Sleeping on the Floor: The Lessons I Learned the Hard Way

Hard Truths

In this post, I’m going to share with you my experiences and conclusions from sleeping on the floor over the past year.

You are probably assuming I will favor sleeping on the floor for the sake of being unconventional. The Unconventional Route is my blog and way of life, after all.

Well, that assumption may be partially true for other topics…

…but not when it comes to sleep.

Sleep is too important to mess around with. At the end of the day (literally!), I want whatever sleeping surface helps me feel the best possible, physically and mentally, in the long run.

Makes sense, don’t you think?

If so, read on. Maybe the lessons I learned will help you make a rational decision about what type of bed and mattress will best allow you to seize more Zs and thereby seize every day.

I had no better alternative.

My foray into sleeping on the floor began out of necessity, not choice.

I was fed up with fending off my fiancée, now wife, Kim’s invasions over the invisible middle line of the tiny double bed in the apartment we’d moved into a month prior in Valencia, Spain. And I was sweating my huevos off.

According to my Oura ring, a finger FitBit for sleep, my average sleep scores dropped from 78 to 74. Not a huge difference but enough to make me feel worse than normal the next day.

But what could I do?

Buy a new bed? We only had two months left in Spain, so that didn’t make sense.

So that left only one alternative: Either Kim or I had to get off the bed to make things more comfortable for the other.

Guess who won that battle?

Michael Tetley demonstrates one of many sleeping positions from his paper, Instinctive sleeping and resting postures: an anthropological and zoological approach to treatment of low back and joint pain.

What does the science say?

Before migrating to the living room floor, I did some research.

Or tried to.

Turns out science is sleeping on the topics of what sleep surfaces or positions are best:

  • Nothing about mattresses’ effect on sleep quality. All I found is this study: 30 people tested had lower body temperatures, and consequentially higher-quality sleep, on non-memory foam mattresses.
  • Nothing about mattresses’ effect on back pain. The most recent review I found, from 2016, sums it up: “There is no high quality evidence currently available to the support advice to use a particular type of mattress for the treatment of chronic low-back pain.”
  • Nothing much on sleep position. Only this paper on instinctive sleeping positions observed in less-modern cultures, which has amusing photos of the author demonstrating “native” sleeping positions in a Speedo.

Even the website Healthline, which tries to convince Google and readers that it’s smart by wantonly linking to as many studies as possible, resorts to mostly anecdotal evidence and speculation in its article on sleeping on the floor.

So without scientific guidance, I winged it.

I figured sleeping on the floor would be just like camping in my living room.

Oura ring report of my first night of sleeping on the floor. Six mid-night wake-ups. 62 sleep score. Not good.

Sleeping on the floor is not like camping.

It’s more like barefoot running. Sure, it’s “natural,” but if you transition too hard, too fast, you’ll probably hurt yourself.

Like me:

With just a yoga mat for padding on a laminate floor, my arms and legs fell asleep more than I did. And every night around 3 AM, my lower back woke me up screaming, “F you!” and didn’t stop until Kim emerged from her now spacious bed telling me it was time to get up.

Other bloggers’ posts on sleeping on the floor said it got better after about a week, so I powered through. No improvement.

Some said to try sleeping on your side or stomach. I tried that too. Even worse.

That’s what I get for believing blogs. (Consider yourself warned.)

I experienced a different type of back pain.

Oddly, as loud as my lumbar screamed at me during my fitful floor slumbers, the pain vanished within minutes of getting up. The rest of the day, my lower back actually felt better than ever.

One morning, it dawned on me:

Back pain from sleeping on the floor is different from the back pain I’m used to.

It’s not the same pain you get from too much slouching on a couch or from lifting heavy boxes the wrong way. It’s a duller version of what you get from doing back extensions. Exercise pain. Good pain.

My lazy little lower back muscles were complaining about having to get back to work after decades of slacking off on soft mattresses. Maybe I was pushing them too hard, but it was long overdue.

Sleeping on the floor
My floor sleeping setup in Valencia.

Even bad floor sleeps are mentally rousing.

Another silver lining on my miserable yoga-mat-only misadventures of sleeping on the floor:

I felt extra open-minded and creative.

Challenging the convention of sleeping on a bed seemed to turn off complacent mode in my consciousness. Like fasting, traveling, and other new things to try I mess around with on this blog, it proved to be a way to “act your way to a new way of thinking.”

If only I could find a way to be less delirious and drowsy at the same time.

One step back. Two steps forward.

