How to Get Great Sleep Outside
If you’ve ever dozed off in a hammock, you know the feeling: the sun on your skin, a cool gentle breeze lulling you to sleep and the sound of nearby birds slipping into your subconscious. It’s the feeling of summer, and total contentment.
It turns out a daytime nap in the open air isn’t just peaceful—it also has a whole host of health benefits. (A night sleeping under the stars—sans tent—could be even more advantageous, offering some of the best sleep of your life.)
Sleeping in the open air is nothing new. Whether by choice or necessity, humans have been slumbering outside since our the dawn of our species.
In fact, open-air sleeping has been used throughout history to help hasten recovery from illness.
Exposure to fresh air for tuberculosis patients gained momentum by the mid-1800s, with the likes of Florence Nightingale touting the importance of sunlight and fresh air for recovery from several sicknesses.
When the Spanish flu hit in 1918, there was a shortage of indoor hospital space. More open-air facilities started sprouting up across the country. Medical researchers at the time suggested that exposure to copious amounts of fresh air and sunlight help us thrive—and their counterparts today concur.
Beyond an immunity boost, sleeping outside has several other benefits. There are many modern sleep disturbances we encounter indoors, including poor air quality and noise pollution. Plus, science suggests that exposure to sunlight and nature can improve mood and help you align with the natural circadian rhythms of light and dark and day and night—which is important for sound sleep. This is why some people find that they sleep better when camping or spending time in the wild despite weather fluctuations and less comfortable sleep conditions—setting your body to nature’s clock can be extremely beneficial for sleep.
Here are some of the surprising reasons why napping outdoors or snoozing under the stars can enhance your sleep, plus how to do it comfortably and safely, no matter where you rest your head.
The Benefits of Sleeping Outside
When you’re sleeping outside, there’s good reason to ditch the tent and opt for open air.
Researchers from China found that from May to July—a prime season for camping—overnighting in a tent causes people to lose one to two hours of sleep due to ventilation, temperature and humidity issues.
Below, more research-backed reasons you may want to snooze—for a few minutes during the day or the entire night—outside.
Spending Time Outside Boosts Mood and Energy
In a 2021 study of more than 400,000 people, researchers linked time outdoors with a lower risk of depression, happier mood and less tiredness.
Another 2021 study—this one using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain—found that spending time outside not only boosted mood, but it was also correlated with more gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, where we make decisions.
Exposure to Natural Light During the Day Helps You Sleep Better at Night
The average human spends up to 90% of their time indoors. Exposure to indoor light tricks your body into thinking night starts later, resulting in the delayed release of melatonin—which means you'll likely fall asleep later, too.
But one weekend of natural light exposure (via an outdoor adventure) can help reset your body’s natural rhythms, encouraging you to fall asleep earlier, according to a University of Colorado study.
In fact, a 2019 study on the relationship between circadian rhythms, mood and sleep suggests that each additional hour of daytime sunlight exposure could help you sleep an additional 30 minutes.
Poor Indoor Air Quality Detracts From Sound Sleep
Sleeping in a room with stuffy air detracts from the quality of your sleep, according to a 2021 study of more than 500 sleepers. What makes indoor air feel stale? Carpeting in bedrooms was a major factor, the researchers found.
Particulate matter associated with air pollution can interfere with normal respiration, causing breath-related sleep disturbances, according to a 2020 research review on air pollution and sleep health.
Outdoor Sounds Improve Sleep
Other indoor features—like noise from appliances—can also negatively affect sleep.
In a 2018 study on sleep quality and ambient noise, researchers found that patients in hospitals slept better when they were listening to nature sounds or exposed to pure silence, versus the white noise of hospital machines and typical indoor environments.
If your regular sleep environment is noisy or busy, finding a quiet place outside to rest could be a game changer.
“Many people do not get a restful night of sleep at home and wake up to noise pollution and air pollution,” explains Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a New York City-based neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University. “The sounds of nature and outdoor silence have been proven to decrease cortisol levels, or stress hormones, in humans.”
How to Sleep Outside Comfortably
Sleeping in the open air doesn’t mean just plopping down a sleeping bag and turning in for the night. When facing open-air elements, you’ll want to keep in mind that some surfaces, locations and weather conditions are not ideal for sound sleep. Plus, the right gear can mean the difference between a night of tossing and turning and getting sweet sleep. Here, a few tips on how to prepare and what to look for.
