How to Stay Awake at Night: 29 Tips I Learned in the Army

Stay Awake at Night

How to stay awake at night? Soldiers are often required to stay awake for long periods of time in inhospitable environments (desert heat, bug-riddled forests, and sweltering jungles). When you are exhausted staying awake and staying focused is one of the hardest things to maintain. I have pulled my fair share of late nights either on guard duty, staff duty, or putting together a plan for a mission. Below is a list of some of the best tips and techniques I have used to remain focused and awake.

Now…on to the tips for staying awake

1. Get some sleep in the bank.

    If at all possible, get some sleep in the bank beforehand. Sleeping long hours before your shift will help you “bank” some sleep which will help you get through a long day’s mission and guard shift that night.

    how to stay awake at night

    2. Get your caffeine.

      Coffee or tea is my preferred caffeine brew. Red Bull or Rip-Its also work, but tend to dehydrate you, especially in hotter climates. I will sip on coffee the whole shift, but be careful as you may not be able to go to sleep once your shift or work is complete. I have a great tutorial on how to make coffee in the field (click here).

      3. Use smokeless tobacco.

        I know, I know tobacco is bad, and it can cause different types of cancer. However, nicotine will keep you awake and occupied. Avoid smoking as the ember from a cigarette can be seen from about 800 yards with night vision devices, and the smoke can be smelled just as far.

        4. Stand up.

          It can be done, but falling asleep while standing up is difficult. In the Army we often use this during boring mandatory training to prevent dozing off.

          5. Drink water.

            Again, we use this during boring classes to stay awake, and it works on guard duty just as well. It keeps your mind occupied while you are drinking and resets your brain if you are about to fall asleep.

            6. Get uncomfortable.

              If you are somewhere where it is cold outside, strip off some clothing or open the window. The coolness will help you stay awake.

              7. Chew some gum or candy.

              This will also help your mind stay busy and prevent you from falling asleep. If you can get caffeine gum that is even better.

              On my 2nd Iraq deployment in 2009, we were given MEG (Military Energy Gum) along with Rip-It energy drinks. They worked great and quickly became a hot bartering item. There have been numerous studies on the effect of caffeine on sleep deprived Soldiers. This study, performed by the Aerospace Medical Association, concluded that caffeine was an effective strategy to sustain vigilance and psycho-motor performance during military operations involving sleep deprivation.

              Military Energy Gum (MEG) delivers 100 MG of caffeine (average for a cup of coffee) in about 10 minutes and it lasts for about 90 minutes. I recommend the spearmint flavor gum. Click here to check out caffeine gum on Amazon.

              Military Energy Gum

              8. Do calisthenics.

                Provided the movement or noise won’t give away your position, push-ups or jogging in place will get your blood flowing and help wake you up. Drill Sergeants have been using this method since Jesus was a private.

                9. Get a breath of hand sanitizer.

                  NO don’t “Huff” it, just rub some on your hands like you normally would and while it is still wet, put your hands around your nose and mouth and breathe in. The alcohol will provide you with a quick jolt and wake you up (similar to ammonia).

                  10. Switch out with a battle buddy.

                    If you have enough manpower, guard shifts should be done in pairs, so that one Soldier can keep the other awake, or at least provide someone to switch out with as needed. It is even better if you can offset the two Soldiers by an hour so one is always fresher than the other (Say each is on a two hour shift). Scouts will switch out observation of a NAI every 15 minutes to maintain good focused observation.

                    11. Have a splash of water.

                      Splash some cool water on your face and rub on your arms. The coolness will help jolt you awake. This also works well in really hot environments to keep you cool.

                      12. Make up a story about your surroundings.

                        Invent a story about things you can see in your surrounding environment. Pretend that the tree over there has someone hiding behind it, and why they are hiding, etc. Keeping yourself occupied can sometimes be a task in and of itself.

                        13. Allow your mind to wander.

                          Just think through whatever comes to mind as you sit/stand/prone there, what’s going on back home, what you are going to do when you get out of the Army, etc.

                          14. Don’t get drunk the night before.

                            Alcohol hangovers are the worst to try to remain awake through. It is better to not have to worry about sour stomach or dry heaves while on duty.

                            15. Think up an idea for a Youtube video.

                              If your tech savvy, think about how you would create a Youtube video. Go over it in your head, what type of shots you would use, what it is about, etc.

