Having Trouble Sleeping? Try Winter Camping

Heading to the great outdoors in winter can help reset your body clock, but leave your flashlight at home. trek6500/Shutterstock

You know how hard it can be to roll out of bed some mornings. Maybe you struggled to fall asleep, tossed and turned when you finally did, or awakened several times to check your phone.

Researchers have a suggestion: Go camping.

In a study published in the journal Current Biology, researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder found that spending as little as a weekend in natural light all day and true darkness at night can impact the circadian rhythm that affects sleep. Making that a week-long winter camping trip can have an even more intense effect.

"Living in our modern environments can significantly delay our circadian timing and late circadian timing is associated with many health consequences," Kenneth Wright, sleep researcher and author of the study, said in a statement. "But as little as a weekend camping trip can reset it."

The impact of natural light and darkness

tent in summer field with flowers
Camping in summer exposed volunteers to four times more natural light than usual. Sergey Novikov/Shutterstock

In an earlier study, Wright and his team sent volunteers camping for an entire week in summer. Because they were outside, they were exposed to four times more natural light than usual than their typical day. At night, they were not allowed to use flashlights, headlamps or any other type of artificial light. When they returned, their levels of melatonin — the hormone that regulates when we sleep and wake up — shifted nearly two hours earlier, near sunset.

For this new study, the researchers wanted to find out what impact other factors — less time outdoors and the seasons — would have on melatonin.

In one follow-up, nine volunteers went camping for a weekend in summer in the Colorado mountains while five stayed home. After just two days, the melatonin levels in the campers had shifted 1.4 hours earlier. The volunteers at home did what so many people do — stayed up later and slept in later than usual on the weekend — which contributes to "social jet lag" that makes so many people groggy on Monday mornings because of the biological clock shift on the weekend.

Then the researchers sent five volunteers camping for a week in winter. Although they were exposed to fewer hours of light than if they had gone camping in summer, they were exposed to 13 times as much light during the day than if they had spent their typical workday mostly indoors. They went to bed earlier and slept longer and their melatonin levels started to rise 2.6 hours earlier than before the trip.

You don't have to buy a tent

woman walking with her dog in the park
Taking a walk in the morning can help add some natural light to your day. Africa Studio/Shutterstock

But don't worry if a tent in the snow isn't your idea of fun. Camping in the cold isn't necessarily the solution to your sleep woes.

"We're not saying camping is the answer here, but we can introduce more natural light to modern life," Wright told the BBC. Homes, schools and offices could be designed to let in more natural light, for example. And we could shift to light bulbs that are brighter during the day and darker at night.

Because body clocks would just shift to their old rhythms, new habits would help too. He suggests taking a walk before work and using screens less often in the evening.