Laying awake in your sleeping bag, unable to fall asleep, is one of the most frustrating experiences a backpacker can have. Not only can it feel like a mild form of torture, it will also leave you feeling tired and cranky the next morning.
Learning how to get cozy and relaxed in the backcountry is a very important skill to ensure you’re well rested and ready to tackle tomorrow’s hike.
Adjusting to a "Trail Bedtime"
Unless I’m around a big campfire or out with a large group, I usually find that most activity around camp winds down within an hour after sunset. It’s just harder to do stuff in the dark – even with a headlamp – and most people start to crawl into tents and sleeping bags.
Depending on the time of year and where you are, this might mean that your bedtime is somewhere between 8pm or 9pm – chances are this is much earlier than you’d normally go to bed during the week. That first night in the woods, you may not feel tired yet, and find yourself laying there, unable to sleep.
One way to combat this is to try to get an early start your first day and get a good amount of hiking in, to ensure you’re more likely to feel worn down and tired. This also allows you to cover more miles while you’re still feeling fresh. The nights that I drive straight into a trailhead or campground and try to fall asleep right away are usually some of the worst cases of backcountry insomnia that I get.
Falling Asleep in the Outdoors
A lot of the basic advice you’d hear at home still applies in the outdoors. Try to relax each part of your body, from head to toe. Focus on your breathing and count your breaths until you drift off – this works about 75% of the time.
Sometimes I’ll read a few chapters on the kindle or do a crossword puzzle to help settle my mind. This is known as “visual overwriting” and can help calm your nerves and slow down a frenetic mind.
Once you’re in the tent for the night, try to limit the amount of unnatural “blue light” that you get from sources like LED headlamps or phone screens. If your headlamp has a red light setting, use it – this is designed to help your eyes adjust to the darkness.
If you have your own technique that you use at home – like making a cup of tea – make sure to bring it with you into the woods. You can also try taking low doses of melatonin or other sleep aids to help you feel drowsy.
Staying Warm and Cozy In Your Sleeping Bag
With a warm meal in your belly and some light activity getting ready for bed, the warmest you’ll feel all night is when you first settle into your sleeping bag. As you lay still, your body digests, and the day’s warm air escapes up into the sky. You’ll often find that you’re much colder by 4am than you were when you went to bed.
It’s important to use a sleeping bag that’s rated for the temps you’re expecting. If you bring one that’s too light, you’ll end up shivering all night, while a bag that’s too warm will leave you sweaty and uncomfortable. Mummy bags tend to be warmer than rectangular-cut bags, but rectangular bags are better for people who toss and turn a lot.
Before you hit the trail with a new sleeping bag, lay it down in your living room and hop inside, making sure you can easily reach and adjust all of the zippers to tighten your face hole and vent your feet or torso. Sometimes adding a bit of duct tape or cordage to a zipper pull will make it easier to find if you wake up and need to make adjustments while groggy.
If you know you have a cold night coming up, toss a water bottle filled with almost boiling water into the bottom of your bag to add heat to you sleep system. Chemical hand warmers don’t give off as much heat, but they can also help keep your bag warm on the inside.
If it’s going to be in the 40s or below, make sure you protect your face and neck with something like a buff or balaclava. Don’t just curl up into a ball deep in your sleeping bag, the condensation from your breath will quickly make the inside of your bag wet, and much colder.
Make sure you leave a warm hat or extra layer next to you in case you wake up cold and want to quickly don some extra insulation. If you wake up and your hands and feet are really cold, try wiggling your toes or squeezing your fists to help bring warm blood out to them. It also helps to put on a pair of warm, dry gloves and socks before bed.
Another trick I picked up from a fellow backpacker is to stop drinking fluids after dinner. Make sure you pee before you hop into bed, and then let yourself get a bit dehydrated overnight. This not only helps you avoid midnight bathroom breaks, but it also helps you sleep warmer. Make sure you drink a lot of water with breakfast the next morning so that you don’t wind up dehydrated.
Dealing with Insomnia While Camping
No matter how well you try to prepare for sleep, some nights it just doesn’t come easily. It’s good to have a few techniques up your sleeves for nights where you really need to fight for your rest.
After a particularly terrible night of sleep where I accidentally setup my tent behind a children’s outdoor camp, I now always pack a set of ear plugs. If I expect there to be light at the campsite or even a full moon, sometimes I’ll throw in a sleep mask as well.
All of this helps with sensory isolation, which blocks out the rustling leaves, snapping twigs and shadows dancing across your rainfly. Your body isn’t used to dealing with these distractions and is likely on high alert because of them.
If you really have insomnia or are nervous about “the monsters” outside your tent, sometimes the best thing you can do is face them. Strap on your headlamp, hop out of your sleeping bag and walk a few laps around your camp, making sure to watch out for stakes, guylines and branches. Take a few deep breaths and assure yourself that there’s nothing to worry about, and you’ll feel much more relaxed and calm.
Cover photo of me via Matt Stein Adventure Photography.