Timing Is Everything
Beyond checking weather patterns and forecasts, here are a few seasonal strategies for getting the conditions you crave.
Beat the Bugs
Summer can be buggy, so you may want to bring mosquito netting. “A head net will keep any bugs that are flying around off of your face (the only part sticking out of a sleeping bag) and ensure a good night's rest,” says Thomas Coyne, owner and instructor at Coyne Survival Schools. “Way better than bug spray!”
And if you’re trying to avoid insects altogether, the best times to head into the great outdoors are spring and fall, says Michael Douglas, director of the Maine Primitive Skills School. “Spring, before the insects hatch, and fall, after first frost, are great times of year for open-air camping,” he says.
See the Brightest Stars
Year-round, the farther you are from urban light pollution, the more stars you’ll see.
But if your goal for getting outside is to see the best stars, then you'll want to plan for a campout during the colder months. “Cold air doesn't disturb the light as much as warm air, so on cold winter nights, stars seem to shine their very brightest,” says Coyne.
What to Look for in a Location
Not all outdoor areas are good for sleeping. Keep the following tips in mind as you scout for your spot.
Find the Flattest Spot
The most important thing to look for is a flat place to sleep, says Jeremy Cronon, an outfitting manager at the Rocky Mountain office of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS).
Even on the smallest of slopes, your sleeping bag and sleeping pad will continuously slip downhill, likely keeping you up all night. “There is nothing more frustrating than sliding down a hill in the middle of the night,” he says. “I’d rather be cold and flat than the appropriate temperature but waking up every 15 minutes because I’m slipping.”
Don’t Sleep Too Close to Water
Being close to a water source will bring more bugs and make it colder, says Cronon, who is also a field guide. Riverbeds can also serve as cold air sinks and are a source of cool moisture, Cronon explains. If you’re looking for a warmer spot, halfway up the bank may be better (or under a sturdy tree, whose microclimate may be a few degrees warmer).
Sleeping too close to water can also interfere with wildlife traffic patterns, he adds.
The Best Gear for Sleeping on the Ground
If you plan on sleeping outdoors overnight, there are a few items that will make or break the experience.
Sleeping Pad Considerations
The first item to consider, says Cronon, is a sleeping pad or air mattress, which will insulate and cushion you from the ground and help you level out your sleeping surface.
Sleeping pads can run from $30 closed-cell foam pads to $300 super lightweight inflatable camping mattresses.
Insulation is measured in R-value, and a typical foam pad has an R-value of 2.2, according to Cronon. Its durable material and ridging can help trap pockets of warm air and insulate you, but they won’t create as much protection from the cold ground as an inflatable pad. For example, the Therm-A-Rest NeoAir XTherm ($229 to $259) has an R-value of 6.9.
Cronon points out that the more expensive, inflatable pads generally pack down small—a bonus if minimizing bulky gear is important to you. Test out different shapes, sizes and thicknesses to see what is best for you. If you sleep on your side, you might want a thicker pad to protect hips and shoulders, he advises.
Whenever you use it, make sure you’re not at risk of popping it, he adds. Avoid sleeping on spiny plants and sharp rocks.
And consider bringing a small sleeping pad repair kit and a tarp or ground cloth to protect your pad and keep moisture away from your sleeping pad and bag. Plus, if it starts to rain—precipitation or even sap from a nearby tree—you can string up the tarp as a temporary shelter.
Sleeping Bag Considerations
The next thing you may want is a sleeping bag or sheet, depending on the temperature.
In summer, a lighter-weight sheet may do the trick such as the Beautyrest Cooling Cotton Sheet Set or Malouf Woven Rayon From Bamboo Sheet Set both of which helps manage moisture levels on those humid summer nights so you stay cool, comfortable and dry. While Cronon suggests that in winter, you’ll likely want an insulated sleeping bag.
For winter, he recommends a bag with an R-value of 6 to 10, depending on how hot or cool you sleep. For a standard three-season sleeping bag (for everything but extreme winter camping), you are generally looking at an R-value between 3 and 5.
Your bag and pad work in tandem, since your bag gets compressed under you as you sleep, leaving the pad as your primary bottom insulation.
It’s a good idea to try out different shaped and sized bags to find one that is comfortable and not too claustrophobic.
