The Importance Of Sleep

Posted by Mark Denton on

One of the factors that can make or break a trip into the backcountry is your ability to get a good night's sleep. It doesn't matter how much food you have or how beautiful your surroundings are, if you're tired, you're grumpy and it can really put a damper on your whole trip. Getting some Zzzz in the backcountry isn't all that hard, but it does require a bit of knowledge and gear. Here are some tips to help you get the best rest you can. 


The three enemies of good sleep are Conduction, Convection and Radiation in that order. 

1. Conduction

  • What it is: The process of losing heat through direct contact with the ground. The ground is effectively limitless and therefore impossible to warm with your body, leading to an endless sapping of precious body heat.
  • The solution: A good sleep mat or bed. This is the most important bit of sleep gear and yet is usually overlooked in favour of a good tent or sleeping bag. But you can sleep far more comfortably with just a foam mat than you can with the best sleeping bag and tent in the world when you're sleeping on the ground. Both foam and inflatable mats work great; however, inflatable is usually more comfortable than foam and foam is usually warmer than an inflatable. 


2. Convection 

  • What it is: The process of losing heat to the cooling effect of wind. Wind doesn't actually make it colder. It just speeds up the rate at which your body reaches whatever temperature it is outside.
  • The Solution: A tent or shelter, essentially anything that gets you out of the wind and out of direct contact with whatever is exposed to the wind. Tents provide more complete protection. However, a shelter constructed of a tarp or of natural materials can usually be modified to include a fire, which is a major leg up in cold weather.Tents will control radiation better, but any shelter helps.



3. Radiation

  • What it is: The process of losing heat to the ambient air simply because your body is warmer than the air. This is the slowest means of heat loss and by far the easiest to combat. 
  • The Solution: A sleeping bag. A sleeping bag insulates your body from the cold air and limits the ability for your warmth to dissipate into the environment. This is the most iconic piece of sleep gear and yet probably the least vital for a good night's sleep. This is because it can be substituted with adequate clothing and fire.Though the least important, it is still essential for proper insulation and a feeling of comfort which makes sleep much easier. The two main types of bag are down and synthetic. Both have their strengths and weaknesses and will work well in their ideal environments. (See "Down VS Synthetic" for a complete list of pros and cons). A mummy cut with a hood is the warmest, but also the most constricting and heavy. Quilt type sleeping bags are lighter and more comfortable to sleep in, but are usually only suitable as a summer bag. If you can only have one, a mummy cut with a hood will provide the greatest versatility as you can always unzip if it gets too hot. 


Now that we've covered the basics, here is a list of refined tips to get even more enjoyment out of your outdoor adventure.

1. Always pee before bed

  • There is nothing more uncomfortable than having to be in the dark in the middle of the night, and it can wreck your entire night.

2. Use a hot water bottle 

  • Boil some water before bed and put it in a plastic water bottle ( and be careful it's not too hot). Slip it into a sock or wrap it in a scarf and put it in the sleeping bag with you. That way you have a mini heater that you can move to wherever is cold.

3. Eat before bed

  • When you digest food, your body creates metabolic heat warming you up. Digestion is a way for you to warm up without having to move.

4. Do some exercises before bed

  • Never get into your sleeping bag to warm up. If you do some jumping jacks before crawling into bed, your excess heat will warm the bag faster and keep it warm for much longer than just the heat of your cold body. 

5. Don't wear too many clothes

  • A big mistake that most people make is wearing too many clothes to bed when they are cold. The problem with this is it fills up and squishes your sleeping bag, actually compressing the insulation and making it less effective. The solution is to lay the extra clothes on top of the sleeping bag like a blanket, moving them to wherever is coldest.

 5. Wear a toque

  • I know that "you don't actually lose most of your heat through your head," however, a toque is still much warmer than no toque so it makes sense to wear one to bed. Also, considering your head is the only exposed part of you in a sleeping bag, I would suggest a balaclava for extreme cold weather. 

6. Wear good socks

  • The hardest place to keep warm is your feet. The easiest way to fix this is with good dry wool socks. Even in the summer, I always wear thick socks. I suggest setting aside a pair just for sleeping so as to make sure they stay dry for each night. I actually suggest setting aside a whole set of sleeping specific clothes that are comfortable, such as a set of thermal long underwear (merino wool is always best, as it insulates well, isn't itchy and doesn't stink) 

Hopefully these tips will help you get a better night's sleep and have a much better experience in the backcountry. 

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