Stop Tossing and Turning: Use Science to Sleep Like a Rock in the Backcountry
Can science—and a fine-tuned gear setup—help you sleep better? Let's give it a try.
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At roughly 4 a.m. on a Saturday morning last August, lying inside a tent in an idyllic meadow several miles east of Pikes Peak, I realized something awful: I truly hate camping. There, I said it. Or, to be more specific, I hate the fact that I’ve never enjoyed a satisfying stretch of restorative shut-eye while sleeping on the ground. In a sleeping bag. In a tent. I hate waking up from said “sleep” more exhausted than the day before, and I hate coming back more wasted than when I hit the trail on Friday.
But here’s the kicker: I love the backcountry, and I love the idea of pitching my tent in a spectacular setting. I love making dinner in the self-contained efficiency of my JetBoil, and I relish the satisfying warmth of a hot chocolate infused with a shot of bourbon.
Only then does the crappy part start. That’s when I crawl into my tent and begin the slow descent into a sleep-deprived madness. It’s not pretty. First I’m cold. Then I overheat. Around two in the morning, the accumulated aches and discomfort leave me staring at the ceiling while a slow, self-directed rage builds in my psyche: “Goddammit, humans have been sleeping outside for thousands of years with no problem. So why can’t you just pass out?”
Lately, I’ve wondered whether I was the only one. To find out, I call a couple of guys who together have racked up more than 1,000 bag nights in the wild: climber and writer Mark Jenkins, who’s slept in nearly every environment in the world, and big-mountain guide Dave Hahn, who spends winter in Taos, spring on Everest, and summer at Rainier.
Jenkins’s take: “You just have to adapt.” Hahn admits that he can’t always sleep, but told me, “Don’t sweat it. Rest is rest, even if you’re up at 2 a.m. doing a crossword on Denali.” Still, I take hope: If these guys–flesh and blood just like me–can learn to snore (or at least get some restorative downtime) in howling Death Zone winds, I might have a chance. And thus my quest begins–to understand the science of shut-eye, find the perfect sleep system, and wake up with a life-affirming “Good morning!” instead of a splitting headache.
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?
Know Your Gear
Ever notice that the kickoff night of any camping trip is always the worst? Sleep docs have a name for it: the first night effect. “It always takes time to adapt to a new environment,” says Dr. Mary Susan Esther, President of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine–be that a hotel room or a campsite. The trick is to make your backpacking bed as familiar as possible, says Joe Austin, a NOLS guide who’s spent some 150 weeks sleeping in the field. “Pick a bag and temperature rating that allows you to sleep in whatever you normally sleep in at home,” he told me. The ideal bag for a person sleeping in full flannel PJs may be lighter than the one for someone who sleeps in boxers and nothing else. And if you regularly rest your weary head on 400-thread-count Sea Island cotton pillowcases, pack one for your camp pillow.
But familiar objects alone won’t cut it: Comfort is of the utmost importance if you’re to have any hope of falling asleep. Realizing this, I called Kristin Hostetter, editor of Outside Business Journal. After 15 years of sleeping in every new bag, on every imaginable pad, and in a wider variety of tents than one sees at Bonnaroo, I figured she would’ve developed a multifaceted program for getting a good night’s sleep. Turns out she has just two rules: a pillow (inflatable, stuffed in a flannel pillowcase) and earplugs.
Jenkins shared another comfort secret: Match your gear to your sleeping style. “Three-quarter-length foam pads and skinny mummy bags are wonderful for people who can lie on their backs and never move for the duration of the night,” he said. “I’m not one of them.” He likes his bags wide, and usually unzips them and uses them like a down comforter so he can squirm around at night without feeling constricted. Hostetter agreed: “Are you a thrasher? A side sleeper who likes his knees bent? If you’re any of those, you’ll want more wiggle room in your bag and a much wider pad.”
Steve Howe, Backpacker’s Rocky Mountain editor and a veteran of numerous 20-plus-day expeditions, had even more to say about the all-important sleeping pad. “Guys over 175 pounds should get the thickest pad they can find, and tall guys will sleep better on extra-long pads,” he told me.
Knowing that I’m a 6-foot 3-inch, 180-pound, side-sleeping thrasher, I rustled up some gear and spent several nights testing multiple combinations of bags, pads, and pillows in my tent on my driveway (if a pad-and-bag system could make cold, hard concrete feel comfortable, it should work phenomenally well on dirt or grass, right?). In the end, I settled on a 25-inch-wide, 2.5-inch-thick inflatable pad, a roomy, extra-long down sleeping bag, and a comfy compressible pillow. The system worked well on pavement, raising my hopes for my final field test. But first, I had one more set of tricks to learn.
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.”
Put it All Together
My investigation yielded expert tips. My driveway test produced the ultimate sleeping system: bag, pad, and camp pillow. Added to that core package were earplugs, a soft cotton T-shirt and boxers, a flannel pillowcase from my bed at home, a dose of Advil, and a pair of socks. (I stumbled across a Dutch study that found socks make it easier for the body to control core temperature, thus improving sleep. It worked for me.)
