Choosing your Backpacking Sleep System

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Remember those days as a kid when you brought out your sleeping bag with your favorite cartoon character on it, and just slept in a tent directly on the ground? Yeah…that’s not going to work as an adult lol. You’ll freeze and if you’re lucky to get any sleep your back, shoulders, and hips will hate you the next day.

Before you make any purchases, it’s really important you fully understand all the temperature ratings, materials, and other options available. It could be the difference between a good sleep and none at all.

I go into detail on all the important points below:

What is included in a proper Sleep System for Backpacking?

The first thing you need is the most obvious: a lightweight sleeping bag or quilt with the proper temperature rating. You also need a sleeping pad, to insulate yourself from the cold ground and to provide cushioning. The third thing would be a pillow. In addition, some people may also use a sleeping bag liner, to provide extra warmth and to keep their bag and pad cleaner. All of these things form your “sleep system”.

The 3 essential Sleep System items are:

  • Sleeping Bag or Quilt
  • Sleeping Pad
  • Pillow

Sleeping Bags & Quilts

zenbivy light beds
Zenbivy quilts and sheet sets.

Temperature Ratings

Pay very close attention to the Temperature Ratings on your sleeping bag or quilt, as well as your sleeping pad! Your sleeping bag and pad work together to keep you warm. You may purchase a bag that says it can keep you warm till 30 degrees F, but if your pad isn’t also properly rated you can still get quite cold!

Sleeping bags and quilts usually have 2 temperatures on them: a Comfort Rating, and a Limit Rating. The comfort rating is the temperature you’ll be nice and comfortable sleeping in, and the limit rating is the lowest you can go and still be safe at night-you might not sleep though. If the sleeping bag only has one temperature listed, it is most like the Limit rating.

Also most women sleep cold, so it’s a good idea to tack on another 10-15 degrees Fahrenheit to the comfort rating.  For example:  I have a quilt that has a limit rating of 10 degrees F. That means the normal comfort rating would be 20 degrees. Since I’m a cold sleeper I personally wouldn’t want to use it in anything below 30 degrees F to be on the safe side.

What’s the difference between a sleeping bag and quilt?

A sleeping bag is what we traditionally all know-it fully surrounds you, zips up, and can be shaped like a rectangle, or mummy style, or somewhere in between. They’re also better for very cold temperatures in the winter because there’s no chance of moving around and getting drafts.

Quilts got their start from hammock camping. Tent users found that they could use them too, and companies added straps to help holds them down onto your sleeping pad, and cinch cords to prevent drafts in cooler weather so you can make them mummy shaped. They save on weight by not having a back to them. The theory is that any part of the sleeping bag you’re laying down on top of stops the insulation from working by compressing it. So why not remove it and save some weight? They’re also more versatile if it’s warmer because you don’t have to strap it down and can use it just like a normal quilt at home.

Materials & Fill

You can get sleeping bags & quilts in either down or synthetic fill. Down is highly compressible and lighter, but if it gets wet it looses its ability to keep you warm. Synthetic will still help insulate you if it’s wet, but it’s much more bulky and weighs more. There are also different down fill powers, such as 800 fill, 850, 900. The higher the fill number, the warmer the bag will be with less fill-so it’s lighter and smaller. It’s also a lot more expensive!

The outer fabrics of the bags tend to be made in a 7-20D (denier) nylon. The lower the number the lighter the fabric.

Here are some Sleeping Bag and Quilt options popular with backpackers:

  • Nemo – a great selection of both down and synthetic bags for men and women. Their spoon shaped bags offer more room than a regular mummy bag.
  • Enlightened Equipment – A very popular brand among hikers for quilts. They offer lots of customization too. Their lightest quilts are the Enigma series.
  • UGQ
  • Hammock Gear
  • Katabatic Gear
  • Outdoor Vitals – Some really good quality options for both quilts and sleeping bags that you can often get good deals on. I recommend them!
  • Zenbivy – I own and use a Zenbivy light quilt and sheet set. I was really curious about this set when I first saw it, as I wasn’t quite sold on a traditional sleeping bag or quilt, but this hybrid approach looked really neat and comfortable! And it truly is, I love it!

Sleeping Pads

Zenbivy light mattress backpacking sleeping pad
This is the Zenbivy Light Mattress that I own.

There are 3 main sleeping pad options for backpacking:

  • Non-inflatable closed cell foam pads
  • Self-inflating pads
  • Inflatable pads

Non-inflatable pads are big and bulky, people usually attach them somewhere outside of their packs. They’re biggest pro is that they’re lightweight and pretty much indestructible, you won’t ever wake up to your pad being deflated at night! Cons are that they’re not as warm as inflatable pads, and also not as comfortable. Most people say that they work well if you’re a back sleeper, but as a side sleeper they can give you hip and shoulder pain since there’s not much cushion between you and the ground.

Self-inflating pads are ones you roll out and they start taking in air by themselves. They do have a valve and you can blow a couple breaths into them to fill them up all the way. I don’t recommend these for backpacking however due to them being heavier.

Inflatable pads are ones that you have to completely inflate yourself. Either by blowing them up manually or using a provided air bag, which you attach to the valve, gather air inside and push down into the pad. These types of pads are the lightest and most comfortable, and are the ones I’d recommend going with. You do have to be careful you clear the ground where you’ll be sleeping, just so that there’s nothing sharp that might puncture the pad when you lay down on it for the night.

Sleeping Pads usually have an R-value rating assigned to them. This is its temperature rating. An R value of 1 or 2 would be good for use in the summer. 3 or 4 in the cooler spring or fall. And for the winter you would need a 4, 5, or 6 rated pad. The higher the number, the colder the temperature it can handle. Again, this also depends if you’re a cold sleeper or not, so if you do sleep cold perhaps choose a pad with a higher R value rating.

Sleeping Pad Options:

  • Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite – These are extremely popular with a lot of thru hikers because they weight so little and have a higher R value of 4.2 and only weigh 12 oz for the regular size! They do have a reputation for being noisy to sleep on however, so read reviews before you buy. There’s also a women’s version which is even warmer, although a bit shorter.
  • Nemo Tensor – Another popular sleeping pad among hikers, this one weighs more than the Thermarest, but isn’t as noisy! There’s also a cooler rated Insulated version.
  • Zenbivy Light Mattress – This one I personally own and use, and have slept comfortably on it. It also comes with a nice drybag that’s also an inflation sack for the pad.
  • Outdoor Vitals – These are good pads that are similar and more affordable than some of the above brands.

Budget Options:

Sleeping Bag Liners

If you have a quilt or sleeping bag that’s not quite warm enough for you, but you don’t want to spend money on another one, you can try a sleeping bag liner. It has the added benefit of keeping your sleeping bag and pad a bit cleaner, you can easily throw it in the wash!

The lightest material would be a silk liner, but it’s not going to add that much more warmth.

For one that will hopefully give you at least another 10 degrees or more, you’ll have to go with a fleece material that weighs close to a pound.


And lastly, most people need a pillow for the night! Some ultra-light backpackers will just use their puffy jacket, or stuff their extra clothes into a bag and use that as a pillow. But there are small inflatable pillows that you can get which are comfortable enough and can help you sleep better.

Pillow Options:

There are literally a ton of different pillows you can check out. Everything from super light weight inflatables, to ones with down in them, and even ones that are just a sheet which you can stuff yourself with extra clothes to create a pillow. It just depends on what you personally find comfortable. I use the small, simple Outdoor Vitals pillow, it works really well for me!

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