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 heart is pounding, your toes are cold, and you simply can NOT get comfortable. It feels like the sun will never rise!
Can you relate? Even after plenty of experience it still takes a few nights 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 stressors – 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, and camping. May they help you wake up feeling refreshed on your next outdoor adventure.
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 sleeping 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.
A slight slope can be workable. Make sure to orient yourself so you’re lying along the slope line (instead of across / perpendicular to it) with your 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 Mosquitoes Out
Camping in mosquito or other biting insect territory? 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 feast.
Bugs are often attracted to light, so if they’re especially aggressive and you need to go in and out of your tent, try turning off your headlamp while the zipper is open.
It’s impossible to sleep well when you’re shivering all night long. I’ve written a whole post about keeping warm while backpacking, so if you struggle with this (as I do), definitely check it out. It covers how to use clothing, gear, and a variety of tips and tricks to stay warm while sleeping, as well as while hiking and hanging out at camp.
Find A Comfortable Sleeping Pad
In addition to keeping you warmly insulated from the cold ground, a sleeping pad’s main function is to be soft and comfy, which 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 hiker body.
Especially if you sleep on your side, or your posture or bone structure are such that you need a bit more padding, consider an inflatable sleeping pad. My personal favorite is the Therm-a-Rest Neo Air X-Lite, but there are a variety of 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 or more tension. For me personally this is a big issue, and I’ve put a lot of effort into working around it.
The first thing I recommend is, if you’re not too cold in camp, do a little “backcountry yoga.” 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.
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.
If you’re tense because you’re cold, stretching or massaging isn’t a good idea. It won’t help much and could even hurt your muscles if you push too hard. In this case I recommend sleeping bag stretches. A sitting hamstring stretch, lying figure-4, supine twist, or any number of other classic stretches and yoga poses can be done from the cozy warmth of your sleeping bag. Get creative!
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.
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 that 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, which will be valuable, 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
For some of us there’s nothing worse than needing to venture out from the comfort of our sleeping bag into the frigid darkness. 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. If you have your own different version of this, whatever it is, make sure that favorite item is always within reach when you go to bed.
Try Meditation or Focus on Your Breath
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. 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.
More Backpacking Resources
If you’re looking to sleep better while backpacking, you might also be interested in these:
- Do Trail Running Shoes Work For Backpacking?
- Lightweight Backpacking Tips
- 10 Unpleasant Backpacking Mistakes to Avoid
Excited about backpacking but need help getting started?
The Backpacking Trip Planner Workbook will help you start off on the right foot.
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