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backcountry insomnia
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Rafi Harzahav
(rhz10) - F

Locale: SF Bay Area
backcountry insomnia on 08/07/2012 23:10:43 MDT Print View


One of the things I love about this site is that I can ask questions on so many different topics and get such great answers. In that spirit, here's my latest concern:

What can I do to sleep more soundly while backpacking? I'm a light sleeper to begin with. I invested in a fairly comfortable mattress (neo air all season 25" wide), and I am reasonably warm when I sleep. I find that it takes a long time to fall asleep, and I wake up continually throughout the night. After a restless night, I wind up getting up too early and don't really feel as refreshed and well-rested in the morning as I'd like to.

Does anyone else experience this problem? Has anyone found a good solution?

thanks again,


Randy Martin
(randalmartin) - F

Locale: Colorado
Sleep Aid on 08/07/2012 23:48:36 MDT Print View

Try a sleep aid, Melatonin if you want something more natural. I also find two other things have helped me,

1] Ear Plugs or listening to music from iPod
2] Pulling my buff half way down my face to cover eyes at least.

That combination helps provide a cocoon that allows me to sleep better without unfamiliar sights/sounds.

David Thomas
(DavidinKenai) - MLife

Locale: North Woods. Far North.
Re: backcountry insomnia on 08/08/2012 01:08:01 MDT Print View

I often don't sleep well for 1-2 nights in a new location. It could be a friend's couch, queen-sized bed in a hotel, or a thermarest in a tent. Then I get used to it - the background sounds, seeking the more comfortable sleeping positions unconsicously, etc. After a night or two, I'm sleeping well again.

Decades ago, I'd lead 9-day BPing trips. The first night or two felt like re-learning to sleep on a thermarest, although the timing got shorter on subsequent trips. It was like my brainstem relearned how to wiggle back onto the sleeping pad without my having to awake to do so.

Hiking long mileage days helps me sleep soundly.

In new hotels, I'll put find a record of white noise (search iTunes or youtube for "white noise" "hair dryer" "vacuum cleaner") on my phone or iPod. I admit it is the antithesis of a wilderness experience, but it works for me.

Jason Elsworth
(jephoto) - M

Locale: New Zealand
backcountry insomnia on 08/08/2012 04:07:37 MDT Print View

I would suggest practising at home for a few nights before you go. Even if it is inside the house. You could also try a couple of Tylenol before bed.

I wouldn't suggest using any sleep aids unless you have trailed them at home first.

I once read an article where the writer described how when backpacking he would go to sleep when it got dark and would then wake naturally at some time between twelve and 2. He would then stay awake for 1-2 hours beforegoing back to sleep until dawn. He suggested that this sleep pattern was more in-line with those of our ancestors.

I also find that pulling a hat down over my eyes helps.

eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
limit on 08/08/2012 10:06:06 MDT Print View

go till yr at yr physical limit and you wont have any issue sleeping ;)

K ....
(Kat_P) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Coast
Re: backcountry insomnia on 08/08/2012 10:14:33 MDT Print View

The only insomnia I have experienced is from not being comfortable. Sleeping in a hammock ( up to 12 hours straight) has made my outings quite restful. It isn't for everyone or for every place, but worth a try in my opinion.

John Almond
(FLRider) - F

Locale: The Southeast
Sleep Better, Not Longer on 08/09/2012 06:01:38 MDT Print View

I find that a combination of an hammock (no roots or rocks to wake me when I fall off the pad in the middle of the night; no way to cause a gap with my underquilt to make me cold; nice and cool underneath me through convection on hot nights so's I'm not sweltering in a tent with no airflow as I hide from the flying hypodermic needles) and doing something all day long (hiking, biking, swimming, etc.) puts me to sleep like a baby.

I don't tend to sleep as long as I do at home (I can sleep for ten or twelve hours, given the chance, in my bed; out in the woods, I usually wake at dawn), but I go to bed earlier and sleep better (feeling more rested when I wake). I don't know if it's due to the hammock, the exercise (might be, but I occasionally do that at home, too, and haven't noticed a difference), or the "fresh" air (try FL in August; it ain't all that cool and crisp), but the woods help me sleep better.

