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How to sleep well on the trail

You’re trying to sleep, but there’s a baseball-size rock poking you in the back. You keep sliding downhill in your sleeping bag. Just as you drift off to sleep, you’re jolted awake by the sound of your Scoutmaster snoring like a gorilla with a head cold.

While we can’t help you with your snoring Scoutmaster, Gear Guy is here to save you with some handy sleep tips and gear that will help you get a better night’s rest on the trail.


EAT. Don’t go to bed hungry if you can help it. Your body generates more heat when it has calories to burn, so you stay warmer and sleep better.

GET LEVEL. Pick a spot that’s as flat and level as possible so you’re not sliding downhill all night. Flat ground can be tough to find, so if sleeping on a slight incline is unavoidable, always have your head on the uphill part so all the blood doesn’t rush to your noggin.

CLEAR THE WAY. Before you go to bed, do a quick sweep of the spot you’ll be sleeping on to remove sticks, stones and other things. But leave the pine needles and leaves right where they are. They’ll give you a little extra padding, and leaving them will make less of an impact on the environment.

LOOK ABOVE. Check for dead trees, limbs, pine cones and other stuff that could fall on you in the night. Avoid those spots.

DO A STAKEOUT. Take the extra time to stake out the body of your tent and the guy lines on your rainfly. That way, if the wind whips up, you won’t be kept awake by the annoying flapping of the fly. Also, this will improve airflow and ventilation within your tent and will help you avoid your tent wetting through with morning dew and condensation.

KEEP IT ROLLED UP. If you’re going to sleep out under the stars (good for you! It’s one of Gear Guy’s favorite things to do), keep your sleeping bag rolled up in its stuffsack until it’s time to hit the hay. That way you’ll prevent your bag from getting wet from dew or humidity, and it’ll give the creepy crawlies less opportunity to get inside before you do.

BRING PJs. I’m not saying you ought to pack those Spider-Man pajamas, unless that’s how you roll. Just make sure you always have clean clothes to wear to bed. Maybe it’s simply a T-shirt and boxers, but having something that doesn’t smell like campfire, dinner or your own B.O. will help you sleep better. Bonus: It’ll keep your sleeping bag cleaner, too.

Cold-weather tip: Whatever clothes you’re planning to wear in the morning, toss those in the bottom of your sleeping bag. They’ll keep your feet warmer, and the clothes will be cozy and warm when you get dressed in the morning. Sure they’ll be wrinkled, but get over it. You’re camping!

SLEEP IN YOUR CLOTHES. If it’s particularly cold, wear layers to bed. Long underwear (tops and bottoms), warm (clean) socks and a fleece jacket are a good start for frigid nights.

D-I-Y PILLOW. Don’t bring that huge, bulky pillow from your bed at home. Instead, make a do-it-yourself pillow. Use a stuffsack (or a fleece jacket) and fill it with your other clothing layers to make a soft mini pillow.

WEAR A HAT. We lose most of our body heat through our heads, so keep a stocking cap or balaclava close at hand. Then if you get chilly in the night, you can just slip it on and warm up.

Keep a headlamp or flashlight at your side when you sleep; doing so is key to being able to find your way in the middle of the night—whether it’s an emergency or you’re just heading out to relieve yourself. Bonus: If it’s cold, keeping your headlamp inside your sleeping bag prevents the batteries from getting cold and losing their power.

PEE IN A BOTTLE. Maybe you’re camping somewhere cold or where getting out of your sleeping bag to relieve yourself could be uncomfortable or dangerous. If so, stash an empty quart-size plastic bottle in your tent. The wide-mouth ones, like a Gatorade bottle, are best. When nature calls, simply kneel in your sleeping bag, position the bottle just so, and VERY CAREFULLY pee into it. When you’re finished, screw the top on tightly and set it outside the tent door.

10 Comments on How to sleep well on the trail

  1. The pee in the bottle tip is especially helpful to us older guys. There’s a reason they call it “golden age.”

  2. Not bad advice except for the how to sleep on a hill. If you sleep head up hill with padding to elevate your legs you get a “hammock” effect and you’ll have one dire back in the morning. Better to sleep “sideways” to slope of hill with padding along length of downhill side. You will be much more comfortable. Want real comfort? Get a hammock and slerp on diagonal. Like sleeping in your bed at home!

  3. i take a dry sack with my “bed time” items. PJs, headlamp and a pillow case. Then I stuff the dry sack with clothes and slip it into the pillow case. I tried it once without the pillow case, but it sticks to your face.

  4. RRHappyHiker // November 9, 2014 at 11:25 am // Reply

    I don’t always sleep well on camping trips, so I carry a Kindle with favorite books…a nice distraction until I get sleepy.

  5. RRHappyHiker // November 9, 2014 at 11:23 am // Reply

    For car camping on snow, I try to have 5+ layers underneath me. Works well. Several layers of cardboard really insulates from the cold. Plus tent bottom, pad.

  6. If you have a genuine Nalgene bottle, fill it with boiling water, tighten the lid and put it in a bottle cover or old wool sock. Toss it in your sleeping bag to preheat the bag, and the bottle will stay warm until morning. (Don’t try this with cheap plastic bottles–they will melt.)

  7. Don’t breathe into your cold sleeping bag. It may feel warm but you are setting yourself up for more cold. Toss a hand warmer or two in your bag and wear a hat on your head. Keep your breath Out of your bag and let your bag warm up naturally, you will stay warmer and not have “cold spots”. If your bag touches your tent sides in the night it might wick (if cold) the dampness so be sure and put up barriers of clothes, or boots, or even a spare jacket etc. to keep from touching the wet tent…the fly usually helps a lot with this…assuming you have a rain fly.

  8. My sleeping bag has a little zippered pouch in it. I always make sure when I out it away it has a little spray bottle of bug spray (which you can buy anywhere, about the size of a chap stick), and a few pairs of foam earplugs. Both come in handy when you get comfortable and realize you have bugs, or a loud snore going on.

  9. A pee bottle does not really work for female venturers. I would recommend not drinking much water before you hit the sack.

  10. On a slope, place tent so you’d roll. But put extra clothes or jackets under downhill side of your pad or bag to create a level shelf. Less required than trying to prevent sliding feet first downhill by stuffing under low end.

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