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How to Choose a Backpacking Sleep System You'll Love

June 27, 2018

How to choose a backpacking sleep system you'll love. Visit idhikethat.com to find out how to make your trip more enjoyable.

One of the most important decisions you can make for an enjoyable backpacking trip is your sleep system.

Everyone appreciates a good night's sleep, especially while adventuring in the backcountry.  

Having a quality sleep system that is most comfortable to you will determine how well you sleep outdoors, and in turn, how successful and enjoyable your trip is.

It is essential that you know how to choose your sleeping pad and sleeping bag for your sleep system.

Keep these three features in mind when choosing your sleeping pad:

1.  Weight and durability

Although more expensive, ultralight pads are a great option for backpacking.  You can also save weight by choosing a mummy or tapered shape, closed-cell foam pads, or a two-person lightweight sleeping pad (if you're with a partner).  Remember, finding the most lightweight gear is one step you can make for a wonderful backpacking trip.  

Also consider the construction of the sleeping pads.  Some pads have rails that will keep you from rolling off during the night.  Other pads feature pillow baffles.

2.  Warmth

No matter the time of year, insulation is a very important feature because you lose body heat to the ground.  Consider the type of insulation in the sleeping pad.  Many pads have a layer of synthetic insulation inside, while some contain down insulation to be used in extremely cold environments. 

Also consider the sleeping pad's R-value, which measures its capacity to resist heat flow.  The higher the pad's R-value is, the better it will insulate from cold surfaces.

3.  Comfort

The quality of the sleeping pad's inflation will play a huge role in the comfort of your night's sleep.  There is nothing like waking up in the middle of the night to a deflated sleeping pad.  There are many different types of inflation in sleeping pads.  Some contain a high-volume inflation valve and deflation valve, allowing the air flow to move in and out more rapidly.  Others have larger neck openings, allowing for a faster, easier inflation process.  And some have separate inflation layers, giving you assurance that even if one layer fails, you will not be greeted with a rude awakening by the hard ground in the early morning. 

Taking a look at the best backpacking sleeping pads of 2018 might be a great place to start.  You will also find other valuable buying advice, including the different types, how to care for them, and more.

Keep these two features in mind when choosing your sleeping bag:

1.  Make a decision on the type of insulation you prefer:  down or synthetic.

Synthetic bags are cheaper and dry out better than down, but significantly heavier.  While backpacking, having a lightweight sleep system is preferable.  Although down bags tend to cost twice as much, they last longer.  As with all things, you get what you pay for.  It is important to note that a down sleeping bag will not keep you warm if it gets wet, whereas a synthetic bag will.  

2.  Know what temperature ranges you will be using the bag in.

Sleeping bags have certain temperature ratings that are labeled on the bags as "EN tested."  (EN stands for "European Norm.") . Know the weather climate you will be using your bag in will help you determine the EN rating you will need.   

So what exactly does the EN rating tell you?

  • EN comfort:  the temperature that a standard woman can sleep comfortably in a relaxed position. 
  • EN limit:  the lowest temperature at which a standard man will be able to sleep comfortably throughout the night. 
  • EN extreme:  the temperature at which a standard woman can survive for at least six hours. 

These ratings are based on a sleeper wearing one layer of long underwear and a hat, and sleeping on a single one-inch thick insulating pad.  A three season bag has an EN rating of 15 degrees Fahrenheit, allowing you coverage in typical situations spring through fall.  A three season bag would be ideal for most backpackers.

Switchback Travel's article on the best sleeping bags of 2018 will help you understand the special features of the various types of bags.  You will also find a nice comparison table on the top sleeping bags listed.

After you have determined what is most important to you in your sleep system, head over to your local outdoor shop and try out a few in the store.

Do you have a sleep system that you love?  We would love to hear what you would recommend! 


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