For a light sleeper, the first night of camping is the worst. All those night sounds make it hard to get much shuteye. If you’re staying longer than a day, then you’re exhausted when the second night rolls around. You sleep better then and you start to adjust. But after the first night, my face probably looks like this pattern on the picnic table bench (see above).
In theory, there’s nowhere I’d rather be spending a night than outside in a forest, near a trickling stream in the serenity of nature, waking to the songs of the birds. So it’s somewhat unfortunate that I can’t sleep that well when I get there. Since we camp every year, I’ve learned to laugh at my camping insomnia. And since cell phones don’t work that far out, there isn’t a whole lot to do during a long night but to listen to the sounds and think (yes, I know I could download something and watch or read it, but that kind of defeats the purpose of being out in nature, doesn’t it?).
Unplugging from technology for a day or two is quite healthy. Though I was in the same tent with my family, lying side by side, they were sleeping and I was not. Alone with one's thoughts, the sleeping noises of others, and separated from raw nature by one piece of thin canvas and a window made of mosquito netting, things can get interesting.
Here is a glimpse at my night. Times are approximate, since I turned off my phone/timekeeping device.
Having eaten some smores and told scary stories around the campfire, there wasn’t much else to do. Someone (me) forgot the camp lantern at home. We had another small one, but decided that once darkness fell, we’d call it a day. We’d hiked a lot during the day, so everyone was tired and fell asleep easily. Including me.
The trap was set and I fell right into it. If I wait longer before falling asleep, I can stay asleep for a lengthier period. But like a moth to a flame, I fell asleep as soon as I was tired, on the kids’ schedule and when darkness fell. My wife can do it and sleep through. So can my kids. But here it is 10:30 and I’m already awake again.
What woke me? Maybe a dream. There are other campers within hearing distance, but they seem to have turned in early also, even the large group that was drinking earlier. It’s remarkably quiet, except for the distant hum of someone’s generator. Thankfully, I can hear the trickling of the river above the generator sound.
We’re on a bluff about 50 feet above a river. And we’re camped within a grove of fir and redwood trees. This is my favorite environment for camping. I turn on my side and try to sleep again. No luck. These air mattress pads are good, but sleeping two inches from the hard ground is not ideal for a side sleeper like me. Tossing and turning will get me sore by morning.
Someone farts. I’m sleeping side by side by side by side with my family. I’m immediately next to one child, then there’s my wife, and the other child beyond her. We have one entire side of the tent completely open to the night, no canvas, only mosquito netting. Plenty of air circulation, yet it still stinks in here for more than a minute when someone lets loose.
A twig breaks outside and I listen more closely. Sometimes, twigs break and leaves crunch, but if such sounds continue, it means there’s a prowler outside. There it is: a skritch-scratch. Creatures of the night always come through campsites looking for food. If I’m going to be awake, then I’ll listen and guess what each one is. For this one, I can hear its feet pit-pattering on the dry leaves. I’ll guess this is a skunk or raccoon.
If it was bigger, I’d go with a coyote probably. Last time we camped, we saw coyote tracks through our camp the next morning. There are larger beasts out here, mountain lions and even a few black bears. I’ve had run-ins with bears while camping. But not in this area, where it would surprise me to see one.
The small creature puttering outside the tent doesn’t find any morsels in our camp, so it moves on. I hear another owl screech high above. Watch out, forest critters. There’s a true hunter on the prowl. Meanwhile, I’m doing eye exercises to relax myself so I can sleep again.
I’m lying on my right side again, where I got my earlier sleep. It’s magic. My small pillow actually feels comfortable. Dreaming of marshmallows as big as clouds, I’m about to drift off into sleep.
I’m just about asleep when I hear my daughter (the one sleeping next to me) stir and turn over. But she can’t quite get the position she wants. Something has interrupted her rhythm. I turn that way and notice she’s held back by her hair. She’s still asleep, but her unconscious mind is wondering why her body cannot take the simple action of turning over to fall back into sleep.
