Years ago I spent a summer working at the Many Glacier Hotel in Montana’s Glacier National Park. When I wasn’t waiting on guests in the hotel’s Ptarmigan Dining Room, I was out hiking trails, scurrying up mountainsides, and heading off into the backcountry, where my new friends and I would set up camp and unplug from the world. Some of my favorite moments were the times I spent sleeping outdoors, tucked into my sleeping bag after a long day of trekking across wildflower-laden valleys and the occasional mountain summit. I awoke with the sun feeling refreshed and reinvigorated — a far cry from those mornings in our dorm when my 5 a.m. alarm abruptly sounded for work
Apparently, I wasn’t alone in my assessment that sleeping outdoors just feels better. Many health experts believe that our environments play a big role in our sleeping patterns. In fact, removing ourselves from distractions such as artificial light, TV screens, and iPhones is almost essential to maintaining a good night’s sleep, which helps improve memory, regulate metabolism, and make you less cranky. The health benefits of simply spending time outdoors — from a walk in the forest to lazing on the beach — are also well documented. It only makes sense that bedding down in nature is an ideal way to achieve an optimal you.
In 2017, REI published a national study on women and the outdoors that surveyed 2,010 U.S. women, ages 18-35 and across a varied spectrum of income, ethnicity, and education. They found that 73% of those surveyed say they feel liberated or free when spending time outdoors, partially because the outdoors offers them an escape from societal pressures, including social and mainstream media. Moreover, “more than than 85% believe that being outdoors positively affects mental and physical health, happiness, and their overall well-being.”
Still, for those who would rather have a root canal than spend time (let alone sleep) in the wild, think of it more like a fitness class: Just a short bit of time can do wonders for your body, mind, and soul, and in this case you don’t even have to be awake.
Dr. Kenneth P. Wright Jr., an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Department of Integrative Physiology, has been studying the effects of sleep for more than 25 years. At the department’s Sleep and Chronobiology Lab, he focuses on the roles that disrupted sleep and circadian rhythms — built-in biological rhythms that naturally work in-sync with the 24-hour day/night cycle — play on everything from obesity and substance abuse to diabetes and mood disorders. In 2017, Wright and his colleagues published a two-study paper in Current Biology involving Colorado campers. Their results found that just one weekend in the outdoors can greatly improve circadian rhythm and in turn, our overall health.
“Modern electricity delays the human circadian clock, leading to a later sleep time and often shortened sleep,” Wright says, which in turn can affect greater health issues. “However, when you remove yourself from the home environment you also remove the TV and the tech, as well as the light that comes with them.”
Christina Edwards is a part-time field instructor at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), a nonprofit outdoor school that teaches courses in wilderness education. Edwards — who grew up in a rural community outside of San Diego, where she spent a good deal of her childhood outdoors — leads multi-week backpacking trips through the Rocky Mountains, in which participants set up their own camp nightly. “People seek out NOLS because they’re looking to disconnect in a lot of ways,” which alone can help aid self-esteem and reduce stress, she says. “When they camp, they want to disconnect.”
Just a short bit of time can do wonders… and in this case you don’t even have to be awake.
Edwards sees sleeping outdoors as a return to simplicity. “Being so close to the earth is something that’s really powerful,” she says. It’s also easy, she notes, to get a good night’s sleep when you’ve spent the day doing something tangible: backpacking for hours along a trail, finding a place to bed down for the night, cooking up dinner, and erecting your tent after clearing away rocks and sticks. “It all goes back to connecting with nature, and finding your peace anywhere,” she says. “No matter what their skill level was when they started, this is something that our participants inevitably take away.”
Edwards grew up with six siblings, and says on warm summer nights her entire family would relocate outdoors onto the flat roof of their home and sleep al fresco. When I asked her for a few tips on sleeping outdoors at home, she offered the following: “First, check the weather. You’ll want to pick a night that’s warm enough so that you don’t need a tent. Be sure and bring a couple more blankets than you think you need — it’s always colder just before sunrise — and make sure you have something warm, like a sleeping pad, beneath you. Don’t forget your flashlight and, if you have one, your pup (it’s always better with a four-legged friend).”
As for your iPhone, books, beverages, etc.? “Leave all that stuff inside,” she says. “Just look at the stars and fall asleep.”