What Soldiers, Sailors & Mountaineers Can Teach Us About Sleep

photo of a man camping in extreme conditions of cold

Have you ever had to sleep in a difficult or unusual place? Was it outside in harsh weather conditions? Was it too hot, cold, uncomfortable or even unsafe?

A striking memory for me is of a sailing trip in unexpectedly stormy seas, 25 years ago as a young boy.

The noisy thumping of the boat over the huge waves, horrible seasickness, and the mix of anxiety and excitement made it impossible to sleep.

For me, this was a one-off experience. But there are many people who regularly have to sleep in difficult, sometimes extreme circumstances.

And it turns out that they might have a thing or two to teach us about sleep, even back in the safety of our own home.

The outdoor sleep experts

Think about soldiers and mountaineers, who often spend long periods of time sleeping outdoors. And the solo long-distance sailors, who need to be vigilant for lengthy sea voyages.

These people all have to develop specific techniques to ensure they sleep enough. And when they don’t, that they can still function well the next day.

photo of sleeping soldiers

Soldiers can bank sleep before active duty

It can be a real challenge for service men and women to get enough sleep on active duty. And it’s hard for anyone to perform at their best after days of sleep deprivation.

The Army recognizes the importance of sleep, along with good nutrition and exercise, in keeping their people healthy, in good physical shape and safe.

Developing a healthy sleep pattern is now an essential part of basic training, with new recruits’ sleep schedules closely monitored and enforced.

However, the military also knows that it’s not always possible for soldiers to get their regular 8 hours. With this in mind, US Army researchers have experimented with a technique called ‘sleep banking.’

Sleep banking involves pre-loading your body with extra sleep before a period of difficult days and nights. In theory, you’ll then perform better during the subsequent period of less sleep.

Does sleep banking work?

Studies have shown that sleep banking might improve soldiers’ resilience in the face of stressors.

2009 experiment described how a group of participants slept for 10 hours a night for a week. They then experienced a week of reduced sleep.

These ‘banked’ sleepers performed better than normal sleepers on a range of tests during the second week. They were also more alert and resilient.

Furthermore, they recovered from their week of sleep deprivation quicker than the participants who hadn’t banked any sleep.

Can you bank sleep?

Banking hours of sleep during calmer periods might also help you get through the times when you can’t get your regular 7 to 9 hours of sleep.

Knowing in advance that you’ve got a difficult week at work coming up could give you a few nights to prepare. You’ll then be better prepared to deal with your tiredness the following week.

One caveat is for people who suffer from sleep disorders like insomnia. If keeping a regular sleep schedule works best for you, sleep banking might throw your sleep pattern out of sync, which isn’t ideal.

Keeping a sense of perspective

Mountaineers can’t always finish a difficult and lengthy ascent in a single day. Sometimes they have to camp on the rock face using a portaledge, which is basically a tent suspended in mid-air.

photo of a rock climber in a portaledge

Imagine the challenge of sleeping like this! As the sun goes down, you’re plunged into darkness high off the ground. You’ve spent the day pulling yourself up a sheer cliff face, and now you’re exhausted.

You know you’re safely harnessed to the wall, but there will be moments you question if you might fall into the unseen depths below.

Sleeping in these conditions requires a clear head and a disciplined mind. And some of the techniques used by mountaineers to help them sleep can be applied to more normal sleeping conditions.

Much of what they deal with at night is psychological; how they recognize and manage their fears about their situation.

Mountaineers talk about keeping a sense of perspective at night. They reassure themselves that they can trust their equipment and that they’re safely attached to the wall.

If you know what you’re doing, you can reduce the danger you’re in.

Keeping your nighttime fears in check

Do you sometimes find that your worries, anxieties, and fears surface at night, just when you’re trying to go to sleep?

It’s a common cause of insomnia for many people. And one way of managing what’s sometimes referred to as ‘night dreads’ is to use the same approach as mountaineers.

Positive thinking

Just as mountaineers do, try to think about positive, realistic statements which can give you some perspective late at night.

Remind yourself that you know what you need to do the next day, and will be able to face the day much better in the morning.

Tell yourself that problems always seem worse at night. That you can cope with any issues, and in the morning you will be fine.

Essentially, don’t let yourself get caught up in an automatic thought train of worries. Tell yourself that everything is going to be okay.

It’s also a good idea to practice relaxation techniques to reduce excessive thinking at night. Simple breathing exercises can help shift your attention to your body, and away from your mind.

Coming to terms with your worries

No matter how prepared a mountaineer is, and how many times they’ve checked their equipment, the reality is that they’re sleeping in a dangerous place.

So to get through the night, the mountaineer needs to accept their situation. They’ve done all they can to keep themselves safe, and lying awake all night worrying isn’t going to help.

