Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Anatomy Of A Backpacking Sleep System

sleep system for backpackers
Ok, let’s first discuss the term “sleep system.” That phrase sounds way more technical than it should, like you expect to have electrodes regulating your REM cycles. Actually, “system” is just easier than saying “all the stuff you need to keep warm and comfortable.” For the most part, a “system” might include a sleeping bag, quilt, or blanket; a sleeping mat/pad; and, for some, a hammock. I suppose a pillow might be considered part of this “system” for those that use one. Below is a brief point or two about each of these aspects.

SLEEPING BAGS: Sleeping bags are the most common way for backpackers to snuggle down and keep warm. Things to consider when choosing a bag are whether to opt for down vs. synthetic insulation, temperature rating, size (long, short, regular, wide), shape (mummy, rectangular, semi-rectangular), and gender (male, female). Of course, weight and volume are always very important considerations with all things backpacking. Click here for a more in-depth look at sleeping bags.

QUILTS: Backpacking quilts are another option. Quilts are usually constructed very similarly to sleeping bags, but they do not have zippers, are less restrictive, and can function more like a traditional blanket in some cases. Note that there are under-quilts and over-quilts. An under quilt is used in hammock camping and is attached so that it rests on the underside of the hammock to insulate from below. An over quilt is the more common type of bedding and simply refers to any quilt that is NOT designed to run underneath a hammock.

BLANKETS: For some, a simple blanket is all that is needed, especially in warm temperatures. I would look primarily to fleece as it insulates well when wet and dries quickly. I’ve taken only a small fleece blanket with me on summer trips to save a bit of weight and volume. Other blankets to consider are those marketed as “camping blankets” which might be made with a nylon or polyester shell with insulation (basically something kind of like the quilts mentioned above, but designed more for general use.)

SLEEPING PADS/MATS: Sleeping pads come in many shapes, sizes, types, and materials. The main categories are a simple foam pad (closed cell foams), self-inflating air pads, and manually inflating air pads (using your breath.) Foam pads have the advantage of being almost indestructible, are very lightweight, and offer excellent insulation against the cold ground. However, they are usually less comfortable than air mats. Air mats can be much more comfortable (they can provide up to 4 inches of cushion), but are less durable and can weigh a bit more than foam. Some air pads come with a layer of insulation and some do not; be aware if camping in cold temperatures. Weight can be saved with any pad (foam or air) by looking for smaller sizes designed to only support the torso, and air pads will often be available in mummy cuts. (I’ll be offering a more in-depth post about sleeping pads soon. Until then, here’s a review of the Big Agnes Insulated Air Core pad I currently use most often.)

HAMMOCKS: More and more backpackers seem to be moving towards hammocks for sleeping. The advantages of hammocks are primarily comfort. Some hikers claim that switching to hammocks provided them with better sleep than they’d ever experienced before. Of course, a hammock will require an area with ample trees properly spaced for hanging. Tarps are used in tandem with hammocks to provide shelter, and this combination can lead to a very lightweight sleep/shelter combination, especially in warm temperatures that don’t require under quilts or sleeping pads for insulation. The challenges that can arise with hammocks are insulation, as just mentioned, and bug protection (which can be solved with nets.)

PILLOWS: Many backpackers opt to forego pillows altogether. Frequently, simply using a stuff sack with some spare clothing will suffice. Specific pillow designs do exist for backpacking, however. Some designs use compressible foam or other insulation, but I've found most of those still take up more space than I want to spare. The other most frequent design is an air pillow. Like air pads, some are self-inflating and others require your breath. I use a simple air pillow that I blow up myself (it's a Big Agnes Q-Core that I got on deep discount.) I always make sure to have a t-shirt handy to use as a pillow case, otherwise the friction of the nylon pillow rubbing against the nylon of my sleeping pad make for especially loud and annoying squeaking.

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