Overcome the Fear of Sleeping Outside While Backpacking

woman sleeping during the day on her backpack by a lake in the mountains
woman sleeping during the day on her backpack by a lake in the mountains

One of the most common fears I hear when it comes to backpacking is that people are either afraid of the dark when camping, or they’re afraid of sleeping outside.


First, it’s important to recognize that this fear is completely normal. Not only do most of the people I coach through my bootcamps and inside Limitless Hiker Academy have this fear, but I’ve also had it.


When I first started backpacking, I would toss and turn all night because my mind was racing about all of the things that are right outside of the tent. And god forbid I would need to get up to pee in the middle of the night. It wasn’t only about the hassle and it being chilly outside, I developed a fear of being out there in the dark.


Through time, I learned how to overcome that fear. So now I can comfortably sit in camp after dark, get up in the middle of the night and take Milky Way photos, get a good night’s rest while backpacking, and overall just have that confidence.


But that fear doesn’t go away on its own, and it does take time.


This is why in this blog post, I’m going to show you exactly how I’ve coached thousands of others to overcome their fear of sleeping outside and of being in the backcountry when it’s dark.

Step 1: Understand This is Normal

The first step in overcoming this backpacking fear is to understand that it’s perfectly normal. I’ve had it, and others have had it. It’s one of the most normal fears when it comes to backpacking, and it’s an understandable one too


There’s so much unknown that goes on when it’s dark outside. You can’t see as well, and especially when you’re sleeping, you feel vulnerable. We’ve spent our entire lives locking doors and windows before going to bed, and now we’re volunteering to spend the night inside a piece of very thin fabric.


Of course, it’s scary!


Your brain is wired for survival, and this goes against everything it’s comfortable with. Our comfort zones are there whether we like them or not because they keep us safe. It’s predictable, and our brains love that. We love guessing what the outcome is going to be. Very few of us actually like change.


But that’s ok. This doesn’t mean you’re going to be stuck like this forever. It doesn’t mean you need to give up your backpacking dream. And it certainly does not mean you need to live with this fear forever.


And by even reading through this blog, you’ve acknowledged that you have this fear but you want to overcome it. Which is the most important step. And that’s why it’s the first one.


This means now you can start to let go of the story that you’ve been telling yourself that something is wrong with you, that you’re weird, and that maybe you’re not cut out for backpacking because you’re afraid.


If I can let go of this fear… so can you.


So stop judging yourself and being so hard on yourself because of it.


Step 2: Shine a Light On It

Now that you know this fear is normal, you need to shine a light on it. When you were a kid and you were afraid of the monsters in your closet or under your bed, what did your parents do?


They shined a light under your bed or in the closet to show you that there’s nothing there. Which is exactly what you need to do in the backcountry.


Yes that tree stump looks a lot like a bear that wants to eat you, but is it really a bear or is it a tree stump? Use your headlamp to remove your imagination from this equation. Shine a light around camp. Prove to yourself that you are safe and there’s nothing to worry about.


Step 3: Store Your Food Correctly

Before going to bed ALWAYS make sure to store your food correctly.


If you’re in bear country, then you need to use a bear canister. If you’re around rodents and other small critters like mice and marmots, you’re going to need a rat sack.


Never leave good and scented items in your tent or backpack.


To reduce your chances of unwanted encounters with bears, all food, trash, dirty toilet paper, and scented items like toiletries need to go into the bear canister. Bears are usually only aggressive towards humans if they get into your food or they’re trying to protect their cubs. Here’s my full blog on why you need a bear canister. For more on bear safety, read through this blog post.


If you’re around rodents, you still need to store all food and scented items in a rat sack. Rats and other small animals will chew holes in your tent and backpack to get food. So if you don’t want your gear destroyed and your night’s rest ruined by chasing mice in your tent, please store your food correctly.


For more about wildlife, here is my full blog on why you shouldn’t feed them. 

Step 4: Where are Your Feet?

When you’re lying there in your tent and your mind starts racing… think about where your feet are.


Are you nice and cozy in your tent in your sleeping bag?


Are there stars outside?


Are you in a rad location?


Are you stoked to be on this trail?


Are you safe right now?


This step is about bringing yourself back to the present instead of focusing on everything else that could potentially happen.


Step 5: Refocus Your Attention

Now that your food is stored correctly, you’ve brought your attention back to the present, you need to refocus your attention so you actually get some sleep.


During this step it’s about distracting yourself with something good! Bring a good book (ideally not a scary one) with you and read in your tent before bed. Or listen to your favorite podcast. Edit photos on your phone from the day. Journal. Draw or sketch.


And keep focusing on this activity until you’re ready to fall asleep. If your mind starts to wander, cancel those thoughts and bring them back to that book or podcast.


If you wake up in the middle of the night panicking, feel free to repeat these steps. Shine a light on it, focus on where your feet are, and then refocus your attention until you go back to sleep.


Step 6: Go Practice

You’re not going to overcome this fear by waiting for it to pass on your couch. You need to go practice! Yes your mind will be basically screaming at you. That’s good, because you’re doing something scary, you’re taking charge of your life, and you’re stepping outside of your comfort zone to improve your life and experience.

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