How to Sleep in Extreme Places

Even on the high cliffs of Yosemite or in the caves of Malaysia, adventurers must learn to turn off their brains and catch some Z's.

Published 31 Jul 2018, 13:00 BST

Humans need sleep. Our bodies don’t care how busy or worried or uncomfortable we are: Eventually, we must succumb. But how can anyone rest while perched on a ledge thousands of feet off the ground or wedged into the prow of a heaving boat?

Amazingly, these explorers, photographers, and adventurers find a way.

European philosophers used to think of sleep as a liminal state, a moment in which a person’s otherwise active sensory system was in suspension. Sleep was a time to restore a person’s finite “sensorial powers” and recharge them for further exploration of the waking world.

However, modern sleep science tells us that the story is more complex, and that it’s not a passive activity. Once we slip into slumber, our brains behave like janitors, cataloguing the experiences of the day and tidying up after them.

To reach this clean-up stage, the brain has to override its own protective fight-or-flight impulses, but it turns out our brains are not particularly adept at differentiating between “threat” and “excitement.” The thrill of an upcoming hike or a busy day fishing pinballs through the brain as destructively as stress about an upcoming exam.

“It’s the nature of the human brain,” says June Pilcher, a researcher at Clemson University. “The activity in our brain equals thoughts. Thoughts are good, but they can have side effects—like keeping us awake at night. And we can’t just turn off the brain, we just can’t. So the question is, how do we get it to relax a little?”

Counting Crabs

National Geographic photographer and active fisherman Corey Arnold knows the curse of the busy mind all too well. During the height of the commercial fishing season, sleep gets sidelined: When the choice is to sleep or to make thousands of dollars, he chooses to stay awake and work. And even when he carves out an hour or two for a nap, his brain is racing too fast to relax.

“After all the adrenaline of a long day, a big stormy day, your brain is vibrating,” he says. If he can get to sleep, his dreams are filled with waves crashing over boats. Sometimes, sleep just replays a dream-state reel of his waking experiences. When he fished for crabs, he spent the day counting each crab he pulled out of the pots and thre down into the hold.

“When you lay down and closed your eyes, you just start counting crab again. It’s really just … it’s insane.”

Arnold also intimately knows the deep sleep of the truly depleted. Last year, after a 30-hour bender of a fishing expedition, he and some friends stumbled back ashore.

“We were completely off our rockers,” he says. “We were in a dream state, just slap happy, slurring our words.” Right off the dock, in the middle of the abandoned cannery they were camped in, they laid down in the sun and passed out.

This kind of deep exhaustion leads to strange, nearly hallucinogenic sensations, says Jaime Devine, a sleep researcher at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Arlington, Virginia. Sometimes, soldiers are so tired that they think they’re sleeping while they’re still walking. That’s a level of fatigue most civilians don’t experience, she says.

Best Sleep of Your Life

But for other explorers in the field, sleeping on a mountaintop or deep in a cave is not extreme—it’s ideal.

“I’ve probably had the best night’s sleep in my 38 years in a cave,” says Robbie Shone, a photographer and explorer who delves deep into underground cave systems around the world. In Malaysia, he and his colleagues set up camp in a spot they called Hotel California, a wide limestone-walled room where the floor was covered with fine, soft sand.

“Not sand like you’d get on a beach,” Shone explains, “but really loose, but a bit compressed—so it had cushion to it, like a carpet.” The ground there is so perfectly textured that he didn’t even need a sleeping pad.

At the end of their days of exploring, they would tramp back to the cave, hang their headlamps from the smooth walls, turn on some music, and brew some tea.

Routine and calming actions like these, says Devine, are key to getting to sleep no matter your location.

“It’s so hard to stop ruminating,” she says, and chewing the brain cud right before sleep can deeply influence how well people rest. The pre-bed goal is always for people “to stop thinking about things that stress them out,” she says,

“But the problem is, that's much easier said than done.”

This story was originally published on in English

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