Worrying at night is natural, and the feelings themselves aren’t the problem. Often, what keeps you awake is how you attempt to control them. Accepting your anxious thoughts can give you better control over how you’re feeling.

Comfortable with the uncomfortable

Navy SEALs  go through something similar, and talk about “being comfortable being uncomfortable.”

This usually refers to the high-stress combat operations they are engaged in, but it can also apply to sleeping in difficult times.

Not fighting against nighttime worries doesn’t mean you’re giving up. Instead, you’re accepting that you’re experiencing a normal, passing emotional state.

By not trying to engage with the worries or anxious thoughts and just waiting for them to pass, you’ll be better able to cope with these negative nocturnal feelings.

Sleeping at sea

Solo sailors face a difficult choice: they need to sleep, but they also need to keep watch for danger.

Long-distance sailors describe waking up to find themselves in the path of incoming supertankers, oil rigs or other hazards. Some talk about making dangerous mistakes because they’re so sleep deprived.

Many sailors adopt a polyphasic sleep pattern. So rather than sleeping for 8 solid hours, they have lots of short periods of sleep during a 24 hour period.

Solo round the world sailor Dee Caffari recounts how she would sleep in 2 to 3 hours bursts, depending on how heavy the seas were. Even when the seas are calm, sleep is a challenge when you’re a long way from home.

Some of the techniques sailors use can help when you need to get some rest in an uncomfortable or unfamiliar place.

solo sailor

Focus on comfort

No matter where you sleep, there are always steps you can take to maximize your comfort. Investing in the highest quality bedding (or sleeping bag!) you can afford can make a big difference.

Wear comfortable night clothes. And use clean and dry clothes if you’re sleeping outdoors.

Temperature can also play a big role in your sleep quality. If you’re not comfortable, there are many practical ways to keep cool at night, and also to stay warm in bed.

No shortcuts

Sailors are advised to avoid prescription sleep medicines. Even though they might help you drop off, they can leave you feeling drowsy when you wake. This could be risky if you’re in a challenging situation and need your wits about you.

Perhaps you need to wake early and drive, or have a flight to catch and are worried about oversleeping.

In these situations, milder herbal remedies might be more suitable, helping you sleep without any lingering next day fuzziness.

Navy sailors

Solo sailors have very specific sleep issues due to being on their own. But what about naval people who spend months on huge ships or submarines, surrounded by other sailors, and a lot of noise?

I spoke to a former officer in the royal navy to get an insight into the sleep problems they face.

He told me that the nature of the job, especially watch-keeping, means that they are often mentally and physically exhausted. So their tiredness can actually help them get to sleep.

Coping with noise

On ships, there is always some background noise, but it’s possible to get used to it so that it doesn’t disturb your sleep. There’s no point in worrying about the various sounds as there’s nothing you can do about it.

Many people will wake up if the background noise changes, often without knowing why. A sort of sixth sense, which can be very useful during military operations. 

On a similar theme, it generally isn’t acceptable to wear earplugs. You might miss important announcements such as action stations or emergency situations.

During high-intensity operations, it can be tempting to keep going without enough sleep and get dangerously tired.

So sailors have to learn to recognize the signs of being too tired to function safely, and take steps to get enough rest.

Practice makes perfect

People sleeping in extreme situations sometimes just need to accept that they’ll need to work through days when they’ve not had enough sleep. One way that they can overcome their tiredness is through practice.

One of the benefits of soldiers’ repetitive training is that it allows them to perform well-drilled tasks automatically.

This training is particularly useful when soldiers are sleep deprived. Mastering skills means that muscle memory allows them to carry on performing their duties when tired.

This idea can also be helpful in everyday life. There are probably tasks in your work or daily life that you do so often that you can perform almost unconsciously.

If possible, focus on these tasks when you’ve slept badly. A bad night’s sleep can be a good excuse to get through some repetitive activities that you’ve been putting off.

Final thoughts

Even though most people will never sleep in a portaledge, war zone or boat on their own, we can learn valuable lessons from those that do:

  • It’s important to develop a stable, regular sleep pattern when possible.
  • If you have a difficult few days coming up, try experimenting with getting more sleep in the days leading up to it. It may or may not work for you, but it could be worth trying once.
  • It’s not the end of the world if you don’t sleep well. When you’re tired, focus on the simple tasks you can do with ease.
  • If you can’t sleep because of anxiety, accept that it’s normal to worry, but don’t allow thoughts to overrun you. Repeat positive affirmations, or do relaxation exercises.
  • Take control of your sleep environment – think about comfortable bedding, noise levels, temperature, light, and humidity.

Your experience

What’s the most difficult situation or condition you’ve had to sleep in? How did you cope, and would you do anything differently next time? Leave a comment below!

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