Sleeping in the Backcountry

We all have routines before bed that help signal our bodies that it’s time to sleep. Some parts of these routines also help to ensure a positive start to the next day. I double lock the door, walk up the stairs to my bedroom and take off my watch, then set my alarm on my phone after I plug it in. I do this routine nightly. I also have a routine in the backcountry that, like that at my house, is based on experience and steeped in ritual. The outdoor ritual is just as important to jump into a successful day as is setting my alarm and having 100% charge on my phone during the work week.

As we hike, one thing that we notice in more frequented parks and trails is the time people call it a day and set up camp. Trips to Mt. Rogers, Virginia as an example have found us passing fellow hikers putting up tents and lounging by 3pm during early fall or late spring. We tend to push those final hours of daylight to get another five plus miles toward our destination and we plan that way. But when we do get to camp we go into a very specific set of rituals to care for our bodies, our gear and set up for success for the next day.

Hydration is key after a long trek. However, we try to stop significant hydration approximately two or so hours before we turn in. Nothing is worse than your body burning calories fighting to keep a full bladder warm, then sacrificing hard earned warmth by fighting with a “pee bottle” or getting out of the tent to relieve yourself. Along with drinking, we try to eat a high fat, high protein meal to assist with our caloric reserve going into a cool evening of sleeping on the ground.

Once eating and hydration is complete, feet are cared for and hygiene is done, we bed down for the evening to relax. We may take some time to review the route for the next day, plan water stops, write down some trail notes or “lessons learned”, or just enjoy a nice campfire and star gazing. We bring an expedition notebook and waterproof pen to jot down things we want to remember.

Camping on cloud's rest
Melanie recording the day’s events on top of Cloud’s Rest

Earlier in the process while prepping food, we have also set up our tent and sleeping “system” (bag, sleeping pad, pillows), stored packs in a vestibule and changed into fresh socks and camp shoes. Our boots/hikers will then go into a waterproof bag with the socks and any other dirty clothes used that day stuffed into the footwear. The socks/clothes will absorb the moisture and the bag allows us to now stow the shoes at the bottom of our bag to keep them warm for the next day (nothing worse than a cold, wet boot in the morning).

In the tent, we will change completely into a new set of sleeping clothes. For cool/cold weather, a form fitting base layer is best suited for this. We vary the gear used dependent upon the projected temperature. Fleece pants, capilene of varied levels are examples of this. At times, we go as far as wearing down booties in the bag until we have warmed the space sufficiently. We will take the next day’s clothes and lay them flat in our bag to lie on that night. This allows us to warm up that fresh set of clothing while also making the sleeping bag a more condensed space, thus easier to warm.

In the warmer weather, we still hydrate, eat and have the same hygiene rituals. We normally change out of our socks into flip flops or other “camp shoe” and air out our clothes on a line or top of the tent (socks especially).

Sunrise Lakes Camp Yosemite
Camping at Sunrise Lakes, Yosemite

Seeking out a local water source to cool your core temperature is good (bring a towel – microfiber recommended) and some even go to the extent of bringing a small battery operated fan to cool their tent. On dry nights, we forgo the tent fly and I have on more than one occasion done some “cowboy camping” in the nicer months. Some go with a hammock, however, we do not due the way we sleep (not back sleepers).

When we camp with our dog(s), we also want to make sure they get rest. We bring plenty of food and water, and they have their own sleeping pad to provide cushion and insulation. We make sure there’s a designated spot in the tent for them so they don’t interfere with our rest as well.

Bear supervises the tent construction
Bear supervises the tent construction

The whole intent of the backcountry bed time ritual is to set yourself for success for the next day’s travel. Ensuring you are rested, fed and watered and have treated your feet and gear to some TLC goes a long way when you are going a long way. The peace of mind that a successful ritual encourages also helps ensure restful sleep. After all, we are out there to have fun, so set yourself up for success so you can focus on enjoying nature!

Be Safe.


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