Getting a Good Night Sleep in the Outdoors

Part of Mark Verber's The Great Outdoors

Version 0.3, February 16, 2007

Many people under estimate the value of a good night of sleep. If you don't cherish your sleep, you might want to read The Problem of Sleep which does a good job of documenting the value of sleep, what interferes with good sleep, and what the negative consequences of not getting enough sleep.

Psychological Comfort and Safety

People have a variety of reactions to sleeping outdoors. On one extreme are the people find watching the night sky and hearing the sounds of nature around them extremely relaxing. For them, nothing is better that sleeping under the stars "cowboy style": a ground cloth, a pad, and a sleeping bag, quilt, or blanket. At the other extreme are people people that have trouble falling asleep unless the are in some sort of shelter which keeps the "wild" at bay and provides a sense of "civilization". There is no "right" answer. It's important for people to figure they are comfortable with and use that as a starting place. Most people find that it is possible to expand their "comfort zone" with a bit of planning and practice. I encourage people to select their Outdoor Shelter based on what will given them adequate psychological comfort. Otherwise they will spend the night worrying rather than sleeping. In particular they need to figure out how much "protection" they need for a "peace of mind"

Exposure to the Elements

For someone who has spent the majority of their life in cities, the thought of being exposed to the elements can be a bit scary. Common concerns seem to revolved around whether the shelter will keep the environment conditions at bay, and if the shelter will remain standing through out the night. My experience is that people worry too much about this. Expect in the most extreme conditions, or when using micro size poncho tarps, it's not that hard to stay dry and protected, even when sleeping under a moderate size tarp. Many people feel compelled to get a "bathtub" floor because they are concerned that just a ground cloth might not keep them dry. This is rarely a problem is a bit of care is taken when selecting a site.

If you have read my other outdoor web pages, you most likely know that I generally favor light weight, if not ultralight gear. But I have to make a confession. It took me a couple of years before I was really confident enough in my abilities and the performance of my gear to sleep through the night when facing a storm. Part of this most likely is because some of the first storms I weathered ended up pulling up my stakes and exposing me to the weather. If I had slept through these events I might have gotten soaks rather than slightly damp. It was a good thing during those early misadventures that I couldn't sleep well. These days though, I have enough confidence, that I can go right to sleep, actually enjoying the sounds of a raging storm, feeling snug and comfortable, and confident that I will stay that way under my tarp, even while the weather is raging "outside".

I recommend double walled tents, with the inner tent being largely made from fabric rather than mesh for people who really worry about environment conditions.

Flying Insects

Nearly everywhere in the world has flying, biting, bugs. Some places the bugs are merely an annoyance, but in many locations these buggers are a real heath threat. People who worry a lot about flying insects, or are in locations where the is a significant risk of disease should use a shelter which is fully sealed, and provides enough distance from vulnerable sections of the shelter (such as the mesh) and where the user will be. In locations where the insects are merely annoying, I have found that my sleeping quilt keeps the bugs off my lower body, and either a headnet, or a A16 bug bivy provides adequate protection for me to get a good night sleep.

Crawling Critters

Many people worry about what might crawl over them while they are asleep. They are bothered by the thought that harmless insects like the common black ant might crawl over there face. For people who are hyper-worried about such things, I would recommend that they sleep in a fully enclosed space of some kind.

In most of the North America there is little danger of getting hurt by crawling critters in the middle of the night. I would encourage people to get over their ill-rational fears. I am sure many people have heard stories of snakes crawling into someone sleeping bag to stay warm, but you are MUCH more likely to have lighting strike you than have this happen, even if you place your sleeping bag right next to a snake's home. There is a small risk of getting stung or bitten by crawling insects such as spiders or scorpions, but they tend not to bother sleeping people. There is more of a risk getting stung when you clean out your garage. There are some locations in Australia, Asia, and Africa where concerns are justified and it would be be foolish to sleep within some protective system, but this is the exception, not the rule.

