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  • Writer's pictureCourtney LeVesque

Backcountry Sleep Systems

You may be eager to assemble your gear, pack up and head out, but when it comes to shacking up in the elements, the last thing you want to do is sacrifice good sleep.

There are a lot of elements and features that need to be considered to ensure a comfortable night's rest. But, choosing a sleep system that works for you might not be as easy as jumping online or visiting your local store and throwing items into the cart. In fact, with so many choices and types of shelters, tents, sleeping pads, and sleeping bags, it can be hard to figure out precisely what you need. And, as if it’s not hard enough to choose already, many of these high-quality items pack quite the price tag.

So, where do you start?

Before you start shopping, you’ll want to look ahead to the specific areas and applications where you’ll be using your sleep system.

Are you hiking in and need to think about every ounce that goes into your pack? Are you primarily camping at a base camp or a campground? Are you going off-grid? Will your adventures overlap into multiple seasons or in areas where weather and temperature will swing dramatically? Fully understanding how you plan to use your gear will be helpful as you choose what is best for you!

If you find yourself spread out with a variety of adventures in varying terrain and elements, having just one sleep system might not work.

Lastly, not all companies stand for things that align with who you are and what you enjoy doing. If company stance is important to you, you may want to dig into the companies you’re looking at to see how they align or where their products come from.

Shelters in themselves are a big part of your adventuring sleep setup and imperative in wilderness survival, but for now, we will cover sleeping bags, pads, and pillows.

Starting from the ground up, your sleep system will start with a sleeping pad. There are various types of sleeping pads, including self-inflating open-cell pads, closed-cell foam pads, and regular air mattresses.

Although comfort is essential when choosing a pad, there are some added elements you will want to take into consideration when making your purchase.

If you plan to be staying out in colder weather, check out the R-Value of each pad you’re considering. Sleeping pads with R-Values of 0-2 are suitable for warm-weather trips, R-Values from 2-4 work for most 3-season off-grid conditions, and R-Values of 4-6 are a solid choice in temperatures around freezing.

What is R-Value? It's a rating measure of resistance to heat flow through a given thickness of a material with higher numbers indicating better insulating properties. The higher the R-Value, the more thermally resistant the material or structure is.

Fun fact, R-Value isn’t just used in the camping and backpack world. Scientists, architects, and engineers also use R-Value.

If you are entirely new to hiking, camping, or backpack-style treks you may wonder why R-Value is that important. Let’s put it this way. If you were to roll out your sleeping bag and sleep directly on the ground, you would quickly get cold. The earth will suck the heat out of your body through conduction cooling without a pad or barrier below you - no thanks!

Sleeping Pads

Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL

Always a favorite of the ultralight elite, the Z Lite SOL expands upon the ultralight performance of the Original Z Lite by adding our reflective ThermaCapture™ coating to capture radiant heat and increase overall warmth by nearly 15%. Factoring in the system of heat-trapping dimples, the Z Lite SOL has an R-Value of 2.0, making it perfect for use on its own in warmer weather or layering under another pad for extra warmth in the cold. The proprietary foams are softer on top for extra comfort and denser on the bottom for extra durability, making the Z Lite SOL an ideal closed-cell foam pad for those in need of an ultralight, highly compact, and super-reliable sleep system.

- information from Therm-a-Rest

based on regular size

Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite

For a minimal pack size and maximum performance, our NeoAir XLite offers the gold standard in lightweight backpacking comfort. The unrivaled Triangular Core Matrix offers the best warmth-to-weight ratio of any air sleeping pad construction. The construction gives the 2.5-inch (6.4 cm) thick pad superior stability, boasting the most inches of weld for maximum camp comfort. The compact pad boasts a 4.2 R-Value, allowing users to camp comfortably year-round. Available in several sizes, including a roomy regular wide, the XLite features the high-performance WingLock valve, allowing the pad to inflate three times faster thanks to a larger opening and one-way inflation. Like all Therm-a-Rest pads, the NeoAir XLite is made in market to ensure quality and minimize environmental impact. The pad includes a breath-saving pump sack, compact stuff sack, and field repair kit. - information from Therm-a-Rest