My position softens.

My average sleep score after 17 nights of sleeping on the floor?

Sixty-seven.

Garbage. Way worse than the 74 I averaged sweating and struggling on the mini bed with Kim. A 67 sleep score is closer to what I’d get when I have to wake up at 5:30 AM to catch a flight after a night of drinking too much.

So I gave up on “pure” floor sleeping. I pulled out a thick blanket from the closet and folded it below my yoga mat for padding.

And what happened?

My sleep scores jumped to the high 70s overnight.

Better than the bed! And my lower back and creativity continued to feel stronger than ever.

After a nightmarish first two-and-a-half weeks, I was becoming a sleeping on the floor believer.

What about Kim?

Kim was becoming a sleeping on the floor believer, too.

…Of me doing it, not her.

While she doesn’t have an Oura Ring to back it up, her sleep quality no doubt jumped once I left her free reign to roll about the bed. And better sleep puts her in a better mood, which is good news for me. (Another relationship hack?)

But there’s a downside, too:

Sleeping in separate rooms meant less hanky-panky and late-night pillow talk.

Oh well. Both Kim and I were okay with those sacrifices if it meant better sleep.

Chris working at a table in Airbnb
Sleeping on the floor didn’t offset my pains from too much hunching.

Some pain remains.

Based on others’ experiences I read online, I hoped sleeping on the floor would reduce the spasms and tightness in my traps that I’d started feeling not long after moving to Spain.

Nope.

Once again, my experience was not as dreamy as my fellow bloggers said it’d be. Disappointing.

But not surprising.

Excessive hunching over my computer to work on this blog was clearly the culprit. Roundabout treatments like sleeping on the floor (or stretching or acupuncture) wouldn’t cure my pain. I had to address the source of the issue. Maybe take more Alexander Technique classes? But that’s another blog post for another time.

Four Conclusions on Floor Sleeping

Over the remaining month-and-a-half or so in Spain, my semi-softened floor sleeping continued to pay off.

I was particularly glad for it when a heatwave defeated our air conditioner. Being a foot-and-a-half lower down also lowered the temperature a precious few degrees.

And then we said hasta luego to Valencia.

Over the next nine months, Kim and I nomad-ed around Morocco, South Africa, then Canada. I slept wherever was most practical, which ended up being roughly half my nights on the floor and half on a bed.

This back-and-forth rounded out my perspective on sleeping on the floor versus on a big bed and led me to four conclusions:

Kim sleeping on the floor in an airport
When you can sleep on the floor, like Kim here, you can sleep anywhere.

Conclusion #1: You are what you sleep on.

I’ve become a firm believer that a harder bed makes you harder. And vice versa.

Mentally, it makes me feel more resilient and adaptable.

Every time I lay down on the floor, I can’t help but feel a bit like some unfazeable, Chuck Norris-esque ninja/monk. And I wake up more alert and ready to get off the floor and get going.

I feel more physically resilient and ready, too.

My lower back feels stronger, as I already mentioned. I also feel there may be some truth to floor-sleeping proponents’ claims that sleeping on a hard floor improves blood circulation and joint function.

And the extra daily mobility training definitely helps.

Getting up and down from the floor and making my bed on my hands and knees forces me into positions I hadn’t regularly been in since daycare. If soft fatties with stiff joints did the same, I bet healthcare costs would drop.

Conclusion #2: Mattresses marketing is fluff.

I used to believe you should invest in the best mattress possible. You spend a third of your life there, after all.

Now, I believe that’s as misguided as the three-month salary “rule” for engagement rings. Like they do in the diamond industry, mattress industry marketers have manufactured mirages of value to suck big bucks out of us.

Just as you can’t buy love with an expensive engagement ring, you can’t buy better sleep with an expensive mattress.

Not convinced?

This six-minute video, while way over the top with its dramatization, might help put your doubts to rest:

Conclusion #3: How matters more than What.

What we sleep on doesn’t matter as much as we’re lead to believe.

Mattresses are to sleep what shoes are to running.

No fancy cushioning system is going to make you a superstar sleeper. If anything, these “advanced technologies” screw up our physiology in the long run. All we need is something reasonably flat and comfortable.

What’s more important is how you sleep.

A regular evening routine with less alcohol, snacks, screens, and artificial light will do way more good for your sleep than any mattress, or lack thereof. So too will sleeping in darker, quieter, and cooler rooms.

