Here at NEMO, we’ve been obsessing over sleep for 17 years, designing sleep systems that improve your outdoor sleep experience in any conditions. As a team, we get out overnight at every opportunity, testing the gear and enjoying the accompanying camaraderie. And when we’re not adventuring as a team, our spouses and partners have patiently put up with us sleeping on the bedroom floor or in the backyard, testing new sleeping bag and pad designs and understanding what equates to a great night’s sleep.
So it’s safe to say we know a thing or two about getting a solid forty winks at night. We’re here to share with you a complete guide of how to get restful sleep outside, an essential ingredient in preparing you to have the best possible adventure tomorrow.
Restful vs. Restless
One way of thinking about great sleep is that restful is the opposite of restless. We want to remove anything from the equation that would make you restless, whether it’s discomfort, insecurity, or overstimulation.
When these sleep-preventing elements are removed, what’s left is peaceful, restful, rejuvenating sleep.
Sleeping Outside Can Be Your Best Sleep Ever
Your sleep outside can – and should – be even better than your sleep at home. Here’s why:
If you’re sleeping outside, chances are you’ve probably already checked one of the key boxes for restful sleep, which is activity and exercise.
You’ve worked your body; your muscles are in need of rest and repair. And you’ve ideally engaged in focused activity that took all your mental energy, such as climbing a big wall, navigating a dicey trail, or pushing past mental blocks in an endurance challenge. That type of attentiveness blocks out the train of daily thoughts that too often occupies our waking minds – the worrisome and mundane contemplations such as, “did I pay the cable bill?” or “am I a good child to my aging parents?” or “how will I prepare for next Tuesday’s meeting?”
You’ve removed yourself from your daily routine, engaged your brain elsewhere, and reset your consciousness, occupying it with a new, more immediate set of needs such your day’s adventures, followed by the tasks of making camp, cooking food over a fire, and staying warm and dry.
Great news. You’re well on your way to one key element of sleep: peace of mind.
A Practice of Priming for Sleep
With this strong start behind you, we recommend a practice of priming your situation to prepare for sleep ahead of time. This means thinking about your personalized needs and preferences before you go to sleep, and preparing all the elements so that at the moment of bedtime you don’t have to think – you simply have to enter the stage you previously set and drift off to sleep.
With time, this practice of priming for sleep can be an enjoyable part of the ritual of making camp, and will pay off in spades with a deep night’s sleep.
The Nesting-for-Sleep Checklist
While each person’s sleep preparation checklist is different, we’ve compiled a list of some of our favorite tips for you to consider. If you’re just getting started, make an actual list for yourself. Over time, the preparation will become nearly automatic, much as it is at home.
Find Your Spot
- Find a flat surface. There may be nothing worse at night that sleeping slightly upside down. If possible, flat surfaces clear of roots, rocks, and clumps will give you the best neutral surface for your sleep.
- Avoid disruptive noise. If you’re in a campground or camping with a group, strategize about where you’ll pitch a tent. If you’re part of the rowdy last-call crowd, you might be fine close to the campfire. If you prefer to turn in early, seek a little distance from the crowd.
- White noise is plus. Sometimes you’re blessed with a brook. Or a river, an ocean, a breeze. These natural sources of white noise can lull you to sleep soundly for the night.
- Orient yourself. Think about the middle of the night and the morning. Orient your tent so you have the best exit path if you need to pee at night or get up and get yourself situated in the morning.
Security & Peace of Mind
- Keep your things close at hand. Set things that you might need in the middle of the night – like your glasses, headlamp, and water bottle – in predictable spots where you know you can reach them. Take time to set them up ahead of time, using pockets and the space around your sleeping bag to give them designated spots. A glow-in-the-dark piece like a Nalgene can make it easy to find at night.
- Know where your important items are. Also place other important items such as a wallet, ID, or phone in a secure place so you know exactly where they are. Wondering where you put your wallet can keep your mind distracted when trying to get to sleep.
- Keep your shoes at the ready. If you need to get up at night, make sure your shoes or sandals are staged in your tent vestibule in foot position and ready to do their job.
Get in Position
- Bring a pillow. The humble little pillow is perhaps the most overlooked piece of gear. While you could wad up a jacket and sleep on a zipper, we see no reason not to bring a small pillow along for the ride to cushion your head. Many a hiker has lamented after months on the trail that the one thing they missed was the pillow. It’s worth the three ounces. If you’re not counting ounces, bring the most comfortable pillow you can pack. We recommend the Fillo Luxury for fully supporting your head comfortably.
- The side sleeping situation. If you are a side sleeper, consider bringing an extra pillow or two – one for between your knees and another to hug. Tiny pillows like Fillo Elite don’t add much room and add a lot of comfort. Also consider a sleeping bag designed for sleeping on your side, like our Spoon-shaped bags, cut generously in the elbows and knees for sleeping on your side.
- Personalize your pad inflation. It’s a little-known fact that we all enjoy different degrees of firmness in our sleeping pads. Don’t inflate to the max unless you enjoy sleeping on a board; instead leave a bit of cushion, or a lot of cushion, depending on your preference. Micro-adjustable valves like our Laylow™ valve allow you to dial in the level of inflation to your exact personal preference. Get to know your preference and set your pad ahead of time to your preferred level of inflation.
- Warm your bag. Some people like to pre-warm their bag if it’s chilly outside by filling an uninsulated bottle with warm water and putting in the footbox. Another suggestion for staying warm is to pre-fill some of the dead space in your bag with the next day’s clothes. It makes the bag warmer as well as makes tomorrow’s clothing nice and toasty.
