Sleep is essential to performance. Don’t think so? It doesn’t matter what you think. Your “sleep debt” must be paid one way or another, or your body and mind will start to suffer in increasingly awful and deleterious ways.
How long you can avoid meeting your body’s sleep requirements varies, and depends on your health and conditioning among many other factors.
In general, though, that debt will get paid, and it will behoove you to not fall too far in arrears lest your mind and body submit against your will.
It may seem crazy to talk about getting a good, restorative night (or day) of sleep in the same breath as surviving a dangerous crisis, but you had better believe it will become a factor of much ado in anything but the shortest term events.
In this article, I’ll discuss the basic elements your body needs to get some good z’s, and techniques you can use to help you get them. Your environment, sleeping arrangement and more all play a part in getting you tucked in. So buck up, stop nodding, and keep reading.
Do I Really Need That Much Sleep?
Yes. Sleep is vital for health of body and mind. Without enough sleep, your body will not be able to self repair and reduce fatigue.
Shunt sleep long enough and you will become more susceptible to injury, and weariness will make your limbs heavy, affecting coordination. Even more importantly, lack of sleep will begin to blunt, and eventually addle, your thought processes.
We have all experienced the spacey thoughts and mushy, foggy feeling in our heads when we are very tired, and those of us who have pushed through an all-nighter on nothing but a raft of energy drinks or pots of coffee will attest to the mild auditory and visual glitches you can experience.
Your reaction time turns to crap, and your decisions are often wonky even for simple tasks. Complex reasoning may bog down entirely.
Most folks’ attitudes crumble when they are very tired. Crankiness is a virtual guarantee. Hostility to all life is not too far in describing some trolls when they don’t get their 7 hours.
Attitudes are contagious. If your pour the grinding stress of sleep deprivation onto an already stressed out group of people, cram them into close proximity and wait, you’ll wind up with a bloodbath, or at least some destroyed relationships and shattered group cohesion.
That is sleep deprivation staring back at you. Imagine what could happen if you needed to be sharp, real sharp, able to react correctly, quickly and smoothly to any development with decisiveness to some emergency and you are 36 hours on after serious stress, and exertion, with no sleep. Not pretty to consider.
I Don’t Have Time for This. Can I Fool the Sandman?
Yes. Yes, you can. For a while, anyway. Caffeine is a trusty standby for dusting the cobwebs from your mind, and a long standby of night owls, graveyard shifters, cops, firefighters, soldiers and pretty much everybody who needs a pick me up.
Tea, coffee and colas all have varying amounts of go-juice in them, and definitely worthwhile to get over the hump before you can get some shuteye. Beware, resistance is a thing, and over long periods of wakefulness relying on caffeine it will lose effectiveness.
The chemical cocktail contained in your average energy drink also provides a significant lift, though their claims are often hyperbole.
Proponents swear by them, and this author will attest that most seem to provide a little mental sharpening effect beyond mere coffee or tea. At any rate, most have a bunch of caffeine in addition, so there’s that, but too much can lead to jitters and mild withdrawal symptoms.
For seriously staving off sleep, you can turn to prescription stimulants, “focus enhancers” and similar meds. Used judiciously, these pills can let you banish sleepiness, staying pretty alert and mentally tuned-in for extended periods.
Obtaining them legally may present challenges to a prepper looking to stash them in quantity, however. Risks of withdrawal and overdose are not to be taken lightly.
Aside from comestibles and consumables, other methods may work for a short term jolt of energy to help you keep from nodding off, though these are far less effective when exhausted or way overdrawn at the Bank of Sleep.
A burst of strenuous physical activity that get’s your heart pumping will help clear the fog from your head, as will a sharp, cold temperature shock. If you have the ability to plunge your head, or better, your whole body, into cold water you can send the urge to sleep packing for a while.
Barring any of the above, you will need to surrender to sleep eventually to recharge.
How Much Sleep Do I Need In a Crisis?
The pithy answer is “as much as you can get,” but practically you should be looking to get in a good sleep cycle whenever you are tired and you are able. Easier said than done, right?
Make it a point to get sleep when you can, even if it is just a nap: any sleep is beneficial when you are very tired. Deep, REM sleep is best, but barring that a 20 or 30 minute nap can do wonders for you mentally and emotionally.
If you can get 6 hours safely, do it. If you can get 15 good, quiet minutes of sleep, do it. All of those little “deposits” add up against your sleep deficit. You cannot cat-nap your way out of debt, not really, but it will help until you can get some solid winks in.
