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Sleeping Outside: A Guide to Backpacking Sleep Systems

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In this article, we tackle how to build your perfect backpacking sleep system. The right sleeping system could make a big difference in how well you sleep at night and are ready to take on the next day of rigorous hiking.

Whether you are a well-seasoned backpacker or a beginner, you will know how important getting plenty of rest on the trail can be. Most people believe that after a long day of backpacking they will be able to fall asleep on a rock, but after a few nights on the trail, comfort and warmth are going to be crucial to help you fall and stay asleep. Buying the right combination of sleeping equipment can be daunting, there are hundreds of products, types of sleeping bags, and combinations to choose from. We are going to break down how to pick out sleeping equipment that may be right for you to ensure your best night’s sleep out in the beautiful wilderness.

What do I need to consider for my sleep system?

Before you start buying, you first need to determine what type of adventure you are headed out on. Are you ultralight backpacking, are you camping with comfort in mind, or are you somewhere in between? Determining how much weight you can carry, the season you are hiking out in, and any special requirements are the first step to determining your sleep equipment!

What exactly is sleeping equipment? It is everything (sans your tent) that you will need to sleep, that includes your sleeping pad, your sleeping bag, maybe a pillow, and a storage system for them. Some summer campers will choose to forgo the pad and get a wilderness hammock, which is also an option for those wanting to sleep under the stars.

Weight

Backpackers have to be extra aware of the weight of each item as they start collecting all of their gear. Unfortunately, some gear is just going to be heavier, and your sleeping system could be one of those items. However, keeping this in mind and trying your best to keep the weight as low as possible is a great place to start. Ideally, a lightweight backpacker should try to keep their sleeping bag in the 2-3 pound range and their pad around 1-1.5 pounds. Ideally, your whole system will be 4 pounds or less. When you are trekking up steep mountains with everything on your back, every pound will matter!

The pros of lightweight systems include a lighter weight to carry and a smaller footprint in your pack. Of course, there are always tradeoffs, the main one being cost. Ultralight gear can be very expensive, so finding a good balance of weight and cost is ideal.

Seasonality

Sleeping gear is usually categorized into three seasons. Knowing how cold it is going to be at night on your journey is important in picking out the right temperature rating. The following chart can be helpful in figuring out what "season" gear you should be looking for:

Season

Temperature rating (in F)

Summer

+35 and higher

Three Season

+10 and +35

Winter

+10 and lower


Some sleeping bags are designed for winter sleeping and will have very low-temperature ratings. These are specialty bags and are essential when camping in the snow. However, they are too heavy and unnecessary for warmer summer trips. You will be carrying more insulation material than you need and may even find the bag too hot and uncomfortable. The same applies to your sleeping pad. You will want to purchase insulated sleeping pads for three-season or winter use, but don't need the added weight of insulation in the summertime.

Special Requirements

Sleeping, whether it’s in a tent, hammock, or even in bed, is subjective to your personal needs and comfortability. Some of us prefer hard surfaces over soft, plenty of room to move around, or bundled up, and even how warm we sleep at night. Sleeping in the great outdoors doesn’t change these requirements, and you can still have a restful and comfortable night. When you are shopping around keep in mind your different needs, and whether or not you can sleep through the night with the equipment you have. For example, some people can't stand the confining nature of mummy sleeping bags and prefer the open feel of a backpacking quilt instead.

Sleeping Pads

Sleeping pads are just as important as the bag and tent that you bring along. They provide both comfort and warmth when you are sleeping on the ground. There are a few specifications to be on the lookout for as you go through. There are also a few different types of sleeping pads that we will walk you through.

Self-Inflating

This fan favorite sleeping pad style takes all the effort out of setting up your sleeping equipment at the end of a long day. They are rigged to self-inflate with the pull of a little tab, and the open cell foam padding on top. The drawback of this pad is that you still need to manually fill for desired firmness, and you can accidentally pop it. The other drawback is that the self-inflatable pads tend to be on the heavier side.

Manually-Inflating

This is the go to for most alpine backpackers, it is relatively light weight, easy to fill, and when made with ripstop fabric, incredibly durable. This style of sleeping pad allows you to control the level of firm you like, so you can get a comfortable night's rest. You can still overfill and pop the sleeping pad, so make sure to monitor the firmness and bring a repair kit along. Some backpackers do not like this option because it does take awhile to manually inflate them, especially when you are tired from a long day's hike.

Closed Cell Foam Pads

Finally, we have the closed cell foam pads that come in a few different options, it can be rolled up or folded like an accordion. This is the lightest weight option, which is why it is preferred by ultralight backpackers. They are also preferred to that backpacking on a budget. However, you can not adjust these pads, they are not inflated, they are just foam roll outs. If you need to control firmness, then this is not the option for you, and they tend to be less comfortable.

