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.
- Nighttime Sounds
- Night Table
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?
I can think of two techniques:
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.