Why do I sleep better when camping?

Sleeping under canvas

Sleeping under canvas

by Wendy Sadler

I’m three nights back from a camping trip near the sea. My comfy bed, a warm quilt, no risk of being rained on – you’d think I’d be luxuriating in some good sleep…

But no. I have slept terribly since coming home. Why would this be? Lot’s of people refer to the ‘fresh air’ making you sleepy. But is there more to it than that? What can we learn about camping that can help me get a better nights sleep – even when I can’t be under canvas?


Does fresh air, or sea air, whilst camping make you tired?

First, let’s see what we know about ‘fresh’ air or sea air and the effect it has on your body.

Sea air is considered to be good for you. This is because the air by the sea contains tiny droplets of sea water with salt, magnesium and iodine. These are known as ‘surf generated aerosols‘ and are believed by some to help with respiratory problems, especially for sufferers of Cystic Fibrosis.

There is a myth that you get ‘extra’ oxygen by the sea, or that the sea generates ozone, which is good for you. This is not true. The smell of the sea comes from a substance called dimethyl sulphide (or DMS for short) which actually comes from algae and can play a part in forming clouds – but there is no evidence that breathing it in is good for you.

Depending on the location of the beach, being by the coast often means that airborne pollution is blown away and the air could be cleaner. Aside from that, there is little evidence to suggest anything different about sea air to any other air.

Does being outside make you tired?

Only a very strange camper would go camping and spend all day in the tent. Unless the weather is really terrible you usually spend most of the daylight hours outside. You’ve probably heard that we’re all in the middle of a bit of a sleep crisis lately because of our addiction to screens. The theory is that the type of light they emit confuses your natural body clock. If you put people in a completely dark environment their natural body clock mostly matches the 24 hour period of the earth’s rotation.

The trigger for when we go to sleep is down to a hormone called melatonin, which kicks in between 8-9 pm. Before the invention of the light bulb this is when most people would start to think about going to sleep. Since the light bulb, and more recently due to the huge rise in our use of electronic screens, we are flooding our bodies with non-natural light, and stopping the melatonin which tells our body go to sleep.

To feel refreshed it’s most important that your natural sleep pattern (known as your circadian rhythm) matches what you see around you. We’re hardwired to match our day to the natural light levels around us, so we sleep when it’s dark and awake with the sunrise.

Recent research on campers found that even a short period of camping (2 days away) can reset your body clock to match what is natural to your body. Campers tended to get to bed on average 2 hours earlier than when surrounded by screens and gadgets and wake up earlier, after a better quality of sleep. This was shown to be down to higher level of melatonin levels which are triggered by being outside in brighter levels of light for a longer time. There was probably an element of ‘having nothing else to do’ playing a part in this result too!

Is it the sound of rain when camping that sends you to sleep?

CC-BY-George Hodan

On the first night of our camping trip we got woken up by a huge thunderstorm on Friday night. This was not a relaxing sound, but on the other nights we had light rain which creates a very soothing noise.

Natural noises, like waves on the shore, or wind in the trees are seen by the brain as non-threatening so we blank them out easily. In fact, better than that, the noises actually help mask other sounds which our brain might tune into and worry about, so they help us switch off. There is a special kind of sound called ‘white noise’ which is a mix of all different frequencies (or notes) and it has been shown to be very effective at masking other sounds.


Top tips from camping that will improve your sleep

There are a number of things helping you sleep better when camping. Here’s how you can use the knowledge to help, even when in your own bed.

  1. Get as much natural light as you can during the day – even if it’s cloudy
  2. Don’t fool your brain with artificial light after it gets dark – keep your lights low or off entirely
  3. Don’t look at screens for at least an hour before bed, they’re stopping your sleep hormone from kicking in
  4. Play white noise, rain sounds or wave sounds in the background to mask other distracting sounds


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Posted in Biology, Exploring Science, Physics
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