Insomnia Camping: My Worst Night of Sleep Outside



We’ve all been there: lying awake in a sleeping bag, staring into darkness, wishing for sleep. Insomnia is a common affliction in the outdoors, and Outside’s editors are hardly immune. Here’s a collection of our worst nights of sleep in the woods. Our hope is that these stories help you to avoid the missteps we’ve made on our own failed journeys to dreamland.

Chilling in the Sierra

I hiked a stretch of the Sierra High Route in June one year with a friend and packed the sleeping bag and pad I typically bring along for summery weather in New Mexico, not putting together that 12,000 feet elevation in late June can feel a lot like winter back home. On the first night, the wind against my tent was so loud I could hardly sleep, and I vowed to skip the rain fly the next night in hopes that it would be quieter. Our second day of hiking took much longer than anticipated, and we wound up camping next to a just-melted-out lake 1,500 feet higher than we’d intended. In the middle of the night, I woke up so cold and disoriented that I wound up making a bivy out of my fly… inside my tent. When I woke up the next morning, the fly and the outside of my sleeping bag were completely frozen. The worst part? The wind died at dawn, so I could have slept cozily and quietly with the fly on. My companion, who lived at sea level, had a worse night than I did, though—she was up puking from the altitude until the wee hours. —Abigail Barronian, senior editor

A (Soggy) Family Affair

My mom’s giant Irish Catholic family has an annual reunion at a quaint, free amusement park in Pennsylvania called Knoebels. One weekend every June, we take over about a quarter of the campground that lies in the shadow of one of the park’s creaky wooden roller coasters. It’s not exactly roughing it—there are bathrooms with showers, and electric outlets mounted on trees, and we hang twinkly lights and make grilled cheese sandwiches over campfires. When I was in my early teens, one of my cousins and I decided to eschew her family’s behemoth tent, packed with her four younger siblings, in favor of staking our own ultralight two-person backpacking shelter, borrowed from my parents. It was close quarters, and then it started to rain. And it didn’t stop all weekend. We spent two nights crammed in like sardines, wrapped in wet clothes and wet sleeping bags, water dripping down the inside of our single-wall tent and running in little rivers outside the door and underneath the ground cloth. The bad weather meant most of the rides were closed, too. —Maren Larsen, podcast producer

A Gale Ate Our Canoe

We noticed clouds building across the lake during the evening, as my wife and nine-year-old son cooked supper over a beach campfire at a state park on the high plains of western Nebraska. But we hadn’t received any severe-storm warnings, and the evening stayed calm and warm as we moved on to s’mores. Soon after the sun fell and we settled into our tent, however, we could hear mounting howls of wind coming off the water, and in no time, we were in a struggle to keep the tent from flattening on top of us. As the storm intensified, we abandoned the tent to its fate and ran for my pickup, parked 50 yards away. We got in just as our canoe lifted off the shore and flew above us. As the truck rocked and lightning crashed, it felt like we, too, would soon be thrown into the bluffs. Then it moved on, as suddenly as it arrived. The tent was still clinging to a couple of the stakes, and, while it had a broken strut, we were able to get it back upright. We restored order to our sleeping bags and, after hours of adrenaline-fueled chatter and worry, eventually got to sleep. We found the canoe in the morning, undamaged. —Jonathan Beverley, senior running editor

Who Invited the Moose?

In September 2020, a rip-roaring Lake Superior gale battered Isle Royale, Michigan, while I was on a solo point-to-point backpacking and fly-fishing trip. I had hiked 18 miles earlier that day to Siskiwit Bay, and just managed to lash my tarp to white spruce and balsam fir before ominous, gray-green clouds broke into thunderclaps, lightning strikes, and corn-size hail. I pitched my one-woman tent, devoured freeze-dried lasagne, and hunkered down at about 8:30 P.M. to kill time with my dad’s copy of Jim Dufresne’s 1984 Isle Royale National Park: Foot Trails and Water Routes Guide. Mid-chapter, I froze. A hefty, raucous cow moose busted through undergrowth toward me—fast. She stopped mere yards from my tent and snorted. Well aware that the island’s moose were in rut and more aggressive than usual, I lay still, barely breathing. She nosed around and then, perhaps appreciating the shelter from my tarp, bedded down next to me. Please, oh please, I silently urged her, do not trample me or roll over. We lay there together, me in my sleeping bag, her in her dryish spot, for hours. I dozed off for maybe ten minutes until she left around 4 A.M. Needless to say, I didn’t brush my teeth that night, and I didn’t catch northern pike the next morning because my hands still shook. —Patty Hodapp, contributing editor

Higher-than-Expected Tide

In the early 1980s, I was living in Washington, D.C., and I had a friend from Portland, Oregon, named Mike who’d been assigned to write about Tangier Island, a land speck in the Virginia part of Chesapeake Bay. Tangier’s residents, whose forebears came from England long ago, are famous for commercial crabbing and speaking in a curious accent sometimes described as Elizabethan. The plan was for Mike to scoop up enough local color to write the story, then we’d camp out, eat, and drink. Also along: his girlfriend and a friend of mine who was in D.C. for a summertime visit. My preparations were, uh, fast and light: I brought a crummy orange tent, a sleeping bag, and a bottle of bourbon with a handle. After our ferry ride to Tangier and a look-see—fun! lots of old boats!—we found a south-facing beach with immense views of the bay, built a fire, watched the sundown, and nervously eyed huge thunderheads coming in from the west. I drank myself to sleep but was awakened by a cold, biblical deluge. The tide slorped in as well, carrying actual, real, large dead fish. My tent collapsed, and I spent the next few hours sloshing around in a frigid bag of water. The next day’s sun never felt so good, even though it burned us red. —Alex Heard, editorial director

High-Altitude Hurting

It was my senior year at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and four of us road-tripped from the Pacific coast east to Lone Pine to hike 14,505-foot Mount Whitney. Rangers advised us to camp at a lower elevation on our first night to avoid altitude sickness, but we were far too ambitious for their logic. We kept hiking up and up and up, and by the time the sun began to set, we’d reached the high camp at 12,000 feet, placing us a full day ahead of schedule. As we prepared dinner, we realized a major folly: our provisions were too plentiful to fit in the single protective bear canister we brought. Half the grub went into the bear can while the rest went into a bag buried in the snow. After a salty dinner of ramen noodles and canned clams, we crawled into our bags for the night. I can’t remember who woke up first with a headache, but by midnight all of us were groaning in pain as imaginary vice grips squeezed our temples. Sometime around 3 A.M., the pain of the headaches faded as an entirely different discomfort became more clear. Growls and grunts came from the area where we had buried our food, and it didn’t take long to realize that the mountain’s large, furry inhabitants had discovered our makeshift refrigerator. Between my headache and the rummaging bears, I don’t think I slept more than an hour or two that night. The next day we stumbled to the top of Mount Whitney and then hiked all the way back to our car, putting us two days ahead of our anticipated schedule. Rather than stay the night in Lone Pine, we drove the seven hours back to Santa Cruz in one exhausted, bleary-eyed push. Oh, to be 22 years old again. —Fred Dreier, articles editor


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