Sleep Easy on the Trail: What Is A Backpacking Sleep System?

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What is a backpacking sleep system? It is a collection of hiking and backpacking equipment, including clothing, used for sleeping. Each item in the sleep system complements the other. That is, they have a common function. They work together to provide you with a restful night’s sleep in the wilderness.

woman camper zipping an orange sleep bag inside of tent with mountains in the background

Have you ever been hiking for hours on end? So tired that you laid down on the ground and rested your head against a rock? You just discovered the sleep system of a Neanderthal. However, a backpacking sleep system needs to be much more than that.

Most importantly, the best sleep system for backpacking is one that is comfortable for you and will give you a restful night’s sleep – it is a necessity on the trail.

A properly outfitted backpacking sleep system Includes the following items.

  • Shelter

  • Bedding

  • Ground pad

  • Pillow

  • Clothing

  • Ancillary items

 Why Do You Need a Backpacking Sleep System?

A properly designed camping sleep system allows you to get a restful night’s sleep. Tired, sore muscles need to be rejuvenated. Your body needs to be ready for what lies ahead the following day.

Say goodbye to uncomfortable nights on the ground and hello to a cozy, restful sleep in the great outdoors.

Think of a sleep system as you would your home. What does it provide? It is easy to see that you need the same things out on the trail.

  • Comfort, Warmth
  • Protection from the elements
  • Protection from mosquitos, biting insects, and animals
  • Privacy

Day and nighttime temperatures vary greatly on outdoor adventures. Seasonality, elevation, locality, weather, and time of day cause temperatures to fluctuate.

Thus, your comfort level depends on how well your backpacking gear protects you. This is true in both hot and cold weather. Just as heatstroke can occur when your body becomes overheated, cold temperatures can also become life-threatening.

Rain, wind, snow, and even the sun impact your comfort level. You must have proper backpacking equipment to protect yourself.

A functional shelter system, such as a tent, will protect you from the elements.

It is no coincidence that homes include window screens to keep bugs and mosquitos out. The same is true for a backpacking shelter.

A mesh screen is an integral part of a tent or hammock system. This keeps flying insects and biting bugs out of your sleeping space.

Lastly, privacy is important to most backpackers. You need a safe space to change clothes, away from the peering eyes of fellow backpackers. Also, sleep is not nearly as restful if you feel someone is watching you.

In addition, being in an enclosed environment provides a sense of security. Even though you may hear animals at night, you can’t see them.

What is a Backpacking Shelter System

There are several factors to consider when looking for a shelter for your backpacking sleep system. Each depends on your personal preference, as well as environmental factors.

The shelters frequently seen on the trail are:

  • Tent
  • Hammock
  • Tarp
  • Bivy Sack

Backpacking Tent in the forest

Tents

A backpacking tent is a good all-around choice. However, it is not as simple as buying the first tent you come across. You must determine which of the many attributes of a tent you want or need.

Backpacking tents come in all sizes and shapes. Each has its advantages. Ask yourself the following questions.

  • How much money am I willing to spend?
  • How much weight am I willing to carry?
  • How large a tent do I need?
  • Do I need space to store my backpack out of the weather?
  • What is the terrain like?
  • What is the weather like?

So, how much is a tent going to cost? That question depends mostly on its weight and the type of fabric used. Backpacking tents range in price from under $100 to well over $1,000. The standard rule of thumb is the lighter the tent weighs, the more it costs.

Why is that? It mostly comes down to its construction and the price and weight of the fabric. DCF, or Dynema fabric, weighs less than Sil-Nylon fabric and is much more expensive. Even Sil-Nylon fabric comes in different weights and prices.

Which is the better fabric for tents?

Again, that depends on how much you are willing to spend. Even though it weighs less, Dynema fabric is much stronger than Sil-Nylon. However, the fabric is generally twice as expensive.

Every extra ounce a tent weighs must be carried with you when backpacking. Therefore, it is to your advantage to select the lightest-weight tent that meets your needs and fits your budget.

The next question you need to ask yourself is how big a tent do I need? A solo backpacker can generally manage with a one-person tent. That being said, the Geez prefers a two-person tent for the extra room it provides. In addition, a backpack easily fits underneath the vestibule of a larger tent.

Backpackers often upsize their tents because of this. Interior dimensions are usually the bare minimum requirements for the number of people listed on the specifications. This reminds me of a twin bed at home. Two people could sleep on it. But would you want to?

Backpacking tents come in three basic designs: freestanding, semi-freestanding, and hiking pole setup. Which one you choose rests on several factors.

