Sleep is the bedrock of performance. The research has been done, and it is beyond dispute that getting enough quality sleep improves mental and physical functioning. Sleeping well should be a priority every single day, but especially when headed outside for an adventure. Part of the allure and reality of backcountry pursuits is existing in direct contact with a set of risks. Whether it’s avalanche awareness or knowing your exposure to adverse weather, having a clear mind and well-rested body has huge safety implications. Sleeping well outdoors is a fundamental step in staying safe.
Moreover, in our hyperconnected world there is an increased urgency to get outside to take a break from thumbing our screens and having our days fragmented by a thousand distractions. Going to bed when it gets dark and rising with the light is often the perfect prescription for the mania of the digital age. Capitalizing on this time with quality, restful sleep can make a difference that reverberates well after your trip is done.
The following are tips and strategies that should help you sleep well outdoors, and brighten the days you spend in nature.
Before you go
1. Create a Sleep System
In a previous post we took a dive into building a sleep system that matches your individualized needs. If you haven’t read it yet, it would be a good place to find more tips to sleep well outdoors.
A tailored combination of sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and clothing will help you achieve thermal efficiency by providing the correct amount of warmth and breathability, all while saving you weight. Less weight will allow you to play harder which makes zipping up into your backcountry bed all the more satisfying.
2. Bring a pillow
Although technically a part of a sleep system, a pillow gets its own number because it is too often overlooked. When I was 9 years old, on my first backpacking trip, my father told me to stuff my fleece in the hood of my sleeping bag and call it good. Timidly, I admit I have only just ditched the compressed clothing and adopted a backcountry pillow. The Air Head™ Lite fits in my pocket and never feels like a fuzzy rock on my head.
During the Day
3. Play Hard, Sleep Hard
This one is clear, if you exert yourself during the day your body will naturally crave a deep sleep to refresh itself come night. Research suggests that as little as 30 minutes of aerobic exercise will increase the amount of slow wave sleep you get. Slow wave sleep is important for thorough rejuvenation of body and mind.
Exercising right before bedtime may keep you up. Exercise releases endorphins which could create a level of brain activity that may keep people awake. Exercise also increases the core body temperature, which is a signal that it is time to wake up.
Before you head out on your trip, take special care to observe your body’s relationship with exercise and sleep. If you need it, plan 1 to 2 hours of downtime at camp to allow your brain to wind down and your body cool off for some well-earned sleep.
Every cell, tissue, and organ in your body needs water to work properly both in a waking state and a sleep state. The recommended daily intake of water is 3.7 liters for men and 2.7 liters for women, though these numbers should increase to make up for more rapid water loss during exercise. If you are outside in a hot or humid climate, even more water will be needed to compensate for loss.
Keep in mind that the typical body can only absorb a maximum of 1 liter of water per hour. Walking for an hour, getting really thirsty, and smashing a liter of water is a poor way of hydrating. Which is why reservoirs are excellent pieces of gear to bring along as they promote continual and gradual water intake.
A properly hydrated body will perform at its best during the day and be ready for recovery at night; if you go to bed dehydrated you could disturb your sleep. Dehydration causes your mouth and nasal passages to dry out which could lead to disruptive snoring and a parched throat. Be a good tent mate and hydrate!
5. Sleep Flat
During some of my adventures I sleep in my beat-up old minivan. A critical piece of equipment that I always pack is a leveling tool so I can fine tune my parking spot to be as flat as possible. Few things are as aggravating as waking up with a wedgie from sliding downwards or a pulsing headache because blood is flowing to your head all night. A 2-degree incline is all it takes to drive you nuts at 2 am.
If you are hiking into the backcountry chances are you will not be carrying a leveling tool, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take special care to pitch your tent on flat ground. Look for sites that are free of large rocks, plants, and other objects that could affect your sleeping surface. Don’t be afraid to lay on the ground for a few minutes before making camp to ensure that it is comfortable; a closed cell foam Z Lite SOL™ is great for a ground test!
Please remember, when you are selecting a campsite, flat ground is not the only consideration. Always follow the Leave No Trace principles of camp site selection.
6. Eat Well
Similar to hydration, a proper backcountry diet will allow your muscles to recover overnight while also providing energy to keep you warm in the tent. Planning a trip menu can be as simple as making sure you have three meals a day that are light, compact, nutritious, and provide enough calories. It is recommended you consume 2,500 to 4,500 calories per day in the backcountry.
