Sleep Deprivation in a Survival Situation

Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation simply put is a condition where you do not receive enough sleep. Many of you may naturally believe you never get enough sleep, but sleep deprivation in the extreme can mean the difference between surviving and not in some situations. Poor sleeping habits are not the same as being totally deprived of sleep however.

Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation

  • Hallucinations,
  • Confusion
  • Loss of memory
  • Hand tremors
  • Headaches
  • Increases in blood pressure
  • Elevated stress hormone levels
  • Extreme irritability

The complete absence of sleep over an extended period is impossible for humans. People will fall asleep while driving, working with dangerous machinery and at other times where attentiveness is paramount to your survival.

Your body will simply cause you to fall asleep unless there is a medical condition that prevents you from sleeping. You will essentially “pass out” once you have been deprived of sleep for an extended period.

Lack of sleep will affect the brain and cognitive functions making it impossible to make rational decisions if you can make any at all.

Depriving a person of sleep has been used as an interrogation method and is considered torture by many. Typically, a person is kept awake for days by playing loud music, with random and constant interruptions, harsh lighting and forcing a person to stand, sit or kneel in positions not conducive to sleeping.

Sleep Deprivation While Lost or Stranded

The darkness is made for sleeping and you as a human have an internal clock that tells you when it is time to sleep based on the position of the sun. It does not matter whether the sun is visible or not, you could be in a sealed room and your body still tracks the cycle.

Along with the darkness come dangers, colder temperatures and possibly worst of all, fear of the unknown. This causes some not to be able to sleep, especially if you find yourself lost or stranded in the wilderness. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors took to the trees and caves when it became dark as a way of protecting themselves from predators that call the night their own.

This is one-reason humans feel an overwhelming desire for shelter at night and even with shelter, many find they cannot sleep because of real or perceived dangers. Our mind tells us danger lurks in the dark and even though well sheltered, the fear keeps people awake.

If you are not sleeping at night in a survival situation this means you will be sleeping during the day when you should be performing life sustaining tasks like hunting, shelter building or maintenance and collecting safe water, none of these tasks can be performed at night safely or effectively.

Some medical experts claim that a lack of sleep (between 17 and 22 hours) can have the same effect on the body as having an alcohol level of .05 to .08 percent. This adds new meaning to the term “drunken stupor” (BMJ).

Lack of sleep means you may be making bad decisions that can have life altering consequences. You can develop hypothermia or become dehydrated and not be aware of it because of your lack of mental acuity. Not knowing something is wrong or dangerous means you are not taking actions to correct the situation.

You are likely to become incapable of putting things into the proper perspective and you will lack the ability to take appropriate actions that will save your life.

Using an axe or knife or working around water or near cliffs or drop offs can cause you serious harm if you are fighting sleep.

Sleep Is an Important Survival Skill

If you cannot master sleep, you may not survive. The reasons why you cannot sleep are complex but as stated earlier it may have much to do with fear of what is there in the darkness, or simply very uncomfortable sleeping conditions. The reasons for lack of sleep when it is dark out can be reduced if not eliminated with a little common sense and some sensible preparations before setting out on your outdoor adventure.

The need for shelter is not only instinctive it is vital, and thus the location is important to help reduce the fear of predators and those dangerous and not so dangerous creatures that crawl along the ground. Humans simply cannot rest peacefully when they imagine things may begin crawling all over them. Some things that crawl can be dangerous, so it is important to address these issues before sleeping.

Elevated sleeping platforms can reduce the fear and the reality of crawling insects or reptiles invading your sleeping space. It will not eliminate them but knowing you are somewhat shielded has a great psychological effect. Make your shelter predator proof by using stout saplings or thorn bushes or thistles.

Predators want the easy meals and humans have never been an easy or even a desirable meal for most predators. People are killed by predators but rarely because the animal wanted to dine. Mostly people are in the way of the predator, have invaded their hunting grounds or the animal fears a person is a threat to their offspring. Make it difficult for the predators and they may very well look elsewhere.

Fire is a savior not only for practical reasons but for psychological ones as well. Knowing fire will repel insects and predators alike will go along ways toward a better night’s sleep than you normally would expect.

Adequate shelter is why being prepared for any situation is important. You must have good shelter material with you and the tools to build one from materials in your environment.

Stay hydrated and nourished for a better night’s sleep as well. Food is not always available even if you think the woods is teeming with game, so it is important that your survival pack have at least a 72-hour supply. If you think you have three days worth, you can ration it to last up to six or seven days, never ration your water though.

Sleep deprivation can be fatal in a survival situation so it is important you are aware of the effects. You need to be prepared by having the knowledge and skill sets along with the supplies and materials needed to ensure you can get a good night’s sleep in any environment.

As some of you may already know in today’s world a good night sleep can be anything but natural and you may actually have to work at it to achieve the much-needed sleep.


BMJ. (n.d.). Retrieved 2014, from