A freestanding tent can be set up without having to be staked or tied down. This is advantageous in rocky terrain where it is impossible to pound stakes in the ground. However, in windy situations, the tent can blow away if not weighed down.

A semi-freestanding tent requires only one end of the tent to be staked or tied down. Because of its center pole design, the interior volume of the tent is usually less than a freestanding tent. That usually isn’t a problem because it is in the foot area.

The trekking pole design is held upright with trekking poles. It requires that the tent be staked or tied down on all four corners. The tent weighs less simply because it doesn’t include tent poles. The disadvantage is if you want to leave the tent set up and go on a day hike. You cannot use your hiking poles without collapsing the tent.

Another factor to consider is whether the tent is a single or double-wall design. Single-wall tents use less fabric. Therefore, they weigh less than a double-wall tent. Double-wall tents are generally warmer. Hence, they have an advantage in colder weather.

The final tent consideration relates to seasonality. A 3-season tent is used for spring, summer, and fall backpacking adventures. Temperatures are generally milder. These tents are built to withstand rain and wind.

Whereas, a 4-season tent, often called a winter tent, is required for colder temperatures and snow conditions. It has rain flaps that reach the ground to prevent blowing snow and rain from entering the tent. In addition, the tent poles are heavier gauge aluminum. Therefore, it is able to withstand snow accumulating on the top without collapsing under the weight.

two hammocks rigged between tress in the mountains

Hammocks in your backpacking sleep system

The newest trend in backpacking is sleeping in a hammock. A hammock provides a very comfortable surface to sleep on. I have even heard diehard backpackers say that they will never go back to sleeping in a backpacking tent.

The biggest drawback in hammock sleeping is the setup.

A tent is simple to set up. But, there are a lot more moving parts to getting a hammock set up properly.

It takes time and practice to master hanging a hammock properly.

  • The hammock and rain tarp must be set up separately.
  • The hang angle for the tarp is essential and often requires adjusting and readjusting.
  • The distance between trees and their size is important.
  • There are certain knots and procedures that must be learned.

The adage “practice makes perfect” applies perfectly to hammocks. A tent may be easier to set up. However, once you master setting up a hammock it isn’t that difficult. It just takes a little longer and requires specialized know-how.

Hammocks have certain limitations you should be aware of. Backpacking above the tree line, along the coast, in the desert, and in tundra environments lack trees to support a hammock.

In addition, hammocks are vulnerable to cold weather. Whereas a tent sits on the ground, a hammock is suspended in the air. Cold air and wind can penetrate the hammock from all sides.

Because of this, a hammock requires both a top and bottom quilt for bedding. This adds to the expense and carry weight of a hammock sleep system.

One of the newest innovations is the lay-flat hammock. It incorporates spreader bars at each end. Therefore, the hammock floor doesn’t sag and curve the same way a traditional hammock does.

Also, this type of hammock mimics the floor of a tent. When support trees are not available, the hammock can be laid on the ground like a tent. This is especially important when your trekking adventure takes you to areas where trees are unavailable.

I am not a hammock backpacker, just too old to change my tent camping ways. But, if you want to learn everything possible about hammocks, I highly recommend you read this book by fellow backpacker Derek Hansen.

The Ultimate Hang: Hammock Camping Illustrated Book

Bivy Sack [No Tent Backpacking Sleep System]

A bivy sack, also known as a ‘bivouac sack’, is a lightweight waterproof enclosure for a sleeping bag. It is designed to protect you in inclement weather, much the same as a tent would. But unlike a tent, a bivy sack is smaller in size and lighter in weight. It is perfect for extreme hikers and ultralight backpackers.

A bivy sack is designed to keep you and your sleeping bag dry. Because it is waterproof, you do not need a separate ground tarp to lay it on. Also, it does not use tent poles and doesn’t need to be staked down.

Better quality bivy sacks include bug netting for biting insects and zippers for ventilation. They also may have a hoop near the head to keep the bug netting off your face.

man sleeping on the ground in an orange and gray sleeping bag and other gear as part of his backpacking sleep system

Tarp / Footprint / Tent fly

Minimalist backpackers often prefer using a water-proof tarp for shelter. It can be strung overhead in a tent-like fashion to shed rain.

Coupled with a ground sheet for sleeping on, it makes an ultralight shelter for backpacking.

One of the ultimate joys when backpacking is sleeping under the stars.

A “cowboy tarp” is laid out on the ground and your sleeping bag is thrown on top.

