One helpful tip for getting a good night’s sleep while bike touring is to mimic your home sleeping experience as closely as possible. Cotton pillowcases or fleece sleeping bag liners can ease your mind by tricking your body. But you should apply that logic to your entire pre-sleep ritual. Have some dessert, brush your teeth, and once you’re all tucked in, do some light reading. Travis Engel is here with a bike hack that may make that last part a little easier to do in the wild.
No, the hack is not to bring your cat with … but omg, could you imagine?
I’m bad at sleeping. You’d think I’d have figured it out by now. It’s mostly just the beginning part. Doesn’t take much to snap me out of pre-REM dozing and bring me back to the land of the living. I’ll be doom-scrolling in bed, slowly feel myself drifting off, and then, with the simple act of plugging in my phone and re-situating my pillows, I’m wide awake again.
It’s an even bigger problem while camping. It feels like my brain has to decelerate from 100mph to zero. One minute, I’m breaking down my cook set, optimizing my kit for the morning, attending to personal hygiene, throwing a bear hang (I’m also bad at throwing), and keeping my gear from collecting dew overnight. The next minute… silence.
So, without cell service to fuel my primary addiction, I’ll read a book. Or, if I remembered, I’ll watch a few YouTube videos I’ve downloaded. Quick side-bike-hack: YouTube Premium allows you to download videos, which are great quick-hit comfort food for long trips. Really makes me feel at home when I can settle in with a few deep dives into, say, the untold stories behind my favorite 90’s anime. Problem is, there’s no comfortable way to do it for very long.
When I’m in my tent, there’s no headboard or wall behind me to prop my pillows on. And even with a pack lifting my head the equivalent of another pillow-and-a-half, I still have to raise my book or phone up to keep my gaze comfortable. Eventually, my hands get tired or my fingers fall asleep. Plus, after riding a bike for twelve hours, I really just want to rest my neck, which has had a hard life.
In fact, my whole spine has had a hard life. Flashback to two summers ago when I threw my back out doing trailwork. My yoga mat became my office chair for almost two weeks. While on an errand for a re-supply of Ibuprofen, I picked up a set of 90-degree reading glasses (called “prism” glasses, apparently) like the ones three of my four grandparents relied on while coping with their own back problems. They allowed me to keep my head on the ground, and my laptop on my lap while I let nature take its course. Then, as often happens with habits I develop while I’m healing from an injury, I kept using my prism glasses.
When pre-bed reading (or YouTubing or Nintendo Switching), it’s just more comfortable to be able to lay my head on my pillow and rest my entertainment on my chest. It took some getting used to, but eventually, it became quite natural. It really feels like you’re just looking at something that’s 20 inches in front of your face, even though it’s sitting below your chin. There’s no distortion or disorientation. Sure, it creeps the hell out of my wife to see me eyes staring dead at the ceiling behind these goofy square spectacles, but it’s not like she’s awake for much of it. She’s really good at sleeping.
Flash forward to an overnighter a couple weeks after my back healed up, and my prism glasses were the first bits to hit my kit. With the arms folded, they rest flat in a way that keeps them from getting damaged when compressed alongside the rest of my sleep supplies. I carry them in the same bag I use to diffuse my headlamp when it’s hung in my tent. Alternatively, if I hinge my headlamp down, the light can reach past the prism glasses, and it illuminates the page perfectly. Now that I’ve integrated them into my routine, I might say they’ve had an even greater impact in the wild than they have at home.
When it’s time for beddy-bye, I can line up my sleeping pad, situate my pillows, tuck myself in (with arms free) and pull out whatever pacifying media I’ve chosen for the night. With my head lying in sleeping position, I can rest my book or phone on my chest, only using my fingers to gently stabilize it.
While I’m reading or watching, my muscles are relaxing, and I’m in nearly the same position as I will (hopefully) soon fall asleep. I can stretch my winding-down process as long as my body needs until I’ve successfully tricked it into believing I’m in my bedroom. Then, just like in my bedroom, I pull off the glasses, set them aside, reposition my bookmark or plug in my phone, and drift off, hoping those 12 hours of pedaling help that process along. Oh, and the sleeping pills. They help too…