You’d think that all the fresh air and exercise that comes with backpacking would guarantee sweet dreams, but that’s not always the case. Away from your at-home bedtime routine, and surrounded by strange sounds, temperature extremes, and an unfamiliar environment can make you toss and turn like a rotisserie chicken.
Fears—of wildlife, the dark, bugs, strangers invading your camp, and more—are easily dismissed by day but can be paralyzing at 2am. Restless nights hurt your ability to solve problems, stay alert, and meet the physical challenges of being outdoors. Plus, sleep deprivation puts you at higher risk of getting sick. And, let’s face it, a lack of sleep can make you no fun to hang out with by the campfire.
The good news is that there are time-tested methods to transform a sleep-deprived zombie hiker into the camper who’s up at first light to make the coffee. Next time you’re camping, sleep like a baby with these strategies for catching z’s on the trail.
1. Create the Right Environment
Start with a strong and reliable shelter that’s going to stand up to the elements and keep critters out when you’re inside. Pitch your tent on level ground, so you don’t slide to one end of the tent during the night. For colder months, use a three-season tent with a full rain fly to block wind and moisture and retain some heat. If you’re on the trail when it’s warm, use a bivy or hammock sleep system that allows for better air circulation.
Shop around for a sleeping pad that will give you plenty of cushioning against the hard ground and a sleeping bag that’s rated for the temperature ranges you’ll experience on the trail. A camping pillow may seem like a luxury item, but you’ll be grateful to avoid a crick in your neck when you wake up in camp.
If you’re expecting frigid temperatures, fill a water bottle with hot water and stash it at the bottom of your sleeping bag, or stuff hand and foot warmers inside your mittens and socks before bed. Other ways to ward off the cold: wear a knit hat and lay a closed-cell foam pad under your sleeping pad as extra insulation.
For maximum peace of mind in the darkness, study up on proper food and toiletry storage and remove anything that carries a scent from your tent. Know the wildlife and food storage requirements in the region you’re camping, bring required food storage systems like a bear canister or bear bag, and know how to use them.
2. Test Your Gear
You’ll sleep more easily on the trail if you have a smooth routine setting up camp, cooking, and prepping for bed. All too often, people arrive into camp late and get irritated as they try to pitch their tent for the first time in the dark. The frustrations can mount as you fumble with your new stove and wind up eating much later than expected. A rough night in camp can greatly impact your sleep.
Before your trip, assemble your gear in your backyard and spend a couple of days learning to use everything. Be prepared to get it wrong the first couple of times, and tweak your gear and routine as you work out the kinks. Once you’ve mastered the backyard camp-out, book a weekend in a state park, and then graduate to two or three nights on a trail close to home. If the weather doesn’t cooperate or you have a gear malfunction, you’ll have an out and that alone is enough to guarantee a good night’s rest.
3. Minimize the Unfamiliar
Even the most familiar sights and sounds, like wind in the trees, a squirrel rustling the leaves, and moonlight shining through overhead branches, can seem menacing in the hours before dawn. If you lie awake imagining yourself surrounded by bears and wolves, take along an eye mask and earplugs to reduce outside stimuli. Listen to a soothing playlist or podcast as you fall asleep.
4. Prepare for Nature’s Call
Even seasoned campers who’ve logged many nights on the trail struggle with the middle-of-the-night wake-up call. Minimize nighttime disruptions by planning your nutrition and hydration around your ideal sleep schedule. Eat frequently and lightly, making sure you don’t overload your system with heavy or spicy foods as evening approaches. Stay well-hydrated during the day so you can cut back on liquids as the sun goes down, and use the restroom right before bed for the best chances of uninterrupted slumber. Keep a water bottle with you at night for sipping only, and avoid alcohol since it tends to dehydrate you and inhibit restful sleep.
Adjusting your internal clock to match sunset and sunrise can also help. Stop checking your watch or phone and follow daylight patterns instead. For those times when nature does call you out of your tent during the night, keep a headlamp, additional layers of clothing, your camp shoes, and toilet kit (toilet paper, wipes, etc.) handy for a quick trip to take care of business and return to the warmth of your sleeping bag.
5. Create an Evening Routine
In the weeks leading up to your camping trip, note the things you do at night to relax and get ready for bed. You might read a book or enjoy a cup of decaf tea. Maybe a shower relaxes you, or changing into PJs does the trick. Once you’ve determined your relaxation cues, make them part of your evening ritual at home and during your practice camp-outs close to home. Establish a pattern and use it once you’re on the trail to fall asleep fast and sleep deeply.
Written by Ann Gibson for Matcha in partnership with BCBS of AL.