outing; but, I have slept in so many strange places over the years that I now sleep as well on the first night as on any other.
    When backpacking, I use a closed cell foam pad extending from my shoulders to my hips (even on the hard floors of a shelter) and a seven inch square mini pillow on top of some of my gear for my head. When canoeing, the life vest takes the place of the gear bundle; and, I may use a thicker foam pad or an inflatable. In winter, the sleeping pad is definitely longer and thicker.
    My night table is a belt pack that takes care of my glasses and one or two other items and by which I position my flashlight.
    I would agree that there are skills involved in sleeping outdoors and that one’s sleep gets better with the increase of experience.

  28. Oh, and how could I forget the yapping of the coyotes and the howling of the wolves in the night. To my ears these are beautiful wilderness music.

  29. Being an older guy with prostate challenges I would love to pee only once each night. When I get up to go at various times I run my light around to see what’s out there. More often than not there are eyeballs looking back a me! Like a Fischer cat on the AT in VA. Harmless, but it sharpens the senses.

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