That right! No tent, no bug net, just you under the stars in your bag.

two blue and red sleeping bags laying on top of a tent with group of campers drinking coffee by a campfire

Bedding

What do backpackers use to stay warm while sleeping? At home, we have blankets and sheets on our beds to keep us warm. Not so in the wilderness. The most common backpacking gear is a sleeping bag.

Sleeping bags are classified by temperature ratings. For instance, bags are rated 0-degree, 20-degree, 32-degree, 50-degree, and everything in between. But what does that temperature rating mean?

Supposedly a bag rated at 32 degrees will keep you warm all the way down to freezing. But will it? Formerly, some manufacturers used that rating to mean you won’t freeze to death at 32 degrees. Others stated that you will stay warm, even at 32 degrees.

So, which is it?  A more accurate rating of thermal efficiency is the EN (European Norm) or the ISO (International Standards Organization) rating. Since ISO testing is so similar to EN testing, you can compare EN-rated bags to ones with an ISO temperature rating.

Standardized laboratory tests produce a rating range for each sleeping bag. Manufacturers send their sleeping bags to an independent test lab that assigns bag temperature ratings. Bags are now rated with both a comfort rating and a lower limit rating.

You will want to choose a sleeping bag corresponding to the expected climate conditions of your adventure. For instance, backpacking in sub-zero weather with a summer bag is not the wisest thing to do. A winter bag is called for in that instance to keep you from freezing to death.

How a sleeping bag is made, both what fill material is used and how much of it is used determines the thermal efficiency of the bag. Goosedown and synthetic fibers are the most common fill materials.

However, goose down has higher thermal efficiency, lower weight, and greater compressibility. Backpackers constantly strive to minimize their backpack weight. In addition, sleeping bags that compress smaller take up less room in the backpack.

A quick look at how a sleeping bag is made indicates how warm it will be. Baffles hold the goose down or synthetic fibers in place. Fill materials that shift, or bunch up and leave cold spots with no insulation in places.

Likewise, sewn-through baffles have no insulation at each seam joint. This leaves uninsulated zones in the bag. Also, baffles that are spaced too far apart allow insulating materials to shift, leaving cold spots.

The use of a sleeping bag liner can increase a bag’s warmth by up to ten degrees. This is helpful when you expect temperatures to vary along your trek. With the addition of a sleeping bag liner and thermal base layers to sleep in, a summer bag can extend down to freezing if need be.

Quilts

Second, only to sleeping bags, backpacking quilts are new on the horizon and gaining in popularity. As with sleeping bags, quilts employ either goose down or synthetic fibers as their filling.

Gone are the restrictions of an enclosed bag. A backpacking quilt is more like a blanket. It allows complete freedom of movement while sleeping. In addition, it is adjustable. A quilt can be tucked in close to the body for extra warmth. Or it can be spread loosely allowing for more ventilation on warmer nights.

But that is only one of the attributes that have led to its increasing popularity. Because a quilt does not have an underneath side to it, the quilt weighs less. Without the extra fabric, zippers, and hood a quilt weigh about 30% less than a sleeping bag of a similar temperature rating.  That is extremely beneficial when trying to minimize the weight in your pack.

In addition, a quilt is smaller because it has less fabric. Therefore, it will compress to about half the size of a sleeping bag. Hence, it takes up less room in your pack.

The downside to quilts is winter backpacking. Because a quilt is prone to drafts as you move in your sleep, it is harder to maintain warmth in colder temperatures. A mummy bag is a better option under those conditions.

Jump Suit

Although not widely used, a down jumpsuit can take the place of a sleeping bag or quilt. Think of it as being a sleeping bag with arms and legs. Very similar to a pair of down pants and a down puffy jacket, except that it is all one piece.

bright green backpacking sleeping pad inside of a tent

Sleeping Pads

A backpacking sleep system is not complete without a sleeping pad. First, it must be thick enough to hide the irregularities of the trail. Small rocks, sticks, and the like are likely to interfere with your sleep if you can feel them while laying down.

Second, it must insulate you from the underside. Sleeping pads are rated in R-Values as to how well they insulate you from the cold ground. The higher the R-Value the more protected you are from conductive heat loss.

A good rule of thumb is to use a pad with a 3.2 R-Value during spring through fall. Winter backpacking requires a 5.7 R-Value or higher to maintain warmth in freezing temperatures.

There are three basic types of sleeping pads.

  • Closed-Cell Foam
  • Self-Inflating Open Cell
  • Air Inflatable

The closed-cell foam pad is the lightest among the three types. They also are generally the cheapest. However, since they cannot be compressed, they are bulky. Therefore, they take up significant space in or attached to your backpack.

