Troubleshooting Those Pesky Backcountry Issues (Maybe)


I guess I could also trouble shoot my backcountry fashion too…

I said I’d give a little update on my backcountry sleep issues, so I’ll do that now while also imparting a little problem-solving wisdom for all your backcountry woes.

It never ceases to amaze me how strange it is that someone who loves backpacking and the backcountry as much as I do, still can somehow not actually sleep during those trips. I’ve had since middle school to figure this out, but as I detailed in a previous post, I’ve spent the last 15+ years  continuing to suffer from sleep deprivation and dead arm, while also spending a lot of money on new things that will supposedly help. New pad? Yep, spent a lot of money on that. Multiple sleeping bag styles tested? Oh yes, I did all that (I’ll never forget the Nemo spoon shaped bag, the quilts!)

Here’s the thing. I have a theory, which is that crux of ANY backcountry conundrum we might face as backpackers might sometimes be amplified by the lack of follow-up to really solve the problem (note: and by issue I don’t mean serious health related problems like acute mountain sickness. I mean the things that just generally make us uncomfortable and the experience less enjoyable). At least, I think this is certainly true for me. When I say “backpacker” in this context, I’m not necessarily talking about thru-hikers, or even those spending multiple consecutive weeks on a trip (though, you thru-hikers are backpackers too, don’t worry). I’m more referring to the type of backpacker I’ve had to become over the last several years, because of school and work commitments, which is namely a weekend/long weekend backpacker with long distance aspirations. Here’s what happens:

1. I go backpacking on a 1-2 night trip
2. I get terrible sleep, and am in a state of sleep deprived madness by the end of the trip
3. Somehow, I drive myself home without wrecking the car
4. I get home, eat all the snacks, catch up on all the sleep, and then I go on with my life as a I unwillingly drag myself to work Monday morning

Sure, while I’m on the trip, and maybe sometimes after, I’ll think, “I should really figure this whole sleep thing out”. But, then I’m home and sleeping in my own bed, and the urgency to actually SOLVE that problem goes away. Furthermore, you can sometimes pull it off on a one to two night trip. Maybe you feel like crap by the last day, but you go home and recover, and go about your business.

I’ve slowly come to the realization that this doesn’t really work in my favor. Why? Because, as much as I love almost everything else about backpacking, I’m starting to just expect the shitty horrible feeling at the end. It’s sort of ruins the experience, and then I get questions like, “why do you do that, if it’s not enjoyable?” And I don’t like that question. So much about backpacking is enjoyable. I love planning routes, traveling those routes, being in camp, AND I really enjoy peeing in the woods. So, it’s just unacceptable that I also continue to associate those experiences with the horrible shitty tiredness that happens by the end. Sure, it’s normal to be tired after carrying 25 lb of stuff up a mountain, but you’re just that much more tired if you ALSO didn’t sleep.

So, in light of this, I’ve  been trying to come up with… A list! While for me this is sleep specific, I think it can actually be applied to a lot of troublesome backcountry issues that people might deal with (don’t like your food? Afraid to poop in the woods?). So, here it is:

1. Remember the specifics of what bothers you. If necessary, bring a (small, lightweight) notebook and jot down some thoughts as it happens.
2. Once you’re home, review those notes. Decide if there are some “low hanging fruit” options that you can initially fix. Feet cold? Bring warmer socks. Hungry? Bring more food/different food. Sometimes, you’ll already have the gear and the ability to solve some of those things right away.
3. Troubleshoot the things that are a bit more tricky. This doesn’t always mean that you have to run right now and spend a ton of money on new gear. Do some googling, read through some of the many excellent backpacking books out there. Many places will allow returns of items as long as they are either in new shape, or almost new (for example: I got a new pack at REI last month to try it, took it on a one night trip to Joshua Tree National Park, and then returned it because I didn’t like it). Don’t assume because you bought something that you are required to keep it. If it doesn’t work for YOU, don’t keep it.
4. Experiment. Don’t assume that because you made some changes that they will magically be the solution. Don’t go out for a weekend, sleep terribly, make a few changes, and then assume that you’ve now solved these issues for your month long JMT hike. If you have to, sleep in your backyard or go on a short overnight trip. Do this as often as you need to!
5. Try your best. Sometimes, you’re just not going to have things be perfect (you’re sleeping on an inflatable pad after all, not at home).

Back to sleeping. Here’s what I’ve noted:

Not managing cold drafts with quilt
-Neck is hurting from inadequate pillow
-Light sleeper easily awoken by outside noises (especially wind blowing on the tent).
-Feel really crampy waking up at night, even after using what I consider to be a pretty darn comfy air mattress on some trips

Some successful solutions so far:

-I’ve started actually using the quilt pad attachment straps (HUGE help). It really keeps all that hard earned warmth inside the quilt. I don’t know why I just thought of this
-Wearing a balaclava when it’s cold, and utilizing the neck cinch on the quilt
-Wearing ear plugs is a huge help. I slept through part of a night in Joshua Tree, where the wind was making a lot of noise, and I didn’t even notice it (that being said, I didn’t sleep well because of other other issues I mentioned above).
-At home I sleep on my side, with an extra pillow in between my arms for support. So, on my last snow camping trip, I used my down pants + stuff sack as a mini backcountry hugging pillow. It wasn’t fantastic, but it was way better than having nothing. In theory, I don’t usually bring these on 3 season trips, so I think I’ll have to come up with something better for next time.
-I somehow fell asleep on my BACK. YES, MY BACK. And, I actually slept so much better after that happened. So, I need to see if I can somehow get myself into that habit more….

So, there you have it. Be proactive. Don’t let something that might be fixable ruin what is suppose to be a great experience.

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