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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.


Locale: Pacific Northwet
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.


Locale: Pacific Northwet
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.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: backcountry insomnia on 08/12/2012 17:39:46 MDT Print View

5 mg melatonin taken 30-45 minutes before your head hits the pillow.


Randy Nelson
(rlnunix) - F - M

Locale: Rockies
insomnia on 08/13/2012 10:39:18 MDT Print View

"One of the best ways to ensure insomnia, I've found, is to lie there worrying about not getting enough sleep!"

So true.

I tried the Midnite Sleep Saturday night. I did what for me is a tough hike and was definitely worn out. I took 2 about an hour before I went to sleep and another right before. I went to sleep pretty quickly after a little reading. I toss and turn a lot and I did wake up briefly when I did so, but went back to sleep quickly. Woke up feeling good. So while it wasn't like sleeping at home, it was a big improvement.

. .
(RogerDodger) - F

Locale: (...)
... on 08/13/2012 12:02:38 MDT Print View


Edited by RogerDodger on 07/10/2015 07:09:36 MDT.

Adam Klagsbrun
(klags) - MLife

Locale: Northeast US
White noise, mary jane on 08/21/2012 17:31:36 MDT Print View

Three things to suggest. Besides the obvious idea to hike farther and longer before setting up camp - typically hikers should be up with the morning light or before, hiking long days, then going to sleep out of necessity, but you probably already do this. However it is really hard for some people to sleep in a new or unfamiliar place, which happens to me as well. Maybe this is your problem? It happens when camping, when in a hotel, when in someone's bed that you've never slept before, etc. When you find yourself in that situation only three things will help. 1 - repetition, doing it until you get used to it. 2 - camping next to running water to create white noise and let your mind stop thinking about all the little sounds around you. 3 - xxx


Edited by rcaffin on 09/11/2012 02:17:45 MDT.

Timothy Farnsworth
Same here on 03/03/2013 19:19:40 MST Print View

I'm also a light sleeper who struggles with the issue. The Big Agnes Q-core 3.5" pad is the most comfortable thing I've EVER slept on camping, bar none. Thermarest doesn't make anything that compares, in my experience. The biggest one (25 inches wide) weighs around 36 ounces, sacrilege to some here perhaps, but it sure is comfortable. I think they've come out with a lighter version now as well.

Getting used to earplugs helps me tremendously. If I really have insomnia, I get up and read for a while and try to sleep again late.Being really exhausted helps but that's not really a strategy for sleeping, is it? Best of luck!

Eric Blumensaadt
(Danepacker) - MLife

Locale: Mojave Desert
Ambien on 03/07/2013 21:39:06 MST Print View

Navy Seals take Ambien. Cowboy up and just take it then pass out. But "Be sure you have 8 hours for sleep."

Then there is always liquor. Dr. Daniels or Dr. Beam are usually a good bet.

Ian B.

Locale: PNW
Re: Ambien on 03/08/2013 07:25:46 MST Print View

"Navy Seals take Ambien."

Watch the movie "Role Models" for an Ambien demonstration!

It's common for me to wake up 3 or more times when camping. Like Rodger mentioned, it is 10x worse when I'm camping with my kids.

Benadryl is also rebranded as a sleep aid. I've heard that it has the opposite effect on some people (wired vs coma) but it completely knocks me out. I have given myself the trail name “Snot Rocket Express” due my allergies when hiking so this has a couple benefits for me. The only problem is that I wake up dehydrated and have to add another liter of water to my morning ritual.

Nico .
(NickB) - MLife

Locale: Los Padres National Forest
backcountry insomnia on 03/08/2013 09:09:01 MST Print View

I struggle with getting a good night's sleep while backpacking too.

I do my best to wear myself out (20-25 miles days are common), I've dialed my sleep system in to the most comfortable set-up I can find (katabatic quillts, exped ul syn mat, exped ul pillow), I've tried melatonin, tylenol pm, benadryl, etc. Nothing seems to knock me out and get a solid night's sleep like I can at home.

