How to Find the Best Outdoor Sleep System

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You may be heading out into the wilderness in order to get away from modern life, but that doesn’t mean you have to go without a good night’s sleep. Getting excellent rest in order to restore you for the day ahead starts with your sleep system.

Unless you’re one of those lucky ones who can sleep virtually anywhere and in any conditions, you’ll probably want your sleep system to feel almost as comfortable as your bed at home. Believe it or not, this is possible – modern outdoor gear technologies have created portable, lightweight sleeping equipment that’s as comfortable as it is convenient.

In this article, we’re going to first cover the different conditions and situations you may be sleeping in, touching lightly on topics we’ll go over more in-depth later on. Then, we’ll explain the basics of sleep systems.

After that, we’ll talk at length about the different types of sleeping pads and sleeping platforms, followed by a section that explains the three components of a good sleeping bag. Toward the end, we have five tips for getting an even better night’s sleep while camping, with a couple of suggestions for add-on gear you may want to buy.

Decide on the Conditions You’ll Be Sleeping In

Before we get started, it’s a good idea to know where you’ll be traveling. The sleep system you’ll need if you’re going to be camping near your car is a lot different than what you’ll be willing to carry on your back during a backcountry trip. Also, your sleep system needs are going to change based on weather, so have an idea of where and when you’ll be traveling.

Temperature should be a major consideration, especially if you’re going to be sleeping outside in cold weather. Check the pad’s R-value, which refers to the pad’s ability to retain warmth throughout the night. For cold weather, the pad should have a minimum R-value of 3.5. Foam or self-inflating pads have the most insulation, and if you’re going to be backpacking, you can find one that’s lightweight and easy to pack. Sometimes, a pad will also have reflective material that bounces the heat back to you in order to add warmth without adding weight.

Backpacking

Backpackers (or any outdoor adventurer who has to carry their belongings on their back, like a cyclist or kayaker) will want an air pad or a self-inflating pad. You can choose one based on the durability, insulation, thickness and weight that works with your excursion. Also, if you have a chair kit, the pad can also be used as a seat and backrest.

Minimalist Backpacking

Minimalist backpackers will have different needs than traditional backpackers, and keeping weight low and pack size small are highly important. An ultra-light air pad is a good option here. Also, there are insulated pads you can find that don’t weigh much at all. The main factor here will be pack size, so pay extra attention to that when shopping.

Car Camping

Car camping means you’ll be driving to or close to the campsite and setting up camp nearby, which means you don’t have to carry all of your gear on your back. Car camping has a lot of wiggle room when it comes to the size and weight of what you bring along, so you can get away with a sleep system that maximizes comfort. Look for a large, thick mattress for the ultimate in comfort. The good news here is that these sleeping pads will be less expensive than lightweight ones. A self-inflating pad is a good option for car camping, as is a large air mattress that you can outfit with your sheets and blankets from home.

Thru-Hiking

Weight is very important if you’re going to be doing thru-hiking, and durability is also something to seriously consider. For this type of hiking, go for a closed-cell foam pad. To save weight, you can pack a shortened foam pad, then lay your pack of clothing underneath your feet for a bit more insulation.

Winter Camping

On top of checking the temperature rating of your sleeping bag, it’s a good idea to use two pads when camping in cold conditions. The first pad should be either an insulated pad with a high R-value or a self-inflating pad, while the second pad (below the first pad) should be a closed-cell foam pad. The closed-cell foam pad will add insulation and also be a backup should the inflatable pad get a puncture.

Sleep System Basics

A sleep system essentially has just two parts: the platform you’ll be sleeping on and the sleeping bag you’ll be wrapped in (or covered by). Think of the platform as your mattress – it’s what your sleeping bag (your blanket) is going to be on top of and what’s going to separate you from the ruggedness and cold of the ground. There are all sorts of sleep platform styles, including pads, cots, air mattresses and hammocks.

Sleeping Pads

Sleeping pads come in a range of thicknesses, starting at under one inch and going up to several inches. The thickness you’ll choose will be based on your comfort level and weight, as well as packability. Most of the time, you can inflate a sleeping pad without a pump, and you can then tightly pack the pad up into a compact size to make it easy to transport.

In this section, we’re going to go over the different types of sleeping pads out there to choose from. While you may notice some crossover in the styles, we wanted to clarify each and every type of pad you could come across during the buying process.

Air Mattresses

An air mattress will place you well above the ground, far from bumps that could interrupt your sleep. Air mattresses come in all sizes and go all the way up to king size. There are also a variety of styles, from traditional air mattresses to ones that are like oversized versions of backpacking sleep pads.

