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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

Know Your Gear

Ever notice that the kickoff night of any camping trip is always the worst? Sleep docs have a name for it: the first night effect. “It always takes time to adapt to a new environment,” says Dr. Mary Susan Esther, President of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine–be that a hotel room or a campsite. The trick is to make your backpacking bed as familiar as possible, says Joe Austin, a NOLS guide who’s spent some 150 weeks sleeping in the field. “Pick a bag and temperature rating that allows you to sleep in whatever you normally sleep in at home,” he told me. The ideal bag for a person sleeping in full flannel PJs may be lighter than the one for someone who sleeps in boxers and nothing else. And if you regularly rest your weary head on 400-thread-count Sea Island cotton pillowcases, pack one for your camp pillow.

But familiar objects alone won’t cut it: Comfort is of the utmost importance if you’re to have any hope of falling asleep. Realizing this, I called Kristin Hostetter, gear editor for this magazine. After 15 years of sleeping in every new bag, on every imaginable pad, and in a wider variety of tents than one sees at Bonnaroo, I figured she would’ve developed a multifaceted program for getting a good night’s sleep. Turns out she has just two rules: a pillow (inflatable, stuffed in a flannel pillowcase) and earplugs.

Jenkins shared another comfort secret: Match your gear to your sleeping style. “Three-quarter-length foam pads and skinny mummy bags are wonderful for people who can lie on their backs and never move for the duration of the night,” he said. “I’m not one of them.” He likes his bags wide, and usually unzips them and uses them like a down comforter so he can squirm around at night without feeling constricted. Hostetter agreed: “Are you a thrasher? A side sleeper who likes his knees bent? If you’re any of those, you’ll want more wiggle room in your bag and a much wider pad.”
Steve Howe, BACKPACKER’s Rocky Mountain editor and a veteran of numerous 20-plus-day expeditions, had even more to say about the all-important sleeping pad. “Guys over 175 pounds should get the thickest pad they can find, and tall guys will sleep better on extra-long pads,” he told me.

Knowing that I’m a 6-foot 3-inch, 180-pound, side-sleeping thrasher, I rustled up some gear and spent several nights testing multiple combinations of bags, pads, and pillows in my tent on my driveway (if a pad-and-bag system could make cold, hard concrete feel comfortable, it should work phenomenally well on dirt or grass, right?). In the end, I settled on a 25-inch-wide, 2.5-inch-thick inflatable pad, a roomy, extra-long down sleeping bag, and a comfy compressible pillow. The system worked well on pavement, raising my hopes for my final field test. But first, I had one more set of tricks to learn.

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