Going Lighter — First Step Targets 4 — Sleep Systems

Sleep systems? There’s no need to be frightened! I’ve used this term simple because it is a phrase that is seen more and more on the web from those at the most extreme and of things!

We’re talking about getting a good night’s sleep which I find is very important when on a multi-day hike. There’s nothing worse than preparing to walk all day when you are knackered. This is one area where you might want to think about spending some cash as quality really can count.

Sleeping Bags

Synthetic filled sleeping bags are cheap but they can be surprisingly heavy and bulky to pack. Certainly in a climate like the UK most experienced hikers will go down the route of buying a down sleeping bag. In my view they are worth every penny.

Down bags are light and compact and very effective at keeping you warm. They range in weight and warmth though. Most manufacturers will rate their bags and give you a minimum range of temperature that they will stand. In my experience most of these ratings are conservative, i.e. the bags will keep you warmer at temperatures a little lower than recommended. As individuals though we all ‘sleep’ differently. Some people ‘sleep’ cold, in other words they are susceptible to cold weather. Others don’t notice the cold as much. If you have an inkling about where you fit into this spectrum then fine, otherwise don’t worry too much as the techniques described below should help.

I have two down bags. My main bag is an old PHD Minimus which is rated down to 0 and weighs under 500 grams. My other bag is a Rab Quantum 400 (now discontinued but similar to the Alpine 400). This is just under a kilo in weight and is much warmer, down to -10 or so. The Rab gets used occasionally for static camping in the winter but for all of my backpacking trips I rely on the Minimus.

There is a problem with warm bags in non alpine climates. They can get far too warm.

Like many backpackers now I choose to carry the lighter bag and cope with colder evenings by putting on extra clothes. You are carrying these anyway and they mean you don’t have to boil in your bag if the temperature rises.

Down Jackets

This may seem odd here but a good down jacket is worth its weight in gold to a UK hiker. And when the night is cold the down jacket worn in the sleeping back can cope with almost anything.

As soon as I stop and have put up the tent (and sometimes before the tent is unpacked) on goes the down jacket. It’s like having built-in central heating.

If it gets cold then sleep in our trousers and use wooly socks. I often carry a pair of wooly socks in a dry sack simply to be able to have something warm to wear at night.

Sleeping Mats

A matter of personal preference you can spend very little on a foam mat or loads of money on an inflatable mat.

For most of the last three years or so my main mat has been a very cheap Torso mat from Gossamer Gear. These are more difficult to find now but they are very good. I find I can sleep easily on the side of mine and they are not bad at insulating you from the cold, the mat has an egg-shell surface which keeps warm area between you and your back. There are of course many other mats on the market though I find those from specialist backpacking companies are better, more comfortable and keep their shape longer.

I am six feet tall but always carry a torso length mat, i.e., this means your legs are not covered by the mat. I give my legs extra protection by placing my pack and other gear under my legs to insulate them from the cold. This saves a few grams as I’m already carrying the other stuff. This may not seem much but this kind of approach used across the range of gear really cuts the grams off the load.

I have happily used my GG mat and Minimus bag in temperatures down to almost -10. The downside of the foam mat is that it doesn’t cope very well with undulating ground. This is where the inflatable mat really scores as the best have the ability to protect you from ridges in the ground. This is more often a problem than you might think. You find a nice camping area only to find it is really bumpy and uneven. Camping solo I often find I can sleep wound the bump but when there are two of you this becomes more difficult.

My favourite inflatable mat is the Thermorest Neoair which provides you with an amazing amount of luxury cushioning. Again I only have a short length mat and I stuff other stuff under my feet. The Neoair is a thick mat and so folks don’t like their feet dangling over the end. But my advice is to always go for the lightest option that you can, as I said above the weight really adds up.

There are now lots of options on the market so feel free to browse. It is more or less true though that you get what you pay for. The best inflatable mats are not cheap.

If you use an inflatable pad be sure to carry a repair kit with you. I’ve had to use one on more than a few occasions. Each time my mat has been punctured the problem has been stuff in the pack and not things on the ground. Once a mat was pierced by a badly packed spork! So, for inflatable mats be careful what you pack next to them!

Shop Around

If cost is a real concern shop around rather than be obsessive about getting a particular bag. Mountain Equipment, Rab, Golite and many of the main brands produce good and light down bags. Companies like Alpkit have pioneered some very cheap but effective bags. Look at the weight and the minimum temperature rather than the brand label. Lighter-fill bags will also be cheaper, another reason for using the clothes as backup technique to lower your carry weight.


Just stuff some stuff in a stuff sack and don’t bother spending money on something that will never be that comfortable anyhow!

Ultralight Systems

These days there are all kinds of clever things available. Quilts are beginning to be popular and they can be filled with down of lighter synthetic material. These save weight by missing out the back! Often they feature straps to make sure that the quilt and our sleeping pad stay in place.

Unless you want to go right to the extreme end of things quilts are probably not the best place to start but I mention them here as we are going to be hearing a lot more about them.

Keeping Down Dry!

Finally, down has one downside. Once down is wet it loses its insulation properties. Always keep a down sleeping bag and jacket in a waterproof stuff sack.

Some manufacturers offer an option of outer shell material. PHD, for example, offer you a water resistant shell called Dryshell. On my first PHD purchases I ignored this but I now have it on my down jacket and have been very pleased that I have! If you are camping under a single skin tent or tarp you might also be grateful for this. Maybe I’m just clumsy but on a number of occasions I’ve woken to a cold sleeping bag caused by the bag rubbing agains the wet tent fabric.

Despite these comments it is really not that difficult to look after down and so don’t use this as an excuse to go down a heavier, synthetic route.

Know Your Climate

I’m writing from a UK perspective and if you live in a warmer part of the world you can no doubt look to do things differently.

In cooler climates down really does make a difference. There are some that say it is not as effective in Scottish-type conditions but they are wrong! Most of us hiking in cold European climates will automatically turn to a good down bag and jacket.

Know Your Budget

When looking at packs and stoves I’ve already told you that some of the best options on the market are the most moderately priced. Down is never going to be cheap but by shopping around you are likely to be able to cut something off your price tag.

No doubt others have a lot to share regarding sleeping equipment and sleep techniques. Over to you!

But just to repeat what I said earlier, there is nothing worse than a bad night’s sleep. This is one area where I would avoid going very cheap!


  1. Michael Griffiths says:

    All Ultra light equipment lightens the purse dramatically. For example where can you buy a gale proof 4 season tent for under £100? Not by looking at the manufacturers listed here. However if you swallow your pride you can buy one weighing just 1.5 kilos for about £80. Try Jack Wolfskin Gossamer. It’s bombproof.

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