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September 2001

10 Simple Ways To Get To Sleep In Camp

Getting a good night's sleep on the trail is easier said than done. Our experts show you how to get your 20 winks.

5. Face your fears. There’s little doubt that one of the biggest causes of backcountry insomnia has four legs and sharp teeth. “If you’re camping in grizzly country, it’s hard not to think that every noise is a bear coming to eat you,” Dr. Slamowitz says. “But have a realistic understanding about animal-related dangers.” In places that haven’t seen ursine visitation in 100 years, don’t waste perfectly good fear. In bona fide bear country, take simple precautions, such as camping away from water, hanging your food and sweet-smelling toiletries, and cooking 100 yards from your tent.

If the thought of bedding down with rattlers and scorpions makes you anxious, by all means bring a tent. Much as I like sleeping under the stars, my wife spends the entire night assuming that if she nods off, the inside of her sleeping bag will immediately resemble the herpetology display at the Denver Zoo. Thus, we (read: I) carry a tent on almost every trip.

6. Stick to your at-home sleep schedule. According to Dr. Dement, a frequent cause of poor sleep is a change in schedule. The average American adult hits the hay between 10 p.m. and midnight, yet backpackers often slither into the sack between 7 and 9 p.m.

Even if you’ve accumulated a large “sleep debt” (a cumulative lack of slumber, built up over a long period), you may not be able to fall asleep earlier than usual. That’s because your inner clock, or circadian rhythms, override your desire for 12 hours in Dream Land. The good news is that there’s no commute in the morning, so you can sleep late.

To pass the time before you hit the sack, pack a book, cards, or other tent games (see “Backpacker: The Game”), plus extra headlamp batteries. Also, avoid afternoon naps, since they make it tougher to fall asleep at night. If you must catch midday shut-eye, opt for a 20-minute power nap.

7. Follow your nighttime rituals. Dr. Ancoli-Israel believes that one of the best ways people can deal with unfamiliar surroundings is by maintaining bedtime rituals. “A lot of people read,” she says. “If you do, carry a book or magazine. If you brush your teeth right before bed at home, brush your teeth before bed in the woods.”

Here’s another good precrash ritual: Take a mellow 30-minute stroll. Backcountry ranger Holly English, a proponent of this sleepy-time habit, says walking just before bed lets your mind flow clear and stretches achy muscles one last time before a night’s worth of inactivity.

8. Choose tentmates carefully. I have two hiking chums, Brad and Robert, who are so indoctrinated in the “travel light” mentality that they would share socks and toothbrushes even while car-camping. When we venture so much as 12 inches into the backcountry, Brad and Robert think we ought to carry only one tent. For several years, I acquiesced and slept poorly beside my two snoring, stinky, tossing-and-turning compadres.

“Sleeping a few inches from people you don’t know well represents a complete change in your sleep environment,” says Dr. Ancoli-Israel. You have three options if you want quality shut-eye: 1. Get to know your hiking partner before taking that big trip; 2. Sleep solo; 3. Convince your spouse to go camping with you.

These days, I carry my own tent and pitch it far from my friends. Otherwise, I share my sleeping space only with my wife, which brings me to the great benefits of hiking with an intimate partner: You can exchange preslumber massages and engage in other sleep-enhancing activities.

9. Nip not at the flask. To some, it’s a backpacking tradition to carry a small flask of spirituous fluid. A shot of peppermint schnapps in your hot chocolate helps you pass out, right?

“Many people believe that,” Dr. Dement says, “and they’re probably right. But even a small amount will result in a poor night’s sleep.” The reason? There are half a dozen stages of sleep, and they’re all needed in the proper proportions and sequence in order to get a good night’s slumber. Alcohol and caffeine disrupt transitions between those phases, resulting in—you guessed it—less-than-optimum sleep.

10. Cure sleep problems at home. “If you have problems sleeping in your bedroom,” says Dr. Ancoli-Israel, “it’s unlikely you’ll overcome them simply by hiking out into the wilderness, pitching a tent, and lying down on the ground.” In such cases, consult your doctor. She may recommend simple strategies that resolve your problems quickly.

On the trail, as a last resort, some hikers carry prescription sleeping pills. “There are several kinds that work well, with few if any side effects,” Dr. Dement says. “I don’t recommend over-the-counter pills, though, because of potential side effects, plus I don’t want people relying on pills.”

Longtime Backpacker contributor M. John Fayhee sleeps just fine in the woods.

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