How Camping Helps You Sleep Better

Spending time in nature can work wonders for human health, from lowering blood pressure and stress hormones to sparking feelings of awe. Growing research suggests it may also improve sleep by resetting our internal clocks to a natural sleep cycle. A new study released in the journal Current Biology adds to that evidence by showing the sleep-promoting benefits of the great outdoors.

Kenneth Wright, a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder and author of the new study, embarked on his camping research back in 2013, when he sent people on a week-long summer camping trip to understand how their internal clocks changed without electronics and only natural light. Before and after the trip, he measured their levels of the hormone melatonin, which alerts the body when it’s time to prepare for bed and helps set a person’s internal clock. Wright found that people’s internal clocks were delayed by two hours in their modern environment—which isn’t a good thing, since an out-of-whack sleep cycle has been linked to health problems like sleepiness, mood problems and a higher risk of being overweight. But they were able to recalibrate after a week in nature.

Now, in the new study, Wright set out to better understand how long it takes for people to recalibrate their internal sleep cycles and whether it also works in winter.

In the first part of his study, Wright equipped five people with wearable devices that measured when they woke up, when they went to bed and how much light they were normally exposed to. Wright also measured their melatonin levels in a lab. After that, everyone went on a week-long camping trip—but this time, it was during the winter.

Wright found that people’s internal clocks were delayed during their normal schedules—this time by two hours and 36 minutes—compared to when they were exposed to only natural light on their camping trip. They also had higher melatonin levels, which signals that it’s a person’s biological night. “We don’t know what this means, but we do know some humans are sensitive to seasonal changes,” says Wright. “Some people get winter depression or may gain weight a bit more.”

In the second part of the study, Wright wanted to see what happened when some people went camping for just a weekend and others stayed home. Most who stayed home stayed up later than usual and slept in, and their internal clocks were pushed back even further. But on the two-day trip, campers’ internal clocks shifted earlier. “That says we can rapidly change the timing of our internal clock,” says Wright.

Fun as it may be, camping isn’t the only way to get similar results, Wright says: Exposing yourself to morning light, cutting down on electrical light from smartphones and screens in the evening and even dimming the lights at home can help.

As for Wright, he sets his internal clock by hiking in the morning, then waking up and going to sleep at the same time every day. It appears to be working: he doesn’t even need an alarm clock anymore.


Can’t sleep? Get out into nature and swap your smartphone for a tent

Sleep has become the Shangri-La of modern times. Amid deadlines, demands and distractions, getting eight hours is akin to finding a mythical paradise. But a good night’s sleep may not be as elusive as it seems. All you need to do is swap your smartphone for a tent.

A new study by US scientists has found that camping can help us sleep better and reset our body clock. A group of five people were sent into the mountains for six days with no gadgets, not even torches. The campers racked up nearly 10 hours sleep each night, almost three hours longer than they were used to getting at home.

This result does not surprise me because spending time outdoors saved me from insomnia. For a mind-churning six months a few years ago I lived in a waking dream – or rather a nightmare. I spent my days trying to stay awake after a woeful night of restlessness. As evening drew on I became obsessed with making everything perfect for sleep. I would stock up on herbal sleep aids before bed. Despite this, my mind refused to switch off and I would wake up groggy. When sleep didn’t come I became frustrated, tired and emotional.

Then something amazing happened. I went trekking in Slovakia’s High Tatra mountains, staying in small basic cabins every night. For the first time in months, sleep came to me like a warm, welcome hug. I had decided to make the trip because I hadn’t done anything like it since I was a teenager. I would spend the days walking and chatting, breaking only for food. When night came and we were thrust into pitch darkness my body relaxed and I was out for the count.

When I came back home I was desperate for the good sleep to continue, but after a week the insomnia returned. I decided to go for a walk after work each day in the park and spend my weekends being active outdoors. After a few weeks I noticed my sleep improving again. I went further still, shutting artificial lights out of my room and ditching my smartphone and laptop before bed.

Our bodies keep time using our internal clock, releasing the “sleep hormone” melatonin when it’s time to rest and cortisol when it’s time to wake. Traditionally, the sun has controlled our waking and sleeping system – as the sun rises melatonin production drops off and cortisol production goes up. But less natural light and more computer light confuses the body’s circadian rhythm (our biological clock) and messes up sleep.

It was next to impossible to get wifi in the mountains, so with no way of going online, I switched off. This meant no artificial lights (apart from my torch). Like the campers in the US study I didn’t use my gadgets.

But it’s not just getting more natural light that makes being outdoors beneficial. The biophilia hypothesis suggests humans have an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life. It’s believed that the deep affiliations we have with other life forms and nature as a whole are in our biology.

Other studies have shown that taking part in nature-based activities can reduce stress and anxiety. Last year research conducted by the University of Essex found that green care initiatives (such as care farming, or the therapeutic use of farming practices, environmental conservation and social and therapeutic horticulture) can help people with mental health problems. It has also been found that having a view of trees and nature from a hospital window can decrease recovery time from surgery.

I believe the therapeutic powers of nature come from the fact that being outdoors helps us feel connected to something greater than ourselves. We spend our lives obsessing over trivial problems but the natural world is indifferent to these daily struggles. The world keeps spinning whether I sleep or not.

So for those who struggle to sleep, my advice is simple – if not a little cheesy. Go outdoors and find your Shangri-La.