It may work for you; it may not. Either way, an hammock can be had for ~$40 or so and is worth a try in my opinion. As to the "all-day PT" thing, well, that's a little harder to do...but it's worth it, and not just for the sleep.

YMMV, though.

John Almond
(FLRider) - F

Locale: The Southeast
Double Post on 08/09/2012 06:02:35 MDT Print View

Odd; it took me to the Checkout screen rather than the response posted screen...

Edited by FLRider on 08/09/2012 06:04:16 MDT.

Dan Durston
(dandydan) - F

Sleeping on 08/09/2012 22:14:50 MDT Print View

1) Get some help from the terrain by choosing a soft spot with the ideal shape to it. I like a dip for my butt/back to fit into and then it being a little higher under my legs and head/shoulders.

2) As you spend more time in the backcountry you'll sleep better simply because you'll be more at ease.

3) FWIW, I find the Exped Synmat UL7 a bit more comfortable than the NeoAir. I like having the baffling running head to foot rather than side to side.

4) Make a decent pillow with your clothes, soft water bottle, shoes under the top of your pad etc.

Jeffrey McConnell
not for everyone... on 08/09/2012 22:23:14 MDT Print View

I have bad allergies so I usually take benadryl to the back country with me. It helps with my allergies and knocks me out at night IF I'm having trouble falling asleep. I also have a cushy synmat pad which helps.

Jay Wilkerson
(Creachen) - MLife

Locale: East Bay
Back country Insomnia on 08/09/2012 22:40:54 MDT Print View

Early in my backpacking career I definitely had problems sleeping. I would toss and turn through out the night I would be up late into the morning hours. So everybody has different sleeping habits and this works for me-two solutions: Hike at least 15 miles or more and you will sleep like baby. Second take Tylenol PM and you will get plenty of sleep for sure. I take Tylenol PM only if needed.

Re: backcountry insomnia on 08/09/2012 22:53:02 MDT Print View

I seem to wake up regularly throughout the night when I'm out as well - I like to pretend its just a throw back to a past life when I had to keep waking up to stoke the campfire :)

Actually, I tend to be a poor sleeper even at home so I can't offer much in the way of advice other than not to stress about it. Tossing and turning and punching the pillow makes it worse.

Usually I'll sit up and read until I can't keep my eyes open any longer and always try to remember that when my body really needs me to sleep I will.

As far as nodding off in the first place, lots of good advice above. MP3 player works wonders for my GF.

Randy Nelson
(rlnunix) - F - M

Locale: Rockies
Insomnia on 08/10/2012 10:31:17 MDT Print View

I never sleep well in the backcountry but am fine car camping. I always attribute it to altitude. Even though I live at 8600' (and sleep fine at home), when backpacking I'm usually sleeping 2-3K higher. I'm perfectly comfortable (2.5" DAM) and warm and usually very tired. Doesn't matter. I have the same trouble on hut trips (most huts out here are over 11K). The only thing that works for me is 2 Advil PMs in the evening. But there's a tradeoff. Not sleeping much doesn't seem to have any effect on me and it definitely does at home. I feel good and ready to go in the morning. If I take the PMs, I feel groggy and slow when I wake up. But I'd rather (barely) deal with that then lie awake a good portion of the night. I have may have to try one of the natural sleep aids like Randy suggested and see if that's any better. Next time I'm near a store that carries them, I'll pick some up.

Daniel Goldenberg
(DanG) - M
Re: Insomnia on 08/10/2012 10:49:40 MDT Print View

I use this stuff and it works pretty good:
main ingredient is mellatonin but it's combined with a couple of other natural ingredients that in combination seems to work really good. One thing about this stuff is they say you can take it anytime, even in the middle of the night like when you wake up and can't get back to sleep and it does not make you groggy in the morning.

Randy Nelson
(rlnunix) - F - M

Locale: Rockies
Re: Insomnia on 08/10/2012 12:50:56 MDT Print View

Thanks for the tip Daniel. I thought it was going to be a health foods store type item and we don't have any close by. But it shows it at supermarkets so I might have a chance to test it this weekend.


