It’s 3:43 am. No, I didn’t stay up this late. And, no, I don’t have to be up this early. I’m just awake. My body does this, under the strict micromanagement of my mind, more times than I’d like it too. The busier the next day is going to be, the more likely it is to happen and true to form, my day is packed with all kinds of demands that insist upon a certain chirpiness. And you know what also requires a certain chirpiness? Hiking. Thru-hiking. Traveling. Van-camping. These are all fairly vigorous physical activities, done with a particular expectation of enjoying them, no easy feat when exhausted. Lack of sleep was my number one obstacle on the Arizona Trail in 2010, in Scotland in 2011, on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2012, and sure enough I didn’t have the problem solved on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2013 either. I wrote whiney pleading blog posts about it. I even offered a $200 reward once if someone could come up with the brilliant solution that would let me sleep out there. No biters. My quest eventually became NOT to figure out how to sleep, but instead to figure out how to enjoy sleep deprivation, which has its merits after all.
So what makes me qualified to offer a post on strategies for sleeping outside? Nothing. Really nothing, because nothing worked for me. BUT, I have researched the holy hell out of it and want to put it on the table for you anyways, because anecdotal evidence points to me being kind of an anomaly. These strategies have worked for me at least sometimes, for others very frequently, and will work for you.
- First, and most importantly, don’t try to sleep until you’re tired. Don’t go by watch time and don’t try to sleep simply because it’s dark now and you’re bored. Wait. The anxiety created by trying to sleep and not succeeding compounds throughout the night in some complex immutable algebraic way. Read. Eat. Whatever. But don’t lay there bug-eyed staring at your tent wall.
- The drugs don’t work. Well, okay, they do, but they create other problems. Sleeping pills will make you feel sloggy the next day and give you the gift of a new addiction when you get off trail. Also some people sleep walk on them, which makes camping near cliff edges an interesting scenario. Benadryl, or something like it, seems to work best for other hikers if you must take something, but strangely, it spazzes me out.
- Alcohol doesn’t work. Well, okay, it does. However, alcohol has that glitch of only working for about 4 hours before making you wake up and stare bug-eyed at your tent wall. It also seriously undermines next day chirpiness.
- Get all of your hard miles done as early in the day as possible. Your body secretes all kinds of explosive energy potions into your bloodstream when it thinks you’re running like hell from something that wants to eat you, which is pretty much what it always thinks when you’re exerting like a thru-hiker does. Give it time to register “safety” before attempting to sleep.
- Eat before you sleep. It’s important to help maintain body temperature and keeps you from waking up due to hunger. Chocolate, or any other stimulant containing food is probably counter-productive though.
- Have “pajamas” or get naked and yes, clean up before you crawl in. Anything you can do to signal to your body that you’re no longer “surviving” but are now resting helps. And indeed I have been kept awake by my own smell before.
- Try cowboy camping. I know it seems counter-intuitive, but your mind knows that your onion skin of a tent wall is not going to protect you from anything. Really nothing at all, except maybe mosquitos. You can’t trick it into thinking otherwise. When you’re sleeping in the open air, you can see what’s making that noise of doom and will actually feel more secure having the option of perception. Plus, if you are kept awake, you’ll have a deep open sky to stare at instead of your wet socks and snack wrappers.
- Try “hippie meds”. These include melatonin, valerian, passionflower, chamomile, vitamin B12, magnesium powder, theanine, and warm milk (likely powdered milk in your scenario). For me, valerian and sublingual B12 were the most effective. These supplements invite your body to sleep, instead of slamming it into sleep like chemical drugs do. However, just because something is an herb or supplement instead of a “drug” does not mean it’s a great idea to take handfuls of it or become dependent on it. Remember that most drugs are really just herbs and supplements concentrated. And they work because they are psychoactive in some way. Brain chemistry is a wonderful thing to keep healthy.
- Massage. This is where having a love with you is such a gorgeous circumstance. Massage plus head tickles are a winning sleep formula. If you’re alone, squeezing your legs and feet for awhile feels good.
- Keep your head and feet particularly warm. These are the two areas likely to wake you up if chilled and most likely to get chilled.
- Sleep near the sound of water. If it’s the weird noises that are keeping you up, camp near a babbling brook or screaming river. It will mask the crunching brush at all hours of the night and soothe your nerves. But make sure you pee before you lie down.
- Read something inspiring that makes your mind dwell on philosophical and spiritual things. Pray.
- For women: Pad your hips. I used to wake up frequently because of the pressure on my hips, even though I had the Bellagio of sleeping pads underneath me. I solved this by getting a closed foam sit mat to place under my hips for extra padding. It added 2 ounces to my total pack weight and ended up having a zillion other uses as well.
There is, of course, one obvious and overwhelming strategy that will fix the entire melodrama of not being able to sleep well outside, and that is, become very okay with not getting any sleep. Relax into it. Don’t make it “a thing”. I am living walking proof that sleeping is not necessarily mandatory, certainly not for survival, and with the right mindset, not for happiness either. You WILL sleep, sometimes. And that will have to be enough. And it will be. Don’t let anxiety zap away the few granules of energy you do have from the 15 minutes of sleep you did get.