based on regular size

Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm

When your backcountry pursuits demand extreme insulation and an ultralight packed size, alpinists and mountaineers turn to the NeoAir XTherm. The unrivaled Triangular Core Matrix offers the best warmth-to-weight ratio of any air sleeping pad construction. The construction gives the 2.5 inch (6.4 cm) thick pad superior stability, boasting the most inches of weld for maximum camp comfort. The packable pad boasts a 6.9 R-Value, allowing users to take it into the most extreme conditions. Available in several sizes, including a roomy regular wide, the XTherm features the high-performance WingLock valve, allowing the pad to inflate three times faster thanks to a larger opening and one-way inflation. Like all Therm-a-Rest pads, the NeoAir XTherm is made in market to ensure quality and minimize environmental impact. The pad includes a breath-saving pump sack, compact stuff sack, and field repair kit. - information from Therm-a-Rest

based on regular size

Now, I wish I could say that choosing a sleeping bag was more straightforward than selecting a sleeping pad, but as you just saw above, there are many features and considerations to be mindful of.

There are different shapes, lengths, and temperature ratings, but there are also different sleeping bag materials/ insulators to look at.

Down is known to have the best warmth-to-weight ratio and compresses very well, making it a good choice for backpacking. However, unless you choose a bag filled with water-resistant down (treated down), you may run into problems in wet conditions since down clumps together when it’s damp and loses its insulating abilities. Water-resistant or treated down is simply down insulation treated with a water-resistant coating at a molecular level. Fancy schmancy!

Another option is synthetic insulation, which is bulkier and heavier than a down or treated down bag in the same rating category. However, synthetic materials retain insulation ability when it’s wet, and synthetic material will dry faster than down will. Synthetic material may also reduce the overall cost of the bag.

Sleeping Bags

Mountain Hardware Ultra Lamina 15°

Unique Lamina™ construction maximizes the loft of your insulation; eliminates cold spots; and thermally maps insulation to areas you need the most warmth. By strategically placing insulation, we are able to concentrate warmth where you need it.

- information from Mountian Hardware

based on regular size

The North Face Cats Meow 20°

Cat’s Meow is a versatile 20-degree bag with a water-repellent finish, recycled shell fabric, and a fully insulated hood. This practical design includes integrated shock cords that prevent sleeping pads from "wandering" during the night. - information from The North Face

based on regular size

Stone Glacier CHILKOOT 0°

With a focus on warmth to weight ratio and pack-ability, the Chilkoot 0° bag utilizes industry-leading materials to achieve an overall weight and temperature rating that is best-in-class. A Pertex® Quantum shell adds water and wind resistance to protect the 850+ Fill power goose down HyperDRY™ insulation. This bag is designed with an articulated foot box and differential cut to provide warmth and maintain loft around the body regardless of sleeping position. An articulated hood boasts a uniquely designed insulated neck cuff with an elastic and magnetic closure to seal in heat. A weight-conscious 2/3 length reverse coil YKK zipper is paralleled by Dacron tape to reduce zipper snagging. When all put together, the Chilkoot 0° is a high-performance ultralight sleeping bag designed specifically for the most discerning mountain hunter. - information from Stone Glacier

based on regular size

Ready for some good news? Choosing your pillow won’t require nearly as much research. There are many great options for pillows, and choosing one shouldn’t be hard. Although, getting your pillow to stay inside your sleeping bag does require some skill.

Much like at home, the comfort of your pillow is very much a personal choice. What does the material feel like against your skin? How much support/ inflation do you require? Do you primarily side sleep or find yourself face up? These are all good things to consider when making your final choice.

Side note, and what I would consider a significant side note: some pillows are very loud (think of sleeping with your head on a popcorn bag). If you have a hard time sleeping with unusual noises, this is an important quality to consider. Pillows made of polyester, Dyneema, or plastics seem to be the loudest. They can also be the most slippery, making it hard to keep track of it throughout the night.

