LAST SUMMER I WAS CAMPING in New Jersey. There was one night where I woke up every two hours, my wife and I taking turns bolting upright, certain it was a bear every time the pine needles rustled or a stick snapped.
Right before daybreak, I opened up my tent flap to find a large timber wolf staring at me from about 30 paces away. Our eyes met and it jumped towards me, baring its teeth. I rushed to close the flimsy tent flap, ineffectively yanking on the zipper. The wolf made it inside and bit my hand as we tumbled into a confusion of dizzying sensations.
Then I realized — I was dreaming. In the dream, I jumped out of the tent (the wolf was now gone) and ran through the forest feeling powerful and free. I awoke invigorated.
It was a lucid dream — a dream in which I knew I was dreaming. I was in REM sleep but still understood that my very-real feelings and sensations were actually taking place inside my brain while I slept. I’ve come to discover over the years as a backpacker and a camper, that camping — or being immersed in nature in general — brings on lucid dreams.
Many people try to induce lucid dreams with the help of modern technologies, such as by playing video games or using sophisticated sleep masks that flash lights in your eyes when they detect you are in REM. These assists are unnecessary when you’re in the wilderness, because the brain is naturally more aware. The wilds are the technology.
When I’m in the wilderness, my normal, everyday cognitive habits are left behind at the trailhead. Novelty is around every curve in the trail. My brain’s vigilance levels are heightened as I try to keep myself from getting lost and unconsciously work to identify sudden threats. These are all natural and wild analogues to the increased activity in the higher brain that lays the foundation for lucid dreaming.
Similar processes are at work when I’m in culture shock. My travels always bring on more lucid dreaming. Seems to me that while culture shock spurs on lucidity though sensory overload, camping is more of a sensory tuning, in part because I often camp alone and am socially isolated.
The first night effect
Then there’s the shitty sleep. I know I’m not the only one who wakes up panicked when camping someplace unfamiliar. Every rustling is a hungry bear or a murderer. The horror movies come back, no matter how irrational I know the fear is.
Sleeping in new places is stressful. Psychologists call this the “first night effect.” In fact, sleep researchers usually disregard the first night of data in a clinical sleep lab because sleep comes more slowly, with more awakenings in between, messing with the data pool.
This first night effect is exaggerated in outdoor settings because we’re used to sleeping in a quiet room far from the sounds of the night: the popping of the campfire, the hooting of owls, the scurrying of squirrels.
There’s also the physical discomfort. It doesn’t matter how padded the mattress is, or how many miles I’ve hiked — I have never sunk into my sleeping pad with the feeling of comfort and bliss. I’m also more likely to sleep on my back, due to the increased pressure on my hips and knees from trying to side-sleep on a thin surface.
Interestingly enough, research with sleep-related breathing conditions has shown how back sleeping — laying supine — is associated with more awakenings, more time spent in REM sleep, as well as more nightmares and sleep-related hallucinations. So I wake more often, remember more dreams, and create more opportunities to fall back asleep with lucid awareness — sometimes with vivid hallucinations. This is the “wilderness effect.”
Finding the dreaming spots
One of my favorite camping and dreaming locales is near Big Sur, California. I’ve taken dozens of trips up in the high cliffs above the Pacific Ocean. One night, I made camp under a cluster of bay trees that had grown up around some huge boulders. It was the perfect nook for a dreaming spot.
That night the fog bank rose dramatically to the top of the ridge, giving the impression that I was standing on an island surrounded by mists at the edge of the world. I watched the sun set and then set my own intentions for strong dreams.
I had forgotten a flashlight, so I went to bed early. The winds were fierce, leading to a lot of awakenings. But the frequent awakenings gave me some powerful hypnagogic imagery — those fleeting images and impressions you sometimes see when waking up from sleep or just as you are drifting off. With my eyes closed I saw incredible geometric imagery, curling, nesting, and, writhing around, looking a little like Celtic knotwork transforming into live snakes.
I just watched the imagery spin, turn, and transform. I also noticed in the dream how the imagery resembled pottery designs from the pre-Columbian peoples of the Southeastern US, where I grew up and spent much time in the woods.
Later, I thought about the connection between the dream imagery and my ancestral heritage in Ireland and Scotland, as well as to the indigenous landscape where I grew up and worked as a field archaeologist for years. Perhaps lucid dreaming in the wilderness can offer me more than my fears of wolves and bears.
After all, the landscape — the place that literally cradles us as we sleep — sketches its stones, hillsides, and valleys into our minds, creating a neural geography where we live out our inner lives. Maybe we aren’t dreaming up these images, but the landscape is dreaming us.
I still think about my wolf bite from the dream last year. The nightmare didn’t devour me, but nipped my hand, as if to get my attention. It woke me up to my ability to run in the night and rediscover my own wild nature.