How to Get a Full Night of Sleeping Outdoors

to Go big and you’ll need your rest, that’s for sure. Whether you’re climbing, riding, hiking, or even doing a ski traverse this spring, at the end of the day you need to sleep. Problem is, many an adventure has been ruined by long, uncomfortable nights. Do your prep, though, and you can sleep like a baby and go huge in the backcountry.

Plan for Comfort

Set yourself up for a good night’s rest by arriving at your campsite or bivy spot with enough time to prepare. First thing, arrive with a dry sleeping bag and clothing—use a siliconized nylon (“sil-nylon”) stuffsack to stash your sleeping bag, a dry base layer, some fresh socks, and even down booties if you run cold. If you’re headed into the Pacific Northwest, then consider stuffing all that gear into a true dry bag, which will guarantee you’ll at least make it to camp without a sodden sleeping system!

As with any and all sleeping endeavors, bring ear plugs. Please. You’re welcome. (Don’t forget!)

Craft Your Campsite

Arriving at your site early will help you ID a flat spot on which to spread your bivy sack or build your tent/tarp system. When you’ve found your sleepy Shangri-la, lay down in your tent or bag and actually feel how flat it is. Not quite right? Spend five minutes removing rocks, gravel, etc. to craft the perfect night of sleep. What’s mildly annoying at first, will be excruciating after a couple hours. Do yourself the favor of spending a few minutes to pimp out your campsite.

Always remember, too, to camp on durable surfaces (like a prepared site, sand, or gravel) rather than undisturbed soil, wildflowers, and the like. Leave no trace, and if you don’t know what that means—lnt.org!

Consider wind direction, blowing snow if you’re spring skiing, and any overhead hazards (wobbly branches on sketchy looking trees?) before you commit to a night of sleep.

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Bolster Your Bag

The best sleeping bag on the planet won’t feel at all warm with an inadequate pad. Spend the extra 20 bucks in a quality pad and you’ll sleep better. Insulated air mattresses are the top-end choice for cold or finicky sleepers, but if you’re going to skimp, be honest with yourself—can you really sleep on that ¼” slab of foam?

I try and bring a lightweight, down summer bag (more on these in a sec) in shoulder seasons, expecting to sleep in my “puffy” jacket. Consider your belay/puffy jacket and your sleeping bag together to get an idea of what kind of temps you can endure. You can also stash a set of down booties in the bottom of your bag to extend the warmth.

Another trick to at least pre-warm your bag is to fill a bottle with boiling water, then seal it up (tight!) and chuck it in your bag before you sleep. Your footbox will be toasty warm before you even climb in. Ear plugs and toasty toes? Duuuuude…

What about Bag Choice?!

And now for the crux, the sleeping bag itself! If at all possible, you want to sleep in down. It’s warmer, lighter, and takes up minimal space in your pack. Newer down bags offer “DownTek,” or premium goose down that’s been treated to absorb less water and dry out more quickly. With careful camp prep and the right gear, you can usually get away with down, even in wetter environments. If you’re in the Northwest or coastal BC during a rainy period, you might be smart to bump to synthetic insulation (as it resists moisture better), but if you can—down’s where it’s at!

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Not only has down undergone some techy innovation, but sleeping bag construction itself has seen some leaps and bounds in terms of function. “Insotect Flow,” for example, builds heat distribution into the sleeping bag itself. Notice on an Insotect bag, like Brooks Range’s “Snooze” series down bags, the “baffles,” or down channels, run lengthwise on the bag. This allows heat from your core (or beer gut for some of us) to spread towards your feet, typically your coldest zone when sleeping. Smart designs like this have pushed down bags into lighter and lighter versions, which means you can carry more salami and chocolate. Win-win!

The Dreaded Bivy

If you’re climbing, bikepacking, through-hiking, or any other high-adventure activity, eventually you’ll have to bivy. This might mean sitting on a tiny ledge all night if you’re really unlucky, but usually it just means a less-than-ideal camp spot. In cases like this, safety comes first—make sure you’re not in an avalanche path, below a dead tree, or in any spot that compromises your safety. Try and practice your Leave No Trace principles within the context of smoothing out a decent sleeping platform.

Even on a “day” hike, if you’re headed into remote terrain, carrying a superlight, summer-weight bag (like the Brooks Range Snooze 35!) can mean the difference between a life-threatening night above treeline and an unplanned, but manageable bivy. Do your homework…and enjoy your time in the backcountry.

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Rob Coppolillo is the co-owner of Vetta Mountain Guides in Boulder, Colorado. He’s an IFMGA-licensed mountain guide and the co-author of The Mountain Guide Manual, due out May, 2017.

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