                              16. Write home.

                                Don’t underestimate the power of a handwritten letter to a loved one back home. Whether it is a friend, GF/BF, spouse, or your parents. They will recognize that you took the time out of your busy schedule to write to them, and will probably keep the letter forever.

                                17. Pull out your nose hairs.

                                  One at a time of course, with your multi-tool. The subtle pain will keep you awake, and improve your grooming standards at the same time.

                                  18. Trim Fingernails / Toenails.

                                    It will keep your mind busy, and besides, you are beginning to look like a velociraptor.

                                    19. Sharpen your knife.

                                    You always need a good sharp knife, get a small sharpener and put it in your pocket on your way to your shift. The best sharpener I have used is the Smith’s PP1 Pocket Pal.

                                    It can sharpen a dull or damaged knife with about 10 pulls through the carbide blades. Your blade can then be finely sharpened by using the ceramic blades, again with about 10 pulls. It also has a rounded diamond dust file for serrated blades and gut hooks. You can check out the knife sharpener on Amazon here.

                                    Smith's PP1 Pocket Pal Knife Sharpener

                                    20. Write a song.

                                      You can use the beat of a song you know and make up your own words to match the beat. This will keep you occupied and prevent dozing off.

                                      21. Hot sauce under the eyes.

                                        Take some of the hot sauce from your MRE and rub just a dab underneath your eyes. NOT IN YOUR EYES, just underneath, the spiciness will make your eyes water just a tad, but not enough to interfere with your marksmanship.

                                        22. Have a dip of coffee grounds.

                                          I have only done this once, and it was gross but it kept me awake. You can use the instant stuff in your MRE if you don’t have access to the good stuff.

                                          23. Whittle.

                                            As long as you aren’t in the desert you will have access to wood. Find a good stick and try to carve something for your kids, battle buddy, girlfriend whatever.

                                            Watch a Youtube video on a whittle project and get to work. Just don’t get so enthralled you miss that insurgent that is low crawling toward your position with a RPG.

                                            Serrated knives aren’t good for whittling, but will work if you don’t have anything else.

                                            I carry a Swiss Army Tinker in my kit, it has a few attachments like a can opener and screw driver that come in handy, but the two blades are perfect for whittling, and the handle is big enough not to cause discomfort over time. You can check out the Wounded Warrior Project Special Edition in Amazon here, that is the one I have.

                                            swiss army tinker

                                            24. Develop tactical scenarios.

                                              I like to ask myself “What if…?” What if a family of refugees approach and won’t stop? What if I hear a gunshot and see a bullet impact to my right? What if a vehicle approaches and won’t slow down? How many times do I shoot the engine block before aiming at the driver’s windshield? You get the picture.

                                              25. Avoid heavy or large meals before duty.

                                                This probably won’t matter unless you are on a base somewhere. If you are on a mission food is not that abundant.

                                                26. Be in shape.

                                                  If you are fit your body will handle the stress of sleep deprivation much better than if you are a borderline 180 APFT score. Your body will utilize oxygen more efficiently allowing you to do more and expend less energy than someone who is out of shape.

                                                  27. Practice knot tying.

                                                    knot tying kitTake some 550 cord and practice tying knots. Every Soldier should be able to tie knots, you can use knots to put up your hooch, make field repairs to tents, tie down loads, the uses are endless.

                                                    Print something off the internet, or get a small knot smart card. I got a care package on my first Iraq deployment that had a knot tying kit in it. Essentially it was some waterproof playing cards on a carabiner and two cords. That would keep me busy for hours on guard duty, and I learned a valuable skill.

                                                    It’s also good for hip-pocket training while you wait for a training event to start. You can check out the tactical knot tying kit here on Amazon.

                                                    Knot Tying Kit

                                                    28. Slap yourself in the face.

                                                      Again I wouldn’t do this unless you are really having a tough time, and noise will not give away your position. Start really light and just slowly get harder.

                                                      29. Lay off the carbs or crash and burn.

                                                        Carbs turn to sugar which gives you a sugar high, but later makes you crash. Proteins will keep you fuller longer. Jerky, nuts, hard boiled eggs, etc are best.

                                                        In Closing…
                                                        The largest part of staying awake is keeping your mind occupied. This is tricky because if you get too occupied you may miss an enemy sneaking up on your position. Avoid reading books or using a tablet or cell phone (the light can give away your position too). These tips will help if you can remember them. Do you have some more tips I missed? Let me know in the comments below!

                                                        Chris Mathis

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