My buddy Mark loves the backcountry. Sadly, though, he has given up backpacking for daytrips and even makes the occasional foray into cushy car-camping. The problem? Backcountry insomnia.
Mark’s situation is far from unusual. Many backpackers have found the journey to the Land of Nod fraught with obstacles. Some folks even argue that having trouble sleeping is the number one complaint uttered by backpackers.
Why all the tossing, turning, and Dall sheep counting? The new surroundings, your altered metabolism, and a host of other factors affect how well you saw logs. But besides turning you into a backcountry zombie, going sleepless can be dangerous, says William C. Dement, M.D., Ph.D., coauthor of The Promise of Sleep. “A person may think he feels fine, but reflexes can slow and he is less coordinated,” says Dr. Dement, the Stanford University professor who founded the American Sleep Disorders Association. “Adrenaline temporarily overcomes sleepiness, but the more sleepless nights you experience, the more suspect your decision-making abilities become.”
So how do you get enough shut-eye on the trail? We put that question to Dr. Dement and other sleep experts.
1. Chill out. “There’s a certain amount of tension that comes from getting ready for the trip,” says Sonia Ancoli-Israel, Ph.D., author of All I Want Is A Good Night’s Sleep and a psychology professor at the University of California-San Diego. You can’t find a piece of gear or it takes longer to pack than you planned. You get caught in traffic, then it starts raining when you hoist your pack. “You get into your tent not so much fatigued as tense and exasperated,” says Dr. Ancoli-Israel. “That doesn’t translate to a good night’s sleep.”
The remedy is simple relaxation. “When you get to camp, find a quiet spot to sit, and make yourself let go of all the things that are bothering you,” she says. “When you get up, think only about the fact that you’re camping in a beautiful place.”
2. Get in shape, stay up late. “Exercise can make you feel good and sleep well,” but only if you do it regularly, say Peter Hauri, Ph.D., and Shirley Linde, Ph.D., in their book No More Sleepless Nights. In other words, if you haven’t hiked in months, doing so all day won’t make you sleep better that night. Hike for a week or so, however, and the repeated exertion will lower your blood pressure and help you crash at night.
Drs. Hauri and Linde also recommend that instead of hiking until dark and then crawling into the tent after a quick dinner, wait and hit the hay about 3 hours after making camp. Otherwise, all those exercise produced endorphins—plus that double helping of chili—will still be swishing around in your system.
Finally, if you’re not in decent backpacking shape, 10 hours on the trail might translate to sleep-inhibiting soreness. Counter the aches with aspirin or ibuprofen an hour before bed.
3. Pick the right site. Things that keep you awake at home will do the same in the backcountry. For instance, my wife is light-averse, so she looks for campsites with moon-blocking trees. I hate constant noise, so we avoid babbling creeks. Others like white noise, says Dr. Dement, and find a gurgling stream the perfect cure for insomnia.
Camping at altitude also can disrupt sleep, says David Slamowitz, M.D., of the Sleep Health Centers of National Jewish Hospital in Denver. “People can experience altitude-induced sleep apnea at elevations as low as 5,000 feet.” The only remedies, according to Dr. Slamowitz, are to descend or take medicine prescribed to alleviate apnea.
4. Get used to your new home.“Most people sleep poorly for the first couple of nights in any strange location,” says Dr. Slamowitz. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in a hotel, in a tent, or at your sister-in-law’s.” When you’re backpacking, your surroundings technically change by 10 to 15 miles every night, but the inside of your tent looks and smells pretty much the same. So the night before you leave home for your next trip, try sleeping in your tent to acclimate your body to snoozing on the ground and in the new setting.