What’s in my “Sleep Travel Kit”? And how to assemble your own
Travelling can wreak havoc with our sleep.
From the unfamiliar new bed and pillow to the noise from the street or the next room, travel can upend our normal sleep routine and environment. And that’s not to mention any time-zone changes and jet-lag that also mess with our body-clock.
We tend to sleep worst on our first night away. Studies show that on our first night in a new environment, such as a strange new hotel room, only half of our brain sleeps, while the other half – under normal circumstances, also asleep – remains alert, on the lookout for “predators” (or their modern equivalent).
I remember one terrible night that I had in a hotel in Singapore. The air-conditioning was broken. No matter how we turned the room’s thermostat, the room thermometer that I’d brought still read 72 °F (22 °C). Meanwhile, all my attempts to block out intrusive synthetic light failed. By the morning, I felt a wreck.
Even after the first night, things don’t always improve. It can take several nights – or more.
I’m happy to call myself a sleep geek.
Even before I started working at Calm this year, I was more interested than most people in sleep. I am not, I stress, a medical professional or expert – I’m a software engineer – but I have a degree in bioengineering and like to keep up with the latest scientific sleep studies.
I therefore know the foundational importance of sleep to our general health. As someone who’s also interested in living a long and healthy life, and in optimizing for such longevity, high-quality sleep is non-negotiable.
This has all led me to develop my own pretty strict sleep routine, designed to help me sleep as well and regularly as possible.
Some of my friends tease me about it but I don’t mind because I find it such a huge help.
The importance of my sleep routine to my wellbeing has made me more aware than once of how drastically travel can disrupt it. This in turn has led me to devise my own “Sleep Travel Kit”, containing seven or so items that I now make sure to take with me when I travel.
It’s the sleep equivalent of a travel first aid kit – but not just for emergencies.
By using my sleep travel kit, I’ve been able to minimize the disruption that travel causes to my normal sleep routine and avoid the drop in sleep quality during the first nights away. (I even track this by using my Oura ring!)
So, let me explain what’s in my travel kit – and, in the process, how to assemble your own.
What’s in My Sleep Travel Kit?
1. Sunglasses and blue light-blocking glasses
Light exposure plays a role in regulating our circadian rhythm. It’s important to get enough sunlight during the day and then to get less light – especially blue light, that comes from screens and digital devices – close to your bedtime.
The decrease in light exposure helps your body produce melatonin, the so-called “sleep hormone”, which helps you fall asleep.
To block out sunlight outside, I start wearing my sunglasses roughly four hours before my bedtime. Any sunglasses with dark lenses of reasonable quality should work.
To block out blue light inside, I dim the lights as well as wear my blue light-blocking glasses (cheaper alternative). I do this roughly two hours before bedtime. You can find these glasses online for $10-$100. I’ve found the cheaper ones to work just the same; it’s the aesthetics of the glasses that change with price.
I realize that some people might consider this extreme or even weird but I find it a big help and know others who do too.
These glasses also come in handy for fighting jet-lag. I use them even before I depart, to start adjusting to the different time zone of the place to which I’m heading. So if I get to the airport in San Francisco in the morning and it’s already 6pm in the place to which I’m travelling, I start wearing my sunglasses or blue-light glasses at the airport before I take off (even at the risk of looking strange!).
2. Electrical tape and travel scissors
Do you also find that the blinking red light on hotel fire alarms makes it hard to sleep? I find that hotel rooms are filled with small lights that can’t be unplugged at night.
I fold a small piece of the tape at the end for easy removal. If necessary, I also use towels or a pillow to block the light that seeps through the bottom of the door.
3. Room thermometer
Temperature is critical to falling and staying asleep. Your core body temperature needs to drop slightly in order for you to relax and fall easily asleep – and taking a bath or shower before bed is a good way to achieve that.
The room temperature that most people find best for sleep is around 65°F (18 °C).
