Spending the night in the great outdoors under a dreamy, starry sky sounds great—until you actually try to fall asleep for the night. The sounds of critters scurrying through the woods, the hard and possibly rocky ground underneath you, and the endless loop of what-if situations running through your mind can make it seriously difficult to get any shut-eye. Oh, and don’t forget about the lack of heat or air conditioning to help you get cozy.
I’ve been there. On one backpacking trip, we heard a bear was in the area and I spent the whole night jolting at the slightest sign of movement until I collapsed, exhausted, as the sun started rising.
But I’ve also spent four months straight camping (when I hiked about 700 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail) and slept next to people who didn’t seem to have a care in the world when they crawled into their sleeping bags at night. So how do nature lovers manage to actually get a solid night of sleep outdoors? I talked to 11 of them to learn the key elements of their wilderness bedtime routines. Below, their tips for falling asleep while camping.
1. Use a quilt for temperature regulation and white noise to block out sounds.
“I use quilts instead of a sleeping bag so I can pop my legs out if I get too warm,” says Jill, 47, from Phoenix, Arizona. Camp quilts, like this versatile Kammok Mountain Blanket ($ 135, kammok.com), are often made of the same material as sleeping bags, but rather than zipping them up, you can lay them over your body like a blanket.
Jill also uses her phone to mask outside noise. “If I am not backcountry backpacking (and therefore not worried about charging my phone), I use the “floor fan” setting on the White Noise app.” This helps block out all those little random noises (like leaves blowing along the ground) that your sleepy, paranoid mind convinces you are hungry animals creeping toward your tent.
2. When white noise fails, use earplugs.
Sometimes white noise isn’t enough to put you at ease. “Earplugs are a must for me,” says Justina, 31, in Los Angeles, California. “I usually sleep without a tent so I can see the stars, but I don’t really need to also hear the animals crawling around the campsite!”
3. Pack extra warm layers if you get cold easily.
“I can’t fall asleep if I am cold, so setting up a warm bed is essential,” says Maria, 33, in Washington state. “[I bring a] comfy PJ set and wool socks, in addition to [a] thick sleeping pad and extra warm sleeping bag.” If you’re backpacking, you’ll be limited to what you can carry on your back, but if you’re driving to your campsite, there’s no reason you can’t throw some extra stuff in the car just in case.
4. Find a bedtime distraction and be sure to pee before lying down.
“I wear earplugs and either read or play solitaire [in bed],” says Kathleen, 25, from Phoenix, Arizona. “Keeping my bladder empty usually helps a lot also.”
5. If you’re camping with kids, figure out some tactics to keep them (and you) happy.
“As a mother, I’m only getting sleep if everyone else is,” says Karen, 38, from Phoenix, Arizona. “Therefore, I have a glow stick for my youngest who is scared of the dark, a Kleenex box accessible for my son with allergies, slight airflow into [the] tent to keep us all cool through the night, and white noise playing on the phone so we don’t hear each other snore.”
6. Listen to a podcast.
On that note, earbuds can also provide some comfort in the form of music or voices. “I almost always listened to a podcast while I went to sleep [on a recent trip],” says Niche Veraldi, 25, in Corpus Christi, Texas. “It made it feel like I was falling asleep to a conversation with friends. Even if I got mauled by a bear, at least my friends were making fun jokes.”
7. Choose your camping spot wisely.
Often, the choices you make about where to camp make a huge difference in how well you’ll sleep. “Don’t cowboy camp in mosquito country,” says Amelia, 19, from Reno, Nevada. “Don’t stealth camp next to a freeway.” (Cowboy camping is camping without a tent, and stealth camping is camping at an unestablished site where you’re not supposed to stay overnight.) Even little things, like tree roots and whether or not the ground is flat on sloped can make a difference. If you can, scope out where you’ll be camping beforehand. If you can’t see the specific spot up close, even looking at a map to figure out which spot is by the creek, or far from the restrooms, can help.
8. Bring the comforts of home.
If you’re not backpacking, why not bring whatever might do the trick? “Lavender oil on the feet, a warm drink before bed, and some sort of pillow” are all ingredients for a comfortable night for Annelle, 27, in Mountlake Terrace, Washington. (Just make sure to check the area’s bear population before bringing something fragrant.)
9. Stuff a hot water bottle in your bag to stay warm.
“When it’s super cold, I boil water, pour it in a Nalgene bottle, and throw it in my sleeping bag before I go to bed,” says Kenzie, 30, in Syracuse, New York. “I just tried it the other weekend when it got down to about 35 degrees and it was a total game-changer.”
10. Just bring a pillow—it makes a bigger difference than you might think.
“A lightweight inflatable pillow makes me a million times more likely to fall asleep quickly and stay asleep,” says Isaac, 24, in Culver City, California. “I recently did a four-day trip, and I didn't have one because I wanted to test if it was something I really wanted or just a luxury, and my sleep was definitely worse.” Try this Compressible Travel Pillow by Therm-a-Rest ($ 20, amazon.com), or this blow-up one from Wise Owl Outfitters ($ 15, amazon.com).