I remember one August many years ago when my family took our annual summer vacation. August is usually a hot, humid month where we live, so we chose to head north. My husband and I decided that New Hampshire was the perfect place: far enough north to bring relief with some cool, dry weather. It's always cool in New Hampshire, we said. In fact, the hotel we found didn't even have air conditioning—it was simply not necessary. (To me, this was the biggest plus. I was forever complaining about having to bundle up in sweatshirts and long pants in my house, where come summer, my husband and sons insisted on keeping it like a meat locker.)
We had big plans for our week at the sprawling 8,000-acre resort: we'd kayak, hike, golf, tennis and bike in the cool, green White Mountains. We'd swim in the resort's heated pool when the lake was too chilly. We'd play bocce ball, badminton and horseshoes when we got too tired for anything more strenuous. Who needed a gym when it was all outdoors for the taking? We were determined to make this an active vacation, active enough to fill our need for a big nature fix plus allow us to indulge with a little less guilt in the hotel's famed three-meal-a-day gourmet fare. My children, 13 and 14 at the time, were game, too, with one exception: they wondered what we'd do at night, since there were no TVs in the rooms.
We filled our suitcases with all the essentials like bug spray, sunscreen, sneakers, hiking boots and heavy socks, plus a few sweatshirts for the cool evenings. I looked forward to those evenings and fantasized about sitting on the porch, Norman Rockwell–style, gazing out at the lake and colorful flower gardens from the comfort of our cozy wicker rocking chairs, the glow of the night sky made brighter with the delightful sounds of nature. Then we'd head to our rooms and fall into bed, too exhausted to even think about watching the evening news.
One thing we didn't count on for that week, though, was the record-breaking temperature. It was the hottest week in the history of the 200-year-old resort, with temperatures topping unrelenting digits of 100 degrees each day. The heated pool was a nuisance instead of a relief. We were forced to relegate the outdoor activities to early mornings only, before the heat became too oppressive and dangerous for any sort of physical exertion.
Yes, the resort might have had everything you could possibly want except the one thing I desperately craved just that week: air conditioning.
Sleeping was the biggest challenge of all, with the hot air held stagnant and captive in our rooms, seemingly trapped in the old, heavy furnishings. Never before was the night stillness more unwelcome.
Cut to today, this week, when the country is facing a huge heat wave. How do you sleep when it is oppressively hot? Plenty of us don't have air conditioning; or, even if we do, increased demands on electricity could cause a power failure that would easily render it ineffective. And since experts agree that optimal sleeping temperature is between 65 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit, what to do when those desirable temperatures are nothing but a dream?
- Try to prevent heat from building up by keeping blinds and windows closed to keep the sunlight out. If the temperature outside is hotter than it is inside, keep the windows closed; conversely, at night, when temperatures are likely to be cooler outside, open the windows.
- Get creative with your sleeping arrangements. Since heat rises, it will be cooler on lower floors; drag a mattress or sleeping bag down to the basement if you can't find relief anywhere else. Or be a houseguest for a few nights if you're lucky enough to have a friend or relative with air conditioning.
- A shower or bath before bed might help cool your body (the jury is out on what water temperature is best; some people think cool water is best; others swear by hot). Keep your head cool by wetting your hair and going to sleep without drying it.
- Keep a plant mister filled with ice water by your bedside to cool off your body throughout the night.
- Wear light PJs or sleep in the nude. Extra layers just make for extra sweat. Or borrow the idea from the women-with-hot-flashes set and wear nightgowns with sweat-wicking fabrics like CoolMax.
- A fan can help move the air around and create a sensation of cooling. Try this idea from the National Sleep Foundation: place a pan of ice cubes in front of the fan to cool down the air being blown around the room. To ensure airflow, keep your bedroom door open.
- Keep a frozen washcloth by your bedside; place it on your forehead, around your neck and on the insides of your wrists and arms for some relief. Even a bag of frozen peas will do the trick.
- Try to avoid getting sunburned; this will make it even harder to sleep in extreme heat.
- Since cooling your feet can help lower your overall body temperature, soak a pair of cotton socks in ice cold water, wring them out and wear them to sleep.
- Chill your pillowcase in the freezer (or if you don't have electricity, soak it in cold water, as above).