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I’m New, How Do I Sleep Better When Backpacking?

I can’t tell you how many times I just couldn’t sleep after hiking all day? So, before I go out again I am researching to help myself and others get the sleep they need. 

How do I sleep better when backpacking? Once you are comfortable in your tent, cognitive and behavioral therapy techniques help you get to sleep easier: they include cognitive behavioral therapy, stimulus control, and relaxation techniques. Practice before your trip to reduce tension and anxiety at the campsite.

In most cases, people suffer needlessly from insomnia on the trails. Performing these techniques will help, however, it takes practice. 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.

Three Insomnia Techniques So You Can Sleep Better When Backpacking

Sometimes we forget that sleeping is sleeping; when we are out on the trail, it is just a different place with many different variables, however, it is still just sleeping.

According to the National Sleep Foundation insomnia is loosely defined as “trouble falling asleep” and also “waking up and not being able to fall back asleep”.

So, in many respects, not being able to sleep when backpacking is more of a mental game than it is fully physical. Yes, sleeping conditions in your tent aren’t often optimal. From condensation to cold temps and that pesky thunderstorm, sleeping in a tent is much different than sleeping in the comfort of your home, yet, once comfortable we should be able to sleep soundly.

Three techniques that have been successful in clinical trials are useful when insomnia hits out on the trail. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Stimulus Control (sleep restriction/stimulus control/sleep hygiene), and Relaxation Technique. 

1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Sleeping out varies wildly from sleeping out at a Girl or Boy Scout event to sleeping on the PCT thru-hike. 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 techniques might be the right thing for you. 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is used to treat insomnia without medications like sleeping pills. According to the National Institute of Health it “is a safe and effective means of managing…insomnia and its effects.” 

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. Stimulus Control

Dr. Donn Posner, Ph.D., MA, the Director of Behavioral Sleep Medicine for the Sleep Disorder Centers of Lifespan Hospitals in Rhode Island, describes three types of assignments that can lead to better sleep when backpacking. Sleep restriction therapy, stimulus control, and sleep hygiene education. He also includes sleep relapse prevention in his teachings.

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

The second is stimulus control. This 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. I.e. if you spend time reading in your tent during the day, remove this activity.

When you only use the tent to sleep then your body will sense this. Basically, mimicking what you would do at home. Assuming you don’t have a television or other distractions in your room.

Sleep Hygiene

The third way is sleep hygiene education. This 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.

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 – there is no reason to watch the clock it just “fans the flames of not sleeping.”

Avoid naps and practice winding down instead of revving up: journal in the morning when rested, 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, start stimulus control procedure immediately when you start to have sleep difficulty and re-engage sleep restriction if it persists beyond a few days.

According to the society of clinical psychology, the main goal of Stimulus Control is to “reduce the anxiety or conditioned arousal individuals may feel when attempting to go to bed.”

Five Good Sleep Habits

They also say that “having a set of instructions to reassociate the tent with sleep and reestablish the sleep schedule”.

Five habits to abide by:

  1. Only go to bed when sleepy
  2. Get out of bed when unable to sleep
  3. Use the bed only for sleeping
  4. Get up at the same time each morning
  5. Avoid naps
sleeping in hammock when backpacking

3. Relaxation Technique

Many times 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. 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 calming thoughts while giving yourself verbal cues to help relax your muscles physically.

Biofeedback

Biofeedback is when you collect information from your body like heart rate, body temperature, muscle contractions, sweating, and sleep stages. 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 machines are wearable and you can find a good one to accompany you on the trail.

Breathing

Deep slow self-aware breathing helps to reduce muscle tension, slows breathing and heart rate, lowering your blood pressure and metabolism allowing you to get into a restful state. Psychology Today describes “4-7-8″ breathing: inhale for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, and slowly exhale for 8 seconds”. Repeat this several times to increase oxygen levels and provide a meditative exhale.

Guided Imagery

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

Progressive Relaxation

My favorite. 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 that may be carrying more stress and you can address it at that time.

Home Or Trail Work!

Start trying some or all of these techniques at home so you are ready to sleep soundly on your next adventure. Before you go. If you are new to backpacking, here is an article I wrote with you in mind.

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