Sleep, I’m fond of saying, is for the dead. This isn’t to say I’m not fond of sleep — I love it. But sleep might as well be death, so the less of it on which you can reasonably get by the better, as far as I’m concerned.
This is particularly true when traveling. If you travel to have experiences, as I do, then you want to maximize the amount of time you have to experience things — and sleeping long or awkward hours on a more than occasional basis leaves you with wasted days you might as well have spent at home.
If you don’t typically get up early at home, I present to you this challenge: Start, preferably at least a week before your trip begins. Continue throughout your trip — and don’t allow yourself to sleep past 7 a.m. I absolutely swear you won’t regret it.
Practical Reasons for Rising Early
Getting in the habit of waking up early when you travel is perhaps most useful if you’re on a grand trip across a country or continent. When I traveled in South America between February-April 2011, for example, many of the bus trips I took departed or arrived early in the morning. In either case, it was important to be awake, alert and ready sometimes around sunrise.
In other instances, specific excursions you take may necessitate waking up early. Since I decided to do Macchu Picchu independently on the same trip to South America, I had to enter the park as soon as it opened (5 a.m.) in order to reach the summit around sunrise, before the lazy tourists who traveled to the top by bus arrived.
In both cases, my having gotten up at 7 or so each morning since the beginning of my trip made my even earlier rising slightly more bearable — particularly for the latter, which I did after an extremely long night of drinking and partying in the surprisingly happening city of Cusco, Peru.
But What If I Don’t Have Plans?
Exercise: Go for a run or, if you’re staying near the sea, for a morning swim. Eat breakfast, particularly if your hostel offers it free with the price of your bed, as Loki Hostels in Bolivia and Peru do. Take an early morning stroll around the city or countryside where you’re staying and observe how locals go about starting their days, as I did in Jerusalem, Israel.
Whatever you do, do something.
In my mind, getting up early when you travel is less about having a reason to do so and more about the fact that there isn’t a reason not to wake up early. Why would you want to stay sleeping when the entire strange, new world around you is waiting for you to discover it?
Of course, early risers can use morning time for more practical, productive tasks. If your hostel has Wi-Fi, as a growing amount of them do, use the early morning to update family and friends as to the progress of your trip, either via social networks like Facebook or Twitter — or, if you’re crazy like me, by starting your own travel blog.
Alternatively, use this time to upload photos to Flickr, Picasa or whichever online photo sharing service you use. In addition to the fact that this frees up valuable daytime you can use for absolutely anything under the sun (including the delightful sun itself), less people use the Internet in the early morning, which usually results in a faster connection and less of your time spent on the computer in the end.
The Psychology of Sleep
When I was a high school senior in AP Psychology a million years ago, my teacher Mr. Gilbert reminded the portion of the class who didn’t already know — I can’t recall at the moment if I did — that sleep happens in 90-minute cycles. As a result, someone who sleeps just an hour and a half may actually feel more rested than someone who sleeps five or even eight hours, since he wakes up after a full cycle has completed and the other person wakes up afterwards.
What this means for travelers is that if you happen to have an extremely late night — let’s say you stay out until 5 a.m., which in places like Brazil is actually considered an early go-home time — it’s still possible to wake up at a decent hour without having your day dominated by fatigue. This also means that if you do decide to take a siesta during the middle of any particular day, 90 minutes is an ideal amount of time to set aside for it.
My limited academic knowledge on the subject aside, one psychological aspect of sleep that’s important to remember is that its sole purpose is to recharge your body and mind — it’s not something to be savored or unnecessarily prolonged, again particularly when you’re on the road.
To Alarm or Not to Alarm
I’m lucky enough– or unlucky enough, depending on how you look at it — that all it takes is a single ray of sunshine for me to be wide awake. Likewise, I typically fall asleep relatively soon after the sun sets in the evening. In biology, they call this a “circadian cycle.”
In general, unless you have to wake up extremely early (we’ve all had that 5 a.m. bus or 2 a.m. flight, haven’t we?), I recommend you try to do so not with an alarm, but sleeping in a place where the sun will hit you when it rises. Of course if you’re staying in a hostel — and particularly, if you stay in a dorm room with others who may close the window shade on your behalf — this can be easier said than done.
If you do choose to (or, in the case of staying in a dorm, are forced) to use an alarm to wake up, resist the urge to press the “Snooze” button. Rather than thinking about the fact that morning has arrived as a negative thing — and end to your beloved sleep, as it were — be thankful for it: It’s time to get your next day in your amazing, far-away destination started. You’re alive and you’re living: Sleep, after all, is for the dead.
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who’s been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as “CNNGo” and “Shanghaiist” along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.