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Backpacker Magazine – June 2009

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.

by: Grant Davis

Courtesy Jeff Beal
Courtesy Jeff Beal

Get Cozy
Find Your Perfect Sleeping Gear

Master Sleep Science

I don't have these problems at home, and no wonder. Camping wreaks havoc on a finely calibrated body clock designed to make me sleepy at bedtime and wake me up refreshed in the morning. Here's how it works under normal circumstances. "Light sets the timer," says Dr. David Schulman, director of the Emory Sleep Disorders Lab. The sun peeks through your shades, or your spouse flicks on a lamp, shooting light through partially cracked lids and signaling your optic nerve to stimulate a part of your brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, or SCN. The SCN sends out an alert to wake you up, and stops the production of melatonin, the body's primary sleep-inducing hormone. Basically, the SCN is the body clock, ruling our daily routines by releasing and inhibiting the right brain chemicals at the right times.

From that moment–even though you're wide-awake–the pieces for your next good night's sleep are already being put in place. With every hour, your "sleep drive" (jargon for your desire to nod off) builds. Scientists aren't sure about the exact hormonal ingredients that make up the sleep drive, but recent studies point to a chemical called adenosine as a major player. As your cells use energy, adenosine accumulates in your bloodstream. The more there is, the sleepier you get. Your body then breaks down the backlog while you snooze, and you start afresh the next morning. (Feel groggy in the morning? You probably haven't slept long enough to break down all the adenosine.) You might think we'd all get increasingly exhausted as sleep drive grows throughout the day–and you'd be right, except that the brain counters that drive with an even stronger dose of a stimulating chemical that scientists call the alerting signal.

Until darkness falls, that is. When the lights go out and the signal gets turned off, you're left defenseless against a day's supply of sleep drive. On top of that, the pineal gland starts cranking out melatonin, which helps you fall asleep and stay that way through the night. Sleep becomes irresistible; you drop off, dream, and repeat until the cycle starts up again in the morning.

The complex dance of alerting signal and sleep drive follow a pattern: Your body's natural tendency is to fall asleep and wake up at about the same times each day, ensuring you get your requisite seven to nine hours. But we all know it's rarely that simple: Stress, excitement, physical exertion, alcohol, caffeine, even late-night s'mores can knock the body clock out of whack. And when you consider that all of the above can be part of any backpacking trip–with the addition of an unfamiliar setting and an uncomfortable bed–can you blame me for tossing and turning?

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Mike O
Jul 23, 2010

Regarding the CPAP, I have a Resmed series 8. After doing some research, I came up with a system that works pretty good.

The batteries are the killer, but I found a 12 volt 9 amp hour battery weighing 6 pounds that gives me about 10+ hours of sleep (two nights) When you add it all up, I am carrying an extra 9 pounds, but this is doable.

My recommendation is to buy AGM Deep cycle batteries 12 volt and 9 am hours. The resmed with a converter is very efficient at .9 per hour.

Jun 28, 2010

Therm a Rest Neoair. 2.5 inches thick, 14 ounces, pure bliss. After a solid 4 years of backpacking with closed cell foam pads I'm a convert.

Sep 19, 2009

Hey, Chris. Not to sound sarcastic but there's some comments below that talk about it. Just scroll on down! ;)

Sep 12, 2009

My friend has sleep apena. She needs a CPAP machine to sleep safely. Can any one help me find a good portable machine that will allow to go camping together? As CPAP machines become more common, being able to go in the back country with one, plus make it through a power outage would make great reading. Thanks, Chris

Love my hammock
Sep 08, 2009

I've always had exactly the same experience as Grant, wondering why the heck I couldn't get a good night's sleep on the trail. Tried a hammock for the first time last month and slept better than I do at home. No more tents--my new Warbonnet Blackbird just arrived in the mail!


Aug 20, 2009

Like you Grant, I slept miserably for years so I could enjoy the beauty and solitude of the outdoors. Then I discovered the camping hammock. I have never in my life slept so well on a campout. They're also great for an afternoon nap or a chair. For the record, I have a Hennessy Expedition and my wife has a Warbonnet Blackbird. Both are great sleepers.

paddlin' dan
Aug 13, 2009

Hang! Just got a Warbonnet Blackbird hammock for a 10 day canoe trek in Maine. Hung for the first few nights, then spent two nights in a tent on a grassy point (too many skeeters in the trees and there was a nice breeze). OUCH! Back to the trees! Don't know if my tents will ever get used again, but the Blackbird? My wife wants me to take it down and sleep in the bedroom...

Aug 13, 2009

I learned alot from this article however I do feel for you all...I'm usually the snorer that you guys complain about.

Bob W
Aug 12, 2009

Skip the bourbon and you won't be hot and sweaty in the middle of the night. Take a couple prophylactic acetaminophin or ibuprophen an hour before sleep instead, with adequate water to dissolve them and keep you hydrated. I agree alcohol is esp bad at even medium altitude. I bring a little flashlite like a Princeton Eclipse with a low beam so I can read myself to sleep, or read myself back to sleep in the middle of the night, without disturbing my tentmate. If you pick the right book, reading programs your mind so you can sleep.

Dr. Steve
Aug 10, 2009

There is a dental appliance used for treating sleep apnea called the TAP appliance. It's often used when people can't tolerate the cpap machine. It opens an airway by advancing the lower jaw. I hope this helps you Randy.

Aug 06, 2009

I'm lucky enough to have my lodge set up for the whole summer and enjoy the comfort of a cot. My problem with the cot was freezing to death in my bag. I found that the thermarest pad I used backpacking worked great with the cot.

I have sleep apnea and now need a cpap machine. I lug around a 12 volt marine battery hat weighs 50+ pounds. I haven't figured out how to go backpacking and use the cpap with a small battery and solar charger. Any body have this problem? a solution?

Aug 06, 2009

I'm lucky enough to have my lodge set up for the whole summer and enjoy the comfort of a cot. My problem with the cot was freezing to death in my bag. I found that the thermarest pad I used backpacking worked great with the cot.

I have sleep apnea and now need a cpap machine. I lug around a 12 volt marine battery hat weighs 50+ pounds. I haven't figured out how to go backpacking and use the cpap with a small battery and solar charger. Any body have this problem? a solution?

James Hankins
Aug 03, 2009

I've found an adequate pillow is key to all-night comfort. My solution is a dedicated stuff sack in which I insert a down or fleece jacket. The other secret I've found is a change in approach to the turning and tossing issue: Rather than think in terms of turning inside the bag, my approach is to use a less-roomy mummy bag that tightly encases me so that when I turn, I turn bag and all. That eliminates the issue of cold pockets and drafts into the bag, and the flattened down quickly restores its loft after turning. That approach, on top of an 1 1/2" of Thermarest, does the trick for me.

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