Can’t sleep while backpacking? I’ve been there. The hours before sunrise stretch to eternity as you toss and turn, shivering and achy, listening nervously to every rustle in the bushes. Your hips hurt, your toes are cold, and you simply can NOT get comfortable. It feels like the sun will never rise!
Can you relate? Even after hundreds of nights in the outdoors, it still takes a few days for my body to get the hang of sleeping well while camping and backpacking. During one particularly difficult thru-hike of the Tahoe Rim Trail I went a full seven days of tough hiking on barely 4-5 hours of sleep each night. I literally fell asleep within 10 minutes of finishing the hike, and don’t remember a minute of the four hour drive home! (Don’t worry, I wasn’t the driver.)
So how can we sleep better while backpacking (or bikepacking, or kayak camping, or any activity that involves a few nights under the stars)? Is there a trick? Or are some of us destined to endure restless nights until we become so exhausted we can no longer keep our eyes open?
In my experience some people will always have an easier time than others with sleeping outdoors. But for those of us who struggle, there is plenty we can do. Fortunately many aspects of outdoor adventure – natural daylight cycles, plenty of physical activity, lack of screen time and daily stress – already contribute to good quality sleep. We just need to figure out how to minimize the issues that get in the way.
In this post I’ll share all the tips I’ve learned over the years for sleeping more soundly and comfortably while backpacking, bikepacking, camping, and any other multiday outdoor adventures. May they help you wake up feeling refreshed on your next outdoor adventure.
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Choose a Flat Campsite
Good campsite selection is an important topic for many reasons. It’s always important to minimize impact by choosing a site that’s been camped at before, to avoid cold and potentially wet places like the bottoms of canyons or ravines, and to watch out for hazards like dead tree branches overhead.
For good quality sleep, the most important trait of a good campsite is simply that it’s flat. A slippery tent floor, slippery pad, and slippery sleeping bag do not combine well with a sloped campsite. Get this wrong and you’ll be collecting yourself from the bottom of your tent and relocating to the top, all night long.
Sometimes it’s hard to find a perfectly flat site, but fortunately a slight slope is workable. Most people prefer to orient their body along the slope line with feet pointing downhill.
Tip: To make sloped campsites a bit less disastrous, paint a few lines of silicone seam sealer across the floor of your tent before heading out. This will prevent your sleeping pad from sliding.
Zip Up To Keep Bugs Out
Camping in mosquito territory? It’s amazing how such a tiny insect can be so infuriating. The buzzing sound alone can keep you awake at night, not to mention the risk of being covered in itchy bites by morning.
Mosquitos like to come out in the evening, and care is needed to make sure they don’t get cozy in your tent right before it’s time for you to do the same. Keep the tent (or bivy) zipped up whenever you’re not actively going in or out, otherwise the sneaky little buggers will gather inside and await their midnight snack. Many types of bugs are attracted to light, so try turning off your headlamp whenever the zipper is open.
It’s impossible to sleep well when you’re shivering all night. I’ve written a whole post about keeping warm while backpacking, so if you struggle with this (as I definitely do) be sure to check it out. It covers how to choose a good sleep system and how to use clothing and gear for warmth while sleeping, as well as while hiking and hanging out at camp.
Choose Comfy “Pajamas”
Many people wonder what to sleep in while backpacking. Different hikers do this differently depending on how lightweight and minimalist their gear style is. Some of us simply sleep in the shirt we wore all day (especially if it’s magically stink-proof merino wool) while others pack a full set of clothing that only gets used for sleeping.
Whatever you choose to wear to sleep while backpacking, it should meet three requirements:
- Comfortable, whatever that means for you (loose, stretchy, breathable, soft, etc)
- Dry: If your hiking clothes are wet from sweat or rain, change into something dry before bed so you don’t get cold
- Appropriate for the temperature: Layers are always useful when backpacking, including at bedtime. If it’s warm, you’ll want something lightweight and breathable. If camping in cold weather, it’s common to sleep in long tights and a long sleeve base layer plus a fleece or puffy jacket. This is a way of saving weight with multi-use gear; you have the clothes anyway and now you can carry a lighter sleeping bag while still being warm.
Use A Comfortable Sleeping Pad
In addition to keeping you warmly insulated from the cold ground, your sleeping pad’s comfort is obviously key to sleeping well while camping. Those thin folding foam pads may be light, cheap, and durable, but they’re not going to cut it for every type of body.
If you sleep on your side, or your posture or bone structure are such that you need a bit more padding, you’ll probably prefer an inflatable sleeping pad. The Therm-a-Rest Neo Air X-Lite is the lightest, most popular, and my personal favorite, but there are many options to choose from. Here’s a list of popular sleeping pads among thru hikers for more ideas.
Important tip for inflatable sleeping pads, especially for side sleepers: adjust the amount of air inside for custom softness. Though it’s tempting to blow them up fully to make them as thick as possible, sometimes it’s comfier to leave a bit of space for hips and shoulders to sink down into a partially inflated pad.
Use Gear to Support Your Body
If you can’t sleep well while backpacking because you just can’t find a comfortable position, consider using some of your gear to support your body in various ways. For example, side sleepers with tight hips might appreciate a rolled up jacket between the knees. Back sleepers with tight hip flexors can put their folded pack or other gear beneath their knees to help relax the lower back. My favorite type of backpacking pillow – a stuff sack filled with clothes – is easily adjustable to get just the right height and firmness so your neck can be comfortable.
Stretch or Massage Before Bed
A long day of hiking can leave us with stiff or sore muscles that make sleeping in a tent even harder. We toss and turn to try and get comfortable, but each new position causes a new ache. This has been an issue for me even though I’m relatively young and fit, especially when I push the limits of endurance, and I’ve put a lot of effort into working around it.
