Getting a good night’s sleep while backpacking in the backcountry isn’t easy. Thankfully, there are plenty of ways that you can get your 8 hours in, even when you’re miles from your comfy bed.
We know how difficult it can be to catch some Zs in the mountains, so here are our top tips for sleeping on your next backpacking trip.
30 sleeping tips for backpacking:
1. Get Earplugs
Earplugs are a must-have piece of gear, whether you’re traveling the world or camping in a remote alpine meadow. Snoring tent mates and the cacophony of noises that occur naturally in the outdoors is enough to keep anyone awake at night.
Even if you don’t happen to have a tentmate that sounds like a 787 taking off next to you at night, earplugs can help minimize the amount of stimulation your brain faces while you’re trying to get some rest.
You can easily pick up a packet of earplugs at your local pharmacy or grocery store and stash them with the rest of your sleeping gear when you pack for your trip. Alternatively, if your sleeping bag comes with a small internal stash pocket, this can be a great place to keep earplugs at night.
2. Invest In A Pillow
Traditionally, pillows have been thought of as a “luxury” item for camping trips, rather than a necessity. However, there’s a reason that we sleep with pillows when we’re at home: It’s more comfortable.
If you want to experience this same level of comfort during a camping trip, a pillow is a good option.
Sure, you can “make” a pillow out of a stuff sack and some spare clothes, but when it’s cold outside and you need to wear your clothing, you’ll have to say bye-bye to your pillow.
There are plenty of lightweight camping pillows out there, some of which weigh under 2oz (56.7g). Unless you’re aiming for a sub 5lb (2.3kg) pack weight, you probably won’t notice this extra weight, but you will notice how much better you sleep with a pillow.
Hybrid pillows that have an inflatable chamber and a foam topper tend to have the best comfort to weight value. A good option that offers a good mix of comfort and weight savings is the NEMO Fillo Elite Ultralight, which also packs down small for longer trips in the mountains.
3. Use 2 Sleeping Pads
The thought of carrying 2 sleeping pads on a backpacking trip is enough to make any pack weight-conscious camper sweat a little bit, but doing so can greatly increase the quality of your sleep.
Combining a quality inflatable sleeping pad, like the Thermarest NeoAir UberLite with an ultralight foam pad, such as the Gossamer Gear Thinlight Foam Pad, can add a surprising amount of comfort to your sleep system.
The foam pad does double duty as a protective shield for your ultralight inflatable sleeping pad. It also helps to minimize any annoying crinkling sounds that inflatable pads often make if you turn over at night.
Plus, using two sleeping pads better insulates you from the ground, which means you’ll be warmer on cold nights.
4. Consider Melatonin
Melatonin is a popular OTC supplement in the United States (it’s actually prescription-only in many countries!) that is often used as a sleep aid. Although there’s no conclusive link in the scientific research between melatonin and improved sleep, some people do find that it helps them get to bed.
There are plenty of other homeopathic sleep aids out there, such as lavender, valerian root, passionflower, glycine, and CBD oil, which may help you get to sleep.
However, if you have any medical conditions or you take other medications, it’s worth consulting your doctor if any of these sleeping aids are right for you. Even OTC and herbal remedies can react negatively with other medications, so it’s best to play things safe before you start taking extra supplements.
5. Cut Back On The Post-Dinner Drinks
Having to get out of bed in the middle of the night to answer nature’s call is not exactly a pleasant experience. This is especially true if it’s raining, snowing, windy, or just unnecessarily cold outside as most of us would much rather stay in our warm sleeping bags.
While you should certainly hydrate throughout the day and earlier in the evening, cut back on those post-dinner drinks. This includes limiting your intake of tea, hot cocoa, and yes alcohol, before going to bed if you often struggle with having to use the toilet in the middle of the night.
