A backpacking trip can be a jolt to the system. There are changes in exercise, eating, and sleeping. After a few days into any backpacking trip, my pattern of sleep changes. Rather than the 7 or 8-hour block of sleep I experience in the suburbs, my backcountry sleep pattern includes two periods of sleep, separated by a time of alertness. That is, I sleep, wake in the middle of the night, and then fall asleep again.
Who knows why this sleeping pattern emerges? Does it have to do with going to bed at sunset (i.e., 7 p.m. during the shoulder season)? Is the change caused by dropping evening temperatures? Maybe a body doesn’t need to rest 12 hours a night, even when exhausted.
The change in sleeping pattern happens so regularly, I wondered whether other backpackers experience it. My literature search revealed that this sleeping pattern may have been common among our ancestors. Before the electric lightbulb was widely used, people tended to go to sleep soon after sunset. Dr. A. Roger Ekirch found several references from centuries-old literature describing two periods of sleep each night.
The time of wakefulness is truly special. It is a time think about the next day’s walk, a time to reflect, a time to answer big questions. During this time, our minds wander uninterrupted, in the silence and darkness.
The Woods are Alive at Night
There was one night when I wished I didn’t awaken. It turns out, the woods are alive at night.
One November evening I camped on a lonely ridge south of McAfee Knob, within Virginia’s Triple Crown. I entered my tent as sleet began to fall. Upon awakening around 1 a.m., my typical pattern by now, I heard some far-off noises. It was definitely an animal sound. Probably a deer, a loud deer. Could it be a bear? The noises came closer. The sounds were becoming alarmingly close. I wondered whether a bear was ambling up the ridge and would soon be upon my campsite. A razor blade works great when cutting moleskin, but isn’t much protection against a bear. There was a lot of racket in the leaves. Forget a 400-pound bear, what if people were making the commotion? Hill people. What if the people had dogs, and the dogs had picked up my scent. The dogs would soon be nipping at my thin tent. Perhaps it was a night-time hunting party. Didn’t the movie Old Yeller include night-time coon hunting trips? No, that was the movie, Where the Red Fern Grows. Closer and closer they, or it, came. These hunters probably carried rifles. The agitated coon dogs most likely had sharp teeth.
I suddenly remembered that November is rutting season. The sounds were probably just deer, being deer this time of year. I immediately relaxed. I would live to see another sunrise.
How does your pattern of sleep change during backpacking? If you have experienced this mid night wakefulness, what does your mind ponder?