Difficulty sleeping on the trail? Here’s why

Whether you hike or not, many of us can relate to sleeping away from home and having a poor nights sleep. This is also one of the most common complaints I hear from hikers who camp overnight. There can be a number of reasons for poor sleeping on the trail and while some of them can be obvious like gear related issues, there are also physiological impacts about which you may, or may not be aware that explain poor sleep patterns, particularly on shorter trips. In this article we will look at what those are.


Couples out there can relate to this one. In many relationships it is not unusual for partners to have different comfort levels as far as preferred sleeping temperatures are concerned and usually, but not always the female will get colder more quickly. This will not be new information to most of you and is not just anecdotal but backed up by a number of studies.

In practice what this means is that to have a good night sleep, women will often need to have a warmer sleep system than men either by using a warmer sleeping bag, using a sleeping mat with a higher ‘R value’ or wearing extra layers to keep warm.

Sleeping bags sold in Europe, Australia, and progressively more often in the USA, will come with a warmth rating that uses the European EN 13537 standard. If you want a good night sleep make sure your layering system and sleep system are suitable for the conditions in which you are going to be sleeping.

Layer for comfort. Everyones threshold to hot and cold is different so choose a series of layers that suit you

Comfort (non warmth related)

When we progress from day hiking to overnight hiking we often move from our confortable bed at home into something that is usually not quite as luxurious. Now I’m a side sleeper and due to injuries to both my shoulders, I will often toss and turn during the night. While I will usually have a good night sleep, it is often restless. I changed from a self-inflating sleeping mat to an inflatable sleeping mat a little over two years ago and this has made a huge difference to my night time comfort on the trail.

If you are just trying out camping for the first time or you don’t enjoy overnight trips, look at your sleep system and see if it can be improved. Borrow different equipment from friends to see what works for you.

At home I agonise over the type of pillow I use and surprisingly enough after spending years buying very expensive pillows, I have now settled on one that costs less than $20 AUD and it’s the best pillow I have ever had. Many hikers will often give little thought to their pillows but its worthwhile trying different options to see what suits. Usually I will use a lightweight dry bag filled with my spare clothes and find this works very well. However if you need a slightly more luxurious option then there are a number of lightweight options on the market that may suit you. These pillows are usually not expensive so try some out to see what suits.

Thermarest Neo Air Xlite inflatable sleeping mat

First Night Effect

If you are new to sleeping outdoors in a tent you may be worried about all the strange noises; the wind blowing your tent, the animal noises that always seem to be just outside, and the new environment that includes all the gear that is different from what you’re used to sleeping in from night to night. While all the environmental factors can be an issue themselves, there is a physiological effect called ‘the First Night Effect’ that is probably causing the problem.

First Night Effect is an evolutionary safety mechanism that means one half of our brain, usually the left side, stays awake to keep watch in case of danger. While this was essential when we had to worry about getting eaten or attacked by something or someone, this hangover from prehistoric times means that for many, the first night of a camping trip (or in any unfamiliar place) will often result in poor sleep. If all you ever do is single night trips then your body doesn’t have the opportunity to get used to the new environment.

For me the first night sleep of a multi day trip is often the poorest and the longer the trip, the better my sleep patterns become. Unfortunately given that I average less than six hours sleep a night, I am often awake very early in the morning and heading off just after daybreak.

The Final Word

Getting a good night sleep is key to enjoying camping. To maximise our chances of this occurring, we should ensure our sleep system and clothing meets our individual needs and keeps us warm; whatever this may mean for you.

The key is to experiment and not give up after a couple of bad nights.

The more you camp, the more familiar you become with your equipment and being outside, and the better your sleep will become.