Although alcohol might make you feel sleepy and can even make you fall asleep faster, it can affect REM sleep, and lead to other sleep disturbances. This reduces the quality of your sleep, so you won’t wake up feeling as refreshed for your next day of hiking.
6. Avoid Late-Night Sweets
Most of us love dessert, but if you’re struggling to get to sleep while camping, try to avoid those late-night sweets.
There are a few studies, including a 2018 Canadian study and a 2018 international study, that have found links between sugar consumption and shorter sleep durations. Plus, even though sugar doesn’t have caffeine in it, many of our favorite chocolate-based desserts are full of caffeine, which can keep you awake at night.
So, if you want dessert, try to eat it soon after dinner, rather than waiting until the wee hours of the night to indulge in that chocolate bar before tucking into your sleeping bag.
7. Bring A Book
In our day to day lives at home, many of us are used to scrolling through social media or watching TV before bed. When we’re outside, we often don’t have access to these sources of entertainment, so our bodies crave another way to wind down at the end of the day.
A book is a great low-tech way to relax after a day of hiking and to let your mind slowly drift off to sleep. Even if you’re still struggling to get to bed with your book in hand, at least you’ll have something to occupy your mind instead of tossing and turning in frustration throughout the night because you’re can’t get to sleep.
8. Don’t Inflate Your Pad All The Way
Many people inflate their sleeping pad as much as possible when setting up their camping sleep system. However, unless you particularly like sleeping on a rigid board, this might not be the best tactic.
Most sleeping pads are designed to be inflated to various levels of firmness so you can find the right setting for your needs.
Side sleepers, in particular, can benefit from only partially inflating their sleeping pads. That way, there’s a bit of a depression around your hips for a more ergonomic sleep position at night.
9. Create A Notch For Your Hip
Side sleepers often struggle with sleeping while outside because thin sleeping pads don’t provide enough support for the hips and knees. For people with wider hips, creating a small notch in the ground where your hips might sit can be a good way to ensure that your body stays in alignment for a more comfortable night’s sleep.
If you plan to dig out a little notch for your hips underneath your tent, be sure to follow Leave No Trace (LNT) guidelines. Don’t do so if it means ripping up plants or grass. Rather, search for campsites on pine needles or with loose soil or snow that’s easy to refill and disguise when you pack up camp the next day.
10. Carry A Sleep Mask
Some people just sleep better with a sleep mask, while others find it’s a necessity when it’s not pitch black outside. This is particularly important if you’re camping in northern latitudes (e.g., Alaska) during the summer months, when the sun is out until fairly late at night.
Additionally, sleep masks can help you sleep in, even if the sun rises a bit earlier than you’d like. They’re also great for catching some Zs when your tentmate insists on using their headlamp to read or journal long past your bedtime.
11. Get A Darkly Colored Tent
Tents with light-colored rain flies (such as yellow or white rain flies) can be surprisingly bright inside, even around sunset. This is especially problematic if you’re camping somewhere with lots of daylight at the height of summer, but is an important consideration for anyone that needs darkness to get to sleep.
Dark-colored tents, such as those with grey or dark blue rain flies, tend to be the best in these situations. A sleeping mask is a good short-term solution if you’re not ready to commit to a new tent, but for long-term sleeping happiness, you may need to rethink your tent choices.
12. Make A Hot Water Bottle
People often struggle to get to sleep while camping because they’re cold. At home, we have access to super thick duvets and blankets, as well as the ability to crank up the heat.
When you’re outside, finding ways to stay warm is essential if you want a good night’s sleep. Putting hot water in a durable water bottle, like a Nalgene, is an excellent way to add a bit of extra warmth to your sleeping bag. Simply ensure that the bottle is closed up tight and then take it into your sleeping bag for the night.
13. Consider Hammock Camping
For some people who struggle to get to sleep while backpacking, a hammock might be a good solution. Of course, hammocks are only appropriate if you’re camping below treeline, but for many campers, they are much more comfortable than sleeping in a tent.
