Tips From The Team – A Good Night’s Sleep

by Lisa Nicholls

tarp setup outside in woods

A good night's sleep is essential to maintain good health. Photo; Paul Kirtley

“But the place which you have selected for your camp, though never so rough and grim, begins at once to have its attractions, and becomes a very centre of civilization to you: “Home is home, be it never so homely.” – Henry David Thoreau

We asked our team for some top tips that help them function better when they are outdoors, whether camping, hiking or working with clients on a course. For nearly all of them, getting a good night’s sleep was top of their list.

It’s not just about the sleeping either, there are tips about preparation before bed and preparation for the morning.

So, while the nights and early mornings are still chilly in the UK, here are a few thoughts from the Frontier team to help you get a good rest and start the day refreshed and ready for anything.

Henry Landon has spent many nights wild camping in cold climates.

Make a hot water bottle using a Sigg water bottle and one of your socks. I prefer using a metal bottle as pouring boiling water into a plastic bottle can leech out chemicals that aren't so good for us. I also like to drink the warm water from the bottle in the morning. (this method can also be used if your socks are damp to dry them out before you put the bottle in your sleeping bag)

NB: Quite a few of the team mentioned the hot water bottle. Of course, they all use their own branded water bottles but it is worth noting that a good quality bottle should be used and preferably tested for leaks and strength beforehand. Always make sure it is wrapped in something to prevent risk of burns. If you plan to drink the water you must ensure it is boiled beforehand.

Use your empty backpack as extra insulation from the ground under your lower or upper body. This can also help if the ground is not perfectly flat to level out your sleeping area. If you are still cold, consider putting your feet into your backpack to act like an extra bivvy bag. I don't recommend putting your feet in a dry bag if you carry one in your backpack as it is not breathable and will make your sleeping bag damp.

Make your sleeping bag hood and or baffles work for you. A lot of heat is lost from your head and shoulders when you sleep, so make sure you do up the hood and baffles well, to prevent further heat loss. The number one rule with this is; never breathe into your sleeping bag as moisture from your breath will condense in the bag making it damp and less insulating.

Matt Batham advises on the importance of having good quality equipment and being prepared.

When you are outdoors, you will always be in one of two places; your boots or your sleeping bag.

When it's time to turn in, knowing you have a comfortable and warm place to rest will lift your spirits. You can look forward to a restful sleep and recharge for the adventure ahead. Or, you can dread crawling into the cold sleeping bag and lying on the flimsy roll mat, getting cold, more tired, and maybe even a sore back.

Investing in your sleep system will pay dividends on all trips. Don't be distracted by shiny things!

Outside, things take longer. Being tired, wet, and cold can also extend the length of time that each task takes. We go outdoors to enjoy ourselves, not get stuck in a loop of tasks that add little value to our trip.

When you're out on a journey, especially in cooler, damper or remote places, always try to think a few steps ahead to 'bank' time.

For instance, when walking back into camp in the afternoon, collect a few bundles of kindling and stow them somewhere dry. In the morning, when it's chilly and damp, use the kindling to get your fire in. The other approach, to wait until morning, needs a concerted effort to gather dry kindling, especially if it has rained overnight. You'll also have spent more time than you needed to and probably be miserable.

Another example is to keep yourself and water bottles topped up with water. If you spot a good, easily accessible, source of water and can treat it, then pause, and take a drink. Gather, treat, and store the water, then carry on. Imagine you're at the end of a stiff climb, you've just drunk the last of your water. You'll have to take time out of your journey to find a suitable water source then get back on track. This has a knock-on effect by increasing fatigue and decreasing the time in the day for rest and recovery.

Man filling water bottle from fast flowing mountain stream

Matt Batham fills up with water while on a multi-day backpacking trip. Photo: Paul Kirtley

James Bath also advises to think ahead to make your night and morning routine more manageable.

I always, even on a day hike somewhere, collect materials early in the day for a tinder bundle/tinder. It’s great for getting your eye into perhaps a new area and looking at resources as well as good tinder management practice. Also, when working on courses it always gets used in lighting a fire somewhere. Same with checking out other good resources – firewood, water, shelter. I do this (and the tinder) even if I’m just out for a day hike.

Get your head torch from your tarp/tent/pack well before it gets dark. Stick in a pocket or wear round your neck if it is still light. It is so easy to think in late afternoon/evening that you’ll get it later and just leave it now. Just get it.

A saying I like and apply on most outings: ‘If you need to ask the question, you know the answer’ Obviously not for everything – like learning stuff – but more a case of people saying should I go for a pee before I get in my sleeping bag for the night? Is there enough leaf mould as a covering on the shelter?

Paul ‘Spoons’ Nicholls has learnt from experience that a good night’s sleep cannot be undervalued.

I always take a small pillow case. Just a cushion size, so as not to take up too much room in my kit but once I stuff it with clothes it makes a super soft pillow and helps me get a good night’s sleep.

Locating a natural wind-break and/or sheltered area to set up your tarp is going to help eliminate cold winds/draughts. I sometimes use my rucksack as a wind break as well.