The time had come for the final field test. So I loaded my new sleep gear–it consumed half of my pack’s 5,000 cubic inches–and struck out for the foothills around Pikes Peak, bound for a knobby ridge with sprawling views of the prairie below. The sun was already setting by the time I reached the perfect campsite, a grassy spot set among pines and scrub oak. Still, I spent a good 20 minutes scouting and preparing a flat, rock-free spot to pitch my tent, just as my experts had instructed me. Mind and body exhausted from the long day and the hike in, I savored a bowl of chili by headlamp and watched the moon rise.
I cleaned up, did some jumping jacks to warm my body, and crawled into my tent. It was still early, so I didn’t try to force myself to sleep. Instead, I caught up on my reading. I listened to the wind rustle through the trees, and I thought about the world spinning silently under the stars. At 10 p.m., I popped an Advil and washed it down with 20 ounces of water, inserted my earplugs, and slid into my roomy new bag. And then, faster than you could say “moment of truth,” I fell asleep. For the first time in my life, I actually dreamed. In a tent. On the ground. Until sunrise.
Six Sleep Tips from the Experts
Stop hiking three hours before bed. “Exercise itself should help bring sleep, but not if you’re active right up to bedtime,” says Dr. Thomas Reilly of Liverpool John Moores University. Why? Exertion releases the stimulating hormone cortisol. Unless you’re really trying to squeeze every mile out of the day, give yourself some time to unwind by cooking, reading a book, or just enjoying the sunset.
Give yourself three hours to digest dinner–a full belly can disrupt slumber. But a light snack sometimes helps, advises Mary Susan Esther, president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Try caffeine-free hot cocoa or a chunk of cheese; dairy products combined with carbs help promote drowsiness.
Skip the caffeine (and nicotine) in the four to six hours before bed–it keeps you alert by blocking sleep-inducing adenosine in your brain, and can take hours to wear off. Carry some hot cocoa or decaf tea or coffee if you’re in the habit of a hot evening drink.
Don’t nap after 3 p.m. The temptation to plop down under a tree and have a snooze can be overpowering. Sometimes that’s OK, but time it wrong and it could impact your sleep later. A short (one hour or less) catnap can perk you up, but doing it too late in the day diminishes your natural sleep drive, leaving you too alert at bedtime.
Go to bed at your usual time. Routine is king when it comes to sleeping well. Your body’s sleep/wake rhythms stick to a regular schedule, and it’s very difficult to shift them for a night or two.
Pick your site carefully. You wouldn’t sleep on top of a woodpile, so why would you expect to get good sleep on rough, uneven ground covered with branches and twigs? Take the time to find a level, wind-sheltered campsite free of rocks and sticks, and you’ll find yourself naturally relaxing more.
Pop a Pill?
Sleep aids can be effective—but they have drawbacks too, sometimes severe ones. Here’s how several options stack up.
Sleeping pills (Ambien, Lunesta, Sonata, etc)
Effective? Very, especially if you don’t take them regularly. Aim for the lowest dose possible to limit potential side effects.
- Pros Work well for occasional insomnia
- Cons Require a prescription; some can be habit-forming; side effects include headaches, diarrhea, vomiting, and hives; pricy
- Cost $130-$165 for 30 pills
Effective? Maybe, if you’re dealing with jet lag (studies show synthetic melatonin pills help about half of the people who try them)–it helps sync sleep with changing light patterns. But it isn’t great for occasional sleepless nights.
- Pros Available over the counter; cheap
- Cons Not FDA-regulated (check with your doctor first); side effects include headache, stomachache, and feeling hungover
- Cost About $5-$10 for 30-60 pills
Effective? Not really. Some studies suggest this herb helps people fall asleep if it’s taken over a period of several weeks, but its use hasn’t been rigorously studied.
- Pros Can’t hurt to try it (it’s not federally regulated, but it is on the FDA “Generally Regarded As Safe” list); natural
- Cons Little data behind its effectiveness; side effects include headache, dizziness, and feeling hungover
- Cost $5-$20 for 60-100 pills
Effective? Alcohol, a depressant, will knock you out. But it’ll also cause disturbances as you metabolize it later, preventing you from reaching restorative, deep-stage rest.
- Pros Fast-acting (and fun)
- Cons Actually makes sleep worse
- Cost Varies, depending on tonic of choice
Effective? Surprisingly, yes. Dairy products contain tryptophan, an amino acid that aids the production of melatonin.
- Pros Cheap; natural
- Cons Not so tasty; try hot cocoa with powdered milk instead.
- Cost $1 per serving (Backpacker’s Pantry Whole Milk), plus $5 for a four-pack of Hershey’s Goodnight Kisses hot cocoa (which is 99.9 percent caffeine-free)
Originally published July 2009; Last updated September 2021