It may sound difficult to believe, but most any soldier will confirm this: you can fall asleep even while marching down the road in formation. After several days with little or no sleep, accompanied with extreme exertion, your mind can simply shut down when doing something as mundane as ruck walking.
Other instances of sleep starved soldiers making mistakes are common. Units become separated because soldiers fall asleep during brief halts. I’ve even seen soldiers doze off while firing a machine gun. The human body needs sleep and if we don’t willingly provide it with enough, it will take it upon itself to get the required rest, not always at the most opportune time.
Sleep specialists know that the body repairs itself and grows new cells much faster during sleep. They have also gathered compelling evidence that during sleep, the brain processes the information it has acquired since the last rest period. As proof of the value of sleep and information retention, they have found that students who cram for a test the night before and then get several hours of sleep will do better than those who sleep first and then awake early to study.
For the survivalist, the science behind sleep may seem unimportant. The lessons that come out of that research could, however, save your life. There are a few things human beings can’t live without. Without oxygen we die in a few minutes, without water we die in a few days, and without food we die in a few weeks or a couple of months. Lack of sleep itself will not directly kill you, but it will certainly allow someone else to gain an advantage over you or cause you to make dangerous mistakes.
In a perfect world, the experts recommend 8 to 9 hours of sleep each night. This may not be possible in a survival situation. Fortunately we can function for long periods of time on much less sleep; even two or three hours a night is enough to keep us going. The occasional chance that we have to get a little more rest can be sufficient to keep us functioning indefinitely, if at a slightly diminished level.
There are many methods and substances that can help us fight off sleep for a while, but none of them can replace the regenerative effects of good, natural sleep. A rest plan has to be followed to allow a group or an individual to function. Even short naps of twenty minutes can work wonders if a plan is rigorously followed. At every possible opportunity, longer periods of sleep should be allotted. If you are a leader, don’t forget to include yourself in the plan and follow the rules. Often it’s the leaders who suffer the most sleep deprivation and yet are depended upon by others to make critical decisions.
In a survival situation, there will be many times when sleep is just not possible or is secondary to other concerns. However, sleep is a priority, and must be planned for like everything else.