Summer is approaching, and that means the weather’s getting warmer and people are spending more time outside. This means activities like barbecues, gardening, swimming, and camping. Camping can be an especially wonderful way to pass the time— getting away from the hustle and bustle of regular life, getting back to nature, and sleeping under the stars.
Spending time outside can be a great way to get a good night’s sleep too, but is sleeping outside good for you?
But if you’re not a seasoned camper or have never slept outside before, it may seem pretty daunting. Don’t worry. With the right preparations, getting a good night’s sleep outside may soon become your favorite thing to do!
The Health Benefits of the Great Outdoors
According to a study sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans spend, on average, nearly 90 percent of their time indoors. Yikes! This has likely gotten worse in the last year from quarantine restrictions— but now that those restrictions are lifting, we can once again return to enjoying the great outdoors, all that fresh air, and their wonderful benefits.
Sunlight and Vitamin D
I always tell my patients that Light is Medicine. Sunlight is some of the best medicine you can get, as it helps your body produce Vitamin D.
Vitamin D helps keep your body and your immune system healthy. Sunlight is also the best way to help your body and brain wake up in the morning. It doesn’t take very long either— just 30 minutes of blue light exposure in the morning, especially sunlight, can help supply your body with all the Vitamin D it needs as well as contribute to better cognitive performance.
Being Outside Encourages Exercise
Any physical activity outside makes you more likely to exercise. Factors like the wind or uneven ground can help add variety to your workouts and burn more calories. So if you’re looking to get a little more fit, getting outside is a great place to start!
It Gives You a Mental Health Boost
Relaxing, low-stress activities like walking outside or enjoying the sunshine can help boost your mood and decrease anxiety. Sunlight raises your natural serotonin levels, which helps keep you happy, calm, and focused.
Similarly, spending time in a forest can do wonders for your mental health and your physical health. In what’s known as “forest bathing—” from the Japanese term shinrin-yoku (forest bath)— people can reap amazing health and relaxation benefits just by slowing down and spending time in nature.
Forest bathing isn’t as odd as it sounds, and yes, you can keep your clothes on! It also isn’t like hiking or exercising. Instead of focusing on the physical aspect of the trek, you want to root yourself in the mental aspect of it. Once you are in nature, there is no planned physical destination, so really take your time and let yourself wander. Allow your senses to fully take in the environment, and immerse yourself in the sights, sounds, smells, and tactile sensations of this serene environment. Make sure to leave your phone in your pocket or bag, and turn it off or to airplane mode before you begin though. You don’t want any distractions here.
Making these connections with the natural world around you helps promote relaxation and wellbeing, which can do wonders for your mental health and happiness.
It’s Great for Your Sleep
A person’s circadian rhythm is directly influenced by light exposure, mainly that of the sun. Prior to the invention of our electronic devices and artificial light, our circadian rhythms were influenced entirely by the sun. This is why we rise in the morning with the sun, and wind down in the evening as it sets.
Our exposure to artificial light delays our natural circadian clocks, and exposure to artificial blue light at night inhibits our melatonin production, making it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. However, spending time outside more closely aligns our circadian clock to the sun’s schedule, which helps our brain produce enough melatonin to get us to sleep on time and get the quality REM sleep we need to feel refreshed in the morning.
What are the Benefits of Sleeping Outside?
We already established how simply being outside can help you sleep better. So by extension, should spending more time outside create more restful sleep? Actually, yes.
In a study published by Current Biology, participants embarked on backcountry camping trips without the use of technology— this includes their electronic devices and even flashlights. Prior to the trips, participants tended to stay up past midnight each night and wake up around 8 AM due to their work, school, and social schedules.
Following the camping trips, researchers found that increased exposure to sunlight and reduced exposure to artificial light had a positive effect on the participants’ circadian rhythms. This resulted in a two-hour backwards shift, and the participants going to bed about two hours earlier each night.
Our typical modern environments cause an approximately two-hour delay in our circadian clocks, which was reset when the participants spent a few days in the woods away from factors that could negatively affect their circadian clocks.
This suggests that more exposure to sunlight during the day and less exposure to artificial light at night can help people reset their internal clocks and find the most productive sleep schedule for their own lives.
Does Napping in the Backyard have the Same Benefits as Camping?
A few hours of napping under a tree won’t have as drastic an effect on your circadian rhythm as a technology-free weekend in the woods, but it can help.
