There’s an understanding among hostel folk, unwritten rules, a code of conduct pertaining to expected behaviour and mutual respect in the dorm; be as quiet as possible when others are sleeping, avoid turning on the ceiling light if you can use your phone to illuminate your immediate surroundings, know which bed is actually yours, don’t shag in the shared dorm unless everyone is involved, and so on, but, unfortunately, sometimes some assholes behaves like they didn’t get the memo.
Thankfully, hostel dorm dwellers are nearly always the most considerate and well-mannered humans you’ll ever meet, but that doesn’t mean getting an uninterrupted night of sleep is always guaranteed – snoring, farting, and beds creaking with every mid-slumber toss & turn, or the lunges of those bed-bound adventurers scaling little ladders on their ascent from base camp to top bunk are all sounds that punctuate nightlife in the dorm.
Fear not though, dear traveller, for this is not intended to scare you, but rather to help you avoid an unnecessarily restless night on your travels. While most hostels also offer private rooms at relatively good rates, you’d be doing yourself a great disservice to always opt for private rooms as the dorm is often where you’ll first meet other people, the first point of contact with new friends, so we’ve put together these handy tips for getting all the shut-eye you’d like, while still enjoying all the advantages of the friendly, and budget-friendly, dorm.
When booking your hostel online, it’s worth considering certain details relating to the room and the beds. On Hostelculture.com, we’ve included a space for property owners / managers to add a description & additional info about the room & beds etc. and this can be a very valuable resource when considering your options. For example, you might opt for the hostel which specifies that their bunk beds have a privacy curtain, or individual reading lights, or blackout blinds on the windows, or indeed even sleeping pods rather than bunk beds, and individual security lockers for your belongings, offering peace of mind while you sleep, as opposed to the hostel profile which doesn’t specify anything about their rooms. Those little touches could be the difference between a night of sound sleep and one of restlessness.
Furthermore, be aware that some hostels still require you make your own bed – thankfully they’re a dying breed, but if you do end up in one, you should always make your bed as soon as you get to the room – there are few things more annoying than having to make the bed when all you want to do is go to sleep already. Also, there’s likely going to be late night drunken revellers returning to their unmade beds who will sound like the thunders of hell as they try in vain to dress their mattresses, so you’d best prioritise hostels where the beds are ready and waiting.
When you’re checking in, it’s worth asking the lovely hostel receptionist if there’s a top bunk available rather than the bottom bunk if you’re not adverse to climbing. This way, if your bunk mate gets in later than you, they’ll not have to climb and you won’t be woken by the shaking bed frame.
Similarly, the receptionist should be familiar with the layout of the room, so, if you’re a particularly light sleeper, ask to be allocated to the furthest available bed from the door & bathroom as these are the parts of the room guaranteed to have regular traffic. The same logic can be applied to proximity to windows if street lights or external noise affect your ability to get to sleep easily. Ditto if there’s multiples of the dorm size you’ve booked - ask if there’s a bed in one of the rooms in the quietest part of the building / at the rear, as opposed to street-side, etc.
Of course, none of the above are major issues if you have ear plugs & an eye mask – things which ought to be essential pieces of kit for hostelling. Some people may not like the idea of being virtually deaf & blind in a room with other people, but it might just be a blessing when Pedro & pals bowl into the room at 5am, singing their national anthem with vodka-fuelled gusto.
Most hostels have these available to buy, and it’s worth investing in, even if you won’t use them a lot – better safe than sorry.
While tactical positioning and using your eye mask & ear plugs are good ways of maximising your chances of uninterrupted sleep, for some, simply not being in your own bed and being in a room with other people, especially if you’re not used to it, can make it difficult to get to sleep in the first instance. Thankfully there are things you can try which will help you drift off to the land of nod.
Replace your ear plugs with in-ear headphone buds and listen to some music; ideally something soothing and without lyrics, that way it’s less likely to inspire internal dialogue or provoke a specific train of thought, remaining mere background music, which can distract you from the fact that you’re in a strange dorm and help lull you to sleep. It isn’t for everyone, but for many, myself included, it really helps.
Just be sure the volume is relatively low, otherwise any sudden fortissimo may well wake you up.
