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Backpacker Magazine – June 2009
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.
Make Bedtime Routine
Still more research with the likes of Austin, Hahn, and Howe made me realize that I'd been making a critical mistake in my approach to camping: I was crawling into my bag soon after sundown with the tenuous belief that sheer exhaustion would translate into instant, deep slumber. Not so, my experts explained.
"We all operate on daily wake/sleep cycles that are set over months," explained Dr. Michael Zimring, director of the Center for Wilderness and Travel Medicine. "They don't change overnight. No matter how tired you are, you want to maintain your normal pattern." Hahn agreed: "Do whatever you can to stay up 'til your normal bedtime. Bring a headlamp and read, write in a journal, or sit around talking with friends." (But retire early for alpine starts.) Austin offered further counsel for the clueless like me. "Go to bed warm," he said. "If you go to bed cold, you'll stay cold for a while since your body needs to be giving off heat for the insulation in your bag to work. Jump up and down, do something to get your blood flowing before climbing inside your bag. You don't get into bed at home feeling chilled, so don't do it out there."
With gear, campsite, and nightly routine in order, it was time to dig into my experts' little bag of do's and don't's. First, the obvious: Lay off the caffeine and alcohol in the hours leading up to turning in–a fundamental sleep strategy the National Sleep Foundation has promoted for decades. This flies in the face of what I always considered two very good reasons to go backpacking: Eating copious amounts of chocolate (caffeine) and sipping bourbon after dinner. But Howe had a point: "Alcohol may knock you out at first, but you'll wake up in the middle of the night dehydrated, and good luck going back to sleep with that headache."
The last bit of wisdom came from Austin. "Don't go to bed thirsty," he said. "You'll only become more dehydrated–and sleep worse–during the night. Chug down half a water bottle and leave the rest in your tent in case you wake up in the middle of the night." But won't that lead to a full bladder and disruptive midnight pit stops? I asked. "You're likely going to be dehydrated by the end of your day, anyway," Jenkins said. "Drink up to get the body back to normal as best you can. Normal equals sleep."