How To Sleep Better When Backpacking

Backpacking is an exciting experience. Whether you’re exploring new lands, or even just hitting your usual route, being in the outdoors all day and all night is great. However, this can lead to some difficulty sleeping, and so it’s helpful to know how to sleep better when backpacking.

3 ways to sleep better when backpacking are:

  1. Cognitive behavioral therapy
  2. Sleep restriction and stimulus control techniques
  3. Relaxation techniques

Below, we provide in-depth explanations of these techniques while also diving into some tried and true “sleep preparation” tactics to use before settling into your tent for the night. But first, let’s consider why you might have trouble sleeping when backpacking.

Why Is It Hard To Sleep Well When Backpacking?

Just like you might struggle to sleep the night before an exam or interview, the excitement of backpacking is enough to keep even seasoned backpackers awake at night. Your brain is taking in its new surroundings, and this can keep it awake into the small hours.

However, the physical conditions in which you find yourself also play a part. Sleeping conditions in your tent are often suboptimal. From condensation to cold temperatures, and perhaps even stormy weather, sleeping in a tent is very different to sleeping in the comfort of your home.

It’s important to consider things like the terrain and temperature when planning your backpacking trip. Consider a sleeping pad to make the ground feel a little more comfortable, and understand what kind of tent is best for the weather conditions. But aside from this preparation, there are a few other things you can do to sleep better when backpacking.

3 Tips To Sleep Better When Backpacking

1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

While you may not have difficulty sleeping at home, you may get insomnia sleeping outside. Stress, anxiety, or an “overtraining” effect on the trail may be the cause. If you know that you will have difficulty sleeping before you venture out, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques may be the right thing for you. 

CBT is used to treat insomnia without medications like sleeping pills. This type of therapy often includes meeting with a therapist and performing a series of sleep assignments. It is often recommended to keep a sleep diary leading up to and on the backpacking trip. Following the advice and guidance of a therapist can help you change the way you sleep out on the trail.

2. Sleep Restriction And Stimulus Control Techniques

Sleep Restriction

If you have difficulty sleeping, then sleep restriction therapy can help. The idea is that you stay up later in the evening for several nights (even up to six weeks) without taking naps during this period. After restricting sleep for a few days, you should be able to fall asleep more easily.

Stimulus Control

Stimulus control is when you pinpoint different actions that may be prohibiting sleep. Find activities that you do in the tent that can be removed so that the only time you are in the tent is to sleep. For example, if you spend time reading in your tent during the day, remove this activity.

Sleep Hygiene

Sleep hygiene includes a list of things you should and shouldn’t do to sleep better, like avoiding caffeine and alcohol and keeping the tent as cool and dark as possible, while still being comfortable of course.

Analyzing Sleep And Wake Behaviors

By analyzing sleep and wake behaviors you can gain a better understanding of the problem. For example, stop watching the clock and set an alarm. Avoid naps and practice winding down instead of revving up. Journal in the morning when rested, and avoid the cell phone and texting when on a long hike. Reading a book will also help wind you down at the end of the day.

Relapse Prevention

Relapse prevention is when you learn to maintain good sleeping habits. The habits are simple yet not always easy to adhere to. Don’t try to compensate for lost sleep, and start the stimulus control procedure immediately when you start to have sleep difficulty, and re-engage sleep restriction if it persists beyond a few days.

5 Good Sleep Habits

5 good sleep habits for sleeping better when backpacking are:

  1. Only go to bed when you’re sleepy
  2. Get out of bed when you’re unable to sleep
  3. Use the bed only for sleeping
  4. Get up at the same time each morning
  5. Avoid naps during the day

3. Relaxation Techniques

Often, when I have finished a hike, I am overtired from the stressful day of hiking. My heart rate remains elevated, and I have trouble sleeping. The problem in this case is that it’s hard to relax after a long, exciting day of hiking. Michael Breus, Ph.D. in his article in Psychology Today, describes 5 relaxation techniques to improve sleep.

Autogenic Training

Autogenic training is when you focus on sensations of warmth and heaviness in different regions of your body. Visualize relaxing and think calming thoughts while giving yourself verbal cues to help relax your muscles.


Biofeedback is when you collect information from your body like high heart rate and body temperature, muscle contractions, and sweating. These are signs of anxiety or overuse. The feedback that you receive allows you to direct your attention to these areas and relieve you of the stress. Biofeedback devices are wearable, and there are lots of options online.


Deep, slow, self-aware breathing helps to reduce muscle tension, slows breathing and heart rate, and lowers your blood pressure and metabolism, allowing you to get into a restful state. One technique involves inhaling for 4 seconds, holding your breath for 7 seconds, and slowly exhaling for 8 seconds. Repeat this several times to increase oxygen levels and relax

Guided Imagery

By imagining yourself floating gently with a warm breeze prepares your mind for sleep while reducing stress.

Progressive Relaxation

Start by tensing and relaxing an area of your body. Move from the feet up to the top of the head. By doing this you become aware of different areas of your body that may be carrying more stress, and you can address it at that time.

Final Thoughts

Sleeping better when backpacking is all about understanding why you’re struggling to sleep in the first place. It’s often a result of the excitement of being on the trail, or suboptimal sleeping conditions. However, using techniques like CBT, stimulus control, and relaxation techniques can help.