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.
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.