Size

Pads come in a variety of sizes, and the sizes tend to influence the weight of the pad itself. For those who do not toss and turn at night, a narrow and small sleeping pad will suit them just fine, but if you find yourself rolling around a bit, or if you are larger than the pads you see advertised, there are extra large pads.

Thickness and Insulation

The last two final consideration for the sleeping pad is its thickness and its insulation. Thickness is up to personal preference and the terrain you will be tackling, the thicker the pad the more support you will receive. It can make a rocky campsite easier to sleep on and protect you from any back problems in the future.

The insulation can be measured by the ‘R-value’ which, without getting too far into the science of sleeping pads, is simply a measurement of its thermal value. The higher the R, the better the insulation, which will keep you warm.

For a great example of an ultra comfortable and durable manual inflating sleeping pad look no further than the ReCharge UL pad.

Sleeping Bags

If you have even started with a tentative Google search into sleeping bags, then you know there is an overwhelming amount of options in all shapes, sizes, and materials. Before you panic-buy the first one, we are going to lay out a few ways to pick a sleeping bag, but as we said before, sleeping is a personal experience, and everyone is different, so choose what is most comfortable for you.

There are a few types of sleeping bags to choose from, which will depend on how you sleep, and the type of adventure you are going on.

Mummy Shape

The mummy bag is the classic bag shape for the big time alpine backpacker, mainly because of its slim design and ability to look in heat. The mummy bag has a built-in hood on the bag that you can snuggle up in. It traps heat and is cut slim to the body, so if you sleep hot and need room to wiggle, then this style isn’t for you. Some people struggle with the mummy bag because it can feel claustrophobic at first, and if you sleep on your side, it can be difficult. There is a great example of a fantastic mummy bag for you here.

Spoon Shape

The spoon-shaped bag tends to be the middle zone between the mummy and rectangular, it offers some of the roominess that the rectangular bag has to offer, and helps insulate your toes. The spoon shape bag is ideal for someone who tends to sleep a little colder but wants the additional room in the shoulders and hips to move around.

Double Wide and Two-Person

Sometimes we just need room to move, or we want to share our bags with a partner a young family member. That’s why there are two-person sleeping bags! These bags will be heavier and tend to be more difficult to pack down, but they are great for those who need to move. Also, if you are taking your little one on their first camping experience, then snuggling up with them could make it easier.

Quilt

Quilt style sleeping bags are the ultimate backcountry experience, especially for those traveling in warm breezy nights. They can open up all the way to make a plush blanket to lay on, or can close up into a full mummy bag. These bags can be made out of a wide arrange of materials and allow the most versatility. Rather than having a bag for each different camping experience, the quilt gives you all the options. While most quilt bags are heavier and larger, you can find good lightweight options, like this one here.

Fill Materials

Once you have picked the style of your sleeping bag you are going to then need to pick the materials on the inside of the bag itself. There are a few different options, ranging in cost, allergy needs, comfort, and warmth.

The preferred filling for sleeping bags is natural goose or duck down, which is both incredibly lightweight and warm. It packs down small and it tends to be more durable and long lasting. The downsides to down? These bags are, generally speaking, more expensive than other options, but they will last you through many an adventure. Also, if you get a down sleeping bag wet, it will take ages to dry, there are options out there that are water resistant.

Allergic to goose feathers? Or find down a bit too pricey? Look no further than synthetic down bags. They are durable, dry quickly, and have a very friendly price tag. The downside to synthetics is that they do not pack down quite as small so if your backpack is already brimming over with other items, this may not be the best option.

Last Considerations

When you are picking out a sleeping bag you are going to want to check for a few more things before making the purchase. We have them listed below:

  • Make sure the zippers are sturdy, you don’t want to get stuck in your bag, or worse, out of it! 
  • Rip-stop material will be your best friend, it will keep the bags from ripping, or tearing. 
  • Look at various specs on the bag, does it have straps to connect you to the pad, is it machine washable, and finally does it have any extra pockets on the inside for flashlights or phones?
  • Finally, be sure to select a good stuff sack or compression sack for your sleeping bag or quilt. 

Pillows

The last piece to consider is a pillow. Many choose to forgo this luxury item, but for others, it can the difference between getting a good night's sleep or tossing and turning all night. Backpacking pillows are usually inflatable or filled with down/synthetic fill. Both can be great options and really depend on personal preference. Try to find a pillow as light as possible that will provide the comfort and support that you need. Also, be sure to try the pillow at home before you head out on the trail. There is nothing worse than realizing that a new pillow will just not work for you on the first night of a week-long backpacking trip.

Regardless of what sleeping bag and pad you choose, you are going to want it to be both durable and comfortable to your specific sleeping needs. If you have the time, try and check the system out, camp in your backyard to see if it keeps you warm and comfortable. A good night's sleep is essential to a good backpacking experience, so take your time when finding your sleeping system!

bag bags insulated mats pads quilt quilts Sleep Systems sleeping Tips and Resources

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