Air mattresses may be self-inflating, but most of the time they require an air pump because they have so much air to hold. The air pump may be powered by foot or hand, or by battery. Your body weight plays a role in how comfortable an air mattress will be, because it can start to slump over night, making it less comfortable. It’s also common for air mattresses to get punctures or spring a leak, so you’ll want to carry a patch kit with you.

Air-Only Pads

During your search, you’re probably going to come across air-only pads, which will seem like a great option at first. These pads are lightweight and pack down very small. However, they don’t have the same insulation as bulkier pads or self-inflating pads. If you’re not an avid camper, it’s important to understand how much body heat you can lose on air-only pads, especially when the temperature is cold. These pads are best to use only in warm conditions, or when used along with a foam pad for extra comfort in cold conditions.

Foam Pads

Foam sleeping pads are made from dense, closed-cell foam, which is excellent for insulating. These pads are typically under one-inch thick, which reduces their comfort level. They’re also not as easy to pack as self-inflating pads (which we cover more in-depth below). However, foam pads are lightweight and warm, which makes them a good choice if you’re going to be camping in cold temperatures. They’re also highly durable, which means you can strap them onto your backpack and not worry too much about them getting ruined from contact with branches.

Self-Inflating Pads

Self-inflating are made with open-cell foam that will decompress when you unseal the valve in order to roll the pad up. When the valve is re-sealed, air will get trapped in the foam cells, making it more comfortable and insulated. These pads have extra cushioning and padding due to the foam, but they can be bulky even when rolled up.

Pro Shopping Tip

When shopping for a sleep pad, try it out in person if possible. Lay down on your back and your side – however you usually sleep – and roll around on the pad to see how comfortable it is. You’ll also be able to assess the size and weight when you see the pad in person.

Other Sleeping Platforms

While sleeping pads are the most common platforms to choose from, especially for backpackers, cots and hammocks may have their place in your sleep system, too.

Cots

Cots are similar to beds in height, making them very easy to get in and out of. They also have storage area underneath, making it easy to organize your gear, especially in a small tent. However, there isn’t any insulation between you and the cold air that circulates all around the cot – this makes them a good option for staying cool during the winter, but it can leave you cold during the winter. To solve this problem during cold weather, try adding a blanket or a foam sleeping bad between your sleeping bag and the cot. When you’re ready to pack up, cots will fold up tightly to pack and store, but they’ll still be on the large size (and heavy) if you intend to backpack. Cots are best when used at a long-term base camp or when car camping.

Hammocks

When you think of a hammock, you probably picture a wide, ropy hammock with a lot of webbing, similar to what you’d see at a beachside resort. Outdoor hammocks are a lot different, though, in order to be useful while cutting down on weight. Camping hammocks are thin and made from parachute-style material, which has the strength needed to suspend your body over the ground. They’re also incredibly lightweight (a favorite of minimalist backpackers) and super easy to pack. Hammocks come with very little setup, and all you’ll need to get it up and ready is some cord and a pair of trees.

Since hammocks don’t have insulation, they’re best for hot conditions, or to be used with a sleeping pad underneath you and on top of the hammock. It’s not possible to setup the hammock inside a tent, so you’ll also want a tarp or some kind of shelter in case it starts to rain. It’s possible to purchase a hammock with an integrated shelter that will form a sort of private pod for better sleep conditions.

If you’ve never slept in a hammock before, be prepared – there’s a bit of a learning curve when it comes to getting comfortable since you won’t be sleeping on a flat surface like you’re used to. Hammocks are also difficult to move in and to get into and out of since your body will form a valley in the hammock. Using a sleeping pad can flatten that dip this out a bit. Hammocks also aren’t ideal for two people to sleep in together, since your body weight and gravity will force you both toward the bottom and squish you together.

Sleeping Bags Basics

There are three main considerations when shopping for a sleeping bag: insulation (which means down fill versus synthetic insulation); warmth (which requires matching the temperature rating to the conditions you’ll be sleeping in); and shape (mummy versus rectangular bags). For a complete purchasing guide, check out our Guide to Buying the Best Sleeping Bags

Insulation

When it comes to the best warmth-to-weight ratio you can find, down is the absolute winner. It also compresses well, which makes it a top choice for backpacking. However, down isn’t water-resistant, though you can find down that’s been treated for this purpose. In damp environments, down could clump together, which makes it lose its insulating abilities and requires a mechanical dryer to restore.