You can take planning further by calculating your expected caloric expenditures each day and designing your meals to compensate. This can be a complex process, but if you go to bed properly fed you have a better chance at restful sleep.
7. Don’t Over-Inflate
When it comes time to inflate your sleeping pad, huffing into the valve until you absolutely cannot blow another breath of air in may not be the best idea. Customer feedback suggests that most people sleep more comfortably on an underfilled pad. Keep in mind on cold nights your mattress may lose air pressure as cold air compresses, while on warm nights the pressure could increase as warm air expands.
Put too much air in and now you are zipped up in your sleeping bag, squeezed in between your tent mates and have no room to maneuver to let some air out of your pad? Don’t worry, this precise scenario was considered in the design of the WingLock™ and TwinLock™ valves.
They are positioned off the surface of the pad you can easily open them to bleed air and close them again while laying on top. All Therm-a-Rests are thoughtfully designed so that you can customize your pads stiffness. Know your body and find the support level that helps you sleep better.
8. Fluff It
Unpack your sleeping bag right away to allow it time to re-loft before you slide inside of it.
Whether it’s down or synthetic, sleeping bag insulation needs loft to generate warmth. Insulation relies on tiny air spaces to trap heat; well lofted insulation is able to form more heat-trapping air pockets than compressed insulation. Waiting until the sun is gone and the chill of the nighttime forces a retreat to your tent to unpack your sleeping bag is a recipe for chilly, uncomfortable night.
9. The Naked Truth
True, there is a certain sense of freedom to sleeping in the nude, but if you are going for the best night’s sleep outside, we recommend dry base layers.
Base layers wick away sweat that could otherwise cool on your skin and cause your body temp to drop. If you are sleeping too hot and sweating as a result, it is more likely due to a lack of breathability in your sleeping bag than it is due to base layers. Your sleep system should be designed with base layers held constant. Consider bringing a dedicated set of sleeping layers and socks that are kept dry for nighttime use.
An often-overlooked value of base layers is that they prevent the down in your sleeping bag or quilt from clumping up and body oils from seeping into the fabrics on your pad. If you want the best night’s sleep and long-lasting gear, put some clothes on!
10. Heed the Call
Sleeping with a full bladder can be difficult. Not only can it be difficult to fall asleep while you are concentrating on holding it, but your body is working overtime to keep all that liquid warm. By heeding the call, you can relax your mind and allow your body to devote itself to keeping warm and recovering.
If I am well hydrated doesn’t that mean that I will have to get up and pee in the night? How can that mean good sleep?
This is a good point. An effective strategy for proper hydration while not making disruptive trips out of the tent is to avoid drinking too many fluids within two hours of sleeping, if possible. This means that a gradual and sustained approach to hydration throughout the day is best.
11. Regulate Your Body Temperature
Regulation of you body temperature is much to do with designing the right sleep system. For example if you are headed out in warm months, a lightweight quilt could offer the right insulation and breathability features to ensure comfort. Taking advantage of the features of your system is important for a successful night’s sleep.
Another simple step in body temperature regulation is to wear (or not wear) a hat. Bear in mind the popular statement that most of your body’s heat is lost through your head is a myth. This is because heat loss is a function of surface area, and your head only comprises about 10% of the body’s total surface area. You cannot lose most of your body’s heat from just 10% of your body’s total surface.
However, when you are in a sleeping bag, your head remains more exposed than the rest of your body, causing it to be a primary area of heat loss. Cover it up to warm up, or not.
12. Seriously, Bring a Pillow
You’ll thank us. Bring that pillow!
Consider bringing earplugs. Some people won’t head out without them for fear of their snoring tent partner, while others prefer the ambiance of the wilderness at night. Perhaps melatonin supplements are your key to sleeping well, bring those too. Fabulous sleep mask anyone?
The point is that sleep is critical, and the idea of losing sleep due to “roughing it” in the backcountry should be done away with. With the right preparation, strategy, and commitment to self you can be getting quality, rejuvenating sleep while outside.
This post discusses how you set yourself up for great sleep, but don’t lose sight of the fact that sleep sets you up for the following day. At Therm-a-Rest we believe spending quality time outside is important to a good life. It is why we have made better nights under the stars our mission, so that you can have the best day possible out under the sun.