What Soldiers, Sailors & Mountaineers Can Teach Us About Sleep

photo of a man camping in extreme conditions of cold

Think back to a time you had to sleep in a difficult or unusual place. Was it outside in harsh weather conditions? Were you travelling? Was it too noisy, hot, cold or uncomfortable? Were you alone, and did you feel safe?

A striking memory for me is of a sailing trip across the English channel in unexpectedly stormy seas, 25 years ago as a young boy. The thumping of the boat over the huge waves, the cacophony of sounds, sea sickness and the heady mix of anxiety and excitement made it literally 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.

The outdoor sleep experts

Think about soldiers and mountaineers, who often spend long periods of time sleeping outdoors. And the hardy long distance sailors, who need to be alert and vigilant for lengthy sea voyages – sometimes on their own. I’ve often wondered how they get any sleep at all in these challenging conditions.

It turns out that people in the military, mountaineers and solo sailors all have specific techniques to ensure they sleep enough; and when they don’t, that they can still function well the next day.

And in fact, there are some useful points we can learn from the experiences of these extraordinary people, both when sleeping in challenging conditions ourselves, and in the comfort of our own homes.

photo of sleeping soldiers

Soldiers can ‘bank’ sleep before active duty

When people talk about sleep and the military, it’s usually in a negative context. You may hear about how difficult it is for service men and women to get enough sleep, and how hard it is to perform their duties after days of sleep deprivation.

The Army recognizes the importance of sleep, along with good nutrition and exercise, in keeping service men and women healthy, in good physical shape and ultimately safe.

Developing a healthy, stable sleep pattern is now an essential part of basic training, with new recruits’ sleep schedules closely monitored and enforced. Just as in childhood, the command ‘lights out’ literally means lights out.

While commanders realize that sleep is important, they also know that there are times when it’s just not possible for soldiers to get their regular 8 hours a night. With this in mind, US Army researchers have experimented with a technique called ‘sleep banking.’

Sleep banking involves pre-loading your body with extra hours of sleep before a period when you expect to have long, 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. A recent paper described how a group of participants slept for 10 hours a night for a week. They then experienced a week of reduced sleep.

‘Banked’ sleepers performed better than normal sleepers on a range of tests during that week, and 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.

What does this mean for you? Banking hours of sleep during calmer periods of your life might help you get through the times when, for whatever reason, 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 can use the time to get as much sleep as possible when things are quiet. 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 you find that keeping a regular sleep schedule is better for you on the whole, you might find it more beneficial to ensure you at least get your regular sleep instead of messing up your sleep patterns with sleep banking.

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 screwed into the side of the rock wall.

photo of a rock climber in a portaledge

Imagine the challenges 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, little by little, and now you’re exhausted.

Perhaps you doze off, only to jerk awake to find your feet dangling off the edge of the portaledge. You know you’re safely harnesses to the wall, but, for a moment, you feel like 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 fall asleep 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 (and they don’t mean their view from the side of the mountain!).

Even though their situation looks dangerous, they can reassure themselves that their equipment is working, 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 night time 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 remind themselves that their equipment will keep them safe, you can think about positive, realistic statements which can help you gain 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. Remind yourself that problems always seem worse at night, and that in reality, you can cope with them 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 can also be helpful to try mindfulness techniques to help you manage excessive thinking at night. These simple exercises help shift your attention to your breathing or body, which then helps stop you worrying too much about things.

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 (or trying to sleep) in a dangerous place.

There’s no way to make themselves completely safe, so to get through the night, the mountaineer needs to accept their situation. They’ve done all they can to keep themselves safe, so sitting up all night worrying isn’t going to help.

Worrying at night is natural, and the feelings themselves aren’t the problem. What’s keeping you awake is how you attempt to control and suppress them. Accepting your worries or anxious thoughts gives you control over how you’re feeling.

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 very difficult places.

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 super tankers, oil rigs or other hazards. Some talk about making dangerous mistakes because they’re so sleep deprived from trying to stay up.

Many sailors adopt a polyphasic sleep pattern – 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 2-3 hour bursts, depending on how calm or heavy the seas were. Even when the seas are calm, sleep is a challenge because the boat can be uncomfortable, noisy, cramped and too hot or cold.

Some of the techniques sailors use to help them sleep can help when you need to get some rest in an uncomfortable place, such as on a plane, train or hotel room.

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, or at the very least, clean and dry clothes if you’re sleeping outdoors.

Temperature can also play a big role in your sleep quality. Sailors might use a portable fan or heater, and if you’re at home, investing in heated bedding or bed fans and cooling bedding can help.

Reduce noise

Sailing is a noisy business. The water rushing and splashing against the hull, the boat banging off waves, unknown parts creaking, ropes and sails whipping in the wind all add up to an uncomfortable sleeping environment.

If you know you’ll be sleeping in a noisy environment, you might not have to put up with it though. It can help to mask noise with relaxing music, or perhaps try different earplugs until you find a set that best fits your ear canals and are comfortable to use at night.

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, if you need something to help you sleep, 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 tired if not exhausted. So their tiredness can actually help them get to sleep.

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.

Also, many people will find themselves waking up suddenly 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 wouldn’t be acceptable to wear earplugs whilst sleeping, otherwise 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 a part of training is to being able to recognize the signs of being just too tired to function safely, and ensure you get enough rest.

Practice makes perfect

People sleeping in these kind of 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’ repetetive training is that it allows them to perform well-drilled tasks seamlessly and automatically. This training is particularly useful when soldiers are sleep deprived. Mastering skills means that muscle memory kicks in, allowing them to carry on performing their duties, no matter how tired they feel.

This idea can also be helpful in everyday life: while you might not have had the same level of training that soldiers undergo, 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 all learn valuable lessons from those that do.

I think there are a few key points to take away from the techniques people use to sleep in extreme environments, and that might help you sleep a little better at home, or when in unusual circumstances yourself:

  • 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 – try to do tasks you know well enough to do with ease even when tired.
  • If you can’t sleep because of anxiety, accept that it’s normal to worry, but try not to allow them to overrun you. Repeat positive affirmations, or do relaxation exercises.
  • Think about things you can control – comfortable bedding, noise levels, temperature, light and humidity.

Your experiences

What’s the most difficult situation, or challenging conditions, 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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