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image of author phoebe smith on the side of a cliff

My Extreme Sleep Story: On the Side of a Cliff

A thunderstorm is not usually anything to worry about when you’re lying snuggled up in bed. The sound of the rumbling skies overhead and pouring rain can be quite soothing and conducive to a good night’s sleep. That is unless, like me, you’re up in the mountains, lying on a platform suspended 18 stories (nearly 200 feet) in the air, and the only thing keeping you from falling down a yawning drop is a harness covered in metal carabiners.

I was in Colorado, cliff camping, way above the ponderosa pines where elk and bears wander. It was the latest in my ongoing mission to sleep in some of the strangest places in the world. As an extreme sleep adventurer, I hope to one day find the ultimate place to spend the night.

Sadly, the rock face on the border of Rocky Mountain National Park was not to be it. As the lighting began to flash more regularly and the storm moved in closer, I had to make the decision to bail on my cliffside campsite and retreat for the shelter of the forest instead. But that’s the name of the game when you are committed to making your nights as adventurous as your days.

Putting yourself in precarious positions in which to sleep may sound like an odd activity to do for fun, but it’s something I have been addicted to since I first tried wild camping—that is, sleeping away from a traditional campsite—more than 12 years ago. Back then I was persuaded to spend the night in the Australian Outback, sleeping in what’s called a swag bag or bushman’s bed—essentially, a rollaway sleeping mat covered with thin canvas to protect you from the critters that call this expansive landscape home. Before getting into bed that night I was given a list of all the deadly creatures I should be aware of, from snakes (21 of the world’s deadliest are said to live in the land Down Under) to scorpions and even ants.

I briefly questioned my sanity for signing up to do something that seemed so inherently risky. But then I had an incredible night. I watched the light play on the rocks at sunset, saw wildlife start to come out as it grew darker—kangaroos came so close I no longer needed a long lens to capture photographs—and fell asleep under a sky that was starlit so brightly it was like lying under a jewel-strewn blanket. When I woke the next morning to see a blazing sunrise, I knew there had been a cataclysmic shift in me. This was a new dawn, literally, and for me, bedtime would never be the same again.

The author in a tent over the side of Gaping Gill, a natural cave in England (Photo by Zak Bentley)

A decade of extreme sleep adventures

Fast forward more than a decade, and I’ve spent the night in a whole host of environmental extremes. In Germany, I headed to Bavaria to sleep suspended in a forest, drifting off to the hoots of the owls and waking to the sounds of the songbirds. In Antarctica, when my planned camp on the peninsula was scuppered by high winds, I instead took my sleeping bag to the top of the expedition ship and bedded down under the cloudy midnight sun to feel the polar air tickle my neck while I slept.

Then there was the night inside the glacier. Far north above Norway’s mainland is an island archipelago called Svalbard, home to more polar bears than people and the last stop before the North Pole. Packing a pulk (a sled loaded with gear you pull behind you) I made my way up behind the town with an armed guide in case the furry white residents should put in an appearance.

“When I woke the next morning to see a blazing sunrise, I knew there had been a cataclysmic shift in me. This was a new dawn, literally, and for me, bedtime would never be the same again.”

After a few hours, we reached the “camp,” which was nothing more than a hole in the snow. I clipped my crampons to my boots and descended around 35 feet into the darkness. Flipping on my headlamp, I reached the bottom of the rope and turned around to see the smooth ice walls sparkling all about me. Every summer the snow on the glacier’s surface is melted by the constant sun and seeps down the sides of this natural wonder, flowing inside it as a series of meltwater channels. Come winter the water recedes, leaving behind these frozen tunnels, perfect for exploration by the intrepid.

I pushed and ducked my way through before finding the perfect ledge on which to camp. In the glow of the candles I placed behind the otherworldly ice formations, my frozen den looked as though it was lit by priceless chandeliers and, thanks to several warm sleeping mats and a robust sleeping bag, I truly did sleep richly that evening.

Related: My extreme sleep story: On the ice in Antarctica

The author hanging off of Bunnet Stane, a rock formation in Scotland (Photo by Zak Bentley)

Why extreme sleeping is so addictive

Despite these exotic nights of sleep around the world, I’ve found that you don’t always have to travel far for overnight excitement. In 2014, I became the first person to sleep at all the extreme points of mainland Britain, solo, on consecutive nights—including the highest, lowest, northern, southern, eastern, western and centermost locations. Just last year I undertook a self-devised charity challenge called the Extreme Sleep Out to raise over £20,000 (roughly $25,000) for Centrepoint, a UK young people’s homeless charity.

Over the course of 10 nights, I slept hanging off the sea cliffs of Scotland while the waves of the North Sea crashed below. I climbed to the top of a football stadium to spend the night way above the bleachers, caught some Z’s suspended over a 300-foot cave opening, hung from a skyscraper in London, and dangled off a theater window while traffic on the main road hurried by, unaware. (Read more about my extreme sleep adventures in The Telegraph.)

People often ask me if I actually sleep when pushing myself to the limits in pursuit of my bedtime endeavors, but the truth is I sleep better in these scenarios than in my own bed. That’s because all the stresses and worries that keep you awake at home—emails, bills, social media—pale into insignificance when you are faced with having to focus on keeping yourself safe at great heights.

When I sleep outside, even if the setting is not so extreme, perhaps just spending an evening watching the sunset on a mountaintop or lying in a hammock amid a thick forest, the world makes sense again. I am disconnected from the things that don’t really matter and reconnected with all the things that do.

And so even when things don’t go to plan—when thunder forces me to abandon my sleep spot for something more sedate—it’s never for nothing. Because I promise you, after spending a night outdoors you learn to appreciate your home comforts when you return: the magic of hot running water, summoning lights from a switch on the wall, and, of course, the very simple comfort of your own bed.

Next, learn what it’s like to sleep on a floating island in the sky.

Have your own extreme sleep story? We’d love to hear from you! Email us at sleepenlightened@saatva.com.

Phoebe Smith's love of the wilderness has taken her on solo adventures around the world—from sleeping at Everest Base Camp to portaledging in trees in the Bavarian Alps to spending the night on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to bedding down inside glaciers in Svalbard, the last stop before the North Pole. She is an award-winning travel writer, photographer, presenter, and broadcaster, specializing in adventure, wildlife conservation, and the outdoors, and is also the host of the monthly Wander Woman Podcast. She regularly writes for The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Times (of London), and is a correspondent for BBC From Our Own Correspondent. To date, she is the author of 10 books.