Probably the biggest tip – Never sleep in a hollow in the ground, as if it should rain during the night, this will fill up with water.

tarp set up outside in woods

Routine preparations for sleep and mornings are key to relaxation. Photo; Paul Kirtley

Paul Kirtley advises to take great care of your sleeping bag.

I sleep better outdoors than indoors. I genuinely do. At home, I'm something of a night owl. Out in the woods or the hills, however, I easily fall back into a more natural cycle. Of course, having a good outdoor sleeping set-up to look forward to helps make bed an attractive prospect. At the heart of this, whether under a tarp or in a tent, is a sleeping bag. It's not just a case of bringing a bag appropriate to the conditions, it's also about looking after your sleeping bag, so it looks after you. On longer trips some of these daily practices make a significant cumulative difference to the performance of your bag and your comfort.

You are continuously perspiring, even if you don't notice it. At night this moisture has to pass through your sleeping kit to escape to the wider environment. Some moisture inevitably ends up soaking into the materials of your sleeping bag. Condensation can also occur between your sleeping bag and a bivvy bag. It's important to air out your sleeping bag on the daily basis. The best time to do this is in the morning, straight after you have risen. When your bag is still warm, it will evaporate more moisture than when it has cooled down. If you can get some breeze going through it or some sun on it, then your bag will dry out all the quicker. Even in really frigid conditions, where moisture may freeze onto the materials of your sleeping bag, you can air the bag out then shake off the frost before packing away the bag.

Dirty sleeping bags work at a fraction of the performance of clean bags. Dirty bags lose their loft and thus a good measure of insulation. Fabrics also pass moisture much less readily when clogged with dirt. It's important to keep your bag as clean as possible. The two most significant ways to achieve this are to use a silk sleeping bag liner and a bivvy bag. The latter is particularly important if you are sleeping on the ground without a groundsheet. The bivvy bag not only protects your sleeping bag from moisture and wind but also dirt. Plus both a silk liner and bivvy will increase the warmth of your sleeping bag by trapping more layers of warm air around you.

There is a bit of pub knowledge which is passed around, particularly on the internet. It goes like this "if you are going to get your sleeping bag wet, you should use a synthetic bag rather than a down bag". The whole premise of this statement is wrong. You should not be expecting to get your sleeping bag wet. If you think your sleeping bag is likely to get wet, then change your packing strategy so that it won't get wet. I pack goose down bags on wilderness canoe trips. They just have to be packed properly so they do not get wet if my portage pack is submerged in a rapid. Equally, though, if I were taking a - heavier - synthetic bag, I would pack it in the same way. I know from experience that a soaking wet synthetic sleeping bag is not a fun place to spend the night, even in the summer. And getting a sleeping bag dry on trips can be very difficult. The knock-on effects of lack of sleep on physical and mental performance are significant. The simple answer is to do everything in your power to keep your bag dry.

camp ready for breakfast

Airing out sleeping kit as part of the daily routine on a wilderness trip. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Some good advice from the experts. But what is your best tip for a comfy outdoor sleep? Let us know in the comments below...

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Married to Paul ‘Spoons’ Nicholls, Lisa lives and works in Bedfordshire. She joined the Frontier team in 2016 and is the Managing Editor of the Frontier Bushcraft and Global Bushlife blogs. Lisa has her degree in English and History and studied in Cornwall for a PG Dip in professional writing. Her working career has been varied but has always included some aspect of creative writing and she still writes for pleasure. A keen camper and traveller, Lisa has embraced many bushcraft practices and enjoys the simpler style of wild-camping.

 

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Uncle Tom

About keeping the inside of your sleeping bag clean- the bag liner works but I prefer a thin woolen sleep set- socks, long tights and shirt. The sleep set only goes on when it’s camp time but also can serve as cold weather gear if needed.

Reply

Edward van Zijll de Jong

Hi Paul
Again a interesting article thx . After I prepared my coffee / tea pot for the quick ” instant” morning start, I generally walk for 10 minutes before I go to sleep. It helps to warm the body and calms me.

Reply

Stewart Lomax

Hi Paul et all,

I always make a flask of tea, or whatever you like to wake up to, as it’s generally easier to boil water in the evening after your meal rather than having to wait until you get a fire going in the morning.

Reply

Peter Taillaert

Hi Paul and team,

I always put a pair of dry socks in my sleeping bag so I can put them on before going to sleep.
That in combination with my warm waterbottle helps me a lot.

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Nick Ford

If your sleeping bag doesn’t have a hood, wear a woolly hat to conserve heat loss. Have a warm drink half an hour or so before turning in, and that reminds me – keep a wide-necked screw-top bottle handy that you can pee in, without having to get out of your bag.

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Dave Howard

Hi Paul, and the team.
Never underestimate the importance of preventing your body heat from leaching into the ground. We all know to wear night clothes if it`s cold, we also know to use a good quality, clean, dry sleeping bag; what might not immediately spring to novices` minds is to have plenty of insulation from the ground, I spent a very miserable few nights as an unaware 8 year old boy, before the days of easily accessible sleeping mats. I learnt the hard way, if you don`t have access to one improvise !
All the best guys, Dave.

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