If you’re struggling to get comfortable on your sleeping pad, consider swapping your tent for a hammock. Try sleeping diagonally in the hammock, rather than from end to end, and you might find that you get the best sleep of your camping career while suspended in between two trees.
14. Get The Right Sleeping Bag For The Conditions
Whether it’s too warm or too cold, a sleeping bag that’s not right for your camping conditions is a sure-fire way to mess with your sleep while backpacking. It’s imperative that you have the appropriate sleeping bag for the temperatures you expect to face while camping if you want to get a good night’s sleep.
In general, get a sleeping bag that’s 10º-15ºF (5º-8ºC) warmer than the coldest temperatures you think you’ll experience during a trip. This will ensure that you’re just warm enough – but not too warm – at night.
15. Eat A Big Dinner
Hunger can keep you up at night and eating a healthy serving of dinner is a great way to help you get to sleep. The key is to get a good mix of carbs, proteins, and fats in your dinner so your body has enough to process throughout the night to stave off hunger.
Be sure not to eat too late in the evening as this can disrupt your sleep cycle too. Aim to have a big meal at least 2-3 hours before bed so you have enough energy to stay warm and comfortable throughout the night.
16. Attach Your Sleeping Bag To Your Sleeping Pad
Sliding off your sleeping pad in the middle of the night is annoying, to say the least. If you’re struggling to stay put while sleeping in on a sleeping pad, consider attaching your sleeping bag to your pad.
Of course, this does sort of “glue you” to the sleeping pad, but if you find that you spend most of your night chasing your sleeping pad, it may be a good option.
17. Opt For A Wider Sleeping Pad
As an alternative to attaching your sleeping bag to your sleeping pad, you may find that you sleep better with a wider sleeping pad. This is especially true for side sleepers who are used to having an entire bed to sprawl out on.
Although they’re slightly heavier, rectangular-shaped sleeping pads do provide more room, which can greatly increase your comfort levels at night.
Then again, the weight difference between the rectangular Thermarest NeoAir XTherm MAX and the mummy-shaped Thermarest NeoAir XTherm is only about 8oz (226.8g). So, you may find that the slight increase in weight is worth it for the improved sleep quality.
18. Cinch Your Sleeping Bag Hood Around Your Head
We lose a lot of body heat from our heads when we’re outside, not because our heads magically pump out an excessive amount of heat, but because they often go uncovered. If being cold at night is a reason why you’re not sleeping well, cinch the hood of your sleeping bag around your head at night.
For sleeping bags that don’t come with a hood, consider wearing a puffy jacket with a hood or just putting on a hat. Being cold is a sure-fire way to limit the amount of sleep you get at night, so bundle up!
19. Pitch Your Tent In Sheltered Areas
On windy nights, the sound of your tent flapping with each gust is sure to keep you awake. Whenever possible, try to pitch your tent in a sheltered area to reduce your exposure to the wind.
If you’re above treeline, search for big boulders or other terrain features that can block the wind. Otherwise, earplugs are your best friend.
20. Have A Bedtime Routine
Sticking to a bedtime routine can help your body adjust to sleeping outside. It might take a while to figure out precisely what your routine will be, but find some sort of system that you can follow every night before bed.
That way, your body knows that it’s time to wind down and you’re better prepared to fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow.
21. Choose A Flat Campsite
Anyone that’s ever slept on a not-quite-flat campsite knows how uncomfortable it can be. Unless you particularly like feeling like you’re constantly sliding downward – or worse, sideways – at night, flat campsites are a must.
In places where a flat campsite isn’t quite possible, use your backpack and other spare pieces of gear to try to create a flat-ish sleeping platform for your sleeping pad. Find ways to minimize the angle of your tent site so that you can get a better night’s sleep while camping.
22. Use A Knee Pillow
Side sleepers often find that their hips ache when they wake up after sleeping on a sleeping pad. This is because side sleeping can put a lot of pressure on your hips when your body isn’t adequately supported throughout the night.