Synthetic insulation is bulkier and heavier than down when compared to a sleeping bag with the same warmth capabilities. The benefit, though, is that it can still insulate when wet, which makes it the better option if you’re going to be in humid or wet conditions. Also, synthetic fill is less costly than down.

Warmth

To assess warmth, look at the sleeping bag’s temperature rating. If you’re only camping in the summertime, you’ll be fine with any sleeping bag that is rated at 30 degrees Fahrenheit or above. In cold weather, though, you’ll need to choose a bag that’s rated for the temperature you’ll be camping in.

Shape

Sleeping bags generally come in two different shapes: mummy and rectangular. However, today there are several bags that have hybrid shapes, which give you more options for comfort or when co-sleeping.

Mummy Bags

Mummy bags are great when camping in cold weather and in high altitudes. They have a body-contoured design that keeps you as warm as possible by placing the insulation very close to your body. There’s less open space for your body to heat, which in turn keeps you warm. Also, since mummy bags are narrow in shape, there’s less to carry in terms of bulk and weight, which is excellent if you’ll be backpacking into the backcountry. On the negative side, mummy bags don’t give you a lot of space to move if you tend to fidget a lot during your sleep.

Mummy bags that are women-specific are designed with additional space in the hips and less space in the shoulders. Also, women tend to be colder than men, so women-specific mummy bags will have additional insulation in important areas, like the feet and hood.

Rectangular Bags

Rectangular or semi-rectangular sleeping bags have a lot of room for sleeping and moving around, letting you adjust during the night and change sleeping positions. They can also be unzipped completely to act as a blanket. However, since they have all that extra space, they’re not nearly as good as mummy bags at keeping you warm and retaining body heat. Also, since the shape of these bags is roomier, they tend to be heavier, too, taking up extra space when packed. These bags are best for car camping as opposed to backpacking.

If you’re going to be sleeping with a partner, you’ll want a sleeping bag that’s double in width or that can be unzipped and then zipped with another bag to create a sleeping bag fit for two. While you don’t need two of the same exact sleeping bag in order to zip them together, the zippers do have to be compatible in terms of teeth size, length and the way they’re facing.

Consider Your Comfort: Tips for Getting a Better Night’s Sleep Outdoors

Though traditional sleep systems are two-parters (the platform and the bag), we like to think of your sleep system as including everything you need to get some shut eye. In this section, we’re going to go over some must-know tips about making your campsite comfy, and you may even get some ideas about add-ons and niceties to add to your shopping list.

  1. Don’t bundle up too much clothing-wise before bed. You’ve chosen a sleeping bag that’s rated for the weather you’ll be sleeping in, and wearing too many layers can actually stop the bag from utilizing your body heat. If you need extra insulation, drape a sweatshirt or jacket on the outside of the bag instead of wrapping it around you.
  2. Cinch the sleeping bag around your head – if you’re camping in cold weather, you should look for a bag with an adjustable hood – and allow just enough space for you to breathe. The hood can go a long way to trapping body heat and keeping you warm.
  3. While you can bring your pillow from home, it’s more convenient (especially if you’re backpacking) to bring along a foam or inflatable camp pillow. Some sleeping bags will even have a dedicated pocket for holding your pillow. In this article, we go over three top choices for camping pillows.
  4. Shut out the noise, literally, with an eye mask and ear plugs. An eye mask is especially helpful if you’re camping at a latitude where the sun sets late at night (or not at all), or if there’s a lot of ambient light. Ear plugs can block out your camping partner’s snoring or keep nature noises at bay so you don’t wake up every time a tiny animal shuffles in the leaves.
  5. Can’t seem to wind down before bedtime? Try to mimic your at-home nighttime routine, which will signal your brain that it’s time to get sleepy. It’s also helpful to bring along something familiar from home, if you have the room for it, like your favorite pair of pajamas or the blanket you usually sleep with.

Sleeping Back Maintenance

No matter what sleeping system you choose, you’ll want to care for it so it will last you for years to come. In this article, we cover the must-know tips for washing your sleeping bag. Also, choose items that can withstand whatever environments you’re going to put them in. So, you’ll want waterproofing if you’re going to be in the rain or snow, and rugged materials if you’ll be carrying everything on your back through the backcountry.

Sleep Systems Reviews and Guides

The following is a compendium of our top guides and reviews for outdoor sleep systems, sorted alphabetically by brand and the type of article:

Sleeping Bag Guides

Sleeping Bag Reviews

Hammocks for Sleeping

Camping Mattresses and Cots

Blankets and Quilts

Sleeping Pads

Camping Pillows