And if you’ve already heard all these “sleep tips” a million times but still not motivated to put them into practice, I strongly recommend Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. It’s one of the “sledgehammer” books that changed my thinking because of all the eye-opening info it’s packed with about improving sleep.

Conclusion #4: Sleeping on the floor is the bitter Brussels sprouts of slumber.

Sleeping on the floor will never be quite as appealing as the sweet ice cream of cushy modern beds, but it’s better for you overall. And you can learn to love it, especially if you do it right.

Update: Two Years Later

It’s now been two years since I first experimented with sleeping on the floor.

And I’m still at it.

Not only that, Kim joined me six months ago. We bought thin Japanese-style tatami mats and futons for our apartment in Vancouver. This arrangement gives us the best of both worlds: We can put our mattresses beside each other to cuddle, canoodle, and chat, but still enjoy our own space and the body and mind benefits of a low, hard sleeping surface.

Kim has enjoyed sleeping on the floor so much that she’s now talking about bringing our mats with us to South Africa when we return there in October.

See?

Sleeping on the floor may be unconventional, but, more importantly, it’s practical. But don’t take some bozo blogger’s word for it. Try it for yourself.

Want More Ideas You Shouldn’t Sleep On?

Chris and Kim having fun
Chris and Kim having fun

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12 thoughts on “Sleeping on the Floor: The Lessons I Learned the Hard Way”

  1. When you finally get one, best to pair it with buckwheat pillows. Also, don’t forget to always hang them outside under the sunlight at least 3-4x a week as they’re prone to mold. When you visit Japan, visit the rural or the countryside, and you’ll see what I am talking about.

    Reply
    • Noted. Thanks, Ada.

      I’ve also noted to send you an email whenever we return to Japan (which we will, for sure). From the looks of your blog, your a Japan travel expert. And we’re particularly interested in exploring the countryside next visit. So talk soon!

      Reply
  2. I love your blog and especially enjoyed this post! About 6 years ago I transitioned to a more “furniture-free” lifestyle, which included experimenting with sleeping on the floor (yes, ouch) before finally moving to sleeping on a firm, thin futon. I highly recommend you check out Katy Bowman, a biomechanist and natural movement scientist and enthusiast in Washington State, and her books, including Move Your DNA. She was the inspiration behind my transition and so many of her unconventional concepts have revolutionized how I think about movement and the structure of my days. I think of her work often as I read your blog!

    Reply
    • Whoa, you’ve 6x more experience than me! Glad you seem to agree with my points. How often do you air your futon out?

      And thanks for the kind words and for the Katy Bowman recommendation. Coincidentally, another friend just suggested her book to me, too. Whenever I get the same recommendation from disparate sources, I consider that a sign not to ignore. Gonna get it now. Can’t wait to read it. And let me know if you have suggestions on topics to focus on or write about.

      Reply
    • Intriguing. I’ll look into inclined bed therapy. Coincidentally, I inadvertently did some on a sloped campsite over the New Year’s holiday.

      Thanks, Vimal!

      Reply
  3. I’ve been sleeping on a tatami mat with no pillow for the last 8 months! I’ve personally enjoyed it greatly (after the adjustment period). My back feels great and I feel more “connected” or “grounded” when going to bed and waking up. One unexpected benefit, which makes sense in hindsight, is that I get the same sleeping experience wherever I am, which has been a welcomed surprise when traveling!

    Reply
    • Thanks, Austin.

      Do you travel with your tatami mat? What one do you use? And did you go cold turkey on pillows, or make a gradual transition (using incrementally smaller ones)?

      Reply
  4. Ive been practising Yoga from the Sivananda tradition since the age of 20, 15 years ago. This is an intense yoga not for health nuts and beauty queens. Waking at 4am minimum, staying up all night sometimes to chant or meditate, doing intense hatha yoga, and giving up all your extra clothes and of course, fancy bedding. So yeah, I learned to sleep on a floor, sometimes mat, sometimes not. Ive slept in beds when it offends people I live or stay with but otherwise, Ive only had at most half a year back in a bed at which point I freaked out and sold the bed. It is indeed better, and the discomfort helps prevent sleeping in, though after 15 years believe me I can relax on a stone and laze the day away better than you can on a marshmallow.
    lately Im giving up chairs to prepare for monastic life and thats a whole new transition, my legs hate me…. Just wait til I start training to sleep while sitting. You thought the floor was bad…

    Reply
    • Thanks, Brian, for the perspective that puts anyone worried about the “discomfort” of sleeping on the floor to shame. All the best with your preparations for monastic life. Sounds serious!

      Reply

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