Her hair is caught in a strip of Velcro on the side of her bag. It’s one of those hoodie bags, probably more appropriate on the slopes of Mt. Everest than here. For some reason, it needs Velcro much too near the head for a child, but this bag was on sale and it’s a really high quality one, far better than the old blocky style bags that my wife and I have.
Hair, Velcro. I lean over and do my best to remove the hair from the Velcro strip without waking the child. It works. She falls back to sleep easily.
And here I am, wide awake again. Over my daughter’s head, I see a hand extend towards me. It’s my wife, who must have awoken with the sound and watched me quietly free the child’s hair from the Velcro. Silently, she gives me her hand. Behind our daughter’s head, my wife and I hold hands for a few moments. Soon, I hear my wife purring again and her hand loosens. I wish it were that easy for me.
I’m awoken from a nice sleep. How much did I get that time? I estimate it was about 30 minutes. The generator that was making a faint white noise in the background has shut off for the night. It’s very still and quiet with the river below us babbling on the rocks. The quiet stillness of the night helps me understand why the other distant sound I now hear – a baby crying – woke me up again. I continue listening to make sure it is indeed a human baby sound and not that of a coyote, fox, or owl, all of which can make some very humanlike sounds at night.
Who brings a baby to a campground? It’s one of those decisions that seemed like a good idea at the time to a young parent, but Jesus, have a little respect for the other people within a mile of you. Why do you need to impose your world on everyone else’s?
These are the same kinds of people who cut ahead in a line or bring their own loud music or cigarettes wherever they go, other people around them be damned. Did I mention I’m a light sleeper? I guarantee that baby just woke up 10 other campers, totally needlessly, all of whom were much closer to it than me. Your kid won’t remember camping with you until he or she is much older, so why not stay home for the first few years? Take a day trip to the wild instead of spending the night out here. Or find a babysitter if you really must go camping.
Here is the view out from our tent.
There’s a sound like a large leaf falling. I’ve heard several of these during the night. But this one continues as dry leaves crinkle on the ground. Something small is walking around the campsite again. Fortunately, we haven’t left any food out for it to get.
Just as I wonder what kind of animal it is, I hear a gnawing sound coming from the direction of our campsite’s wooden picnic table. Aha. Though I’ve been fortunate not to have lived much of my life among rats, I immediately recognize the sound. Rats are the only nighttime critters I know of that chew on wood that way. They have to gnaw on something because their teeth continue growing. Gnawing and biting are necessary if they want to counter this.
My kids won’t want to know there was a rat in our campsite during the night. It couldn’t have been something more glamorous, like a bear or even a coyote. Just a lowly, dirty rat.
I listen again. The critter moves on, but I hear some yells in the distance coming over the clear night air. Could be coyotes or maybe a wildcat. But it also could be those owls again.
4:15 a.m. (estimated).
My whole body hurts from tossing and turning over a thin air mattress pad on the ground. It gives me newfound appreciation for poor and homeless people who sleep on sidewalks and benches. Against the odds, and thanks to being really tired, I fall asleep again.
A rasping sound cuts the silence of the forest. And another. And another. Now I’m awake again. I know this bird song and it’s the Stellar’s Jay (Blue Jay). These jays have some of the prettiest blue plumages of any bird, but they also sing a horrible, grating song. Nasty. It woke me up. I'm guessing the banana slugs are out in force by now also; they love the morning in a redwood forest.
I cannot lie down any longer. Nature calls. With some effort, I sit up and step out of my sleeping bag. Seeing that others are still asleep, I dress and exit the tent to find my shoes. When I see the sun rising and peeking through the trees, I know this will be a good day. After a quick stop to empty my bladder, I'll go find some ripe huckleberries to eat with breakfast.
Photos by the author or family members, except for owl, racoon, jay and hand sign pictures (all public domain).