As first light filtered through the tent fabric, I wriggled out of my sleeping bag and into the fresh morning air, putting some water on to boil. Meanwhile, my partner lay in the tent, his alarm clock combining with the gentle hiss of the gas stove to make up the dawn chorus.
We were driving to Broome from Darwin and camping along the way. And within a day or two, we had settled into a go-to-bed-at-at-sunset, up-at-sunrise routine.
This surprised me. I mean, camping for me goes hand in hand with multi-day walks. I assumed that the exhaustion produced by lugging a 20 kilogram pack around for a day is what pushes you to bed after dinner. But on this driving and camping trip, aside from day walks here and there, we weren’t doing a whole lot.
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And the weirdest bit was this: at home, my partner would leap out of bed while I burrowed under the doona, finger on the snooze button. But while camping, I was first out of the tent. Within a few days of camping, I’d switched from being a night owl to being up with the sparrows.
When you look at the human biology behind this, it’s not a complete surprise. A couple of recent studies have shown just how potent camping, and getting away from artificial light, can be at getting us back into this “natural” sleep and waking cycle.
Let’s start with the basics. An internal circadian clock determines when you feel like going to bed and when you wake up. A hormone called melatonin plays a leading role in this. A few hours before it’s time to hit the hay, melatonin levels start to rise. As you sleep, those levels stay high – this is known as your “biological night” – only to drop again when it’s time to wake up.
Thing is, our biological night generally doesn’t line up with the sleep/wake cycle set by everyday life. I don’t go to bed at sunset during the week. And when my alarm goes off, my melatonin levels are probably still high – causing that all-too-familiar grouchiness and grogginess.
Not getting sleep has been linked to conditions like diabetes and heart disease. In good news, though, researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder, at the edge of the Rocky Mountains, found just a couple days’ camping can align our biological night with the natural night.
In a 2013 study published in Current Biology, the team monitored eight people for two weeks, which involved one week of normal life followed by a six-day trip in the mountains.
During their time in the outdoors, their only light source after sunset was a fire – no phone or head torches allowed.
Each person wore a special watch that monitored a bunch of things, including the amount of light they were exposed to and how much sleep they got each night.
When they got back from their trip, they also had their melatonin levels measured through spit samples over a day.
On their camping trip, the participants’ average light exposure was four times higher than the week of ordinary life, with a longer chunk of natural light at the start of every day.
After that period of camping, their melatonin levels peaked and dropped about two hours earlier, closer to sunset and sunrise. This meant that their melatonin levels were low when they got out of bed, so they found it easier to wake up.
But what resonated most with me was that the people who identified as night owls had the most significant shifts during the camping week.
Now, a week of camping isn’t something most of us can easily do very often, so the same team of researchers wanted to find out if those clock-resetting powers could happen in a shorter period – say, a weekend.
And in a 2017 paper, also in Current Biology, they reported that a couple days’ camping was enough to shift a person’s biological clock to something closer to the natural day/night cycle.
They even sent a group into the Rockies in winter to see if a longer night could, in turn, extend a camper’s biological night. This hardy group spent a week in the wilderness over the winter solstice with, again, no light but a fire after the sun went down. They went to bed earlier and slept longer. When they returned, their melatonin levels started rising, signalling bedtime, more than two and a half hours earlier than usual.
Right. What does this mean for you and me? Well, resetting our internal clock is all well and good, but maintaining that new sleep schedule when we get back into the routine of everyday life is the hard part. It’s not feasible to live in a tent. So the researchers advised that, when you get back home after camping with a newly reset circadian clock, try to get up early and go for a walk before work. This will give you a decent amount of natural light early in your day – something that the campers in those studies got, even the winter solstice crew.
Sure, those studies are very small, and there’s no guarantee your sleep cycle will adjust too. But if you are keen to nick off for a weekend of camping anyway, what better excuse?