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Sleeping outside offers breath of fresh air during a ‘microadventure’

In his book Microadventures, Alastair Humphreys goads us to take short outdoor excursions. He describes hopping a train after work, camping outside with his suit for a pillow and returning the next day.

Alastair Humphreys

The campfire was at full blaze, and we still had a few more logs waiting in reserve. But as I stared up into the night sky, where Venus and Jupiter winked in and out of view behind a patchy veil of clouds, I was already feeling uneasy about bedtime.

"What does the forecast say now?" I asked.

Mike pulled his phone out, made a few taps, and shook his head.

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We were camped along the banks of the Humber River, near the confluence of highways 427 and 407, just outside Toronto city limits. We'd biked up from our downtown homes that afternoon for a one-night "microadventure," a term coined by British adventurer Alastair Humphreys to encourage cheap, simple, bite-sized outdoor excursions.

Humphreys' 2014 book, Microadventures, along with the associated hashtag, has pushed the idea into the mainstream. You may work 9-to-5, he points out, but that still leaves plenty of time for a 5-to-9 overnight foray. One of his most beguiling videos shows him changing out of his suit, hopping on a commuter train with a light day pack, then hiking up a hill to sleep on the summit with his crumpled suit as a pillow. In the morning, he takes a bracing swim in a tarn, hikes back down to the train station and is back in time for work – slightly wrinkled, but mentally refreshed.

The idea grabbed me, partly because the combined demands of work and a toddler at home meant that, for the first time in years, I didn't have any macroadventures planned. My usual canoe-trip friends Mike and Tim were in similar situations, so when I proposed that we slip the surly bonds of urban life for a night, they jumped at the opportunity.

While the definition of microadventure is flexible, Humphreys encourages a minimalist and slightly transgressive approach: Get off the beaten trail, find an interesting place to sleep and don't cart along a bunch of superfluous gear – such as a tent. That way, he writes, you'll "feel the breeze on your face, look up at the stars before you sleep, and sit up to a brilliant view in the morning."

My plan to follow his advice soon ran into a couple of snags. First, it's illegal in Toronto, and indeed in much of Canada, to simply unroll your sleeping bag on a cozy looking patch of grass.

"All I try to do is urge people to use common sense, and to try it for the first time somewhere that will not annoy people," Humphreys replied when I e-mailed to ask his advice. "And once they've done it once, they are usually converted."

To keep things simple (and legal) for my open-air debut, I settled on Indian Line Campground, a Toronto and Region Conservation Authority property that's easily accessible from the far northwestern end of the bike path that runs along the Humber River. The bike ride up was less than two hours through woodland and meadows that have been extensively rewilded over the past few decades. It wasn't remote Yukon (the location of the last canoe trip Tim, Mike and I did together), but it felt like a long way from downtown.

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Our campsite was a grassy meadow with a picnic table and a small, round clearing for a fire. A footpath led to the top of a nearby hill looking over the Claireville reservoir, a pseudo-lake created by a flood-control dam on the Humber. A pair of hawks circled above, harried by a red-winged blackbird protecting its nest; the hum of traffic on Highway 427 drifted across the water.

But where would I sleep? I'd been agonizing about this all week – a week that had already seen six consecutive days of rain, with more in the forecast. Also, I couldn't help worrying about the bugs.

So it was that, after we'd finished our burgers and corn and were sitting around the campfire munching M&Ms and hammering out the solutions to several pressing global problems, I kept asking Mike for weather updates. Showers were scheduled to start around 5 a.m., he kept telling me. Mosquitoes buzzed lazily around my ears. I caved.

As a backup, I'd brought an ultralight hiking tent whose covering consisted of nothing but lightweight bug netting. I could lie in my sleeping bag and watch the stars with the breeze on my cheeks, but still rush out and pull the fly over if it started raining. It felt like cheating, but by then the stars were fully obscured by ominous clouds anyway.

The goal of a microadventure, Humphreys had told me, was to slow down life for a few hours: "To simplify, to listen to nature and to my racing mind, to escape from the city pace and pressures and ambition."

By that measure, I decided, the trip had already been a success. Even the simple process of lighting a fire, with damp wood and pages torn from my notebook as tinder, had defied our attempts to hurry and forced us to recalibrate our habitual impatience. Tucked snugly into my sleeping bag, I drifted off to sleep under a blanket of clouds.

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In the end, it didn't rain until 7 the next morning, and then only a light sprinkle. In my quest to sleep au naturel, I'd blinked too soon.

Fortunately, we're already planning our next microadventure.

Nature's cognitive benefits

Researchers have found that going for a walk in a natural setting boosts mood and improves performance on cognitive tests. In fact, even looking at a picture of a natural scene produces a similar (though attenuated) cognitive boost. Our brains seem to respond more to the irregular shapes and high colour saturation of nature than to the straight lines and greyish hues of urban settings, says University of Chicago psychologist Marc Berman.

How much nature do you need?

Researchers haven't figured out the optimal dose, but a microadventure is certainly enough to trigger the effect. And the "5-to-9" approach suggested by Alastair Humphreys may be particularly appropriate, Berman notes, because that's when your brain needs the restorative effects most. "You'll get more of a benefit at the end of a workday," he says.

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