One of the most exciting parts of camping is sleeping in a tent – under a beautiful starry night sky and surrounded by the sounds of nature. The whole goal of the trip is to be able to relax and unwind, including getting a good night’s rest every night.
Sleeping soundly in a tent doesn’t come so easy, though – many campers, especially new ones, find it hard to sleep comfortably through the night. This is why a good camping sleep system is very important.
Choosing the right sleeping bag, sleeping pad and pillow will greatly contribute to how well you rest while outdoors. But like any camping gear, they all come in an overwhelming number of options. Finding the right one of each for you depends on a number of factors, depending on your personal needs.
Are you the type of person who can fall asleep easily just about anywhere or do you need a home-like comfort to doze off? What season do you think you’ll be camping often? Will you be spending most of your outdoor trips at a campsite or will you be backpacking? Answering these questions will help you determine exactly what you’ll be looking for in camping sleeping gear.
A sleeping bag is one of the most essential gear to have for camping. If you’re setting up your tent in a campsite or near your car when weight is not a problem, you can choose one that’s a little more plush and roomy, but if you’re hiking or backpacking, go for one that’s lightweight and snug.
Things to consider:
The first choice to make is between a sleeping bag that’s insulated with down or synthetic fill. Each one has their own benefits, again depending on your needs.
- Down Insulation – Ideal for backpacking because it compresses easily for packing and is lightweight. It is said to have a good warmth-to-weight ratio, performs well in cold, dry weather and is the more durable type of the two (and pricier, too). If you choose a sleeping bag with down insulation, be sure to go for one with water-resistant down. Down fill clumps together in damp and wet environments and lose their insulation abilities.
- Synthetic Insulation – More ideal for car camping (or when weight and space aren’t an issue) because it’s bulkier and heavier. But it’s affordable, continues to insulate even when damp/wet and dries quickly. Bags with synthetic fill are non-allergenic, too.
Another important thing to consider when choosing a camping sleeping bag is its temperature rating. According to experts, you should choose a bag that has a lower temperature rating than the expected lowest nighttime temperature of your campsite area. It’s better unzip the sleeping bag to reduce warmth than to increase it by adding more layers or clothing.
It’s also important to remember that there are some factors that will affect your sleeping bag’s temperature rating like your sleeping pad’s insulation, the clothes you wear, humidity and more.
- +30° F to +55° F – Ideal to use at low to moderate elevations and for summertime camping. Since they require the least amount of insulation and heat-saving features, sleeping bags in this temperature range are the lightest and easiest to pack.
- +5° F to +29° F – The most versatile out of all categories, bags in this range are called “3-season sleeping bags”, great to use in the summer, spring and fall.
- -40° F to +4° F – Choose a sleeping bag in this category if your camping trip involves ice or snow in any way. Designed for warmth, these bags will have a high-fill value (typically down) and features such as collars and zipper baffles to eliminate draft.
Shape is another to consider when choosing a sleeping bag. There are 3 main types namely:
- Rectangular – If you’re looking for room to stretch or move your arms and legs while sleeping, this is an ideal sleeping bag shape for you. While they allow you to sleep in different positions, the roominess means they pack more space and weigh more, which doesn’t make it ideal for backpacking. These can be unzipped and used as blankets or zipped to another bag to accommodate a couple.
- Semi-Rectangular – Also called the “barrel” or "tapered" shape, these sleeping bags are a hybrid or the rectangular and mummy shapes, a compromise between roominess and warmth.
- Mummy – Snug and warm (unlike rectangular sleeping bags), the mummy shape is ideal for cold weather camping or at high altitude areas. It is the most lightweight, a great choice if you do backpacking, but not so much if you’re a fidgety sleeper.
In a basic camping sleep system, there is what is called the sleep platform – this is what sits between the ground and your sleeping bag, for cushion and for insulation. There are different types of sleep platforms like cots and hammocks, but we will focus on the most common one, sleeping pads.
There are 3 main types of sleeping pads:
- Air Pads – These pads require manual inflation (through breath or a built-in/external hand pump). They are the most compact and lightweight among the types and are also said to be the most comfortable. Most of them contain insulation and some are even designed for four-season use. The lighter and more compact air pads are, the more expensive they are. However, a common issue with air pads is that they lose air when the temperature fluctuates so you should be ready to blow/pump air again when this happens. Other issues include it being prone to puncture and rips (campers with pets should be careful!) and having noisy, crinkly sounds when moved around in.
- Self-inflating Pads – Air automatically fills the chambers once the valve is opened, making for an easier set-up. Air pads may be lighter, more compact and less expensive, but self-inflating pads offer better insulation and are made of more quality fabrics, making them a good choice for children and pet owners.
- Closed-Cell Foam Pads – Though a little bulky, they are the only type of pad that can be carried outside a pack (without fear of damage or puncture). They can double as sit pads and are generally durable and lightweight. They offer good insulation and are the least expensive among the types. However, many campers find them to be stiff, firm and the least comfortable.
What type of sleeping pad is best for your activity?
Information from www.rei.com
- Backpacking/Bikepacking– Air pad or lightweight self-inflating pad
- Car Camping – Thick air pad or self-inflating pad
- Winter Camping – Well-insulated air pad or self-inflating pad
- Thru-Hiking – Closed-Cell Foam Pad
- Minimalist Camping/Backpacking – Ultralight Air Pad
Things to consider:
- Weight – If weight is an issue, good choices of a sleeping pad for you include lightweight to ultra-lightweight air or self-inflating pads, those that have a tapered or mummy shape or short-length closed-cell foam ones.
- Length – Sleeping pads come in 3 lengths – short (48 inches), regular (72 inches) and long (78 inches). Depending on your height, campers usually go for either regular-sized or long ones for better insulation (which can fit the shoulders and hips up to the feet), which is ideal for cool weather camping. The short, 3/4 length variety is lighter and more compact, better suited for warm weather camping.
- Width – Most pads have a standard width of 20 inches, but wider pads (25-30 inches) are available for larger individuals or for those who want room to roll around.
- Insulation – Sleeping pads have what is called an R-Value (its capacity to resist heat flow). The higher the value, the better the insulation. An average pad for summer camping usually has a 3 rating.
- Features – Sleeping pad features are largely a personal preference. Features mostly have to do with construction – some pads have pillow baffles (so you won’t have to bring a pillow) or side baffles (which act as “rails” to prevent you from rolling off). The surface of a pad contributes to comfort, too. A brushed fabric or textured surface will help prevent noise and sliding.
Again, the type of pillow you use will depend greatly on your type of camping or outdoor activity. If you’re car camping or will just be staying mostly at the campsite and weight is not an issue, bring your pillow from home! It may even help you sleep soundly outdoors because of familiarity.
But if you’re hiking or backpacking, you’ll need one that is light and compact. There are 2 main types of camping pillows:
- Inflatable – Ideal for those always on the go outdoors. Carry it around your pack deflated and it takes zero space. Inflate it when you need it and the amount of air can be adjusted for better comfort and support.
- Compressible – Although not as compact and portable as the inflatable variety, compressible camping pillows offer better support and are claimed by many campers to be more comfortable.
When purchasing a camping pillow, choose one that is the right size and shape for your head and will you give you sufficient head and neck support. Invest in one that is made of quality breathable materials.
Keep in mind that the outdoors are tough and you need gear that could keep up, including your camping sleep system. Choosing the right sleeping bag, sleeping pad and pillow will help you enjoy a good night’s sleep outdoors.
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