The benefit of a good nights sleepoutdoors 

Pat Milston • 10/08/21
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And some top tips on how to make it even better

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Over the past few years, it has become a bit of a tradition in our house that we choose one or more nights to sleep outside – no tent, simply us and our bedding. Some of our friends completely understand and in fact I’d go so far as to say they are quite envious; others are absolutely horrified at the thought of being away from their familiar and comfortable (indoor) beds and facilities.

Why do we enjoy it so much? The answers are many, but it’s worth listing a few.

Firstly, it’s a chance to do something different: an old friend once told me that ‘everyday life is no life at all’, which obviously extends to nights too. The fun in seeking out a new patch in the fields or the woods – we usually do this some weeks or days in advance – makes the whole process one of exploration and this adds to the sense of doing something out of the ordinary.

Secondly, it’s the chance to reconnect with nature, and the choice of location for the overnight ‘bivvy’* will dictate what you hear and see through the evening, night and into the next morning. Do you want to be immersed in the sights and sounds of the woods? Would you prefer the open skies that gives you a full view of the stars as they move their position – and possibly the skimming lights of a meteor shower? Or perhaps the aim is to look down from a lofty perch in the mountains on a cloud-filled valley and watch the sun rise? All are incredible experiences and mean that you can be connected to your world in a wholly different way.

Thirdly, the escape to the outdoors takes you away from the always available, device-driven world of electronics and connectivity. Just a few hours being stimulated by natural shapes, light and sounds has a proven beneficial effect on wellbeing which is one of the reasons wild camping and nights out under the stars has become so important to so many over the past 18 months. Even the simple process of falling asleep as it darkens (assuming you don’t take torches or have a fire) and walking as it becomes light puts you back into a natural balance with nature. This may be a short-lived experience at the time but will nevertheless give a longer lasting benefit.

Having chosen your spot, which should be as discreet as possible, whether in the woods or up a mountain, you then need to consider what you take to make sure you actually get a good night’s sleep.

*A bivvy bag (also known as a bivouac, bivi or bivvy) allows you to go camping without a tent. It’s basically a thin, lightweight, waterproof sack that slides over your sleeping bag. It can also significantly improve the warmth of your sleeping bag.

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So my top tips for making your experience as pleasurable as possible are:

  1. Concentrate on the basics
    A sleeping bag, sleeping mat and, if you want to be sure of staying dry, consider a breathable bivvy bag. In choosing these items think about the type of ground you’ll be sleeping on: the forest floor can be made up of many sharp objects, so an inflatable mat might now be the best choice – a closed foam mat may be preferable. Being under the tree canopy gives some protection from rain, but it also helps to avoid a build-up of dew, which can sometimes catch people out when they sleep in an open field. Either way, a bivvy bag is a great investment if you plan to make sleeping out a regular occurrence. The final essential is a pillow, although I usually just take on old pillowcase and stuff a couple of extra bits of clothing into it for the padding. If you do want some shelter from the elements try taking a tarp, but make sure you know different ways to rig this prior to hitting the great outdoors.
  1. Groundwork
    Spend time working out which is the most level area of your site. Time spent on this is never wasted and you can help yourself to get a better night by having your head just slightly above your feet and not laying across a slope – obvious stuff, but an easy thing to get wrong and you’ll end up shifting things around in the middle of the night if you’re not careful.
  1. Water
    While it’s entirely up to you whether you take food and cook yourself an evening meal and/or breakfast (and why not??), water is often overlooked. Make sure you’ve got enough to last you through the evening and for the morning – trust me, you never can drink enough water. Going back to food, you do sleep better if you’ve got some food inside you. It can get a tad chilly if you’re not prepared and those calories before bedtime will help to keep you at the right temperature.
  1. Answering the call of nature
    Finally, the thing that everyone thinks about but often goes unsaid; what to do about ‘the poo situation’. There are many books and articles on the subject (yes, really), but my best advice would be to go before you head to the woods or elsewhere. However, if you carry a small trowel then you are ready for anything. Poo is best buried reasonably shallow, where it can break down faster…you can bury paper with it, although many people think that the paper should be burned or even carried home in a sealed plastic bag. Whatever you do, please think of others that may spot your special sleeping spot and therefore be considerate, especially with respect to avoiding the pollution of any water course!

As with most things, experience breeds confidence. While it can seem quite daunting to set out on a first great sleeping outside adventure, why not start gently and close to home. Even a night in the garden can bring its own rewards. We recently decided on the spur of the moment to sleep out in the garden – and witnessed the most amazing star-lit night sky! Until it got to around 4am when we realised that we’d picked a night that was so clear that a heavy dew had formed…and we retreated indoors. Sometimes plans don’t work perfectly but that hasn’t put us off and we’ll be back to the woods very shortly for another micro-adventure to relish the sights and sounds of the woods at dusk. It really doesn’t get any better than that.

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Pat Milston
Managing Director, Active Learning Centres
Active Learning Group
@milston on Twitter