And it's not like I'm not used to sleeping outdoors, or in a tent, or in a sleeping bag. A few years ago I traveled for about 6 months and spent every night except for about 10 in my bag/tent. I still get out for at least an overnighter just about every month.

I get enough sleep to still feel pretty good the next day, but there's a couple of long bouts of being wide awake in the middle of the night for an hour or so each time. I spend the time listening to the surroundings, listening to music, reading an e-book on my phone or studying my map. Eventually I sack out again.

spelt with a t
(spelt) - F

Locale: SW/C PA
Re: backcountry insomnia on 03/08/2013 09:43:35 MST Print View

My two standbys are beta blockers and a bandanna over my eyes. Benadryl works but leaves me feeling groggy if I try to wake up early.

Greg F
(GregF) - F

Locale: Canadian Rockies
Get up early, mid day naps on 03/09/2013 22:55:29 MST Print View

Being further north dawn is about 5 am and dusk 9 or later so this leads to long hiking days. I find getting up right at dawn even slightly before will leave me tired when night comes. Usually to drive to trailheads the first day I am up at 5 as well. I run into problems if I sleep in, the I cant get to sleep or wake up more. So getting up early is key for me

Edward Z
(Fuzz) - MLife

Locale: Sunny San Diego
+1 Earplugs , Benadryl and Hot Whisky Cider on 03/16/2013 18:00:21 MDT Print View

This knocks my butt out. Though the resultant snore might not work for close proximity neighbors!


Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
How to go to sleep on 03/16/2013 18:26:24 MDT Print View

This is my method and it works every time.

1. Lay down in sleeping bag or quilt.

2. Close eyes.

3. Done. I am sleeping.

John Nausieda
(Meander) - MLife

Locale: PNW
Re: How to go to sleep on 03/16/2013 18:44:48 MDT Print View

Magnesium, especially the form Magnesium Chloride , often referred to as Magnesium Oil { it isn't an oil but feels like one } applied trans-dermal to your skin will put you into a sound sleep daily for about a month when you apply it -after that time you become accustomed to it and the effect is diminished.Other forms of Magnesium can induce laxative effects.It is implicated in Calcium uptake and nervous system health as well as cell division.
It lowers blood pressure after about a month of daily application. There is no downside to it -it is cheap, and is a very common deficiency since industrial farming was introduced in the 40's.It has a calming effect and reduces muscle spasms and relieves arterial blood flow. Since there is no money to be made from it it is not of concern to people who sell Pharma for profit.

Edited by Meander on 03/16/2013 19:00:15 MDT.

John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: +1 Earplugs , Benadryl and Hot Whisky Cider on 03/16/2013 18:53:46 MDT Print View

Remember the danger in mixing benadryl (diphenhydramine hydrochloride) with alcohol drinks. Both depress your breathing in an additive way.

Edward Jursek

Locale: Pacific Northwest
backcountry insomnia on 03/16/2013 19:51:52 MDT Print View

I find the following works:

1.) High milage - this is different for each of us, but for me 15 miles is good and 20 miles is my max.

2.) Routine - I follow the same routine each night. I break for dinner on the trail around 4 to 5pm. Eat, clean up, pack up, and then hike until dusk. Make camp, set aside my evening snack of chocolate, hang my food, and tuck in by dark. I do my audio journal on my iPhone, then play Texas Hold'em or cribbage until I can't keep awake.

3.) Comfortable sleep gear - Exped UL 7 mat, Exped UL pillow, a nice Feathered Friends bag, merino sleeping cloths. I have a lot of weight tied up in my sleep system.

4.) Booze - I plan on about 2 oz per night carried in a recycled water bottle.

The last few years my sleeping has been great, averaging about 9 to 10 hours a night, even during storms. I got 11 hours in a couple of times last season.