All animals in which sleep has been studied express signs of sleep-like behaviour, suggesting that sleep must have some fundamental functions that are sustained by natural selection. Those functions, however, are still not clear. Here, we examine the ecological relevance of sleep from the perspective of behavioural trade-offs that might affect fitness. Specifically, we highlight the advantage of using food-caching animals as a system in which a conflict might occur between engaging in sleep for memory/learning and hypothermia/torpor to conserve energy. We briefly review the evidence for the importance of sleep for memory, the importance of memory for food-caching animals and the conflicts that might occur between sleep and energy conservation in these animals. We suggest that the food-caching paradigm represents a naturalistic and experimentally practical system that provides the opportunity for a new direction in sleep research that will expand our understanding of sleep, especially within the context of ecological and evolutionary processes.