Breathing should, hopefully, come naturally to most of us, but breathing techniques designed to get to sleep may need a bit of practise; it does work, and is rather easy. I’ve experimented with a few different variations, but I found the 4-7-8 technique to be the most effective one by far. It’s an ancient Indian practise and is all about focusing on your breathing – aiding relaxation and centring your concentration on the physiological effects of your breathing.
During the technique, you softly place the tip of your tongue on the tissue of the roof of your mouth, just behind your upper front teeth. Breathe in quietly, but deeply, through your nose for a count of four, hold your breath for seven seconds and then breathe out through your mouth, around your tongue, gently making a ‘whooshing’ sound as you exhale completely for a count of eight. Repeat this cycle three times more for a total of four cycles. Like meditation and mindfulness, it’s a technique that takes some getting used to and practise, but persevere and you’ll soon start to notice the benefits as you’ll be able to relax the body & calm the mind much more effectively and easily, and fall asleep quicker.
Counting sheep is baaaaaad for getting to sleep
Firstly, sorry for the pun. I hope ewe won’t lamb-aste me too much for it.
While counting sheep has long been attested to as a means of ‘boring yourself to sleep’, it seems we’ve had the wool pulled over our eyes all along as numerous recent studies have deemed it counter-productive, keeping us awake for longer in fact. The logic behind sheep counting is based on distracting ourselves from our thoughts & worries, something which, it has been proven, is better achieved by imagining something relaxing and a little more detailed, such as a stroll on a beach or walking through a calm forest. Basically, find your happy place and reside therein until you’ve drifted off contented.
Read….a book, not a screen
Reading for a little while is a good idea if you’re finding it difficult to get to sleep, while reading can be exciting, interesting and thought-provoking, depending on the material, the actual act of reading lines in a book when you’re already somewhat tired will eventually tip you over the edge into sleepy-town – bunks with personal reading lights are a wonderful thing.
Avoid using your phone, laptop, or whatever other blue-light-screened device within a minimum of an hour before you intend going to sleep – it’s good for your eyes and brain, and allows you to disconnect easier, helping you get to sleep quicker.
Many people attest to a nice cup of herbal tea to help relax them in advance of hitting the hay, so it might be worth having some teabags in your backpack. Teas which contain Chamomile, Lavender and / or Valerian are quiet commonly used for inducing sleepiness. Failing this, you can try a warm drink, without caffeine or sugar, like warm milk.
Have an active day
If you have an action-packed day you’ll tire yourself out sufficiently to drift off quickly and sleep like a baby, but refrain from excessive activity in the couple of hours before bedtime as this will stimulate you and activate the body too much. Do a free walking tour or two, go for a swim, walk rather than take public transport for short jaunts, rent a bike and cover a few kilometres on two wheels, engage your mind by taking in some exhibits in museums & galleries, then wind down later in the evening and reward your weary mind & muscles with some deep sleep.
Alcohol is a double-edged sword; it definitely helps you pass out and sleep, but as your body starts ridding itself of the alcohol in the bloodstream it actually activates you, causing you to wake earlier and making you feel generally miserable – leaving you tired yet unable to sleep well. It’s unlikely that you’ll avoid drinking entirely while hostelling, but if you can avoid it within the 4 hours before getting to bed, you’ll be much better off.
Likewise, avoiding food in the couple of hours before slumber will aid a better night’s sleep but, again, this is unlikely, I mean pizza is pizza!
Temperature plays a big part in the quality of your sleep, booking a dorm that specifies ‘air-con’ is always a good idea when hostelling in warm climates, and don’t be afraid to sleep in the nip for fear of shocking others...the unexpected eyeful is one of the simple joys of the shared dorm! Likewise, ensuring you’ve got an extra layer to hand if you’re susceptible to the cold is a wise move.
That’s it dear hostellers. I hope reading this hasn’t put you to sleep, but that it might help you the next time you’re struggling to get some Zs. Please let us know some of your techniques for getting to sleep in the comments. Goodnight.
Written by Ray, in Ireland, while eating chocolate digestives & listening to Peggy Seeger, the Kinks, & The Red Hot Chilli Peppers