Banish Back Pain While Sleeping Outside
According to Gbolahan Okubadejo, MD, a New York City-area spinal and orthopedic surgeon, all it takes is more than one night of poor sleep posture to develop pain and further issues that may require a visit to the doctor. No matter the sleeping surface, being aware of your posture is key.
“Find a flat surface, don’t sleep on a slope [and] make sure the surface is clear of glass, roots, branches and rocks,” instructs Okubadejo.
Regardless of what sleeping position you find yourself in, Okubadejo encourages you to maintain as much alignment as you can—that means being mindful of the positioning of your shoulders, ears and hips whenever adjusting or settling into a position. Try keeping them all in line with each other, he says.
Side or back sleeping is ideal as long as your neck is in neutral alignment, adds Erica Tran, a physical therapist and the clinical director of Rocky Mountain Spine and Sport in Boulder, Colorado. “You don't want your neck to be in an extreme side-bending position to the left or right,” she says. “To support your neck, you can stuff your clothes in a bag to create a pillow.”
“Sleeping on the [ground] isn’t for everyone,” acknowledges Okubadejo. “The claims about floor-sleeping and back pain are conflicting. While some say it reduces pain, others say it has the opposite effect. After all, the hard surface makes it difficult for your spine to maintain its natural curve.” If you are an older adult, have medical conditions that make you prone to feeling cold, or have limited mobility, Okubadejo suggests avoiding sleeping on the ground altogether.
One way to avoid back pain is to try an air mattress. Just because you’re sleeping outdoors doesn’t mean you need to sacrifice your spines alignment for it. While not as ideal for backpackers, if you’re going away for a quick weekend getaway an air mattress is great way to get yourself off the ground but still reap the benefits of open-air sleeping. We recommend the Beautyrest Posture Lux 15" Air Mattress or Beautyrest Skyrise 18" Air Mattress.
Open-Air Sleeping Safety Guidelines
Here are some additional tips for staying safe and critter-free during open-air slumber.
Pack Emergency Essentials
Bring a flashlight, plenty of water, a small first aid kit and a toiletry kit. Additionally, “A headlamp and emergency tarp are important for reacting to unexpected weather and unexpected visitors,” says Michael Douglas, director of Maine Primitive Skills School. “A headlamp will alert others of your presence in a kind but effective manner.” And by others we mostly mean critters. That cute chipmunk or raccoon is, in many ways, more dangerous than an occasional bear in most cases. These smaller mammals can transmit diseases to us and our pets, such as parvo, hantavirus and rabies.
Bring Extra Water
Dehydration can really ruin a morning or the afterglow of napping outdoors. Douglas advises bringing two drinking bottles, especially for overnight excursions. “One should be a single-walled stainless steel wide-mouth bottle so you can boil water in it if you have to,” he says.
Keep a Clean Camp
Put your food away in sealed, airtight containers, and don’t leave beverages out. This will help protect you from wildlife (and wildlife from you), whether you’re in a national park or your own backyard.
“Wildlife that has patterned on humans as a source of food is just as dangerous as it is vulnerable,” explains Douglas. “Hanging your food in a tree or keeping it secure and at a distance from your sleeping area will help to keep them away.” Try to keep your campsite at least 300 feet from your kitchen, adds Cronon.
Avoid Wind and Dead Trees
Avoid making a sleeping spot beneath dead tree branches (i.e., look up before you bed down). And if it is windy, think about objects in range that could take flight—including natural items and your own gear. “Stuff is likely to blow away if it’s not in a tent,” says Cronon. “Be careful about storm-proofing your gear.”
Hammocks—What to Look for, How to Use Them
A hammock may make a great alternative to the ground if you’re napping for just a few hours. And who doesn’t love being cradled like a baby between two trees?
The research and reports on sleeping in a sling show mixed results when it comes to sleep quality and spinal health.
“The benefits of sleeping in a hammock have only been studied for napping, not a full night’s sleep,” notes Okubadejo, though “Fans of sleeping on a hammock report deeper sleep, shorter sleep onset, reduced insomnia and decreased back pain.”
No matter where you go, be open to the adventure of trying (“What we’re talking about here is called cowboy camping,” says Cronon), and when you do find the right gear, or position, or location, enjoy the fresh air, circadian reset and hit of nature. Your body and mind will thank you!