A Good Night's Sleep in the Backcountry

Without question, we all perform better in both the front and backcountry with a good night’s sleep. Most backcountry travelers can get a good night’s sleep most of the time with the right sleeping system and by using the right combination of sleeping tactics. Even though it is important to carry a sleeping system that is well thought out, it is more important to learn how to make whatever sleeping system you are carrying work effectively.

At Home Trip Planning

  • Plan to sleep by yourself if possible; have your own bag and tent/tarp. However, if weight is more a concern than a good night's sleep, sleep with someone warm: your spouse, a friendly dog, etc. 
  • Select a sleeping system tailored to your age, physique and sleeping patterns (e.g., side sleepers need a wider pad; restless sleepers need more width; tall people need a longer pad).
  • Plan on sleeping in a fully enclosed tent if not used to sleeping out in the open or under a tarp.
  • Pack a bivy sack outer covering or a sleeping bag liner to use as needed; have the option of using only this option if it is too warm to be inside your bag.
  • Pack a large enough stuff sack to make a soft and substantial pillow with your extra clothes.
  • Make sure your sleeping bag/quilt is large enough to handle wearing your extra clothes to bed.
  • Take a thermometer and keep track of how warm or cold you sleep in what temperatures.
  • Practice a mental ritual at home like the following: as you are drifting off to sleep, visualize being in a beautiful wilderness setting snuggled down into your super soft and comfy sleeping bag or quilt.

Setting Up Camp

  • Get plenty of hard exercise during the day, but stop and set up camp before you get overtired.
  • If you have put in a long day, stop hiking 2-3 hours before bedtime to unwind.
  •  In cold temperatures, stop hiking only an hour or so before bedtime so higher metabolism levels will help you stay warm during the first half of the night. To facilitate this, take a long break at dinnertime and then hike a few more miles before bedtime.
  • Select a protected campsite out of the wind and out of low areas where cold air settles; a good rule is to be at least 50 feet above the valley floor.
  • Set up your shelter to provide adequate ventilation. Without good ventilation, the humidity inside the tent will decrease the effectiveness of your insulation.
  • Locate a soft bed of sand, grasses, duff, or snow. If the ground is unforgiving, dig a hip hole.
  • Lay out flat on potential sites to find one that fits your body (what Ray Jardine calls “sweet spots”).
  • Separate yourself from heavy breathers and snorers and use ear plugs; if not possible, at least sleep at opposite ends of the tarp / tent.
  • Unstuff your sleeping bag and shake it vigorously as soon as camp is set up.

Just Before Bedtime

  • Don’t go to bed thirsty. Ideally, keep well hydrated during the day. Have a water bottle handy in case you wake up thirsty.
  • Drink little just before bedtime; hold off peeing until just before climbing into bed.
  • Drink sleep-inducing, non-caffeinated beverages (e.g., herbal tea) in the evening; avoid stimulants like caffeine and chocolate; don’t drink alcohol before bedtime.
  • Use your extra clothes for your pillow, which will pre-warm them if you need to put them on during the night.
  • Set all extra clothes nearby to gradually layer on as needed when body metabolism slows down and temperatures drop.
  • If there is excessive room in your bag, insert extra clothing along the sides so you aren't heating extra space.
  • Wait at least until it gets dark before going to bed.
  • Go to bed warm. Keep active until you are ready for bed. Take a late evening stroll or continue hiking until close to bedtime.
  • Eat high calorie foods (fats and carbohydrates are best; proteins are not as easy to digest) just before bed to provide extra body heat a few hours later.
  • Take pain-killing medication when the body aches from the day’s activities.
  • Take a sleeping medication when sleep is not coming easily.
  • Change into loose-fitting sleeping clothes to mimic sleeping at home.
  • Put on warm, dry socks just prior to bedtime (unless you are attempting to dry out damp socks).
  • Utilize body and mind relaxation exercises or meditation techniques; listen to soothing music on a portable music player.

When Wake Up Cold in Early Morning Hours

  • Start adding your extra clothes to both inside and on top of bag (including storm shells). Spread your insulated jacket over the top of  your hips or around your feet rather than wearing it, especially if bag space is limited.
  • Put on a warmer hat if have it; put mittens on hands.
  • Eat simple sugar snacks (e.g., candy or energy bar)
  • Get up and do some exercises (e.g., running in place) to get warm.
  • Add a hot water bottles or disposable chemical heat warmers inside your bag.
  • Keep a stove and pot nearby to brew up a hot drink.
  • Cover your mouth with a scarf or facemask to help pre-heat the air you breath.
  • Enclose your head in your bag for short periods to use your breathing for added warmth (sleep this way only if  likely that you can dry out your bag the next day).
  • Pack up and start hiking with your headlamp during the early morning hours.

What To Do For The Next Trip When the Above Tactics Are Insufficient

  • Experiment; perfect your sleeping system with backyard trials in comparable weather.
  • Obtain a warmer sleeping bag or warmer insulating clothing (including insulated jacket, pants and booties?).
  • Obtain a sleeping bag made with elasticized, stretchable panels to have extra room to move around and to add extra clothes, while not having to heat the extra space of a larger bag.
  • Obtain a warmer sleeping pad or mattress rated with an R-value of 4.0 or higher. For extra warm sleeping obtain a down air mattress (DAM) at least 2.5 inches thick.
  • Use a decongestant, “Breathe Right” nasal strips or other tactics to keep the sinus passages open; facilitate breathing through the nose rather than cold air going straight to the lungs.

Miscellaneous Tactics

  • Since sleepers are often not aware they are sweating, ventilate the tent / bag until you get too cool.
  • Dry out your bag and insulated clothing when possible. If the weather does not permit laying your bag out in the sun or dry air, roll the moisture out of your bag from foot to head when you first get up; then unroll it and turn inside out, leaving it open until cooled to air temperature.
  • Get used to sleeping in the wilds by spending as many nights out as possible.
  • If sleeping in below freezing temperatures, make sure those things needed for morning will not be frozen (water, fuel canister, shoes); sleep with them if necessary.


As you can see from this article, experienced backcountry campers use a wide variety of tactics to get a good night’s sleep most every night. Which new tactics will you add to your camping repertoire?