Sleeping Woes… And My New Favorite Backpacking Hack

I will admit something terrible: I hate camping. More specifically, I hate trying to SLEEP while I am camping. Up to that point, I love everything. The tough climb up a pass, the joy of eating a warm rehydrated meal, watching a sunset with good friends, peeing in the woods under the stars.

drunk owl

Me, after a night of not sleeping

However, once the sun goes down, all of that changes. Inevitably, I will climb into my quilt, thinking to myself “Wow, this is pretty nice” before eventually succumbing to madness for the next 8+ hours as I slide in and out of a semi awake/semi sleeping state. The result? When 7 am eventually comes around I will have maybe slept 2 hours, and feel like I’ve been hit by a truck. This becomes especially fun when I have to immediately drive home on the last day of a trip, requiring me to drink all the caffeine in the world while ALSO maintaining supernatural attention to stay awake.

Basically, it’s bad. I’ve had this problem since I started backpacking in middle school, so one would think I would have solved it by age 30. Apparently not.

So, what is the solution? I’ve read this article in Backpacker magazine, I’ve spent countless hours obsessively searching for the perfect sleeping pad with the right price to weight to comfort ratio. I’ve dealt with my compulsive need to roll around while falling asleep (quilt, attached to pad with straps, it’s the best). I use a pillow these days (Exped air pillow). I take melatonin, use ear plugs, wear a hat, drink enough water not to feel dehydrated throughout the night.

However, nothing seems to work. As someone who is NOT a fan of sleep aids such as Advil PM or Ambien, these aren’t good options for me. In order to trouble shoot this problem, I’ve started to examine some of overarching sleep themes I’ve seen throughout my life that seem to occur both on and off the trail. This is what I’ve realized so far (and maybe you, dear reader, also experience some of this):

1. I’ve always had problems sleeping in new places that I’m unfamiliar with. This happens to me in hotels too.
2. It’s always been hard for me to sleep when I’m anticipating something, whether it be a good thing or a thing I’m not looking forward to. I get really excited/happy when I backpack, and I think maybe this doesn’t add to my general ability to just relax and slip into a restful sleep.
3. Finally, in order for me to fall asleep, even at home, that stars must align and everything must be perfect (that is: I must have the pillow in the exact position I want, the blankets must cover just enough of me to create the perfect temperature at the moment that I nod off). I’ve always been envious of people who can fall asleep mid sentence or be holding a book and suddenly BAM, SLEEPING.

As mentioned, I’ve spent an absurd amount of time and energy developing a sleep system that should, in theory address some of my sleep needs.

I’ve been using this Exped Synmat UL 7, which feels pretty good. Compared to the old, heavy and thin thermarest I used all through college, this feels like a DREAM. While it’s heavier than I’d like (roughly 15.4 oz), I’m sadly never going to be one of those ultralight hikers who can get away with a thin foam mat. I sleep on my side, and while this pad doesn’t entirely save me from dead arm, it’s a vast improvement. (Admittedly, when I’m going extra light, I sometimes use a Gossamer Gear Airbeam torso pad, which is actually pretty great for the weight/size!)




Hammock Gear

Not my quilt, but the photo used by Hammock Gear on their website. Mine looks the same, but in green!

As a side sleeper who constantly turns over all night, I’ve found a quilt system (with straps attaching it to my pad) to be a big improvement over mummy bags. Before using a quilt, I experienced over a decade of being uncomfortable and tangled in mummy bags, while the “hood” never actually acted as a hood but rather something that never quit lined up with my head. In a bag, I felt that every time I needed to switch sides I also had a to spend a lot of time realigning the hood, which was a fruitless endeavor. Not so anymore, since I now sleep in the sweet sweet cloud that is either a Hammock Gear Burrow 20 or (since I received it in the mail yesterday) an Enlightened Equipment Enigma (0 degrees, for snow camping). Now, when I turn over, the quilt stays put without me getting tangled.

Finally, in terms of gear, I’ve come to the point where I’ve finally accepted that I can’t sleep without a pillow. Not a lumpy stuff sack full of clothes, but some kind of pillow. I usually use an Exped Air Pillow OR more recently, I’ve started to experiment with a Zpacks Dry Pillow Bag, which is basically a cuben fiber dry bag with an inner micro fleece lining that can be turned inside out to create a pillow. I simply stuff my down jacket inside, and it makes a reasonably comfy pillow. However, the cuben fiber can be crinkly, and I’ll need to experiment more to see how I deal with the sound.

If it’s cold out, I’ll wear cozy socks, some merino leggings, and a base layer top.

To me, this seems like the best possible setup I can imagine for sound sleeping in the backcountry. However, it doesn’t seem to be doing the trick, so I’ll be spending some time devising some ways to improve the situation.

One thought: If the issue is “newness” when sleeping in a different place, perhaps I can at least start by spending some nights at home using my backcountry setup. Sometimes, due to a full time job and life, I can only get out maybe once per month to go camping. As such, when I finally get to go, I’m not only sleeping in a new and weird nighttime place, but also using gear that I don’t use very much, increasing the discomfort I feel in that situation. This is something I’ve heard about for years from different online communities, and while I always thought it was a bit silly to acclimate yourself to your sleep system while still at home, I’m starting to realize there might be some truth to this.

Finally, while I’m sure I’ll continue having more thoughts on this topic, I’ve also realized that it might be beneficial to bring a more homey feeling to my sleep setup. As much as it pains me to add extra ounces, this could mean a familiar pillow case.

Finally, I learned this AMAZING backpacking hack during my Wilderness Travel Course last week, and it’s blowing my mind:


I always have issues measuring water for backcountry meals (i.e the “add one cup of water” type of meals, where adding too much or too little can ruin your warm dinner, if you’re inclined to be cooking). I never seem to have a cup that uses any measurements that I need (eh snow peak). In case you can’t tell from this amazing photo (I mean, it’s so professional and clear), this is a ziploc bag with lines on it marking both 1 cup and 1/2 cup lines. To make these, I simply measured out the water using my home measuring cup, poured the water into the bag, and then marked where the water came up to on the bag. BAM, backcountry measuring cup. One thing to keep in mind: make sure you always hold the bag the same way when adding water (i.e don’t squeeze it).

Next up: snow camping this weekend. I guess I’ll get to test out some of my backcountry sleeping theories. Oh dear.


4 Comments on “Sleeping Woes… And My New Favorite Backpacking Hack

  1. Pingback: Troubleshooting Those Pesky Backcountry Issues (Maybe) – Outdoorsy Archivist

  2. The pillow makes a big difference for me. I use an Exped UL pillow but also bring a small camping pillowcase that I’ve had forever, similar to a Therm-A-Rest Trekker Pillow Case. I can wrap my down jacket around the Exped, then stuff it in the soft pillow case and it’s heaven. If it’s so cold I have to wear the jacket the pillow itself is adequate. Glad you’re figuring it out. Another thing that helps me is to listen to podcasts from someone with a melodious voice–10 min of that and I’m asleep.


    • Thanks for the comment Inga! It’s been super interesting to figure out little things like that, which have in the end made ALL THE DIFFERENCE. I’ve had really great success taking some of my home bed-time routines and translating those into the backcountry (which is pretty much reading my kindle in bed). Also ear plugs. It’s been funny, I’ve gone out with people and they’ve asked me the next morning if I heard something walking around the tent, and now my response is “I didn’t hear anything, I was sleeping”, hehe. It does make me think that MAYBE there are times when it’s actually good to hear what’s out there (i.e a bear knocking my food around), but all things considered, I’m a happier and probably safer hiker if I slept, so…..


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