The logistics of sleeping will vary depending on your situation and perhaps with the people you have with you. Additionally the quality of sleep makes a big difference too; there are some hard and fast rules for “good sleep” that cannot be bent much, and some that cannot be broken. We’ll explore a few in the next section.
How Can I Make the Most of My Time to Sleep?
By improving your sleeping environment and comfort factor. Environmentally, noise and light are your major factors. Comfort wise, preferences vary, but you can count on cooler body temperature helping you sleep well, and a soft surface to sleep on being a plus.
Noise can be remedied by finding a place to doze away from loud noises, or cautious use of earplugs. Asking chatterbox party members to zip it is a good idea also. Light is major thief of good sleep. Believe it or not, it only takes a little bit of light to disrupt our sleep. Pitch black is best for sleeping, but rarely practical, so choose an area away from light sources.
Alternately, you can block light from reaching your eyes (even through your closed eyelids!) by using a screen, mask or constructing a sort of “sleep hide” around your head using a box and cloth that will keep light out.
I use a heavier bandana, folded twice, and loosely cinched around my eyes. I don’t tie or knot it so I can pull it off instantly if I need to. I even use this at home when napping during the day and it works great, plus I don’t need to use some froo-froo sleep mask.
A bandana or other blindfold works well versus just covering your head with a blanket or similar solution since it will still let air get to your head and neck, keeping you cooler.
That brings us to the next big point: temperature. It does not take much of a survey to determine that being hot and humid makes sleep very difficult, as anyone who has endured a summer night in the South with no AC will happily attest.
Now, after SHTF, getting cool may be a distant memory depending on the situation and climate you are in. Generally though, you can always remove clothing to cool off, get out of direct sunlight, or find place to nap that has good airflow. All will help cool your body.
Any area underground will generally be cooler than above ground in hot weather, and lying on a concrete or tile floor will help suck heat from your body versus lying on a covering or up off the floor.
Comfort wise, humans sleep best on a soft, ergonomically supportive surface, not a hard, unyielding one. If you don’t have a mattress handy, a comfortable chair, sleeping pad, pile of cardboard or even stack of soft tree boughs may work well as a field expedient substitute.
Another thing you can count on is stress and tension hampering your efforts to doze off. Believe it or not, if you can take care of light, sound and temperature levels, even a very active mind will not resist the Sandman for long when you are fatigued.
If you fins stress has you too worked up, try a relaxation exercise like this one: starting at your feet, consciously ID gently flex and then release every muscle before moving on to its neighbor.
Really focus on feeling your muscles slacken and acknowledge their relaxed state before you move to the next ones. Continue this process until you nod off. Most people won’t make it to their abdomen before nodding off.
How Can I Sleep Safely in a Rough Situation?
That depends on the situation. Sometimes you’ll need to stay awake and push on, no question. In others where an emergent threat is a possibility, having another member of your family or party stand watch or listen for instructions is the obvious solution. Larger groups can allow for larger “off-shifts” or shorter watch rotations either way.
If you are alone, and worried about human or animal predators, you’ll need to choose where to sleep carefully, and an alarm to cover you or you’ll need to sleep very, very lightly.
Alarms could be some electronic gadget or traditional improvised alarms or noisemakers like cans or bells on strings, precariously arranged piles of noisy materials and broken glass. An alternative is something like a small deadfall run by simple and fine cordage or fishing line and tied onto your body. If tripped, it will give you a pull, hopefully waking you.
Use your head and be clever when it comes to getting some winks on your own unless you are in a very safe place.
Should I Use Sleep Aids After SHTF?
I say no. Many of these drugs put you down like a shot from a gun. Deep black for a proscribed time, no or little chance of waking up from any but the most severe stimulus. This is too risky when you may need to come awake quickly and clear your head.
Save the sleep aids for kinder times, if you need them.
Sleep is as essential during and after a crisis as it is before. Without enough sleep, your body and mind will degrade to the point of you making serious mistakes, endangering yourself and others.
Using the tips and procedures in this guide, though, you can find the time to steal some quality rest even if it is short lived. Don’t let lack of practical knowledge stand between you and some good shut-eye.
Any tips we missed in the article? Have you considered ahead of time how you’ll sleep in various disaster scenarios? Let us know in the comments!
Charles Yor is an advocate of low-profile preparation, readiness as a virtue and avoiding trouble before it starts. He has enjoyed a long career in personal security implementation throughout the lower 48 of the United States.