My BASE WEIGHT is about 14 pounds, with my SLEEP SYSTEM representing 16% of the weight at a little over 2 pounds.
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This is probably the most important decision you will make. Finding yourself cold miles from a trailhead makes not only for a long, miserably night, but can also be life threatening. Of course, like any important decision, this one is complicated and includes many considerations.
Sleeping Bag Decisions
Water Repellent Down – Many bag manufacturers now offer this as an option, the downside is that as compared to down it is a bit heavier and has reduced breathability.
Synthetic – On the positive side, as compared to down, synthetic bags are usually less expensive and insulate better if damp; the negatives are breathability, compressibility and weight. Tip: Based on my experience, if you prefer natural fibers and wear primarily cotton or wool, and sleep with a down comforter or cotton/silk/wool blankets at home, you won’t like a synthetic bag. I bought one, trialed it one night, found myself sweaty, and immediately exchanged it for a down bag. The cost savings wasn’t worth it.
(2) Temperature Rating:
Historically bags have been rated based on outside temperature (i.e. 25-degree bag), but since there was never a uniform method established to measure bag to temperature, this was an unreliable sales tool and a bit like comparing apples and oranges. We are starting to see labels using the European Norm (EN) 13537 testing protocol which divides temperature into upper limit, comfort, lower limit and extreme, with the comfort rating most applicable to women who usually require an extra 10 degrees of warmth. Tip: Unless you are going to have multiple bags for different conditions, I recommend a 0-20 degree bag. It’s easy to use as a quilt or go without in warmer temperatures. If you are using down, it’s important to fluff your bag well and redistribute feathers before going to bed to maximize thermal benefits. Proper storage and cleaning of down bags is also keep to maintaining loft.
(3) Shape and Dimensions:
While the most common shape may be mummy, other choices include rectangular, female-specific, hooded, wide, tall, short . . .
I’m a bit claustrophobic so when I found a wide-width, female-specific, hooded bag I thought I struck gold. The integrated pad sleeve was a bonus, or so I thought. Lessons learned: (1) the pad sleeve prevents side sleepers from being able to snuggle into their bags and positions the hood at an awkward angle; and (2) wide bags for smaller people create lots of dead space impossible to keep warm.
I was concerned initially when I switched to a mummy bag without a hood. Although I’d prefer it a tiny bit wider so I could sleep in fetal position, I’ve adapted and sleep much warmer than in my previous bag. ZPacks bag length is intended to reach your chin; they recommend increasing by a size if you want to cover head. However, it’s best not to breathe into bag as it will increase condensation. A better option is using your down puffy to regulate head/face temperature. I bought up one size so I have room to shelter my shoulders and neck.
(4) Weight and Packed Size:
Your budget will most likely affect this choice and one of the reasons you should select your pack last. Sleeping bags can take up a lot of room. Tip: Except in inclement weather, I don’t pack my bag in a compression sack, electing instead to use it to fill space around my other packed items.
REI blog on bag selection (excellent very detailed article)
Options to a Sleeping Bag:
Don’t feel married to using a sleeping bag. There are several other choices to be considered.
Quilt – These have become more popular the past few years (be aware of drafts)
Fleece Liner – For those camping in warmer climates this could be an option
Blanket – This is a great option for those on a budget
Space Blanket – Don’t laugh, I’ve heard it works
Pillow – Most use clothes in a stuff sack as their pillow, but lightweight inflatable pillows are now a very viable option. Tip: under inflate for improved comfort.
Liner – If you need a little extra warmth, you might consider a silk or fleece bag liner.
Sleeping Pad Decisions
The sleeping pad industry has been busy coming up with lighter, more compact, and more comfortable pads. There is nothing like a bad night’s sleep to ruin your trip. Previously I always experienced hip pain, as I’m a side sleeper, but when I found the right pad, it became a thing of the past.
(1) Type of Pad:
Closed-Cell Foam – These are a solid foam type mattress. What you see is what you get! Definitely more durable and since not inflatable, no worries about leaks. Very popular with long-distance hikers. The least expensive option.
I’m currently using the Gossamer Gear 1/8″ Thinlight Pad in conjunction with an air chamber type pad.
Open-Cell Foam – This is probably the most popular type of mattress. They usually self-inflate.
Air Chamber – These will remind you of pool blow-up mattresses. The benefit is they are light and pack very small. They are the most expensive option. Tip: underinflate to improve comfort.
While I’d prefer to use the very popular Thermarest NeoAir XLite, I can’t tolerate it’s surface noise (think potato chip bag). Thus my compromise pad is the Gossamer Gear Air Beam Sleeper mattress.
Length – To save weight and space, some campers will use a torso length pad. The trade-off is contact with cold hard ground. Pads also come in regular, petite, tall and wide. Dimensions of those sizes vary by manufacturer. Tip: you can elevate feet on pack to lengthen your “pad”
Width – You’ll want to take note of the manufacturer specs. My regular size is quite narrow thus requiring me to be mindful as I switch positions.
Height – Varies considerably from about 1/2″ to 4″. Your level of comfort may be affected by the thickness of pad, but not necessarily.
(3) Temperature Rating:
This is probably the most important decision second to comfort. Look for an R-Value rating (0-6). The higher the R Value, the warmer the pad will be. Temperature transfers directly from the ground through the pad. Technology has improved the weight and size of the higher R-Value mattresses. Good resource: Section Hiker’s Blog
The Air Beam Sleeper mattress I’m using has no R-Value, thus I use the ThinLight pad on top of it when warmth is needed. To my knowledge this pad has not been rated, but it doesn’t seem to transfer cool temperatures.
(4) Weight and Packed Size:
As with your everything else, your budget will affect these variables. Pads can take up considerable space in your pack, another good reason to purchase your pack last.
REI blog on mattress selection (excellent very detailed article)
Having the right bag and pad will help keep you warm and comfortable, but there are other factors which will affect a good night’s sleep.
Sleep Clothes – Having warm dry clothes to sleep in will not only help keep your sleeping bag clean but will eliminate chill from perspiration absorbed into your hiking clothes during the day. I’ve heard slightly loose-fitting clothes keep you warmer than tight fitting, of course I’ve also heard naked is the warmest.
Layering Options – Items such as hat, gloves, buff and jacket will help regulate your temperature
Shelter – Drafty shelters require more warming options (Tip: use your umbrella to shield wind, use a solar blanket on the floor)
Experience – Learning to sleep warm is a skill. The lessons I’ve learned include:
(1) Don’t go to bed cold (run around camp, do jumping jacks or sit ups, eat something fatty such as nuts, drink something hot, etc)
(2) Don’t wait to pee (if you wake up with a full bladder, you’ll make yourself colder trying to make it go away, to say nothing about ruining your sleep)
(3) When it’s really cold, fill your water container with boiling water and place in your bag
(4) If your feet are cold, place the foot of your bag in your backpack.
(4) Campsite selection can make a huge difference (shelter in the trees, away from water, avoiding low spots and ridges)
Lightening My Load
YES, I know there are ways I can lighten my base weight. But in my sleep system department, I’m about as low as I can go except for eliminating my pillow at 1.5 ounces.