How to Sleep in the Backcountry

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Backpacking in Point Reyes National Seashore, June 2015

This year, I decided I would FINALLY learn to sleep while camping. It was a long time coming.

As I chronicled (extensively) in a few posts over the last 6 months, I’ve had trouble, so much trouble, sleeping comfortably while backpacking. Since my earliest camping memory, I’ve experienced post-sunset night time dread, imagining the forest coming to life around my vulnerable sleeping body. On top of this, would be the inevitable numb arm as I attempted to sleep on my side while using a less than comfortable pad. The result: 8+ hours of frustration and madness, followed by a very groggy day.

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Joshua Tree, March 2015

HOWEVER, I’m happy to say that I’m finally sleeping really well. For the first time, I’m finishing backpacking trips (or car camping trips) feeling normal tired rather than “I haven’t slept in 3 days” tired. So, to celebrate this, I thought I’d create a “Lindsey’s Guide to Not Sleeping Terribly in the Backcountry.” I touched on this a bit in a previous post, but after several additional trips since that time, I’ve refined it more. So, here you go, for your reading and sleeping pleasure:

  1. Embrace that dark. One of my major issues with camping, I’m slightly ashamed to admit, is that I’ve always experienced the dreaded “what’s out there in the dark” feeling once the goes sun down. Even during college, while in the field working on my archaeology degree, I experienced a level of this. Every sound was something nefarious. A bear, or even another person up to no good. Early on, one way I dealt with this was to start listening to music or podcasts before bed. Nowadays, I always use ear plugs and spend time reading, just as I do at home. I also spent some time just being outside my tent at night, acclimating myself to the night time sounds. Turns out, the night can be pretty neat.
  2. This leads us to our next suggestion: Bring some comforts and routines from home. When you stop and think, it makes complete sense that you’re not going to slide into blissful sleep in a weird and new environment when you’re used to your usual one at home (that being said, SOME people can just sleep anywhere. How lucky for them). Just accept this, and think about a few home comforts you can translate into the backcountry. At home, I read before bed every single night, so why not do this when I’m camping too? I also sleep on my side, with a pillow snuggled in between my arms, so sometimes I use a stuff sack for my clothes that attempts to recreate that comfort.
  3. On the subject of routines, don’t go to bed at 7pm if you usually go to bed at 10pm at home. I get it, you just carried 30 pounds of stuff up a mountain, you’re tired. However, it adds to the weirdness factor to suddenly decide that you’re ready for a new sleep schedule. Of course, if you REALLY want to go to bed early, by all means use your initiation, but for a weekend-style trip, I’ve found it’s easier to stick to my normal bedtime.
  4. Prioritize your sleep system. What do I mean by this? For me, it means that maybe my base weight isn’t as low as I’d like it to be all the time. However, there’s a fine line between carrying less to have a lighter pack, and feeling like crap in the morning because you couldn’t sleep. Sometimes, you can make cuts in other parts of your gear to stay at a sane pack weight, but you also might just end up with a few more ounces, which is okay.
  5. Finally, a really important point that I can’t emphasis enough, it to take notes and be aware of specific things that make it harder for you to sleep. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been backpacking, slept horribly, woke up and thought “I wish my arm would stop going numb on my crappy pad.” Then I’d go home, forget about it, and guess what… It happened again and again. Sure, maybe I’d get used to it eventually, but if you only have the pleasure of doing weekend style trips, you don’t really get the time to acclimate to new sleeping situations. When I finally started to take my own complaints seriously by specifically addressing them, sleeping got a whole lot easier!
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Angeles National Forest, May 2015

So, that’s what I have. Of course, I can’t tell you what pad you need, or whether or not you’d benefit from ear plugs. I can tell you however, that you CAN and WILL sleep soundly in the backcountry with some adjustments specific to YOU.

Happy camping! And, Happy Friday! It’s labor day weekend, and I suspect many of you have an excellent opportunity to start taking notes…

One Comment on “How to Sleep in the Backcountry

  1. Pingback: Fear and Prioritizing | Outdoorsy Archivist

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