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Tips for Getting a Good Night’s Sleep When Backpacking

Tips for getting a good night sleep backpacking

Sleeping outdoors on camping and 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. Much Earlier Bedtime
  2. Unfamiliar Bed
  3. Nighttime Sounds
  4. Bathroom
  5. Night Table

1. Much Earlier Bedtime

Most backpackers go to sleep pretty early, like right after dinner or at sunset (often called hiker’s midnight). This will be a big change if you 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 why I hike more or less non-stop from early morning to early evening without taking any rest breaks.
  2. An over-the-counter 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. If you decide to take a sleep aid, try it at home first to avoid having an unpleasant experience in unfamiliar surroundings.
If you use a pillow at home, use one backpacking
If you use a pillow at home, use one backpacking.

2. Unfamiliar 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 long-sleeved 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.
  • If you hug a stuffed animal, bring one backpacking!
  • 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.


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.

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  1. Regarding peeing at night next to your tent, some areas of the sierras have deer that are so salt starved they will lick any pee residue they can get. If you think you had problems sleeping before, try falling asleep with deer eating the bushes two feet from your head all night long!

    • This. Also, urine may contain aromatics from the food and beverages you have consumed within the past 24 hours. Bears and smaller critters can smell them and may decide to search the area for the source of the “food.” Best to put on your camp shoes, and headlamp, grab the tp, because you may decide to #2, then head to your latrine. If it’s raining, strip and just wear the rain jacket, you can towel off on your sit pad inside the vestibule or tarp later. Keep the smells away from camp.

  2. Be careful taking Benadryl as a sleep aid. It’s an allergy and cold medication. Drowsiness is a side effect, not what the medication is meant to be.

    Most people can tolerate it as a short-term sleep aid, but it’s not recommended for kids under 12 or adults over 65, due to other side effects. Google “Benadryl as sleep aid” before you decide to use it for that purpose.

  3. Since there was a comparison of what you do at home to what you can do on the trail, if you don’t get a good night’s sleep, why not take a nap? A half hour or 60 minutes and you can avoid a drug altogether.

  4. Great idea that you’ve covered this aspect of camping: important, rarely discussed, and we all get nervous at noises in the night (less so on longer trips, I’d say). My most peaceful Adirondack nights have been next to a handgun, but after 50 uneventful years, I’ve settled on a few party poppers for potential raccoons and bears. Plastic urinal from the hospital works well as pee bottle, headlamp reading awhile, listening to the breezes overhead. NOTHING like that next day’s dawning after a good nights sleep.

  5. I have all the things I might need during the night placed in a small white bag that is easier to see in the night to get what i may need.I sometimes bring a white plastic pint milk bottle if its going to be wet or cold out a night. The neck is about the right size fir you know what.

  6. Seems absolutely irresponsible to recommend drugs to help you nod off.

    • I must say I’m truly amazed by this comment. Do you have any idea how many people in the United States take drugs, including cannabis to help them fall asleep. Like over 50%. Wer’re talking hundreds of millions. I’m a physician. It’s an epidemic. Taking a sleep aid is the norm.

    • I went through a period of 2-3 years in which I frequently had trouble sleeping — it was to the point that I’d be nearly exhausted after a couple of nights & because of exhaustion I’d sleep 8-10 hours. It was never enough to clear my sleep deficit, and it was a miserable way to live. I was following all the recommended sleep hygiene tips & I still didn’t sleep.

      Finally, I found a non-pharmaceutical treatment that works. But even with that, I frequently have to take something like diphenhydramine to sleep. It’s a relatively harmless drug, and I know from experience — I have allergies — that if I take it daily ultimately it’ll cease providing relief. So I don’t take it daily, but I am one of the millions of people who need something to help me get to sleep some nights.

      Thus, I strongly disagree that it’s “absolutely irresponsible” to recommend what this author has recommended. An exhausted hiker is more likely to be injured, and a few Benadryl now & then is far less harmful for the vast majority of us than tripping over our own feet on a rocky trail or slipping during a water crossing.

  7. I’ll add on the noise front that if you’re able to find a spot that’s somewhat near a river or other white noise (still in compliance with any regulations in whatever area you’re in!) it can help drown out much of the smaller bump in the night noises that might keep you up.

  8. My biggest hindrance to sleeping well in the backcountry is heat management. I’m always way too hot, and the normal solutions of sticking a leg and arm out from underneath my quilt never really work. I use a R.2.9 sleeping pad during three season, and the only time I’m comfortable is during the late fall. I sleep in a T-shirt and boxers. I’ve tried using a sleeping bag liner. I sleep with the vestibule open whenever I can. In the end, I always end up hot and damp from the humidity here in the Northeast. Oh well. Doesn’t seem like there is a good solution to the problem.

  9. Camping near a running river will increase the cold and condensation considerably. In addition, these areas also draw animals at night so you’re less likely to be alone.

  10. What motion sensor lantern do you use? I think that’s a great idea!

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