The Dangers of Sleep Deprivation in the Outdoors

Posted by: | Posted on: June 4, 2015

By now, we all know that sleep deprivation can be detrimental in many aspects of our lives.  Lack of sleep is linked to a host of physical problems such as heart disease, neurological disorders, and lack of proper hormone regulation.  Irregular sleep cycles lead to traffic accidents, mistakes at work, and cognitive impairments.  However, even with the overwhelming evidence that sleep deprivation really screws with our minds and bodies, many of us refuse to adjust our sleep habits to make proper sleep a priority.

Dozing on a plane

I can give fact after factoid to try to convince you that sleep is REALLY important, but I think it best to break it down into how it affects your ability to enjoy something you are really passionate about…the great outdoors.

5 ways sleep deprivation affects your outdoor loving self:

  1. Decreased Cognitive Function (you don’t think so good)
    • Decision making is key in the outdoors.  One bad decision can cause you to read a map incorrectly, take a wrong trail, and end up in Kalamazoo.
  2. Decreased Stamina (you run out of steam)
    • There’s no worse feeling than to believe you are holding your hiking buddies back.  If you haven’t gotten in enough zzzz’s, it’s inevitable that you will hit the wall sooner than your well-rested counterparts.
  3. Decreased Coordination (you get clumsy)
    • Alex taking a siesta during a NEO picnicThis is really serious.  Clumsiness is no joke on the trail.  One wrong step can mean anything from spraining an ankle in the middle of nowhere to plunging over the edge of a cliff.  In the Grand Canyon I’m told the vultures will help the rangers find your body…so is that considered a silver lining?
  4. Unstable Temperament (you become Mr. Crankipants)
    • Lack of sleep can significantly alter your mood and personality…from depression to feelings of anxiety…from manic excitement to boiling anger.  When you don’t sleep well, you just aren’t yourself.  That can definitely ruin your good time and affect the happy levels of everyone else around you.  Don’t be a downer, man!
  5. Health Deterioration (you can get sick…big time)
    • Prolonged lack of sleep can lead to ailments that will bring your outdoor exploring days to a grinding halt.  Allowed to go unchecked, sleep deprivation can lead to heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and a myriad of other serious and potentially life threatening physical and mental ailments.

For some simple tips on how to sleep better in general, check out WebMD’s Insomnia Slideshow: 20 Tips for Better Sleep.

Having suffered from insomnia since childhood, I can find it extremely difficult to sleep in the outdoors sometimes.  Here are some tips I have discovered to help invite the Sandman into my tent when camping.

1.  Always keep earplugs handy when camping.  Earplugs won’t do you any good if you don’t put them in correctly.  Check out this video from Boys Town Hospital for instructions on getting the most out of your foamy ear friends.

2.  Sean snoozing at Hualapai HilltopDon’t drink too much before bedtime.  Having to go to the restroom when camping can be quite the undertaking.  Struggling to get out of your sleeping bag, fighting with your tent zipper, stumbling around in the dark to get to an appropriate tree or bathroom facility, and having every sense become wide awake all along the way can mean that it’s going to be a while before you can get back to sleep.  Try to be proactive in avoiding midnight bathroom breaks.

3.  Don’t get overly stimulated around the campfire.  Campfires bring out our inner cave-person (politically correct.)  We get excited…even downright rowdy in the dark surrounding a bright flame with interesting company.  Just be sure that you start winding down your campfire energy starting about 2 hours before you plan to be asleep.  Sometimes you have to suck it up and turn in a little early while others are still in caveman mode if it means you will have a better experience the following day.  Just be sure you have your earplugs handy to drown all of the cave people out of your dreams.

4.  Don’t eat too late.  Eating too late in the day can disrupt the hormone balance that helps you get a good night’s sleep and rejuvenate your body.  It can also lead to indigestion and unpleasant acid reflux…especially when you are eating standard campfire fare such as hotdogs and brauts.

5.  Sleep in layers so you can maintain a comfortable sleeping temperature.  You may be warm when you first get into bed, but your body temperature lowers when you drift to sleep.  At the same time, studies show that a person sleeps better at cool temperatures.  To balance a cooler exterior temperature with your body’s changing internal temperature, the solution is to have easy to access layers of clothing available.  I will go to sleep wearing a tank top and a t-shirt.  I’ll also have something long sleeved within easy reach ready to throw on in the dark without effort.  As I become warmer or colder throughout the night, it is easy to regulate my body warmth without having to wake up fully.

These tips should help you get a better night’s sleep the next time you go camping, but it is important that you take steps to fight your every day sleep demons now.  Correcting years of poor sleep habits and a significant sleep deficit takes time, patience, and diligence, but the benefits are well worth the effort.

Sweet dreams!

by Jennifer Boley

Yang resting up in a hammock



Comments are Closed