Few things are as sweet as a good night’s sleep and sleeping in a new location almost every night can make it elusive. What follows are the strategies we’ve learned to improve our odds of sleeping well, including:
Selecting the best location.
Creating more darkness.
Coping with too much noise.
Using sleep-inviting CD's.
Beating the heat.
Putting masking tape to work.
Remedying crummy mattresses.
Uses for sleeping bag liners.
Taking Benadryl for jet lag.
The Best Location
“Location, location, location” in sleep, just like in real estate, is crucial. And picking a good location is equally important whether spending the night indoors or out. If we are sleeping indoors and have any choice at all, we look for an affordable place off the main street to decrease the traffic noise. We also avoid rooms fronting on quaint cobblestone streets, as the slightest traffic can be horribly noisy in the wee hours. And of course, those little places over discos and bars are losers, as can be places on pedestrian malls if there is any night life in the area.
Site selection when camping is also crucial. In packed European campgrounds, it is often better to settle into a crowded area where you can select your neighbors vs setting up in a more open area that might fill-in with a partying crowd. Also factor in the proximity of overhead street lights and other permanent lighting in common areas before unpacking the tent. And of course, positioning away from the road and the toilets helps keep the noise level down.
When the Lights Go Out
When the lights go out, you expect it to be dark, but it isn’t always. Eye covers are the standard remedy when there is too much light for sleeping, whether indoors or out. We always pack eye covers and use them on overnight flights as well. Try yours out at home, as some aren’t comfortable enough or don’t fit closely enough around the edges to do the job. I also found that I had to practice wearing them, as at first I couldn’t tolerate them for even an hour at a time. And it helps to have become accustomed to them before they are really needed.
The 4 little clips under the eye covers in the photo below are clothes-pin like clips we picked-up in Europe. They are designed for hanging kitchen towels but we nabbed them because of their small size. We use them both for laundry and for nipping closed hotel curtains that don’t quite overlap at the center. These little clips are strong enough and open wide enough to handle even heavy drapes. If the gap in the curtains is the only light problem, we’d much rather use the clips on the curtains than wear eye covers all night.
After site selection, the second line of defense against brightness when camping abroad is an extra ground cloth to throw over the tent top. European camp grounds tend to be so bright that we rarely use our flashlights at night, inside the tent or out. And we often used the extra cloth over the tent to help darken it inside. Unlike European tents, US tents tend to be constructed from light colored fabrics and have little windows for peaking out, both of which allow additional light to stream in.
Ear plugs, like eye covers, are a standard traveler’s item for a good night’s sleep. Though they help blunt the noise at internet shops, I don’t find them very useful for sleeping. For me, they don’t block enough noise to compensate for the annoyance factor of wearing them and I can only wear them a short time. Unlike eye covers, my tolerance for ear plugs hasn’t increased much with ‘training.’
So, in 2004 we put technology on our side: Bill downloaded a white noise generator (Atmosphere Deluxe) onto our laptop to rescue our night’s sleep in noisy hotel rooms. I teased him that I didn’t want the sound of bubbling brooks but of HVAC (ventilation systems) as there is nothing like the well-moderated hum of a ventilation fan to help me sleep. But the babbling stream does the job—it fills in the moments of quiet so that the intervals of noise don’t jolt me from my slumber, whether it’s street noise or the TV next door. We don’t try to mask all of the outside noise, just to even them out with the background noise of our choosing.
Inviting the Sandman Over
In 2006 we added 3 CD's to our arsenal, hoping to coax the Sandman to visit us sooner rather than later. The first 2 are guided visualizations that both have some annoying qualities about them and yet definitely help us fall asleep sooner. The third is only music with no vocal guidance and seems equally effective. Our selections were:
"A Meditation To Help You With Healthful Sleep" by Belleruth Naparstek" from Health Journeys
"Deep 10 Relaxation" by Mind Food of the Monroe Institute
"Brainwave Suite Delta" by Dr. Jeffery Thompson
As the months progressed, we came to love Belleruth's CD and use it almost every night. It totally changed our sleep patterns and eliminated that nasty habit of abruptly awakening at 3 or 4 am. We highly recommend it, though know that it may take a month or 2 for it to work its magic.
We affectionately call the little green gizmo in the center of the above picture “The Bugger.” It plugs into an electrical outlet and the replaceable chemical tablet it holds slowly releases noxious chemicals into the air. I don’t know if it kills the mosquitoes or repels them, but they stop biting about 10 minutes after we plug it in.