Large Animals

In the continental USA there is little risk of being disturbed by large animals unless you are sleeping with good smelling food in bear country. In grizzly country it may be safer to sleep within an enclosed shelter: a tent or shaped tarp. Not because the shelter will keep the bear out, but there is some data that bears seem less likely to bother people inside shelters that the bears can't see into.

Other Humans

Man is the most dangerous creature. Some people are very concerned that "someone might get them". If you really want a steel door with a couple of deadbolts to keep people out the outdoors might not be the best place to sleep. I don't have statistics, but my personal experience is that the percent of "nice" people I have run into backpacking, climbing, back country skiing, etc is higher than in the city. I think people are most likely safer in the back country than in the typical city.

A Good Foundation

There are a wide variety of mattresses sold because people's tastes and needs varied widely when it comes to what is a comfortable foundation to sleep on. There is no "right" answer. There are a wide variety sleeping pads or sleeping systems which can be considered. My best suggest is to head to a good outdoors store, and lay down on the various choices for 15-20 minutes and figure out what works for you. 

The Right Temperature to Sleep

When the conditions are either hot or cold, it is often a challenge to get comfortable enough to get a good night sleep.  In warm conditions using a hammock or a cot can be helpful. A more common struggle people face is getting warm enough to sleep when it's cold outside. I encourage people to systematically figure out what is comfortable for them. The two best tools for this is a thermometer (ideally one that logs changes) and a small note pad. Each time you sleep out, record what gear you were using, what the weather conditions were, and how comfortable you were. Over time this will be key to you being able to plan effectively. I have a discussion of sleeping bags and quilts which will be integrated into this document later.

Before you go to bed:

  1. Keep active until you are ready to go to bed. For example, continue hiking until you are read to go to bed. You body's metabolism will be running high from your work making it easy to stay warm for the early part of the night.
     
  2. Fluff up your bag to maximum loft. If you have a down bag with continuous baffles, remember to shift the majority of the down to the top of your bag where it will do the most good. As soon as my shelter is up, I take out my down quilt so it has maximum time to recover it's loft.
     
  3. Make sure you had plenty of food and water before you go to bed. The primary source of warmth when you are sleeping is your metabolism. This system needs water to function well, and you need enough fuel. In cold weather make sure you eat enough slow burning fats to carry you through the night.  That means things like nuts rather than cab heavy food just before bed.
     
  4. Relieve yourself. A bit less mass for your body to keep warm, and lessens the likelihood that you will have to get up in the middle of the night.
     
  5. Make sure you are warm before you get into your sleeping bag. If you are chilled, engaging in activities that are enough to get you warm, but not so much that you start to sweat.
     
  6. Make sure important things don't freeze.  If you are sleeping in below freezing temperatures, you should make sure that things you will need will not be frozen in the morning. This includes some water, fuel for your stove, and your shoes. In milder conditions, putting these items under your legs is often sufficient, but in colder condition it is best to bring them inside your sleeping bag. I will bring a drysack for my shoes so they don't get me and my bag dirty when I sleep with them. You might think this is silly, but trying to get your feet into shoes that have frozen solid is no fun.
     

Have the gear to keep you warm:

  1. Make sure you bring enough insulation. Yeah, this sounds obvious, but I have seen people bring the same sleeping bags that didn't keep them adequately warm on previous trips.
     
  2. Make sure your sleeping pad is warm enough, or bring a second pad. Many commonly used pads will only keep the user warm down to 30-50F. Below those temperatures, the pad will let enough cold through that it will be hard for most people to feel truly comfortable. If you tell the ground is cold by lying down on your pad, then the pad isn't sufficiently insulated for the conditions you are in.

Make Good Use of Your Clothing:

  1. Use your clothing. Insulation does not have to be the sleeping bag or quilt. You can use your clothing to boast the comfort range of your sleeping bag. Just make sure they aren't damp by the time you go to sleep or they will chill rather than warm you.
     
  2. Wear warm headwear: a  hat and maybe a neck gaiter. Even with a good sleeping bag hood, people will often lose heat through their head.  Remember that you can layer headwear, the same way you layer over the rest of your body. In colder weather I will wear both a "base" softshell or fleece hat, and a down balaclava.
     
