Sleep Tips for Camping

Photo: Francisco

Solitude under the stars isn’t always enough for a solid night of sleep—even equipped with the best gear.

Whether it’s noisy campers next door, symptoms of high-altitude sickness, or anxiety from the unknowns of adventure, falling asleep outside is often a skill to be learned. It can cause the body’s sensors to work overtime: Your subconscious brain is still alert, searching for sounds and changes in a new environment beyond the controlled “safe space” where you normally sleep. Once you enter this state of hyperawareness (intentionally or not), it can be difficult to exit. Setting your brain and body to relax into sleep might take more effort. Start by reassuring your body that you are, indeed, safe to help calm your mind. Then utilize some of these tools and tips to manage both your surroundings and your mental state to create a healthy sleep environment outdoors.

Set up for success 

Check your overall orientation. Start with your tent setup, factoring how the sunrise will hit, heat and light your tent—and seek shade accordingly. Next, position your sleeping pad and bag on level ground, and ensure your head isn’t resting below your heart. If you’re dealing with some type of incline in your sleeping location, place your head at the highest point. This’ll keep blood from lingering in your skull and creating a pressure headache that can wake you up in the middle of the night.

Earplugs: Tried and true

Don’t let late-night music from a neighboring campsite or car sounds from a nearby road ruin your shut-eye. Test out your earplugs before you embark on your camping trip, as the fit and function will depend greatly on whether the shape of your ear and the plugs are compatible. Look for reusability, flexible designs, and a snug fit. Noise-canceling wireless earbuds might do the trick, too (if they’re charged). 

Use an eye mask: A little fabric goes a long way 

If you’re jonesing for an early alpine start and need to fall asleep before the sun goes down, pack an eye mask. You’ll block out the sun with its opaque fabric and applying gentle pressure to the eyes can provide a soothing sense of relaxation. Don’t forget to factor early morning light, either, where covering your eyes can buy you a couple extra hours of Zs.

Tea: soothing, hydrating, warming—a win-win-win

Treat yourself to a bedtime cup of tea. Chamomile tea is a natural anti-inflammatory that can help you relax. Ginger tea will soothe your stomach and provide extra warming properties. Valerian root tea is a natural, light sedative and anxiety reducer.

A girl sleeps hugging her dog in tent campsite Photo: Maria Savenko

Apps Can Help

A number of apps offer white noise, sleep-oriented meditations, and relaxing bedtime stories.

In addition to guided sleep meditations, the Calm app has scores of sleep stories you can download for use when out of service. From Harry Styles to Tabitha Brown, let soothing voices lull you to sleep with feel-good travel, culinary, and family-friendly bedtime stories. Price: $69.99/year. Availability: iOS and Android.

White noise or other ambient sounds can drown out noises in your environment and provide a consistent sound background to help you relax. The Noisli app contains a library of ambient sounds. With timers and fadeout functions, you can set the sounds to play for as long as you’d like, and stop once you’ve fallen asleep. Price: $1.99. Availability: iOS and Android.

Meditate: Deep breathing helps with deep sleep

If you don’t have a meditation app (or forget to download guided meditations or sleep stories for offline use), tap into your own lung rhythms and heartbeat. Start to slow down your breath, and you’ll slow down your heartbeat. This puts your body in a calm and ready-to-rest state. Begin with a counting meditation called box breathing: Count to four as you inhale; count to four as you hold your breath; count to four as you exhale; then count to four as you hold your breath again. Repeat for 5 to 10 minutes or a sense of calm appears. Inhale, hold, exhale, hold.

High-altitude Considerations

Compared to sea level, at higher altitudes above 6,000 feet, less oxygen is in the air. This can exacerbate symptoms of your body’s “fight or flight” mode (high heart rate, rapid breathing), in addition to feelings of nausea—all of which can make falling asleep tough. To maximize your oxygen supply, sleep on your back to keep your lungs as open as possible. Drinking ginger tea at night can help soothe high-alpine nausea, plus it keeps you hydrated (good for blood flow and oxygenation) and warm from the inside out.

Campsite Diplomacy

If your camping neighbor is bothering you, be the person that starts the conversation. Sure it can be awkward to confront another group of people enjoying the outdoors, but if that enjoyment comes at the cost of your sleep (a boombox playing music at 11 p.m., or a drone flying overhead, or nighttime rifle practice), a respectful conversation can bring you both to common ground. You’d want to know if you were impacting someone else’s trip, wouldn’t you?

Dealing with the elements: chills, precipitation, wind.

There are certain aspects of camping that will always be uncontrollable, but not everything. Make sure to change into dry clothes before hitting the hay. If you can’t sleep because you’re cold at night, try warming up your body and sleeping bag by cuddling with a Nalgene bottle filled with hot water or deploying a set of hand or foot warmers. If precipitation or wind is too loud even with earplugs, sometimes the best option is acceptance: The fact is, much of what goes on in nature is outside your control. Stop resisting and let the sounds of rain or thunder or a nearby river lull you to sleep. Easier said than done, but practice makes perfect. This is where outdoor sleeping becomes easier with each night out.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.