We of course worry about what those noxious chemicals are doing to us and only use it as a last resort. We weigh the risk of the chemicals against the risk of getting hit by car in traffic because we didn’t sleep the night before and gratefully plug-in the bugger when we need it. We have found that ˝ tablet will cover us for 2 nights, instead of the recommended full tablet per night. We try to minimize the number of hours we use it at a time and plug it in as far away from our heads as possible to keep the inhaled dose lower. And you just never know when mosquitoes will be a problem. At 4 am Bill dug out the bugger while we were in a high-rise Paris hotel in May one year.
When camping, we resort to using a DEET repellent on our skin and keep the tent zipped closed. Fortunately, we haven’t been anywhere where the mosquitoes were unbearable.
Beating the Heat
Aluminum foil is the latest addition to our arsenal of sleep aids, though we don’t carry it routinely. We checked into our Paris hotel during an unseasonably warm spell and our south facing room was a hot-box as the promised air conditioning never materialized. We opted to obscure our view of the Eiffel tower by covering the window with foil. It did an impressive job of minimizing the solar gain in our room each day of our week-long stay. When the sun went down, we’d peel it up half way to enjoy the view and allow a little heat loss through the glass at night. We attached the foil to the glass with masking tape, which we also carry as a sleep aid.
For extreme heat when camping, we resorted to a small, battery operated fan to hang from the peak of the tent. When the biting bugs and the brightness of the campground forced us in the tent but deprived us of the few breezes, the fan helped out.
Masking Tape as a Sleep Aid?
There are books written on the glories and uses of duct tape, but masking tape has its place too as a traveler’s aid. Masking tape does a better job with stealthy hotel room modifications as its low-tack quality (minimal adhesion) reduces the risk of damaging room and jamb finishes—duct tape would take some paint jobs down to bare wood.
In Paris, it was masking tape that held the sunlight-reflecting foil covering our hotel window. But we had the tape on hand for isolating us from cigarette smoke. Even if you manage to snare a no-smoking room, it doesn’t guarantee a smoke free room. I’ve stuffed blankets and plastic bags around the edges of doors to keep the smoke out, but tape is easier to use and more certain. Inspect the paint or finish on both the door and door jamb before taping as you risk pulling off a poor finish when you remove the tape. I just barely press the masking tape in place to minimize the adhesion and very carefully remove it in the morning.
Tape is also useful in combating mosquitoes if you don’t have or don’t want to use a bugger. Taping closed gaps around the door, tears in window screens or even gaps between the wall and the window jamb in low-budget accommodations will reduce the numbers of biting bugs flying in.
Those Crummy Mattresses
Getting twin beds instead of a double or ‘matrimonial’ bed is a huge help if the mattresses are saggy or lumpy. We’ve become bolder at giving mattresses a quick feel or even lying down on them when we first get the room or when looking at it. If it’s a double and doesn’t make the grade, we ask for a room with twins. In some countries, twins are generally all that are available.
Putting a saggy mattress on the floor can help, though most European rooms lack the floor space for that to be an option. And before we go to that trouble, we first take a look underneath the bed: if the mattress is already on a firm platform, moving it to the floor won’t help.
I often use an extra blanket, part of the bedspread, a towel or article of clothing to fill in low spots on mattress for a better night’s sleep. And some European mattresses feel like they have a 4” metal or cord grid near the surface that is sometimes too prominent for my ribs. Even a fairly thin bit of padding under the sheet in my rib cage area will immensely improve my comfort in mattresses with too much topography.
Sleeping Bag Liners
I probably wouldn’t carry a sleeping bag liner for a trip of several weeks, but we use ours often enough on extended tours to be worth carrying, even if we aren’t camping. I’m fond of the knit CoolMax liners made by “Cocoon.” They stuff down to about the size of a large canned beverage. We sleep inside ours: if we aren’t comfortable with the freshness of the sheets; if we feel too sweaty on top of a plastic mattress cover; for extra warmth if the blankets are insufficient; if the bed only has a duvet (comforter) and it’s too warm to use it; and if it is miserably hot at night, the liner gives some relief by wicking the sweat away. They also qualify as the needed sheet for use in some hostels. When camping, we also use the liners to keep our sleeping bags fresher and for greater temperature control.
Benadryl for Jet Lag
The tiny pink tablets in the photo are Benadryl, an over-the-counter antihistamine. We take them at bedtime for about a week after flying as a mild sleep aid to cope with the sleep deprivation associated with jet lag. Benadryl doesn't knock us out, but instead is a little nudge in the drowsy-direction. It seems to be just enough to help us fall asleep at our new bedtime without leaving any side effects in its wake. We have found that getting enough sleep is more important for our jet lag recovery than trying to reset our biologic clocks with melatonin or sunlight exposure.
Those are all the tricks up our sleeves for getting a good night’s sleep on the road. We’d love to hear your remedies for less than ideal sleeping situations.