‘Extreme’ and ‘sleeping’ aren’t necessarily two words you’d think of putting together, but that’s exactly what travel writer and author Phoebe Smith specialises in. In fact, she’s built her career on extreme sleeping; spending nights under the stars, in portaledges, bothies and bivouacs in some of the wildest and most isolated corners of the globe. In fact, she reckons there’s no better way to drift off than being on your own in the middle of nowhere.
“Extreme sleeping was just a thing I could do,” she says simply, when I ask how sleeping became such a big part of her work. “I always argued, I’m not a great runner, I’m not a great climber, I’m not going to row an ocean, what can I do? I can sleep, because everyone has to sleep. It’s something we all can do and it should be very easy.”
But sleep didn’t always come easily to Phoebe. “I used to have insomnia as a teen,” She explains, “So I was always fascinated by sleep. But the more I slept outdoors and in these wild places, the better my sleep was. It really helped me start to understand what I needed to get a good night’s sleep, which was disconnecting from everything.”
Despite growing up near Snowdonia National Park, Phoebe didn’t grow up walking and camping. “I wasn’t interested in the mountains, I had to be dragged out walking by my parents! I was gonna be a rock star,” She tells me. And it was a love of writing lyrics that lead her to study journalism and English. After her studies she spent two and a half years travelling and experienced her first wild camp in the Australian outback. It was a true baptism of fire, where she was told pretty much everything could kill her, even the ants.
“I wasn’t interested in the mountains, I had to be dragged out walking by my parents! I was gonna be a rock star”
On returning to the UK, Phoebe vowed to bring adventure into her everyday life, and with little time and little money, walking and camping in her own back yard was the perfect option. “I survived that first one,” she says. “And I say survived because it felt like so much had gone wrong! And I was addicted.”
After the first solo camp of insect bites and sunburn, Phoebe’s penchant for sleeping in strange places has taken her to the furthest reaches of the UK and across the globe. She’s undertaken numerous extreme sleeping expeditions for a young people’s homeless charity (“I get to sleep in strange places for fun, but there are a lot of young people out there who don’t get that choice.”) and has even been awarded the job title of Official Sleep Storyteller in Residence for mindfulness app, Calm.
Calm approached Phoebe after reading one of her travel stories on the Trans-Siberian railway and asked her to rewrite it as a sleep story; a bedtime story for grown-ups.
“At first I thought, is it about writing a really dull story?” She laughs. But Phoebe’s stories are definitely not dull; She writes non-fiction, travel-themed sleep stories, taking the listener to different locations around the globe. She often tries to squeeze in a few important issues too, but in a nice, relaxing way. Her most popular story, Blue Gold (read by Stephen Fry), has been listened to over 15 million times, while her more recent tales average around two million listens per month. She regularly receives thanks from people who have used her stories to disconnect and get to sleep: “It’s nice to know I can write about something I love and actually help people.”
But sleep just scratches the surface of what Phoebe does. Alongside being a sleep storyteller and award-winning travel and outdoor writer, she’s also an editor, public speaker, author of ten books, broadcaster and presenter. She makes films, she’s a photographer, a #GetOutside ambassador for Ordnance Survey maps, she’s launching a podcast, and along with British-Jamaican polar explorer Dwayne Fields, she’s planning an expedition to the South Pole.
“When I said I was going to go off and solo wild camp, every single person I knew was telling me I couldn’t do it and I shouldn’t do it because I was a woman on my own”
Team #WeTwo will complete an Antarctic first; a sixty-day mission across Antarctica, including a three-day detour to visit an emperor penguin colony on Berkner Island before crossing the continent to the South Pole. Then they plan to take a group of young people on an expedition ship to see the penguins the following year. As a woman and black man travelling together, the idea is to represent the underrepresented. “We want to connect with schools in underprivileged areas,” Phoebe explains. “Show them people who look like them and are like them who aren’t from well-off backgrounds, who aren’t the people they see on TV. Show them that we can do this, and if we can do it, they can do it too.” Phoebe and Dwayne are currently busy training for the expedition alongside raising money and generating publicity – no mean feat when she already has so much going on.
So how exactly does Phoebe find the time to do all these different things? She laughs. “I don’t know! Honestly! I think it’s just because I choose to do all this stuff I genuinely care about. I feel like I’m doing it for a bigger reason, so I don’t just make films or write books about me because I want people to know who I am, I do it to tell stories. I think everyone has a story to tell.”
And she certainly has some amazing stories to tell; her own, the stories of others and the stories of the places she sleeps in. From waking up in the night to answer the call of nature and being treated to a private showing of the Northern Lights, to running out of gas mid camp-out, Phoebe’s stories are open, honest, heartfelt and funny. It’s no surprise that she’s inspired so many people who’d never thought they could go wild camping to get out there and do it.
“I’m never off duty, that’s how I always describe it,” she says, “I meet some incredible people who are doing amazing things with their communities, for wildlife conservation, for environmental conservation, and all these stories are going on but not being told. I feel like I’ve managed to develop this platform for myself where I can tell their stories for them, I can get people to notice. That’s what drives me.”
And whether it’s to help people sleep, tell the story of a particular place, person or animal, Phoebe has worked hard, really hard, to create a positive storytelling platform. And it’s not always been an easy journey: wil camping has become more and more popular with women (and men) over the past five years but that wasn’t the case when Phoebe started out. “When I said I was going to go off and solo wild camp, every single person I knew was telling me I couldn’t do it and I shouldn’t do it because I was a woman on my own,” Phoebe explains. “It sounds really odd because I’ve never thought of myself as a woman. I’m just a person who is adventurous and likes doing these kinds of things. So I was really shocked that attitude was still there.”
Even today, as Team #WeTwo, Phoebe and Dwayne continue to face opposition because of their gender and skin colour. Recently they approached a company for sponsorship: “I was told that I didn’t have the physicality for it. I was told that there were plenty of younger, prettier, sexier girls than me. Dwayne was told he was the wrong colour, and that between us we just weren’t well connected enough. We weren’t from the ‘right’ part of society”.
But Phoebe’s not letting those attitudes put her off. Quite the opposite, in fact. “It lit a fire in our bellies,” she says, it’s made them even more determined to make themselves more visible.
And rightly so. Because what Phoebe’s doing is important, from the stories she tells to the way she tells them. What struck me from talking to her is not only how much she cares about what she does, but how she makes sure she does it right. Sure, she makes mistakes along the way, but she makes a point to document them and learn from them. “Mistakes are a part of life. I hope I always keep making them and keep learning!” She talks frequently about how privileged we are to be able to travel, and how respecting the environment and learning about other cultures is a huge part of that.
“It’s about relearning to exist with nature, which is where we started out anyway.”
She and Dwayne will plant trees to offset the carbon emissions from their Antarctic expedition, while she always takes a bag to pick up litter when she’s out on walks and camps. “Remember, you’re just borrowing that little patch of wilderness,” she advises. “I always try to leave a place cleaner than it was when I arrived.” And yes, this does involve taking your toilet paper home with you.
“I don’t think of what I do as going out into the wilderness,” she explains. “I think of it as going back in. It’s about relearning to exist with nature, which is where we started out anyway.”
Wise words from a woman who’s looking forward to camping in Antarctica so she can get a good night’s sleep.