Backpacking 101: Your Sleep System

Sleeping well in the backcountry is crucial; you don’t want to wake up sore and tired after a restless night. Of course, this is often easier said than done. Unfamiliar surroundings, chilly temperatures, creepy noises and your own imagination may team up to keep you from getting your beauty rest. One thing you can control is your comfort, and no backpacker should suffer with a sub-par sleep system. If you have a cozy setup in your pack, you’re halfway to a good night of sleep. In this edition of Backpacking 101, we will take a closer look at all the goodies that go into making your backcountry bed, so grab your nightcap and footy pajamas…away we go!

Selecting your pad/bag combo isn't easy, but it's worth the time and effort (photo: Ryan Malavolta)

Selecting your pad/bag combo isn’t easy, but it’s worth the time and effort (photo: Ryan Malavolta)

Sleeping Pad: Every good sleep system begins with a pad. Cushioning and insulation are the two most important features. A good pad will not only keep you comfortable, but also protect from the cold ground looking to steal your valuable body heat away. Insulation is measured in R-value; the scale goes from zero to 9.5, and the higher the number, the more insulation the pad will provide. There are many types of pads, and choosing the right one will vary upon your style of backpacking and just how comfy you want to be when you lay down for sleepy time.

The classic foam pad still exists, and it has come a long way since your days at summer camp. Dense foam and closed air cells make up these pads, and they are generally cheap, lightweight, and durable. The drawbacks to foam pads are the fact that they provide much less comfort than air pads, and tend to be bulky. You likely won’t be able to stuff a foam pad into your pack; instead, it will have to be lashed to the outside, making it a target for branches and exposed to dust and dirt on the trail. Also, foam pads generally have an R-value close to zero; not much protection from the cold with these babies. If you are an ultralight packer or someone who only does desert (and other warm weather) overnights, the good old foam pad may be the way to go.

Choose a pad with insulation and a warm sleeping bag for mountain camping (photo: Ryan Malavolta)

Choose a pad with insulation and a warm sleeping bag for mountain camping (photo: Ryan Malavolta)

For those of us facing burlier conditions, or looking for ultimate comfort, there are air pads and self-inflating pads. Air pads are lightweight and provide a lot of comfort; many models are so cushy that you can camp on the rockiest terrain around without disturbing your slumber. You will have to blow these up yourself, and many have low R-values. Air pads can be punctured, but many come with repair kits that work like a charm. If you can spend a bit more money, self-inflating pads go a step beyond air pads. These sleep masters are made with a combination of closed cell foam and air chambers, provide excellent comfort and insulation, and fold down small to be stored inside your backpack. The downside to self-inflating pads are their higher weights price tags.

Sleeping Bag: A good bag is the centerpiece of your sleep system. The right bag will keep you warm, dry and happy. The wrong bag will leave you with chilly bones and unbecoming half-circles under your eyes. Bags work by trapping a layer of air close to your body. Your body heats this air, which in turn keeps you warm throughout the night. They are meant to be slept in with minimal clothing; more layers will not keep you warmer, in fact, clothing works against a bag’s heating properties. With even more options than sleeping pads, the choice can seem overwhelming; asking yourself some key questions will narrow the choices significantly.

First off, down or synthetic? Down bags have been around for a long time, with good reason. Lots of loft (the puffy look/feel of a sleeping bag) provides comfort when bedding down, and also ensures your body stays evenly heated. Down bags are cozy, lightweight and very packable, but come with a higher price tag than their synthetic counterparts. Synthetic bags are usually made of polyester, dry faster if they get wet, are generally more durable and come with a lower price tag. The down side of synthetics is that they don’t compress as small as down bags.

 Price, weight, and warmth are three big considerations when choosing your sleep system (photo: Ryan Malavolta)

Price, weight, and warmth are three big considerations when choosing your sleep system (photo: Ryan Malavolta)

How cold will it be where you plan to camp? If you are a desert rat, a zero degree bag is pure overkill. If you are going to camp in higher altitudes with cold temps, don’t try to get away with a 30 degree bag. A “25 degree” sleeping bag means that you will be comfortable down to 25 degrees F. If the thermometer hits zero, you can bet you will be shivering. Think about where the bulk of your backpacking will take place and note the average nighttime temperatures. Purchase a bag that is rated a few degrees lower than these temperatures. Remember, you can never make a bag warmer than its rating, but you can always unzip it to let some cool air in. If you are planning to buy one bag for all of your trips, err on the side of warmth. Also, consider what kind of sleeper you are. Down blanket on your bed even during summer months? Yeah, you’re gonna need yourself a very warm sleeping bag.

Finally, how much room do you need to maneuver in the night? Mummy-style bags are narrow near the feet, and a bit wider towards the head. Mummy bags feature hoods that can be cinched down, leaving little more than your nose and mouth exposed to the cold of the night. These bags are great for locking in heat, but offer little leeway for you nighttime wigglers out there. If you toss and turn, consider a rectangular shaped bag. These will allow more space for movement, and a less restricted feeling than the mummy style. Of course, the sacrifice for the extra space is a heavier bag.

This may seem like a lot to consider, and that’s because it is! You’ll be happy you took the time and effort to select the ideal sleep system when you’re clocking z’s in the backcountry. If you’ve got the cash and pack space, you can add luxury items like inflatable pillows and bag liners. Skimp and save on less important gear, but don’t dream of sacrificing a good night of sleep when you’re on the trail.

What do we recommend? When I’m not testing gear, I carry a Big Agnes air pad and the REI Halo 25 down sleeping bag. My pad has virtually no insulation, but man is it comfortable. It also doubles as a flotation device for days on the lake! The Halo 25 bag never ceases to impress me; this bag has come on many trips with me and I always rest easy when I’m tucked inside.


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