Header image for Cocoon of Sleep

Hello walkers! from southern China, along the so-called “Yangshou Heritage Trail,” a somewhat ad hoc set of paths and ferry crossings through the Chinese countryside — small villages, farms, great vistas dotted with misty shrub-swaddled fingerlets of granite — connecting Guilin and Yangshuo. I’m walking with nine other folks, as part of a “walk-n-talk” which takes place over seven days. Three years ago the inaugural walk-n-talk was just three of us along the nakahechi on the Kumano Kodo. Last year, ten of us gathered for the last 100 miles of the Portuguese Camino. And this year, a new crew, in China.

If you’re interested in the mechanics of this “walk-n-talk” style of walking, I’m happy to elucidate.

But for this Ridgeline, I wanted to focus on sleep.

A Ridgeliner wrote in a few weeks ago asking:

Any insights that you can share on dealing with bad sleeps?

If you’re goal is to walk 20-30+ kilometers a day, day after day, for a week or more, you can’t skimp on sleep.

I can imagine that if you’re on the trail like this (every day a new bed), a few nights of bad sleep in succession will feel like falling down a flight of stairs. You keep rolling, and one bump leads to the next boink, until you hit a plateau. How do you recover? How long do you give yourself?

There are strategies!

When on the road, I aim for eight solid hours each night, every night. This goes for staying in business hotels, inns, mountain huts, pilgrimage lodges, hostels, campgrounds, wherever. The goal is to minimize variance in sleep experience. The trick to achieving that goal is to control all the variables over which you can have control. And the main variables you can control are sound and light. Temperature and humidity come next. Then the nice-to-haves: qualities like pillow hardness.

I always sleep with an eye mask. The proliferation of blue LEDs on anything electronic means most rooms today never achieve total darkness. Here in China, at this very moment, I have an air conditioning unit with giant glowing numbers telling me its temperature. It’s like a neon billboard when I turn off the lights. You can try to cover all the lights with towels, or you can just cover your eyes.

I find eye masks that look like blindfolds work best. That is: eye masks without straps. These are eye masks that wrap around your whole head, like you’re a Sandra Bullock cosplayer performing Bird Box. I find straps hurt my ears. And the blindfold style has the added benefit of keeping your earplugs in your ears, too.

My general recommendation is to purchase three or four styles of eye masks and test them all. But for me, despite initially dismissing them, the blindfold style has worked best.

Mack’s Pillow Soft earplugs are the best earplugs I’ve found. I’ve used half a dozen brands of earplugs over the last eight years specifically for sleeping. Mack’s seal the ear, but don’t go into it; they’re little nuggets of putty. Because they don’t enter the ear canal (very far, they enter a wee bit), you can sleep on your side without feeling like your brain is being poked. You can get a week out of one pair if you have clean ears.

If you’re in an environment that is so noisy that earplugs alone don’t cut it, I use white noise apps on my phone or laptop. On my laptop I use an application called Chill. There are many options for iPhone or Android.

You’d be surprised, but playing white noise on your laptop — even if it’s across the room! — “dials down” the volume of everything happening outside. It’s like magic, like a cone of quieter (not quite cone of silence).

If by some chance the white noise app + earplugs isn’t enough, I break out my in-ear Bose noise canceling earphones. These earphones are quite possibly my single most valued and value-giving piece of peripheral technology. They provide focus, they generate a bubble of control in most uncontrolled environments — airplanes, trains, et cetera. Put these earphones in. Turn on noise canceling. And pipe into them some white noise via your iPhone. If even then you are disturbed by the outside noise, perhaps the problem isn’t with the noise outside.

If you simply can’t fall asleep, don’t panic. Lie still. Breathe. Focus on breath. Even if you don’t get any sleep, staying horizontal, focusing on breath, allows your body to recover. Focus on where you’re holding tension. Release the tension. Go up and down the body in your mind. Release more tension. Be deliberate. During these big walks, recovery is critical. Ideally, you’ll sleep. If you want unequivocal convincing of eight hours a night, read Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep. But sometimes we can’t turn off the brain. That’s OK. Walking three or four or five 30km days in a row will turn it off for you. Trust in the system, the process.

Many of my sleep strategies mimic my airplane strategies.

During my big walk this past April and May I slept in over forty different beds.

Tomorrow morning’s wake up call is at 5:30am. The bright lights on the air conditioner will still be casting shadows. Invariably something wild will be crying out or dying or running into something or collapsing or being built outside in this tiny village. For now, in go the earplugs, and on goes the eye mask. The air conditioner is set to cool, a towel is wrapped around my pillow giving it just the right firmness. And if all goes well, tomorrow I’ll wake up feeling ready for the big walk.

Until next week,

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Fellow Walkers

“Some of my best, strongest memories from throughout my life are of my best walks. Perhaps the best was on a Swedish island whose name I can’t now recall. I and a companion were blown in by several days of bad weather during a sailing trip. Without really discussing it we seemed to understand that the best thing would be to spend time on our own, to store up reserves of solitude for the upcoming week in close quarters. She took a bus and went camping, I wandered the island for 8 hours at a time. Narrow streets, a forest, cliffs, a rocky coast. An old fort. A rock in the woods that seemed hewn into a sort of altar or table, with an ominous drainage-like groove through the center. Remembering those hours still transports me into a dream state.”

”Growing up in the suburbs and then moving to London, I’ve always walked out of both necessity and stubbornness - a refusal to rely on others. Massive upheaval in my life, and the spectre of middle age - whatever that may be - has pushed me back to the road and path in a more thoughtful and thought through way. Walking now grounds me, gives me time to sort through my own mind, and ties me back to the big world around me. Where walking once felt like a practical necessity, it now feels more an emotional and essential necessity. I walk to find, and figure out who I am. “

(“Fellow Walkers” are short bios of the other folks subscribed to this newsletter. In Ridgeline 001 I asked: “What shell were you torn from?” and got hundreds of responses. We’re working our way through them over the year. You’re an amazing, diverse crew. Grateful to be walking with you all. Feel free to send one in if you haven’t already.)


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