Just like I said above, spending time outside can help realign our internal clocks to the sun’s schedule. When our bodies are functioning according to the sun’s schedule, our brains will produce the right amount of melatonin to make sure you fall asleep on time and get your ideal rest each night.
So go ahead and make yourself comfortable while you’re outside! Just make sure you’re not napping too late in the day, or for too long— that can make it harder for you to fall asleep when you need to.
Tips for Sleeping Outside Comfortably
Whether you’re winding down for an outdoor nap or preparing for a few nights in the woods, the right preparations can be the difference between restful sleep and poor sleep with a change of scenery. Consider these options when you’re planning to sleep outdoors.
1: Use the Right Equipment
If you’re napping in the backyard, you won’t need much more than a comfy chair or a hammock, and a quiet spot to rest. If you’re camping out in nature though, you’ll probably need a few more items to help you get comfortable rest. Some of these items may include:
- A sleeping bag— It’s especially important to select one based on what kind of temperature or weather you’re expecting. You don’t want to be caught off-guard if cold weather hits.
- A sleeping pad, to keep yourself off the hard ground and give yourself a softer place to sleep.
- A good pillow. If you don’t have any space limitations, bringing a pillow from home can help you sleep more comfortably. Otherwise, small camp pillows are a good option.
Even the right tent— or lack thereof if you choose to sleep right under the stars— can make a big difference in your sleep quality. Be sure to consider your options according to your specific situation and pack what you need.
And of course, if you are napping in the sun, don’t forget your sunscreen.
2: Make Good Use of Earplugs and Eye Masks
The sounds from the great outdoors are common inclusions on white noise machines and similar apps— and for good reason! The stillness of nature at night when combined with crickets chirping or the sounds of water nearby can paint a beautiful and peaceful picture.
However, the nighttime noise can be a little overwhelming for some people when they’re camping.
Earplugs are a very inexpensive and accessible way to block out extra noise so you can sleep soundly. Similarly, an eye mask is great for blocking out extra light and helping you sleep, whether it’s from neighboring campfires, flashlights, or other light sources. The darkness provided by eye masks is great for helping your brain produce melatonin too.
3: Follow Your Normal Sleep Schedule and Routine— Unless You’re Trying to Reset
It can be tempting to stay up all night stargazing, eating s’mores, drinking an extra beer or two, or just telling scary stories around the campfire, but your sleep will thank you if you stay consistent with your regular sleep routine and bedtime.
Just like at home, it’s also important to avoid eating too close to bedtime. Roasting s’mores at night is a lot of fun, but not if it’s going to keep you up all night.
While camping, be sure to plan your days and evenings in anticipation of your normal bedtime. When setting up camp, be sure to give yourself plenty of time during the day to do so, so you’re not still pitching your tent when you should be resting.
If you’re working to reset your circadian clock, try to align your day’s schedule with the sun. Rise when it does, and get ready for bed as it sets. Adjust your nightly routine accordingly to make sure you’re ready for bed once it starts getting dark outside. It might take a little time to adjust, but the end result is definitely worth it!
4: Sleep in the Right Spot
On a similar note, make sure the spot you’ve chosen to rest at is ideal for quality sleep. If you’re napping outside, it can be as easy as finding a quiet, shady spot and setting up your hammock. If you’re on a camping trip though, you’ll want to keep a few things in mind.
- Make sure the chosen spot for your tent or sleeping area is level, dry, and clear of any rocks or objects that can interfere with sleep. Soft grass is a good spot as long as it’s not wet.
- Take any potential noises into consideration as well; would it disturb your rest if your partner or friend got up in the middle of the night to relieve themselves? Are there other campers nearby? Are you in a busy area with a lot of foot traffic?
- Are there restroom facilities nearby in case you need to use them during the night?
Getting restful sleep in the great outdoors may seem really different from sleeping inside, but it really isn’t. As long as you’re able to find a quiet, comfortable place and create an ideal sleep environment for yourself, you may find it easier than you originally thought.
Whether you are an avid fan of the outdoors or are still learning to enjoy it, it’s impossible to ignore the health benefits that being outside can provide. Even a few minutes’ time can make a big difference in your physical health, your mental health, and your sleep health.
Summer is a great time to get outside and enjoy all the wonders nature has to offer. So why not get outside and give outdoor sleep a try? You might be surprised at what a little extra fresh air and Vitamin D can do for your rest.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, FAASM
The Sleep Doctor