In 2012, I asked a friend to help me assemble a demo reel to show executives in Hollywood after being signed by WME in the reality unscripted genre. I was instructed to show as much movement as possible to attract the interest of these production company folks and lead them to sign me to survival shows. When I took general meetings, I often answered a lot of questions about “what real survival looks like.” Often I answered with something along the lines of, “It’s boring.”
You see, while we are drawn to the flashy movement of television personalities that accept more risk instead of mitigating it, or when we are entertained by the concept of naked survivalists, we forget one of the main ideas behind survival is managing your energy output. This is done by limiting movement whenever possible. Get your rest.
Filming someone sleeping makes for some pretty terrible television; it just does. And so, survival show direction neglects to mention the value of sleep, and as a result, it is often overlooked by those who are interested in learning about survival and bushcraft.
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What Is ‘Good Sleep’?
There is often a misconception about what “good sleep” is. Some might believe the concept relates only to duration. Keep in mind that it’s possible to lie in bed attempting to rest but instead, you toss and turn in a light sleep the whole night. Others might say good sleep is regular sleep following your circadian rhythm (essentially how you wake and rest daily), but if we were to judge what is good by frequency, a person who nods off throughout the day would be getting good sleep, and we know that is not the case.
Overall, all sleep is important but it isn’t all good. Sound confusing? It shouldn’t be. Let’s think about the ideal night of sleep. A good night’s sleep can be judged by the end product — you feel rested. It should be uninterrupted by any stimulus and you should transition through the various stages of the sleep cycle and achieve upwards of eight hours on average. Good sleep is all about quality and not quantity. It’s about developing a healthy sleep pattern.
Some folks can operate on six hours of sleep instead of eight, and depending on your age, you may need more or less than the overall average. We probably all know a teenager who sleeps upwards of 10 hours at times, which isn’t out of the ordinary for their age. You probably also know people who get insufficient sleep during the night but find a way to get that sleep with a midafternoon nap.
Again, we need to remember good sleep is about how deeply you sleep and getting to the point where your body is, in effect, paralyzed until it is taken from that state and you regain alertness and consciousness. Sometimes our circadian rhythm is screwed up as we travel and experience jet lag, and we ultimately lose out on a day’s productivity.
Deep sleep is the point in your sleep where your body and mind can relax and get the repair they need. Both can only process so much during the day.
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In July 2021, I was challenged to spend 72 hours surviving in the desert of Utah with just the contents of a quart-size Ziploc Bag. I spent a considerable amount of time packing and unpacking that bag before the trip, looking for any additional space in the hollows that might have formed as I jammed more equipment inside. I knew the desert wasn’t going to be a hospitable place.
The location where this challenge was held was home to mountain lions that routinely killed the local rancher’s cattle, and the temperatures were known to swing 40 to 50 degrees overnight. Comfort was going to be a relative term, and I knew the combination of oppressive high heat (over 100 each day with a high of 112) and lack of food was going to put some strain on my body. Looking over my kit, I decided I could cram six Wolf21 gummies in a small Ziploc and include them in my kit. I knew the cold sand, the howls of nearby coyotes, the constant sensation of bugs crawling over me, and general discomfort would need something to counter it.
As expected, the challenge was a nut punch, and I found myself retreating to the shade whenever I could. At night, the temperature started to drop around 7 p.m. and the boredom kicked in. I knew I had to get sleep and I also knew I had to stay awake long enough to not wake up at 3 a.m. after getting 8 hours of mixed sleep. This set my sleep plan into action, starting with eating two Wolf21 gummies at 10 p.m. and then hoping for at least 6 hours of sleep.
Fortunately, I didn’t have any inclement weather to deal with, and aside from the cold, there were no additional curveballs thrown at me. When the Wolf21 gummies kicked in, I drifted off into a surprisingly good sleep. I had lucid dreams and woke feeling refreshed each morning. In fact, the support team regularly checked on me each morning and was surprised I was in good spirits. I’ve woken up in camps before and have been an irritable and miserable person despite my best efforts to put on a good face.
Since 2007, as a professional survival instructor, there have been more than a handful of nights where I’ve woken up a grumpy curmudgeon. There is something about getting good rest that truly recharges you and sets you up with the energy you need for the day. What makes me smile to this day is the thought of how well I slept those three nights underneath a thin emergency blanket and a subpar bed of local vegetation. I thank those damn Wolf21 gummies. They work even better than the melatonin I’ve tried before.
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I’m not a physician but I’ve spent enough time with reliable docs to know the practical common-sense medicine we should all take. I’ve never met a doctor who has said a good diet and exercise is bad for you. I’ve also heard those same doctors recommend rest and relaxation. There’s a good reason you should seek downtime.
Lack of sleep sounds cool when you’re talking about trudging all night through the woods or over mountains to get to an objective. Keep that schedule up and it will strain your body. Lack of sleep has been associated with high blood pressure and heart disease. It can contribute to heart issues and like too much stress on a rubber band, it can snap the life from you, starting with your pump station.
Beyond the physical is the mental health aspect of sleep. I previously mentioned I’m not a particularly pleasant person to deal with after a rough night. This quip is not meant to cover up the real serious issues many who regularly get little to no sleep face. Lack of sleep can affect your mood and cause preexisting depression to get worse. It can also affect your anxiety, and in the scenarios we train for, we don’t need any additional stressors.
Think about the compounding problems lack of sleep can contribute to. At the moment, you must make a split decision based on your training. You didn’t rest well the night before and your judgment is cloudy. Sleep doesn’t seem important until it is. Lack of it isn’t a problem until it is. You have only one opportunity to get each day right and you should stack the deck in your favor each night.
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Sleep and Survival
I referred earlier to network executives wanting to know the reality of survival. My response about rest was grounded in my experience teaching students to survive in the field with minimal supplies at the Wilderness Learning Center where I worked at the time. During a three-day field exercise (much like my 72-hour survival challenge a decade later), students were tasked with shelter building, fire construction, and camp craft all on reduced rations.
Many times, the students who took this course would fall asleep by the fire during the day and get terrible sleep at night despite their best efforts to build a good shelter. During the after-action report, these students would comment on how they wished they had more sleep and how underrated it is.
They learned the hard way how life can be terrible when you’re tired. During one survival course, I watched a sleep-deprived student cut his finger by accident and the injury didn’t register for some time.
If you shouldn’t operate heavy machinery in your state, maybe you shouldn’t operate certain edged tools or those that launch projectiles either. That injury to the student’s finger wasn’t difficult to treat, although he almost passed out from the sight of his own blood. If that student cut only inches higher up on his arm in an atmosphere that wasn’t a training setting, the outcome could have been much worse.
In a real survival scenario, it’s easy to say “get your sleep,” but your reality will probably keep you from getting it. I’ll simply suggest stocking up on it when you can and don’t take it for granted. I’m notorious for starting my night’s sleep on my couch and then moving to my bedroom. I’ll admit there is no better sleep than in my dedicated bed.
There’s no doubt in my mind how important sleep is and whether you are in a survival situation or not, you should focus on getting good Zs when you can. After all, you never know when you could be thrust into a situation where your life will depend on having the alertness, responsiveness, and energy to get yourself out of it.
This content was originally posted by Fieldcraft Survival in February 2022.