One good way to help reduce this pain in lieu of a thicker sleeping pad is to use a knee pillow. While you don’t necessarily need to buy an actual knee pillow, putting spare clothing or even a second inflatable pillow between your knees as you snooze can make a difference.
23. Stretch Before Bed
After a long day of hiking, many of us are tired and achy. Stretching before bed can help relieve some of this pain and make us more limber the following day. Consider adding stretching to your pre-bedtime routine while in camp.
24. Consider Anti-Inflammatories
If you’re particularly achy after a day on the trail, some anti-inflammatories might make a big difference to your sleep quality.
Advil PM is a particularly popular option, but, again, be sure to consult with your physician if you have allergies, certain medical conditions, or take other medications that could negatively react with OTC meds.
25. Acclimatize Properly
For trips into high elevation locales, such as the Rockies, High Sierra, or some of the tallest peaks in the Cascades, poor acclimatization can impact your sleep.
If you’re not used to the elevation, try to gain elevation slowly over the course of a few days to acclimatize. It’s generally best to hike high during the day and sleep lower down to help your body adjust.
Understand the signs of altitude sickness and be willing to turn around if you or someone in your group isn’t feeling well. Staying hydrated at higher elevations can also help stave off some of the headaches that can affect sleep quality.
26. Camp Near Water
Many people find that they sleep better when they’re surrounded by white noise. If this is the case, try to find a campsite that’s near running water to help you fall asleep at night.
Just remember to follow LNT principles and local regulations about how far you must be from water to set up camp (usually 200ft/60m). With a big enough river, you can normally hear the raging rapids from fairly far away for some white noise at night.
27. Pre-Warm Your Sleeping Bag
No one likes getting inside a cold sleeping bag, so consider pre-warming your bag by placing a hot water bottle inside for a half-hour or so before bedtime.
Doing so can help create a warm, comfortable environment for you to cozy up in so you can fall asleep much more quickly at night.
28. Keep Mosquitos Out Of The Tent
Let’s face it: Mosquitos are not fun.
If buzzing mosquitos keep you up at night, be diligent with closing your tent door quickly at night to ensure that those annoying little bugs can’t bite you as you sleep. It can also be helpful to do a quick search of your tent once everyone is inside for the night so you can kill any bugs that happened to get inside.
29. Put Your Phone Away
The blue light emitted from cellphones and other screens is known to disrupt our body’s natural sleep cycles. Even if you just want to read an e-book before bed, try to avoid doing so on a back-lit screen.
Physical books, or even the Kindle Paperwhite, are a better blue-light free alternative for nighttime reading. Putting your phone away before bed can help ensure that your body is best prepared to fall asleep quickly while you camp.
30. Try Natural Oils
Some people find that natural oils, particularly lavender, can help them get to sleep at night. While an oil diffuser might not be very practical for backpacking, small bottles of oils can fairly easily be carried into the mountains.
Be cautious when using oils in bear country. It’s generally best to use the oils and then put the bottles in your bear canister or bear hang before going to sleep for the night.
30. Hike More
This might sound a bit cheeky, but if you’re not tired by the time you get to camp, you might need to hike more! A longer day on the trail is more likely to wipe you out, ensuring that you get a better night’s sleep in the process.
Getting a good night’s sleep while you’re outside doesn’t have to be an insurmountable task. It might take some time to find the sleep system that’s right for you.
But, once you find what works, create a routine and stick to it. You just might find that you sleep better outside than you do at home.
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David is an accomplished mountain endurance athlete who has completed over 25 ultra marathon races (follow on Strava). He is most proud of his finish at The Drift 100 – a high elevation, 100 mile winter foot race that zigzags along the Continental Divide in Wyoming. In the future he hopes to compete in the ITI 350 and ultimately the full 1,000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational that follows the same path as the historic dog sled race.