- Regulate your temps. Sometimes it’s not just about staying warm; you can get too hot at night. Sleeping bag liners offer versatility, but so do other tricks. Choose a bag with a zipper at the bottom so you can snorkel a warm foot out the bottom of the zip. Or better yet, choose a bag with Thermo Gills so you can unzip these vents and release body heat without letting cold drafts in.
Working with the Elements
- Prepare for rain. Check your vestibule area to make sure your gear in the vestibule will be safe from pooling water. If you will be in heavy weather, check to make sure your tent is securely staked and you’ve used all guyline options.
Under the stars. If you’re completely confident it won’t rain, ditch your fly for the night. You get some pre-sleep stargazing and an extra breeze throughout the night.
- Keep a pest-free zone. There’s not much worse than getting eaten alive by mosquitos trapped in your tent, and waking up covered in bug bites. Be vigilant with your tent zipper, especially at night with a light on in your tent.
- Prepare for tent condensation. Humidity, your breath, and the style of your tent can all be factors in how much condensation forms on the inside of your tent. Do your best to ventilate, but also move items like clothing away from the tent walls to avoid them soaking up the moisture.
- The Clean Set. You know the one – these are the clothes you don’t wear during the day (unless it just comes to that). Reserve a set of fresh, non-sweaty, clean clothes for night time sleeping. It can make all the difference.
- Shower or Baby Wipes. Sometimes you can’t, but if you can, it’s remarkable how much being clean and not sticky can impact your comfort. A portable shower like Helio can make this convenient even far off the grid. If you can’t take a real shower, we recommend a baby wipe shower in your tent. One wipe for the top half, one for the feet and legs, and one for in between.
- Teeth brushing. Don’t skip it! A fuzzy tooth sweater can keep be a terrible distraction as you’re trying to drift off to sleep. If you don’t have toothpaste you can just use a wet toothbrush and rinse your mouth out with a swig of water.
- Pee before bed. Make it your last order of business to empty out before crawling into your tent. And if you wake up and feel nature’s call, we recommend you just give into it right away. Doing the deed will take you 60 seconds, versus thinking about it, which can keep you up all night.
- Don’t over-hydrate. Watch your liquids in the couple of hours before bedtime. Wine and beer not only move through your system and will have you up peeing, but they can prevent you from deep and restful sleep.
- Don’t eat too much too late. Try to eat a healthy, protein-rich dinner early. If you’re hungry closer to bed, graze on things like dried fruit and nuts. Eating a heavy, hard-to-digest dinner close to bed can give you indigestion and keep your body from transitioning to sleep.
- Ibuprofin as needed. If your body has taken some wear and tear, an anti-inflammatory can help dull distracting aches and pains from your day’s adventures.
- Melatonin gummies. If you know your body is going to need a little extra nudge, go for a natural sleep aid like melatonin, which helps regulate your body’s natural biorhythm. We love the all-natural gummies, which are easy to transport and tasty.
- Earplugs. If there’s one micro-sized piece of gear our team swears by, it’s ear plugs. You may have first discovered the merits of earplugs to live peacefully with your snoring college roommate, but earplugs can be just as useful when sleeping outside. Corded earplugs will prevent them from getting lost as easily. The only downside to plugs is missing out on the night sounds of the outdoors.
- Eye mask. Sometimes you’re right on schedule with the setting and rising sun, but other times you’re too far up or down a hemisphere or there’s other light pollution that’s keeping you up. An eye mask can gently guard you from the light. If you don’t have one, use your buff.
- Avoid screens. This advice applies as much to sleeping at home as in the forest. The glow of the screen stimulates your brain and disturbs your natural rhythms as you wind down. If you’ve brought a phone, discipline yourself to turn your phone off for at least an hour before bedtime.
Peace of Mind & Winding Down
- Enjoy some tea. Enjoying a cup of warm tea is a soothing wind-down ritual with the added bonus of warming you up before bed. Choose a caffeine-free herbal tea such as chamomile or valerian, which can have a sedative effect. Other teas such as lavender and passion flower are known for calming you and reducing stress.
- Have a nightcap. This is actually not recommended for great sleep. While alcohol can make you feel drowsy initially, it actually interferes with your sleep cycles and prevents you from the most restful sleep. However, we’re including it here because many of us find a sip from the flask around the fire with friends an enjoyable part of winding down at night. If you do enjoy this ritual, just remember to limit your intake and complement it with some water.
- Lavender or other essential oils. Before going to bed you can use essential oils such as lavender, which is a natural sedative. Rub one drop between your palms, dot your temples, your wrists, and rub some on your pillow. Inhale deeply, and feel sleep come a little closer.
- Reading or journaling. Pull out a good old-fashioned book or notebook for a little wind-down relaxation or introspection. If you know you’ll get sucked in, give yourself a time limit before light’s out. Use your headlamp (Light Pockets in our tents turn it into a pleasant tent lantern) rather than the glow of your phone. The light from a phone can interfere with your sleep/wake cycle.
- Meditation. As you lay in the dark and anticipate tomorrow’s adventure, you may need a little extra relaxation. It can be helpful to practice deep breathing and mindful relaxation. One of our favorite methods is to start at your toes and focus your attention on tensing then releasing each body part from your toes, through your belly, out to your fingertips and lastly to the face. When you are completely relaxed, continue to deep breath your way into a deep and relaxing sleep.
Set Yourself Up for Sleep Success
With the right preparation, the moments at the end of the day as you bring your adventures to a close and anticipate the fun that awaits tomorrow can be some of the best. Our wish for all adventurers is to wake up tomorrow morning with the sun, refreshed, relaxed, energized, and ready to dive into another day full of possibilities.
Cheers to your next night of deep slumber, and the amazing day that follows!
From all of us here at NEMO