How to Build Your Summer Backpacking Sleep System
June 14, 2017
Summer is almost here! And you know what that means … evening swims in alpine lakes, dusty trails for miles and long days in the backcountry. But have you dialed in your backcountry sleep system yet? Or are you still deciding on your preferred insulation, and considering where to shave those unwanted ounces (or pounds!) from your pack? If so, we can help. Check out these steps for building the ultimate summer backpacking sleep system.
Start With The Mattress
Though the camping mattress is often overlooked in the sleep ecosystem, we’re here to tell you that a great night’s rest in the backcountry starts with your sleeping pad. First and foremost, your camping mattress provides comfort. But here’s the clincher: your sleeping pad is also a major source of insulation—meaning you’ll stay warm and cozy at night by choosing the right mattress. That’s why we’ve spent the last 40+ years developing technology that provides ample insulation at a weight you can still carry into the backcountry.
For summer backcountry travel, you still have four basic choices of construction when it comes to choosing your mattress: NeoAir construction, the self-inflating foam option, a hybrid of both foam and self-inflation, and the good ‘ol closed-cell foam pad. And as for weight, we organize our mattresses into two categories we feel is apt for backpacking: Fast & Light and Trek & Travel. Sure, you can still haul a two-pound mattress from our Camp & Comfort category deep into the backcountry, but that old phrase comes to mind: If you’re going to be stubborn, you better be tough.
We get into more detail about how to make the crucial decision on what exact mattress to choose in our new How To Choose A Mattress Infographic, but we’ll give you a quick run-down here too.
NeoAir—this is the crème de la crème of air mattresses. Basically, these bad-mammojammas employ cutting-edge technology such as the Triangular Core Matrix, which might sound like an extreme wrestling move, but it’s actually a patent pending design that creates the highest amount of stabilized loft and warmth in an air mattress. Period.
Perfect For … the ultra-light, ounce-counting gear-head who wants the lightest, most bad-ass mattress for deep forays into the bush.
Not So Perfect For … the backpacker who seems to break, destroy and demolish every bit of gear they use. If you puncture your NeoAir in the woods, you’ll be sleeping on the ground or making repairs by headlamp.
Self-Inflating—The classic Therm-a-Rest originally designed by a couple of backpacking engineers with a sandwich press, a self-inflating mattress provides comfort and reliability, plus they’re easy to use. We’ve perfected these mattresses over the years and offer several lightweight iterations: notably the ProLite Mattress.
Perfect For … a backpacker who values reliability, because if punctured, the foam will still provide a fair bit of cushion, but more importantly, thermal insulation. A backpacker looking to save time rather than weight will be stoked on our self-inflating models.
Not So Perfect For … a thru-hiker trying to set a speed record, or an alpinist gunning for a fast and light summit push and anyone else who demands the lightest backcountry gear available.
The Hybrid—These mattresses (the EvoLite and EvoLite Plus) combine the cushion of air with the stability of foam. Though relatively new technology, these bad-boys are catching on and getting backpackers stoked.
Perfect For … the best-of-both worlds gear-seeker who values innovation but also maintains a soft-spot for reliability.
Not So Perfect For … the backpacker who only wants gear that has been thoroughly tested with years in the field, or requires the lightest weight mattress available. The foam still makes these heavier than NeoAirs.
Closed-Cell Foam—The true OG backpacking mattress. We’ve perfected this tried-and-true design over the years to make them warmer and lighter, but they’re still as simple as it gets, which is exactly why some adventurers swear by them.
Perfect For … a backpacker who values simplicity, ease of use and reliability above plush comfort. Here’s a great example of a few thru-hiking, closed-cell fanatics telling you why they dig our Z Lite.
Not So Perfect For … a backpacker that demands both cushy loft and compact compressibility for their trips.
Choose Your Insulation … but Choose Wisely
The thought has crossed every backpacker’s mind:
I’ll just get a zero degree, super warm winter sleeping bag and call it good. After all, I can always unzip it while sleeping out during the summer months.
OK, sure. You certainly can lug a lot more insulation than you’ll actually need into the backcountry during the summer months, but remember that old phrase again?
There are two major reasons for eschewing a winter bag for summer backpacking trips. First, you’ll be carrying a heavier, inefficient amount of fluff in your pack. Remember the idea of shaving some weight and saving your knees this season? Well, here’s a great place to start.
Also, an important though often disregarded downfall of carrying a winter bag during the summer is overheating. Here’s a likely scenario: You go to sleep with your winter bag zipped up and you feel cozy and warm. Stoked right? Exactly! Stoked like the coals of a campfire! Once you’ve given your winter bag the opportunity to work (i.e. efficiently heat the surrounding space around you), you wake up drenched in sweat. OK, so you’ll just unzip and everything will be cool, right? Right! Everything will be really cool, especially when your sweat evaporates and you start shivering, which is not so cool … figuratively speaking, of course.
In truth, you’ll be much happier carrying the appropriate amount of insulation, so don’t be shy to go light.
Well, the majority of full-zip sleeping bags are designed for below-freezing temperatures. So ask yourself: What will the lows be during your summer nights spent under the stars? If you think you may experience below freezing temps, we recommend a three-season bag, but nothing more. However, more often than not, to reach that holy grail of just the right insulation, employing our Camp Quilts and Blankets to build an adaptable sleep system is the ticket for efficient summer backpacking insulation.
Our Camp Quilts are designed to work well down to 35 degrees Fahrenheit, which is usually right in the wheel house of summer nights. This means you’ll be carrying the appropriate amount of insulation and nothing more, while also eliminating the dreadful overheating cycle.
The other cool thing about Camp Quilts is they are great additions to an adaptable sleep system. Are you planning a winter camping trip but only have a three season sleeping bag? Throw the Camp Quilt you rocked all summer into the mix and you’ve efficiently added more warmth to your sleep system. Boom. Done. (You can learn more about our Camp Quilts by reading this in-depth article on the philosophy behind these useful backcountry tools.)
Our camping Blankets also make great sleep system components. Pair one with a Quilt for a summer system ready for sudden mercury dips, or throw one in your fall-time pack for a “security blanket” of warmth when chilly nights are the norm.
So as the Northern Hemisphere begins its tilt toward that glowing ball of hot plasma, make sure you’re ready to hit the trail with the right sleep system for the season. And we hope to see you out there!
Originally Published May 16th, 2016.
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