How to Choose A Sleep System for Backpacking
Updated: Oct 6, 2019
A backpacking trip will go downhill quickly if you aren't able to get a good night sleep. Your choices of gear and how you use it will make a big difference between being rested and a self-imposed sleep deprivation torture.
Rather than individual items, I prefer to look at systems and how everything works together. A great sleeping bag with no padding under you will lead to an uncomfortable and potentially cold night. You need to be insulated below and above with a pillow or whatever you need to get into an ergonomic position for deep sleep.
As with most problems, there are many ways to solve it. Most of the areas addressed below are assuming you are sleeping on the ground in a tent or under a tarp but hammock camping is addressed as well.
For both comfort and insulation from the cold ground, you need some sort of sleeping pad. Without a sleeping pad, you will lose heat due to conduction because of the insulation in the bottom of your sleeping bag being compressed. A sleeping pad will help isolate you from the ground creating a thermal break while at the same time adding some cushion from rocks and roots.
Sleeping pads come in three main types: Foam, Self-Inflating, and Inflatable.
Foam is the cheapest and offers good insulation but isn't very comfortable so campsite selection is important in using them. The weight is low but they are bulky so you will often have to strap them to your pack rather than in it. Since they aren't inflatable they can't spring a leak. This makes foam nice to use as a sit-pad around the fire. A hole from a spark won't make it lose air like a flat tire.
Self-Inflating is a little more expensive but combines the benefits of more comfort, good insulation, and pack to a more compact size. Since they hold air there is a risk of puncture so always keep a patch kit with you.
Inflatable pads are the most comfortable since they are thicker. They are the most expensive. Unlike the air mattress you have for when relatives come visiting, inflatable sleeping pads are insulated so they also keep you isolated from the cold of the ground. There is a wide selection of designs from ultralight but still comfortable to not so light but super luxurious.
I use the Thermarest Neo-Air inflatable sleeping pads for when I sleep on the ground. It is the best compromise I've found in weight, insulation, and comfort.
Sleeping Bag or Quilt
Now that you are insulated underneath you have to figure out what you want to keep you warm on top. The most common approach is to use a mummy sleeping bag as it has the best weight to warmth ratio. But for all but the coldest weather, you can consider a quilt which can be lighter and is less restrictive.
Both sleeping bags and quilts can be insulated with either down or synthetic insulation. Down is lighter and compacts smaller but is more expensive and loses more insulation when wet. Synthetic is heavier and bulkier but is generally cheaper and retains for heat when wet.
Mummy bags with a hood and tapered body is the most efficient design. The rectangular sleeping bag you might have used for car camping is too heavy and bulky to be a good choice for backpacking.
When looking for a sleeping bag you need to get one that is warm enough for the temperatures you expect to encounter. If you are a cold sleeper then consider getting a bag that is a level warmer than the label indicates.
Mummy bags are warmest when fully done up with just your face exposed. In warmer weather, I sleep with it unzipped which allows for a wider temperature range. With this in mind, I use the same bag for from summer to early winter.
Sleeping bags come in different sizes. Most models are offered in a regular, which fits up to 6 feet and a long length that fits up to 6 feet 6 inches. There women's sizing as well. Additionally, different models have a wider or narrower fit so testing out bags by getting in them is a good idea to see what fits you the best. Get the bag that gives you a comfortable fit without being too big as it takes more to heat the extra room.
If being constrained by a mummy bag makes you feel claustrophobic, then consider a quilt. Most have a closed foot box like a sleeping bag but the rest is open like a blanket.
You don't have a hood attached so you will need to wear a hat or jacket with a hood on cold nights to keep your head warm.
Quilts have the option of being pulled up tight to keep you warm or just partially draped over you on warm nights. If you roll around a lot when you sleep they are less restrictive. Plus if you are sharing your tent with your significant other they are easier to share.
As most quilts are from small cottage companies they offer various temperature, length, and width options. Backpacking quilts are usually a little lighter than a similar temperature sleeping bag.
Sleeping Bag Liner
Used to increase the warmth, sleeping bag liners fit inside the sleeping bag. A thermal liner can take your summer sleeping bag and make it warm enough to run three seasons or make your three season bag warm enough for winter. Since they are easily removable they are easy to clean.
This modular approach allows you to build a system that will work over a broad range of temperatures rather than having a bunch of sleeping bags.
Most people need a pillow to be comfortable when sleeping. When backpacking this can be your spare clothing in a stuff sack, a rolled up jacket, or a backpacking specific pillow.
If you want to take a step up in luxury over an improvised pillow then consider an ultralight inflatable pillow. Sea to Summit and Nemo make great options that have some stretch and a nice fabric surface. With an inflatable pillow, you can customize how much support it gives based on how firmly you blow it up.
If you opt for a hammock, like I often do, you can use much of the same gear as you do tent camping.
In a hammock, you don't need a sleeping pad for comfort but you do need something under you to act as a thermal break between you and the cold air underneath. This can be a sleeping pad in the hammock or an under-quilt strapped to the bottom of the hammock.
In the hammock, you can use a sleeping bag or quilt to keep you warm on top. Sleeping bags work well but are a bit of a struggle to get into inside a hammock. The quilt is much easier as you just get in the hammock and pull it over you.
What you wear to bed is part of your sleep system as much as your sleeping bag. Having dry top and bottom layers you can switch into for bed really helps with the warmth. As well a pair of fresh socks and a beanie helps keep the heat in.
On extra cold nights, I will wear my down puffy jacket in my sleeping bag to add another layer of insulation. Mix and match your clothing to suit the temperature range you are dealing with. You can use your shell jacket as an extra layer by wrapping it around your feet giving you an extra layer on the lower body.
Once the sun goes down you better have your headlamp with you at all times. Always make sure it has fresh batteries or is fully charged. While you don't need it for sleeping you do need it for everything you do to get ready.
Plus if you have to get up to go to the bathroom then it is nice to see where you are going. If you are sharing a tent, use the red LED as it gives you enough light to see by but is less likely to wake your tent-mates.
Food and Hot Water Bottle
If it is cold out then having a high-fat snack before bed can give your body the energy it needs to keep you warm.
If you are a cold sleeper another trick is to boil water and put it in a Nalgene bottle. Make sure the lid is on tight and then put the bottle in a wool sock. Now put the bottle in your sleeping bag. After a few minutes, it will have pre-heated your sleeping bag.
When you get in just push the bottle to the foot end of your bag. Not only will you get warm quicker once you've gotten in your sleeping bag but if it gets below freezing overnight you will have unfrozen water for making breakfast. :)
Many people enjoy the outdoors but don't enjoy sleeping outdoors because they don't get a good nights sleep. This doesn't have to be the case.
If you start thinking of your backpacking equipment in terms of systems you may find it helps in keeping things organized. With your sleep system, everything works together to give you the best chance of having a good nights sleep.
Let us know in the comments what your backpacking sleep system is and how it works for you.
Cover Photo Credit: Catharine Gerhard