Q&A: How This Professional Adventurer Gets Sleep in the Most Extreme Places
Professional adventurer and “wild camper" Phoebe Smith has slept in places most of us would never dare to dream of: Dangling from sandstone cliffs in the United Kingdom; deep inside a glacier near the North Pole; at Everest Base Camp in Nepal; and more.
Smith has written about her passion for extraordinary dozing on the Saatva blog before and has woven some of her expeditions into a collection of Sleep Stories—aka bedtime stories for grown-ups—for the Calm.com app.
But we were hungry to hear more about her thrilling PM jaunts and wanted to glean as many sleep tips as possible. We reached out, and the triple-threat (adventurer/storyteller/nature photographer) graciously agreed to speak with us from her home outside Windsor, UK, where she had just returned from the Night Vision Challenge, a 300-mile, 10-night kayak trip in which all water activities took place in the dark. (Z's were caught during daylight hours.)
Q: As a professional extreme sleeper, it's your job to hit the sack in jaw-dropping locales. Where are some of the most exciting places you've slept?
One of them would be inside a glacier in Svalbard, which is an Arctic archipelago located between Norway and the North Pole. I was traveling with an armed guide for protection against polar bears, but other than that, I was alone. It was almost springtime, and really cold outside—minus seven degrees Celsius—but inside the glacier, it was only about minus two, and it was utterly silent. You've never heard silence like this. I'd asked my guide to sleep further down the tunnel so I could experience it on my own. I lit some candles and settled in. Despite the temperature, I was toasty warm in my expedition kit; I actually got too warm at one point, pulled my arm out, fell back asleep, woke up and couldn't feel my arm!
At one point, I heard a noise. I lay there for 10 minutes, figuring out what it was, thinking, “Oh my God, did a polar bear get in?" But it ended up being my guide, snoring. The noise was reverberating off the interior walls of the glacier.
Another memorable sleep involved hanging on a portaledge from giant cedar trees in Morocco. It's like a hanging tent, rigged with ropes, and you have a canvas platform that creates a bed. I loved it because when people think of Morocco, they think of the Sahara Desert, but we never think of the forest, which is home to incredible wildlife: macaw monkeys, birds, and caterpillars.
Q: Speaking of subzero temperatures, would you rather try to sleep in a very hot space or a very cold one?
Cold! My house is quite cold—I don't have central heating—and besides, I sleep warm. I find it much easier to be cold and warm up than to be warm and try to cool down. What we use in these extreme environments is actually quite applicable to the real world: Use layers, then take them off as you get hotter, or add them when you're cold.
Q: You need to fly far distances to reach many of your extreme sleep adventures. What tips can you share for sleeping on an airplane?
I try to slowly adjust my body in the days before I leave, maybe going to bed a bit earlier or later, trying to reset body clock to the time it is wherever I'm going. As soon as I step on the plane, I change my clock to the current time it is in my destination city.
I always bring my own pillow, which has a scent of my house, and that sends a message to the brain that says, “I'm ready to sleep." I bring earplugs and always take PJs. If it's nighttime where I'm headed, I'll straightaway brush my teeth and sleep. When it's time to be awake, I'll read, do work, listen to an audiobook—something that signals “I'm awake." And I drink water to hydrate and help keep myself awake when I need to be.
Q: Not coffee?!
I'm a coffee snob! So I tend not to like the coffee on airplanes. Water is better because it helps you rehydrate and also makes you need the toilet, and if you're getting up to use the toilet, you're not sleeping.
"I always bring my own pillow, which has a scent of my house, and that sends a message to the brain that says, 'I'm ready to sleep.'"
Q: Any other insider flight hacks?
Refuse the meals. I think that people think that since they've paid for the meal, they need to eat it. But if you get on a plane at midnight and they're trying to give you dinner, it could be 4 a.m. where you're going. That's not dinner time, and it sends the wrong signal to your brain.
Q: You mentioned earplugs. Do you have a favorite pair?
No, I just use a cheap pair. But I find the sounds of nature very soothing, so I don't wear them if I'm in the outdoors. I was just speaking with a sleep scientist who told me that because we're mammals, the way we interpret sounds falls into two categories— threatening or non-threatening.
Rain falling through leaves in a forest or the gentle lap of a wave or trickle of a stream are perceived as non-threatening. But an example of a noise our mind perceives as threatening can be something like a phone beeping to tell you that you have a message. It's been designed like that by a phone company to get your attention. So my advice is to turn off all devices before bed if you want to get a better night's sleep.
Smith in a tent over the side of the Avon Gorge, overlooking the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, England
Q: Besides gloriously soothing sounds, what are some other benefits of sleeping outdoors?
When you go on camping trips, you naturally start to get tired a bit earlier than usual, because the darkness boosts your melatonin. Modern lighting makes your body clock fall out of rhythm, but natural light helps your circadian rhythms reset. I find that it takes about two nights of camping to reset and wake up not feeling groggy.
When I'm sleeping at home, I sometimes go to sleep with my curtains open so the room is flooded with light when I wake up. That wakes you up naturally, telling your body to stop producing melatonin, meaning you begin to stir before the alarm.
Q: You've said that you've found yourself in “the deepest sleep imaginable…dangling 100m above a sheer drop, peering down into the darkened abyss while a waterfall trickles into the deep chasm below." Tell us more.
When we lie in our beds, we can get really caught up in these loops—I've got to send that email…I've got to pay that bill. But by removing yourself from that normal situation, whether it's extreme sleeping or just sleeping outdoors, maybe on a hilltop in a tent, you physically distance yourself from the everyday, and that helps you mentally distance yourself.
Also, in many of these places, you can't get phone reception or WiFi. So you have to focus on the task at hand, which often involves very primary concerns—staying dry, sourcing clean water, keeping yourself safe. I think that's why I get a better night's sleep in the outdoors than I do my own bed. Even though I'm outside, sleeping on thin netting instead of a mattress, often with great drops of nothingness underneath me, thoughts of deadlines, social media updates, and emails disappear.
"When we lie in our beds, we can get really caught up in these loops—I've got to send that email…I've got to pay that bill. But by removing yourself from that normal situation, whether it's extreme sleeping or just sleeping outdoors, maybe on a hilltop in a tent, you physically distance yourself from the everyday, and that helps you mentally distance yourself."
Q: What's the perfect amount of sleep for a wild woman like yourself?
So many of us are sleep-starved. Another sleep scientist—I talk with many of them—was just saying there is no correct amount. Studies often say eight hours a night, but it's very personal. I try for seven hours. I'm more of a morning person myself; I love getting up and going out. I've struggled with insomnia before and know how bad it can be for our health both mentally and physically (especially considering that sleep is something we do for a third of our lives), so getting a good night's sleep and helping others do so too is so important to me.
It might seem strange that I've managed to make a career out of sleeping in strange places and writing Sleep Stories for grown-ups, but then you could say it's something of a dream job.
Read our series on extreme sleeping for more stories of people snoozing in unexpected places:
- Naked and in Public
- In an Igloo
- In the Middle of the Desert
- On the Side of a Cliff
- On the Ice in Antarctica
- On a Floating Island in the Sky
- On the High Seas
Photography credit: Zak Bentley