Moreover, closed-cell foam pads are typically only one inch thick and not great for side sleepers. Also, they are not suitable for cold-weather backpacking. However, for thru-hikes in the summer, they can be great.

Secondly, a self-inflating open-cell sleeping pad combines the advantages of foam and air. They are more comfortable and much warmer than other types of sleeping pads.

The drawbacks to self-inflating pads are they are heavier, bulkier, and more expensive. Although ideal for car camping, they are generally too heavy for backpacking. In addition, they take up more room in or are attached to your backpack.

Lastly, air-inflatable sleeping pads fill an additional niche for backpackers. They are both ultralight and small when rolled up.  When blown up, they look a lot like a traditional air mattress. Albeit, they are usually narrower and only 2 to 3.5 inches in height.

A word of caution. Test the pad for noise levels. Some air-inflatable sleeping pads wake you up every time you turn over because of the noise.

Although not as warm as self-inflating sleeping pads, many newer ones are insulated. Some even have R-Values in the 7.0 range. And they are much cheaper than self-inflating pads.

Pillow

A backpacking sleeping system would not be complete without a pillow. A pillow is not a necessity, but it completes your sleep system and makes it much more comfortable. Several alternatives exist for those who sleep with a pillow at home.

  • Down
  • Synthetic
  • Inflatable
  • Extra Clothing – Stuff Sack

I consider a down backpacking pillow to be the height of luxury on the trail. Yes, it is expensive. But at my age I want comfort. It is about a third the size of a regular pillow. Mine weighs a mere 3 ounces and compresses to the size of a soda can.

Another option is a synthetic pillow. Most weigh between 6 and 7 ounces. Also, they take up double the room in your pack. However, like a down pillow, they are quite comfortable.

The third option is an inflatable pillow. Inflatable pillows are inexpensive and take up little room when deflated. They weigh between 3 and 4 ounces and come in a variety of shapes and colors.

The final option isn’t a pillow at all. Toss your extra clothing in a stuff sack and use that for a pillow. As long as you don’t need extra clothing to keep warm at night, it is a great, no-cost, no extra-weight option.

What to Sleep In When Backpacking

  • Thermals
  • Gloves / Mittens
  • Down Booties
  • Wool Socks
  • Wool Beanie
  • Puffy Jacket / Vest

Dry clothing is mandatory for sleeping.

After a long day of backpacking your clothes are drenched in sweat and dirt.

You need to change out of them and put on dry, clean clothes to sleep in.

This not only keeps you warmer but also keeps your gear clean and less stinky.

Cold temperatures may require you to wear extra clothes to bed. Thermal tops and bottom pants are a good starting point.

You may need to accompany that with gloves or mittens to keep your hands warm.

In addition, wool socks or down booties help keep your feet warm. A wool beanie eliminates heat lost through your head, especially if you are bald like me.

If it is really cold, you may want to wear your down puffy jacket in addition to your thermal top.

Ancillary Sleeping System Backpacking Items

The following items are directly related to a well-equipped sleep system. Although not mandatory, they enhance your backpacking experience.

  • Hand and toe warmers
  • Dry bag
  • Waterproof Compression Sack
  • Pee Bottle
  • Mylar space blanket

Backpackers often pour hot water into a Nalgene bottle and stick that in their sleeping bag before going to bed. An alternative is HOTHANDS® hand and toe warmers. They provide heat for up to ten hours and are great on the coldest nights.

Store extra clothes in a dry bag to keep them from getting wet. You will need to change into clean, dry clothes before going to bed.

Place your sleeping bag or quilt in a waterproof compression sack when backpacking. The thermal efficiency of goose down when wet is almost zero. Even synthetic fiber fill bags lose half of their warmth efficiency when wet.

It is bad enough when nature calls in the middle of the night. Having to get up and go outside to pee is not fun`. But it is even worse if it is raining outside. A pee bottle is a great thing to have on hand for those occasions.

Lastly, a mylar space blanket is good to include. It can be used in a number of different ways. Placed under a sleeping pad, it helps to reflect heat back up to you. It is waterproof and can be used to keep rain off gear. A space blanket only weighs an ounce or two which is trivial.

Conclusion

How well you sleep through the night has a lot to do with your enjoyment of backpacking. Poor sleep equates to sore muscles and a tired body. You need restful sleep to replenish your body and increase your stamina.

Proper backpacking equipment is necessary to further that goal. All sleep system items work together to provide the best possible chance for a restful night’s sleep. Venture out knowing the backpacking sleep system you have will do its job.

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