Some camp pillows are marketed for side sleepers, but you can likely achieve the same results with a standard pillow. I would mention here that the baffles on the pillow could be uncomfortable on your face if you are a side sleeper. If that is you, I recommend choosing a pillow with a softer outer material like the Therm-a-Rest Air Head Lite.

Also, you won’t find me in the backcountry without a second pillow or at a minimum, a clothes-filled stuff sack as a knee pillow. If you have back issues or are a female with wide hips, a knee pillow can make the long days of trekking feel a lot better.


Therm-a-Rest Air Head Lite

Don’t let the minimal pack size fool you. The Air Head Lite provides the same big comfort as our regular Air Head for a fraction of the weight. The air pillow provides the perfect amount of loft for comfy nights at camp. Customize the firmness of the stretch-knit surface before drifting off into sweet backcountry sleep. -information from Therm-a-Rest

based on regular size

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Stuff Sack Pillow

Our Stuff Sack Pillow is the first step towards sleeping well in the backcountry. By day: a reliable way to protect and store any unworn clothing. By night: a comfortable spot to rest your head. Sounds like a win-win. Some might say that a pillow is a luxury on the trail, but we’d simply argue that a good night’s sleep is priceless. -information from Hyperlite Mountain Gear

based on small pillow

Klymit Pillow X

Light and Packable. Weighs only 2.5 oz. and packs to an ultra-compact 4.5” x 2.5” x 1” – about the size of a lighter. X Design is self-centering X design supports your head. Adjustable height and pressure. -information from Klymit

based on regular size

Other things to consider with your sleep system:

Remember the R-value we discussed above? I want to note that temperature ratings for most sleeping bags are only valid when the bag is used with an R-value sleeping pad of 4.0 or greater.

If you are hiking or hunting in an area you may be crossing rivers or creeks you may want to carry your sleeping bag in a trash bag inside your pack or stuff sack to ensure it stays dry if you go for a swim.

If time allows, let your sleeping bag air dry before compressing it down and packing it up. This, of course, isn't always possible.

When using an air mattress or inflatable pillow, rips, pops, and punctures are common, and the last thing you want is to have a sleeping pad or pillow that won’t hold air. (been there, done that! Seven days of sleeping on the uneven rocks… not recommended). If you are in the field with a popped sleeping pad and don’t have a repair kit or tape, you can still sleep on top of the pad (it will still retain some of its insulating benefits).

If you are sleeping in extremely cold conditions or tend to run on the cool side, using a pump sack (many can double as a stuff sack or dry bag) might be good. Pump sacks will eliminate added moisture from your breath which can freeze in frigid temps and reduce the insulation of your pad.

When choosing your sleeping bag and pad, be sure to select the right size for your body. While some extreme weight-conscious hikers and hunters will choose a short torso-length sleeping pad, there are other width and length considerations. Are you extra tall or on the short side? Picking gear for your size can make sure you’re comfy in the field, and if you are on the shorter side, it can reduce the overall weight in your pack if you select smaller pieces.

Bring a repair kit! Having a way to fix damaged gear should be a priority!

Storing your gear correctly while you aren’t using it can help increase its usable life, warmth, and durability. Although we can all appreciate a sleeping bag that compresses down to just about nothing, keeping it compressed will reduce the insulation loft over time. To store your sleeping bag, remove it from the compressed sack, put it into a breathable uncompressed bag, or hang it in a cool, dry place.

Get the most life out of your sleeping pad by letting it free. Once you return to civilization, unpack your pad, dry it out, clean it off, and hang it safely in a cool, dry closet or storage area. Try to avoid creasing it in the same spot to reduce wear and tear.

It's also important to ensure your gear isn’t stored wet or with any residual dampness. Doing so can lead to a moldy mess and can further damage the integrity of your items.

Not all bug spray is created equal, and some insect repellants can damage your sleeping pad and other items. If your gear comes into contact with sprays or lotions with a high concentration of DEET, rinse it immediately. If there is a large amount of overspray or DEET contact on your gear, soap and water would be your best option! (Also, consider using gear-safe insect repellant like Permethrin next time!)

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