  3. For most people, keeping hands and feet warm will make a significant difference is how warm they feel. There are a variety of ways to help this. You can use gloves, mittens, or dry socks to help keep hands warm. I recommend minimally dry sock for sleep. Down or Primaloft slippers or socks can be a big help. In very cold weather I recommend vapor barrier socks which then has booties or heavy wool socks over them.
     
  4. As it gets cold, you end up using a lot of energy heating and humidifying the air you breath in. [At 0F most people burn 50% of the base metabolism on this.] Cover your mouth with a scarf, one of the 3M warming masks, or one of the high tech face masks to help pre-heat the air you breath in.
     
  5. If your warm enough when going to bed, but might need a warmth boast in the early morning when the temperature often bottoms out and your fuel is running low, use your warm clothing as a pillow. This way it's easy to find and use them in the morning, and they are already somewhat heated up.

Use Items to Supplement Your Bag and Clothing:

  1. Use an over-bag. If you sleeping bag isn't warm enough, consider being a second bag which you layer over your normal bag.
     
  2. Use a sleeping bag liner. While many liner over-rate there added warmth, they can help warm you by providing a bit of additional insulation, and filling dead space which is prone to a bit of convention cooling. In general, I think using clothing is a more versatile solution.
     
  3. If using a quilt, add a bivy. I generally recommend those with waterproof bottoms, and breathable tops. This will cut down drafts.
     
  4. In colder weather (<10F), use a vapor barrier (clothing or liner) to minimize perspiration and protect your bags insulation.
     
  5. Use an appropriate shelter. Having a shelter that blocks wind will help keep your warm. Some double walled shelters trap air sufficiently that it can provide some insulation. Consider sleeping in a snow cave or igloo... the snow can actually work like an insulator, making the inside significantly warmer than the outside.

Other Useful Techniques:

  1. Select your campsite so it's not in a wet area, hard-packed ground, rock, or ice. These environments conduct heat more quickly that softer bed of sand, grasses, pine needles, or snow.
     
  2. If you do get cold, do something about it. Isometric exercises can be performed with minimal movement (so you don't create drafts) and can generate quite a bit of heat.
     
  3. Fill your water bottle with boiling water. Place the water bottle by the inside of your thigh which will warm the blood in  major arteries which will help warm up your entire body.
     
  4. Take a pee bottle to bed, so if you wake up and need to go to relieve yourself, you can do it with minimal movement. Just make sure your pee bottle is a different shape from your water bottle.
     
  5. Make sure your sleeping bag fits. If there is excessive room in the bag fill the space with clothing so you aren't heating extra space.
     
  6. If it's safe (no concerns about large mammals) have a bit of food which you can munch on in the middle of the night.
     
  7. Whenever possible, put you bag and clothing in the sun whenever it's possible to minimize moisture accumulation.
     
  8. Reduce your "surface area" but keeping your legs together, your arms by your sides. That way your limbs will be warming each other rather than whatever is surrounding them.
     
  9. Sleep with someone warm: you spouse, a friendly dog, etc.  People joke about sharing body heat, but it really does help.
     
  10. Spend time before a trip training your body to be warm.
     
  11. Bring and use chemical warming pads.
     
  12. Bring a candle lantern... they give off a pleasant light and add a bit of heat to a small tent.
     
  13. Don't overheat. If you feel hot then ventilate. Otherwise you will sweat which puts moisture into your insulation which will later chill you.
     
  14. While I don't recommend this for extended trips, getting completely inside your sleeping bag or under your quilt helps pre-warm the air your breath as well as minimizes the amount of warmth you are blowing into the night. The downsize is that moisture will be accumulated which will eventually effect your insulation. I have found this isn't a problem on trips that are a few days long.
  15. Radical Idea.... sleeping sitting up! There is a long tradition of outdoorsman, monks, and other wanders to sleep sitting up. This has the advantage of requiring less specialized equipment to be able to sleep comfortably. It's not for everyone, but it can be quite a useful skill.

There are a few additional ideas on 20 tips on sleep warm