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Sleep Better Now: Improve Your Backcountry ZZZ’s

Our restless guinea pig snooze-tested the latest science and gear to bring you a simple plan that's guaranteed to improve your backcountry ZZZ's.
Sleep BetterCourtesy Jeff Beal

At roughly 4 a.m. on a Saturday morning last August, lying inside a tent in an idyllic meadow several miles east of Pikes Peak, I realized something awful: I truly hate camping. There, I said it. Or, to be more specific, I hate the fact that I’ve never enjoyed a satisfying stretch of restorative shut-eye while sleeping on the ground. In a sleeping bag. In a tent. I hate waking up from said “sleep” more exhausted than the day before, and I hate coming back more wasted than when I hit the trail on Friday.

But here’s the kicker: I love the backcountry, and I love the idea of pitching my tent in a spectacular setting. I love making dinner in the self-contained efficiency of my JetBoil, and I relish the satisfying warmth of a hot chocolate infused with a shot of bourbon.

Only then does the crappy part start. That’s when I crawl into my tent and begin the slow descent into a sleep-deprived madness. It’s not pretty. First I’m cold. Then I overheat. Around two in the morning, the accumulated aches and discomfort leave me staring at the ceiling while a slow, self-directed rage builds in my psyche: “Goddammit, humans have been sleeping outside for thousands of years with no problem. So why can’t you just pass out?”
Lately, I’ve wondered whether I was the only one. To find out, I call a couple of guys who together have racked up more than 1,000 bag nights in the wild: climber and writer Mark Jenkins, 50, from Laramie, Wyoming, who’s slept in nearly every environment in the world, and big-mountain guide Dave Hahn, 47, who spends winter in Taos, spring on Everest, and summer at Rainier.

Jenkins’s take: “You just have to adapt.” Hahn admits that he can’t always sleep, but told me, “Don’t sweat it. Rest is rest, even if you’re up at 2 a.m. doing a crossword on McKinley.” Still, I take hope: If these guys–flesh and blood just like me–can learn to snore (or at least get some restorative downtime) in howling Death Zone winds, I might have a chance. And thus my quest begins–to understand the science of shut-eye, find the perfect sleep system, and wake up with a life-affirming “Good morning!” instead of a splitting headache.

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