Do you struggle to get a good night’s sleep camping? So do I. Here are my tips for making the best of it (including one that won’t be to everyone’s taste).
I’m a light sleeper at the best of times. I sleep cold too. Resentment can boil up inside when I read blog posts or articles with lines like ‘Exhausted, I crawled into my sleeping bag and slept until dawn.’ For me, nothing could be further from the truth: no matter how big a day I’ve had, come bedtime I struggle to drift off. Even worse, I wake up at regular intervals and then have trouble getting back to sleep. But I love hiking and camping so I’ve learnt to make do.
There are lots of tips for getting a good night’s sleep floating around on the internet. They’re all valid but they seem targeted at people with “normal” sleeping patterns. Here are my top tips for getting a good, or at least tolerable, night’s sleep if you’re a troubled sleeper to start. Not everyone will agree with these, especially #6. Let me know what you think.
1. Get an inflatable sleeping mat with a decent R value.
If you can sleep on a closed-cell foam pad draped over rocky ground on a mountain side, hats off to you. For everyone else, think seriously about inflatable mattresses: they’re lighter, generally warmer and so much more comfortable. They’re also better for slide sleepers like me: my hips dig into the ground even when I’m using a self-inflating mattress.
I own a Nemo Astro-Air Insulated (R-value 4.2) which is pretty cushy when inflated just right. It’s heavy but definitely worth the weight penalty. I’ve also just bought a lighter Sea-to-Summit Ultralight Insulated (R-value 3.2) for ultralight trips (review to come).
The R-value is important for cold-sleepers too: a lot of novice campers don’t realise that the best sleeping bag in the world is almost useless without insulation UNDERNEATH you. I’ve slept relatively well compared to friends who’ve brought a no-name brand air mattress and then shivered their way through a cold night.
2. Take a pillow
For a mere 60–100g, you can have a piece of kit that is 100% dedicated to comfortable sleeping. It’s worth it – a lumpy stuff sack filled with clothes will never perform as well. I own the Cocoon Ultralight Pillow (105g). There are lighter ones too.
Having specialist equipment like this goes against ultralight hiking principles. However, specialist equipment tends to do a particular job really well. Also, if you need to layer up it’s possible you might not have any clothes left for your stuff sack pillow, which brings me to point 3…
3. Layer up in cold weather
My ultralight down quilt / sleeping bag is supposedly rated to -6ºC. However, last Winter I went camping in the Watagan Mountains and struggled to stay warm with even all my layers on, including a lightweight down jacket! The temperature didn’t dip below 0ºC either.
If you’re a cold sleeper, take thermals and make sure you have other layers nearby if you’re camping in winter (or winter-like conditions), including a beanie. My mother-in-law once spent a cold night without thermals simply because she couldn’t find them in the tent.
I’m looking into an insulating sleeping bag liner and down hood/balaclava in the future too (I use an UL hoodless sleeping bag).
4. Take earplugs AND earphones
I’ve got a pair of silicone earplugs that are re-usable and keep out some noise. However, the real killer is when I inevitably wake up in the wee hours and the mind starts racing. At home, I’d get up and read a book, sleep on the couch or meditate. But these are all difficult options when camping, especially when you might get attacked by leeches or mosquitoes if you sit outside after dark.
The best thing for quietening my mind is to plug into my smart phone and listen to some relaxing music on repeat. My favourite is Timber Timbre’s self-titled album. It generally gets me back to sleep or at least semi-consciousness.
5. Have a power nap during the day
If time and weather permit, a 20- to 30-minute power nap during the day is as good as, if not better than, a full hour’s sleep. The trick is to get to the stage where your brain conks out and your drift into deep sleep. It’s like hitting the reset button in your brain! You’ll definitely be more alert and less fatigued for the rest of the day.
This a bit like practicing yoga nidra, or lucid sleeping, which, a teacher once told me, is like triple-concentrate sleep.
6. Pop a pill…
Sleeping pills: they work. There, I’ve said it. A couple of sleeping tablets are part of my first-aid kit now.
Having tried almost everything else, I’ve just realised that I need some help getting to sleep and staying that way. Mostly, I’ll just take a half tablet (and wake up half way through the night). However, the best night’s sleep I’ve had camping was when I took a full tablet. I conked out for the whole night, and managed to get back to sleep, even when I woke up once. It was AMAZING.
Drug-dependency like this is less than ideal. But having tried other options, I’ve decided that it’s best to use sleeping pills for their intended purpose: getting you to sleep when all else fails. I don’t take them in my day-to-day life at all, only when camping or on long-haul flights. If you’re considering this as an option you must consult a doctor and try them out in the safety of your own home first. There are lots of different types out there (each with their own side effects). You might try some of the herbal options around too.
I don’t see an issue with popping a pill or two on short trips. When I finally go on a longer multi-day walk, I’ll need to evaluate my options. Hopefully, my body and mind will just get used to sleeping in a tent. I’ll let you know how I go. Until then, bottoms up … and good night!