Joke’s on me, since I’m pretty sure 2pm will have a nap with my name on it.
So I’m sitting here, yawning in economy, 38,000 feet in the air. I’d love to catch some shut-eye now, but I realize I’ve wrecked my routine with an early morning wake-up call, plus two strong, sugary cups of airport coffee. It’s an equation for strung-out, sleepy disaster. The opposite of #goals, if you will.
Frankly I should know better, and so should you. But we’ve all been in this snafu, and the next time you know you’re going to jam up your sleep schedule, listen to these armed forces veterans to get the best tips on how to fall asleep anywhere, anytime. (Perhaps the only thing the military knows better about travel, in fact, is packing.) They may be from different branches, but all veterans are special forces when it comes to getting sleep.
The military is notorious for working at all hours of the day and night. Air Force veteran Tahlia Burton recalls the difficulties she experienced sleeping when she served. “I worked intelligence missions on the night shift, from about 6:30pm to 8:30am, so sleep and I had a challenging relationship,” she says. “Despite the mentally and emotionally exhausting work I did, I was often unable to fall asleep when I got home because of all the stimulating things I’d just experienced on mission. There was this constant inner dialogue in my mind that wouldn’t turn off.”
If your to-do list springs to mind just as you’re nodding off, there’s a low-tech solution for that, courtesy of Ben Feibleman, a Marine Corps vet who has visited more than 50 countries. “I’ve found it’s easier if I keep a notepad with me or on my nightstand,” he says. “I write down what I can’t stop thinking about as a kind of to-do list for the morning. That works as an ‘unburdening the mind’ trick.”
For extra unwinding, try some on some oms. “Meditation has helped me to have much greater control of my mind, curb that irritating inner-dialogue, and fend off unwelcome thoughts,” Burton says. “Not only do I sleep better, but I’m much more able to focus on and comprehend more of the world around me.”
To ease the mind and body into sleep mode, look into lavender products to help you nod off. “As I was getting out of the Naval Academy and about to become an officer, I was looking up sleep techniques and advice. So I bought lavender spray,” said Ricky Ryba, a former Naval officer and graduate of the US Naval Academy whose CV also includes naps on toilets and in storage rooms. He recommends using lavender spray on your pillows and sheets and carries a travel size with him everywhere.
It might sound gimmicky, but the National Sleep Foundation says studies show lavender can lower your blood pressure as well as your heart rate.
Get a few key pieces of gear
As a member of the armed forces, your heavy gear and armor have some surprising sleep-inducing qualities. Burton recalls a basic training combat exercise that required her and her fellow recruits to hole up in an old hangar wearing an overcoat, gas mask, helmet, and gloves, among other heavy gear.
“I want to stress that this goes over your military uniform, so it was extremely hot, stuffy, and uncomfortable,” she says. “But I was so exhausted that I passed out on my friend’s butt.”
Feibleman had a similar experience. “You know those thunder shirts for dogs? Like tightly wrapped blankets?” he says. “Body armor worked like that. It would squeeze you nice and tight, and you could sleep in just about any nook or cranny of space because you were swaddled in armor, ammo, and weapons.”
Replicate the comforting embrace of standard-issue armor with a weighted blanket. Doctors say they can help relieve anxiety and relax before bed. Tons of travel versions on the market, meaning you can swaddle up anytime, anywhere.
The other essential pieces of sleep gear might be more familiar. “Earplugs — nothing fancy,” Feibleman says. “Cheap new plugs from any store or complimentary airline travel kit work fine. And there’s this awesome eye-bra sleep mask on Amazon. It’s shaped so it doesn’t press up against your eyelashes. That thing is a lifesaver.”
When it comes to travel pillows, remember three words: Tempur-Pedic, Tempur-Pedic, Tempur-Pedic. “I’ve never really personally have been a fan of the neck pillow,” Ryba says. Instead, he always travels with a memory-foam pillow. “It’s like a smaller size, condensed for traveling,” he says. “I can stick it in the top of my bag, and I’ll sit on it, which helps with my back. Or I’ll put it behind me, which is super-comfortable. It helps me fall asleep on the plane a lot better.”
And if you’re really into white noise, or having a breeze on you? “A rechargeable travel fan is a good gadget as well,” Feibleman says. “Point that in your face with an eye mask and earplugs, you can sleep anywhere you can lie down.”
Jet lag is real, so get a jump on it
The hands-down, bar none, absolute worst part of international travel is struggling with jet lag. Post-flight naps and wonky bedtimes cut into your valuable vacation hours.
First thing to do? Be realistic about adjusting to a new time zone. “I get ambitious about all the things I want to do, but unless someone is literally dragging me by the hand from dinner to a nightclub, I probably won’t push too late in the evening during the first few days of travel,” Feibleman says. “That jet lag is real, and anyone who tells you otherwise that they have some secret sauce to stay awake, they’re lying to you. The secret sauce is cocaine, and frankly, a full night’s rest is cheaper.”
To get that full night’s rest on your travels, ease into your new time zone with one simple trick: About a week before you leave, start setting your alarm a little bit earlier every day. “It’s less of a shock on the body,” Ryba says. “You don’t get as much of a jolt when you’re traveling to somewhere cool, and you’ll have more energy to be able to do the things that you want to do.”
You knew they were going to say exercise. Aha, yes, but which one?
Before bed, try yoga to transition toward sleep. “Yoga is the perfect bedtime exercise because it’s relatively gentle and calming,” Burton says. “I’ve had doctors tell me to avoid intense workouts before bed because they can be stimulating, cause your heart to race and blood to pump – which apparently isn’t really conducive to sleep.”
Give bedtime yoga a shot with these eight moves, which can be done virtually anywhere, with no special equipment or mat. Or Google “bedtime yoga,” and you can browse thousands of nighttime routines.
Enlist a few choice substances… and skip a few others
Humans have used booze and drugs for centuries as sleep aids. But how beneficial are they for sleeping while traveling?
Well, remember how we told you to get some lavender spray? There’s a reason for that, and that reason relates to weed. Ryba, who’s an advocate for veterans’ access to medical marijuana, swears by certain strains of marijuana, such as Grandaddy Purple. Those sleepy strains contain a terpene alcohol called linalool, which is also present in, you guessed it, lavender. (If you’re worried about flying with weed, there are some best practices.)
If you’re not above a toke or two, Ryba’s advice is to use a combination of vaping, tinctures, and edibles. “Usually I’ll do a couple of tinctures or drops under my tongue or smoke a little bit of a heavy indica before I go to bed, and I’ll take half of an edible — nothing too strong,” he says.
“The tincture or the smoking will last for about an hour or so, and then the edible will kick in,” he continues. “That will keep me nice and cozy for the rest of the night, and I’ll wake up the next morning not feeling groggy. I’ll keep a heavy indica vape pen next to the bed, too. If I do wake up in the middle of the night and need the bathroom or something like that, I’ll go to the bathroom and then I hit the base pen real quick. And then just, you know, crash and fall back asleep.”
On the flip side, though, don’t count on alcohol to knock you out. The National Sleep Foundation, for one, finds that alcohol consumption before sleep reduces your overall sleep quality.
And if you need further convincing, leave it to Feibleman to lay out the facts. “I don’t recommend using alcohol to get to sleep — it makes for really fitful sleep and your brain comes alive as soon as you sober up,” he says. “Going to sleep drunk at 3am and waking up at 7am with a hangover is no fun at all. But it’s worse if you’re about to step into 90% humidity in Vietnam.” Like you, the traveler, soldiers needs to get the most out of their waking hours, too.