Locale: Western Michigan
Melatonin Supplements on 08/10/2012 13:07:47 MDT Print View

The hormone melatonin helps control your natural sleep-wake cycle. Natural levels of melatonin in the blood are highest at night. Some research suggests that melatonin supplements might be helpful in treating jet lag or reducing the time it takes to fall asleep — although the effect is typically mild. Melatonin might be more effective for other types of sleep issues, such as delayed sleep disorder or sleep disorders affecting circadian rhythm.

The most common melatonin side effects include:
Daytime sleepiness

Other, less common melatonin side effects might include abdominal discomfort, mild anxiety, irritability, confusion and short-lasting feelings of depression.

In addition, melatonin supplements can interact with various medications, including:
Blood-thinning medications (anticoagulants)
Medications that suppress the immune system (immunosuppressants)
Diabetes medications
Birth control pills

If you're considering taking melatonin supplements, check with your doctor first — especially if you have any health conditions. The correct dose depends on the intended use. For example, circadian rhythm sleep disorders are often treated with 0.5 milligrams of melatonin a day, while doses of 3 to 5 milligrams a day might be used to treat jet lag or reduce the time it takes to fall asleep. In addition, remember that melatonin is generally recommended only for short-term use — up to two months. Some research indicates that longer term use might be appropriate in certain cases, however.

If you take melatonin, choose commercial supplements produced in a lab. Melatonin supplements made from animal sources might contain various contaminants. Don't engage in activities that require alertness — such as driving or operating heavy machinery — for four to five hours after taking melatonin.

Daniel Goldenberg
(DanG) - M
Re: Re: Insomnia on 08/10/2012 13:22:14 MDT Print View

One thing I forgot to add about the midnite stuff, I've tried just plain mellatonin in the past and never really got very good results with it, but this stuff seems to work much better. Something about the combination of the ingredients.

It's not a miracle pill or anything but worth trying.

The last time I bought it was at Target.

Edited by DanG on 08/10/2012 13:27:16 MDT.

Mitch Chesney
(MChesney) - F
Enjoy the silence on 08/10/2012 15:49:26 MDT Print View

I tend to sleep light in the bush as well, though extremely heavily in the comfort of my own bed. Sounds and touch instantly wake me. I have used ear plugs and eye shades, as others have recommended, and then set my wristwatch alarm to buzz mode. But I have found a long day's journey is tiring enough that these are unnecessary. Beginning the hike pre-dawn and ending hours post-dusk tires the body to the point of comatose slumber. I've heard of hikers carrying prescription-strength sleeping pills just to stay asleep despite the normal outdoors racket. So from my experience it's not the comfort or chill that wakes the average hiker, but the unfamiliar noises that invoke a kind of primal alertness.

stephen jennings
(obi96) - F

Locale: Deep in the Green Mountains
sleeping on the trail on 08/10/2012 23:03:00 MDT Print View

I upgraded from 4 season therma rest to an exped 9 w/ down which I use all year. I have zero pressure point problems now. I find a good pillow (stuff sack w/ clothes) and "macks" silicone ear plugs a combination that works great for me. EXCEPT in bear country,
I always have trouble sleeping with them in the area.

Edited by obi96 on 08/10/2012 23:08:10 MDT.

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
backcountry insomnia on 08/10/2012 23:36:11 MDT Print View

I think we have just re-proved that sleep styles are pretty individual, like shoe fit or pack fit!

I always have trouble sleeping the first night of a trip because I'm so excited to hear the night sounds (owls, coyotes, elk, etc.) or just "the sound of silence" instead of the noises of suburbia. There's also a heightened awareness of my surroundings that keeps me alert. After the first night, though, I usually sleep pretty soundly. At my age I usually have to get up and exit the tent 2-3 times during the night, but I go back to sleep quite promptly.

You might consider a different pad, as suggested. I never could get comfortable on a NeoAir (I tried for about 4 months before returning it), and it's possible that you might find a pad with longitudinal tubes more comfortable. However, it doesn't really sound as though the pad or your sleeping bag or cold are issues for you. Try the suggestions mentioned above, like ear plugs, an ipod or melatonin.

One of the best ways to ensure insomnia, I've found, is to lie there worrying about not getting enough sleep! One argument for bringing along some reading material is that when that happens, I turn on your headlamp and read a bit. That gets my mind off any worries. Something relatively soothing (soporific is probably a better word!) is better for this purpose than exciting stories with lots of cliff-hangers.