Often called “America’s Best Idea,” the National Park Service could also soon be known as America’s Healthiest Prescription. (Especially if you’re someone suffering from a sleep disorder.)
In fact, if you’re searching for insomnia cures, it may be time to to turn to your tent. A 2017 study suggests the health benefits of camping now include healthier sleep. So what’s the connection? Electronics are doing a real number on the natural sleep cycle. (And nature seems to reset it in a beneficial way.)
Modern life means less exposure to sunlight during the day and higher exposure to electronics and harsh lights at night. But instead of sleep meds with dangerous side effects, the solution is simple: camping.
Study Details: The Health Benefits of Camping
University of Colorado researcher Kenneth Wright, PhD, a professor of integrative physiology, found that today’s unnatural light exposure leads to late circadian, resulting in delayed sleep timing.
This isn’t the first time Wright investigated camping’s potential to remedy the side effects of artificial light. His 2013 study investigated the health effects of camping on sleep in Current Biology. Results of that study showed participants camping in Colorado for a week during the summer helped improve their biological clocks.
The campers experienced four times more light during the day. At night, headlamps and flashlights were banned. The result? The rush of sleep-inducing melatonin arrived two hours earlier, around the time of sunset.
In contrast, the more recent 2016 study published in Current Biology sent participants camping in winter for either a whole week or a weekend. Wright tracked both sleep patterns and circadian rhythms. To track the circadian rhythm, researchers tracked participants’ melatonin levels.
Wright noted that before participants left, their sleep patterns didn’t align with their natural internal clocks. He explained that while melatonin levels should rise right before we sleep and fall right after we wake up, “in the modern environment, those melatonin levels fall back down a couple of hours after we wake up. Our brains say we should be sleeping several hours after we wake up.”
The results of a week-long camping trip? After sleeping outside for a week, participants woke up two hours earlier. Participants’ melatonin levels no longer lagged, either. Levels rose as the sun went down and lowered as the sun came up. Even a weekend trip provided better hormone levels for healthy sleep. “Just a weekend camping shifted the clock 69 percent of what we saw in a week-long study,” Wright told the Denver Post. “We can rapidly adjust our clock by being exposed to the natural light/dark cycle and getting rid of electrical lights.”
Wright’s work is another study in a long list of research that proves how essential the sun, fresh air and nature are to our overall wellbeing and health.
Sleeping Tips for Campers
Wondering how you’re going to get a good night’s rest while sleeping on the ground in the cold? To stay comfortable while camping, it’s important to choose a comfortable camping spot and bring the proper gear to stay warm and dry. In order to do that:
Find a smooth, flat surface to set up your tent. There’s nothing worse than sleeping on a slant or dealing with a rock or stick poking you all night long. Also, look at the terrain and avoid pitching your tent where heavy rain might flow or pool.
Don’t wear too many layers. In an effort to stay warm, it’s easy to overdress. Wearing too many layers can actually inhibit your sleeping bag’s ability to trap in your body’s heat. Also, if you sweat during the day, be sure to change into dry clothes before crawling into your sleeping bag.
Put a blanket or pad underneath your sleeping bag. This will provide an extra layer of protection from the cold ground.
Other Health Benefits of Camping
If improved sleep isn’t enough to make you pack your bags and grab a tent, camping also benefits your health in other ways. For instance, being in nature is beneficial for your mood and mental health. University of Michigan researchers found that even just a few minutes in nature may reduce the symptoms of depression. (2) Likewise, researchers at Stanford University found that time outdoors helps reduce obsessive negative thinking, or rumination. (3)
According to a 2008 article published in Environmental Health Perspectives, 30 minutes in the sun provides nearly a day’s supply of vitamin D through skin absorption. Vitamin D contributes to bone health, helps manage blood sugar levels, may prevent diabetes, helps fight heart disease, enhances the immune system and improves concentration, learning, memory and more. Needless to say, vitamin D is essential to the human body, and by going out into nature, you can soak in more than enough vitamin D to reap the benefits.
Other Natural Ways to Improve Sleep
Taking a week-long camping trip — or even a weekend trip — isn’t feasible for everyone. Luckily, there are a number of other ways to naturally improve your sleep.
Avoid electronics in bed. Watching TV or working on your laptop in bed tricks your brain into thinking that your bed is a place of work and not a place of rest. Watch your nighttime shows in the living room and settle into bed with a relaxing book a half an hour or so before bedtime instead.
Adhere to a regular sleep schedule. This helps keep your circadian rhythm in check. You’ll find it becomes easier to fall asleep and wake up naturally.
Exercise in the morning. The rush of endorphins you feel after working out is great — until it’s the reason you can’t fall asleep at night. Working out in the morning helps balance hormone levels without sacrificing your sleep.
Expose yourself to the natural light cycle — or recreate it. If you have to stay inside for most of the day, sitting next to or being next to a window will help keep you on a natural cycle. You can also adjust your indoor lighting according to the time of day by using a light box early in the morning and dimming your lights as the sun goes down at night to mimic outdoor lighting. Try to dim your lights at least 30 minutes before going to sleep.
Avoid eating sugary sweets, simple carbs, juice or high-glycemic fruit. This is true especially right before bed. It can spike blood sugar, boost your energy and can make you wake up feeling hungry. Instead, try a small amount of protein with vegetables or complex carbohydrates; these foods can boost melatonin and help you fall asleep quicker.
Final Thoughts on the Health Benefits of Camping
- Sleeping outside with the natural light helped study participants wake up two hours earlier and synced their sleep cycles with their natural internal clocks. By camping over the weekend, about 69 percent of the healthy sleep hormone shift seen in full-week campers could still occur.
- Camping also benefits your health and happiness in other ways by reducing symptoms of depression, minimizing negative thinking and increasing levels of vitamin D in the body.
- If you can’t leave for a week or a weekend away, you can still naturally improve your sleep by sticking to a schedule, reducing electric use at night, recreating natural light patterns and more.