Hotel thermostats, however, tend to be inaccurate. That’s why I bring my own room thermometer, to make sure that the room is the right temperature. Any thermometer will work. I bought a standing one online for $12.
4. Sleep socks
One way of lowering your core body temperature is to wear socks. This helps your feet get more blood supply, which draws the blood and temperature away from your core.
I bought fuzzy sleep socks from Korea for $2 per pair. Any comfortable socks will work. Here are five pairs for $9.
5. White noise and/or Pink noise
White noise and pink noise have both been shown to deepen sleep. Pink noise has even been shown to improve memory in older adults. Playing such noise while sleeping can also block any noise from the street and/or neighboring rooms.
When travelling, I use my Calm app to play the pink noise soundscape during sleep – but Calm also features a white noise soundscape, which some prefer. There are also portable machines that play white noise, that you can buy for $10-$30.
At home, I tend to prefer white noise over pink noise but I’ve been experimenting with pink noise when I travel. If my sleep is not affected, I’d prefer to improve my memory as well.
This is convenient for me because meditation is part of my sleep routine. I usually play the unguided meditation in the app, before going straight to the pink noise soundscape.
6. Sleep mask and earplugs
I also include a sleep mask and earplugs in my sleep travel kit – just in case.
I’m not generally a fan of sleep masks because waking up to natural light is best for your circadian rhythm. However, if the electrical tape does not do the job and the curtains don’t block out synthetic outside lights, I resort to the mask.
Personally, I find earplugs uncomfortable. But if there’s, say, construction or a loud party outside the hotel room and the white noise at max volume doesn’t cover it, I then use earplugs.
7. Melatonin Pills – For Jet-Lag (Optional)
Jet-lag can be a huge struggle, especially if the travel is for work. I have a separate jet-lag protocol that I follow (which I may blog about separately in future). But one part of it is using melatonin pills.
Melatonin is a hormone released by the brain at night when it’s dark. It acts like an internal alarm clock, telling us that it’s time to sleep.
In spite of what some people may think, taking melatonin pills don’t help us fall asleep because the hormone does not affect sleep generation.
When our circadian rhythm, however, is upturned by changes in time-zone, melatonin – in this case in the form of pills – comes in handy for signalling to our body that we’re shifting time. It helps us to sync our internal circadian system with the new time.
The key is to take a low dosage of melatonin. We don’t need a lot for the signalling to work. Using the pill, along with the above items, should help mitigate the effects of jet-lag.
So, if I’m travelling to a different time zone, I bring my melatonin pills. I then take 0.5 mg of melatonin around two hours before bedtime in the new time zone to which I’ve just located.
8. Pillow (Optional)
If I’m travelling for longer than three days, I also bring my own pillow. (And doing so then lets me use the hotel’s pillow under my legs or to block light seeping under the door.)
The brand of pillow is not important but the “fill power” (the volume inside the pillow that one ounce of down will fill) needs to be above 700 for back sleepers. Higher fill power tends to be both softer and better quality (and also, I find, lasts longer).
After trying many pillows and taking advice from others, I've found a simple, $80 down pillow works best for me.
The key is to bring your own pillow, to minimize the change in your sleeping environment.
9. A travel toiletry bag – to hold everything
I like to put all of the above items – except the pillow – in a travel toiletry bag, which serves as the container for my sleep travel kit. You can buy one for $5-10.
Assembling Your Own Sleep Travel Kit
You can find most of the items in my travel kit on Amazon or elsewhere for – apart from the pillow again – around $10 or less each.
You should be able to assemble the whole kit, including the pillow, for around $175 or less. You may have some of the items already. (And if you feel you need to justify the cost, you may also, of course, find some of these items useful at home.)
Why not try assembling your own sleep travel kit for your next trip?
I am not a medical professional and this advice should not be interpreted as medical advice. If you are having trouble sleeping, please contact a sleep specialist.