Sleep systems make up the last of the what’s referred to as the big three (pack, tent/ground cover, bag/pad).
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 factors to consider.
- Synthetic – On the positive side, as compared to down, synthetic bags are usually less expensive and insulate better if damp; the negatives are breathability, compressability and weight. 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.
- Down – Type of down, fill weight, baffle construction and fabric choice will affect price, temperature rating, weight and compressability.
- 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.
Historically bags have been rated based on outside temperature, 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. Recently 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.
As to other factors of consideration, I’m going to refer you to an excellent blog by REI on bag selection.
WEIGHT and PACKED SIZE should factor high on your decision scale, and will be directly affected by your budget.
For 2014, I’ll be using the ZPacks 10-degree, 900-fill down bag, weighing in at 21.8 ounces with the added full-length zipper and draft tube.
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
- FLEECE LINER – for those camping in warmer climates
- BLANKET – this is a great option for those on a budget
- SPACE BLANKET – don’t laugh, I’ve heard it works. I’m considering trialing on a summer overnighter. Sure would save weight!
- PILLOW – Most use clothes as their pillow, but lightweight inflatable pillows are now a very viable option.
- LINER – If you need a little extra warmth, you might consider a silk or fleece bag liner.
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.
There are three primary categories of pads:
- CLOSED-CELL FOAM – These are a solid foam fold-up 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.
- OPEN-CELL FOAM – 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, and some make irritating crinkling, potato chip bag noise.
- SIZE – To save weight, some will use a shoulder to hip pad. There are also petite, regular and tall lengths. Widths can be an issues, especially if you are using a bag like Big Agnes were you have a sleeve size to consider.
- TEMPERATURE RATING – Otherwise known as “R Value.” The higher the R Value, the warmer, heavier and larger pack size.
And as with your everything else, WEIGHT and PACKED SIZE should factor into your decision, and most likely will be impacted by your budget.
I’m currently using the Gossamer Gear Air Beam Sleeper, weighing in at 11.2 ounces, size large with repair kit. Since this is an uninsulated pad, I’ll also replaced the SitLight Pad in my Gossamer Gear Mariposa pack with the 1/8″ Gossamer Gear Thinlight Pad, to use on top of the air mattress during cold temperatures, adding about an ounce. Loving this combination!
- The most popular pad is the Thermarest NeoAir Xlite, comfortable, relatively warm, noisy and expensive.
- Outdoor Gear Lab Blog – Sleeping Bag Review
- KINJA – Sleeping Pad Reviews
- Section Hiker Blog – Sleeping Pad R Values
- Section Hiker Blog – Sleeping Bag Temperature Ratings
- Section Hiker Blog – The Art of Sleeping Warm
- Section Hiker Blog – Air Beam Sleeper Review
- Liz Thomas Blog – Air Beam Sleeper Review
- Southwest UL Blog – Air Beam Sleeper Review
- Guthook Hikes Blog – Airbeam vs NeoAir Review