The first thing I recommend: do a little “backcountry yoga” before going to bed. Gently stretching your hip flexors, quads, glutes, and calves will go a long way toward releasing some of the tension that’s built up during the day. Here are some stretches you can do in your tent, and even mostly inside your sleeping bag if it’s really cold out. Not only will these moves help you sleep better, they’ll help your body to feel less achy and stiff the next morning and even help avoid potential injuries.
If you have a hard-sided water bottle with you, consider doing some “foam rolling.” I’ve even been known to bring a golf ball or massage ball on the trail to help on long hikes. If all else fails, an elbow in your quad can be surprisingly effective. Learn more in this post about managing knee pain on the trail.
Hike High and Sleep Low
When hiking in the mountains at substantial elevation – say over 7,000 feet or so for some people, and over 10,000 feet for most – the effects of altitude make it harder to sleep well. Decreased blood oxygen concentration mixed with a bit of dehydration, dry sinuses, and a slight headache is a recipe for a miserable night.
Try to plan your daily mileage and camp locations so you’re hiking to higher points during the day – crossing high passes or summitting that peak – and then camping lower, after descending a bit. This gives your body a chance to acclimate to higher elevation during the day while still getting a good night’s rest.
One caveat: valleys, canyons and ravines often collect cold air, so if you want a warmer campsite don’t go for the very lowest point around. Something partway up or down a climb should be a good compromise.
Rehydrate Early In The Evening
Many of us don’t enjoy venturing out from the comfort of our sleeping bag into the frigid darkness during the night. If this is you, peeing in the middle of the night can feel like a polar expedition.
It’s important to stay hydrated though, so don’t skimp on water. If you feel thirsty when you get to camp, I suggest drinking water then and while dinner is cooking in order to make up for any lingering dehydration from a day of hiking. Once you’ve eaten dinner and it’s time to get ready for bed, try to cut down on your water intake. And of course, go pee right before getting into bed, at the last possible minute.
If you do wake up in the wee hours with that dreaded need to go, don’t fight it. The longer you wait, the more sleep you lose. Just get up, get it done, enjoy the stars and the late night stillness, and relish the comfort of crawling back into your cozy sleeping bag.
Keep Chapstick (Or Whatever) Nearby
Maybe this is just me, but I absolutely cannot sleep with the feeling of chapped lips. When backpacking in dry climates, keeping chapstick within reach is a must for me. Other people have their own versions of this: water bottle, ear plugs, etc. Whatever it is, make sure that favorite item is always within reach when you go to bed.
Try Meditation or Breathing Exercises
This one works great at home too! I often have a hard time falling asleep because my brain won’t stop running in circles, and this can be turbo-charged on the trail.
It helps immensely to gradually turn down the volume of thoughts that keep me awake by focusing on the sensation of my own breathing: in, out, in, out… slower, smoother… in, out… Oh shoot, I’ve been lost in thought for 5 minutes. Ok, back to focusing on my breath. In, out…
Meditation is very popular these days and you can find resources online for any style or slant that appeals. Look up “mindfulness meditation” to get started.
Keep Safety Concerns In Perspective
I am no stranger to fear of things that go bump in the night. Having camped alone in many different countries and circumstances while backpacking, bicycle touring, and traveling, that jolt of late-night adrenaline is all too familiar.
My best advice for those who worry about safety at night is to be realistic with your assessment of risk, take action to deal with the dangers that are actually real, and then do your best to forget about the rest.
For example, when camping in bear country it does make sense to be concerned about attracting bears to your campsite. This is more for the sake of the bear than for you, but still, no one likes to wake up to a bear in camp. Follow best practices for food storage and bear avoidance, then try to stop worrying, knowing you’ve done everything you can.
Most other safety concerns, while completely understandable, are not actually very realistic. Many women – I am one – wrestle with fear of assault and violence when camping alone. The fact is, in most wilderness situations this is extremely unlikely, as there just isn’t anyone around who has reason or inclination to do us harm. Recognize the source of the fear – gendered social conditioning – and put it in realistic perspective.
Easier said than done, I know. So, if you need a bit more help taking the edge off those nighttime jitters, consider keeping something close at hand to make you feel secure. For me, sleeping with my headlamp around my neck gives me security in knowing I can quickly see – and maybe temporarily blind – a human or animal visitor at night. Other items with similar purpose might be a whistle, personal alarm, pepper or bear spray, or a hiking pole.
Once you have your security item close at hand, recognize that it’s almost certainly unnecessary anyway, and try to calm your body with deep breathing. Your mind will follow… Eventually.
Give It Time
Last but not least: be patient. When you think about it, sleeping outside is a profoundly natural thing to do, but most of us do it so rarely that it takes getting used to. After a few days our instincts (and circadian rhythms) start to take over and we will, eventually, start sleeping better.
This may not be much comfort for a weekend trip. But if you’re worried that poor sleep quality might be your downfall on a longer backpacking trip, I assure you it does get easier with practice. Even over the course of many short trips, you can still make progress.
Sleeping under the stars isn’t always comfortable, and sometimes it’s not even very fun. That romantic ideal of peaceful slumber beneath a brilliant night sky in a wild place doesn’t always work out.
But sometimes it does all come together, and we drift off to sleep feeling safe and wake up feeling refreshed. We feel a freedom and a connection to the earth that are impossible to find from our cushy mattresses in our temperature-controlled houses. And this, if you’re anything like me, is what keeps us coming back for more backpacking trips.
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