I’m convinced there are two types of sleepers in the world. Those who can wake up with one alarm and no snooze button, and those who need multiple alarms to wake up, and still struggle. I have always firmly fallen into the latter category. Recently I had the opportunity to spend some time camping in Wyoming near Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park. That first night I set several alarms for myself as I do every night. Much to my surprise, I awoke in the morning with the sunrise, and much earlier than my first alarm was set for. Who was this person who cheerfully rolled out of bed (or in this case a tent and sleeping bag) and just woke up with no alarm? My initial thought was that it was just the excitement of the trip and wanting to get that day’s adventures started. But the next day and the next, I woke up without my alarm. Why was this? Initially, I didn’t think much of it after that long weekend away, until a few days after I returned home from my trip when an InDependent teammate sent me an article about circadian resets and the benefits of sleeping outside. This is exactly what I had just experienced but couldn’t yet put into words!
WHAT IS A CIRCADIAN RESET?
As it turns out, this weekend away in the Tetons turned into a circadian reset of sorts for me. According to Dr. Alicia Roth Ph.D., a circadian reset is an attempt to change the body’s natural sleep/wake cycle. Changing this sleep/wake cycle without changing other external factors can be a challenge for many, as each person’s internal clock is individualized. Factors such as light and temperature can influence your circadian rhythm, so it makes sense that camping or otherwise sleeping outside would make attempting a circadian reset a bit easier. By sleeping outside you are willfully subjecting yourself to the elements. With no power other than battery-operated flashlights or headlamps and no thermostat to control the temperature, your body naturally falls into a rhythm with the sun and with nature. These external factors can have a huge impact on your internal time clock.
BUT WHAT IF IT’S COLD
The colder the better…kind of. Research indicates that you sleep better in colder temperatures, and new research out of the University of Colorado Boulder showed that camping for a week in winter (yes, winter) affected melatonin levels enough that campers were going to bed approximately two hours earlier than they normally would and rising two hours earlier than normal. This is because colder temperatures naturally help your body slip into rest mode. Now, if you’re not a fan of the cold, you could do what I did on my trip and pack a spare woobie (a.k.a. a poncho liner). If you’re a military spouse, there’s bound to be an extra one floating around your house somewhere! I highly suggest getting in your sleeping bag and then wrapping the woobie around your feet and legs for additional coziness.
SLEEPING OUTSIDE CAN IMPROVE YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM
Sleeping outside not only improves your mental health but your physical health as well. By spending time outside and exposing yourself to nature, you expose your immune system to helpful microorganisms. These microorganisms aren’t dangerous, think of them as good practice for your immune system. When harmful microorganisms come around, your immune system will be better equipped to fight them off. Studies have shown that spending just one day in a park can improve immune response for approximately a week. Imagine how you will feel after a week, or even just a weekend outside!
BENEFITS TO YOUR MENTAL HEALTH
Spending more time outside implies you are spending less time on a screen and in artificial light, and more time enjoying natural light. I think most people can agree that spending less time on a screen has numerous mental health benefits. In addition to less screen time, another mental health benefit is simply the time spent enjoying the fresh air. Fresh outside air has been shown to have more oxygen and less pollution than inside air. Oxygen helps your brain to function at its best, and as a bonus, this extra oxygen may help boost serotonin levels.
EASY WAYS TO SLEEP OUTSIDE IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHERE TO START
If you’re not quite convinced sleeping outside is for you, there are several easy ways to try it out before you commit to a big backcountry excursion. You could set up a hammock in your backyard, or on your deck or porch. Close to the comforts of home if you change your mind in the middle of the night! You could also set up a tent in your yard for a fun micro-adventure with your family if you don’t have time to commit to a weekend away. If you’re ready to dedicate more time and effort to sleeping outside, there are numerous local, state, and national parks that offer great camping in some beautiful locations. Car camping is one of the easiest ways to transport and set up your weekend lodgings, plus you have the comfort of being able to charge and use more items than backcountry camping. If you’re ready to step it up, backcountry camping is incredibly rewarding. No matter where you end up camping, make sure you learn and follow Leave No Trace principles. I can speak from experience when I say New York, Peru, Colorado, Tennessee, Georgia, and Wyoming have some great camping spots. And while I haven’t camped everywhere yet, it’s on my list!
Here are a few more resources you can check out:
Kalie Moore-Zeigler, MS, CHES, ACSM-CPT is a Health Educator, Adjunct Professor, Army spouse, and the Wellness Lounge Coordinator for InDependent. When she’s not working or volunteering with InDependent she can be found outside adventuring, hiking, camping, gardening, or walking her dog, Chip. Army life has brought her and her husband to some beautiful locations with plentiful outdoor pursuits, and she is currently enjoying life in Georgia and the outdoor opportunities that can be found in the Peach State.