With the Summer well and truly upon us in many parts of the world, camping may be entering the mind of many hikers. It’s hard to beat a longer trek where you get to stay out in the wilderness for a night or two or even longer!
Photo Credit: Arup Malakar
With that in mind, I wanted to start a series of posts on camping. There are of course many things you need to have and many things you need to consider to have a successful camping trip while out on the trail.
I have camped many times but I wouldn’t consider myself a seasoned backpacker so I still have plenty to learn in this area myself. Today I want to start by reviewing what key elements you need in a camping sleep system.
What is a Camping Sleep System?
Well, basically, a camping sleep system is what enables you to sleep comfortably and warm while you’re out in the wilderness. Broadly speaking there are two key components to a sleep system, a sleeping platform and a sleeping bag.
A sleeping platform is basically the equivalent to the mattress in your bed. There are various options to choose from and, as with many things related to camping, it will come down to personal choice. A sleeping bag is well, a bag you sleep in 🙂 I think pretty much everyone knows what a sleeping bag is but there is a lot to think about when choosing one.
Looking at the a sleeping platform first, the main one I use is a roll mat or air mattress. These are simply soft mats you roll out on the ground to sleep on. While they do provide a certain level of comfort through cushioning, their main function is to act as a layer of insulation between your body and the cold of the ground.
There are various options you can choose. From a range of simple foam pads to air pads which can be inflated to provide a bit more comfort. Most air pads are self inflatable and easy to pack away and in my opinion probably the best option to use.
Price wise, the basic roll mat will be cheaper than an air pad but we’re talking 20 bucks or so difference so not a major price variation I feel. A typical foam roll mat is pictured below. As you can see it’s pretty straightforward, nothing too fancy but it does the job for a night in the mountains.
As mentioned, my preference is the air mattress, pictured below is the Therm-A-Rest Pro Lite, my current air mattress. They’re way more comfortable and much easier to pack away.
Check out this post to learn more about camping roll mats.
Now, there is no such thing as a concise rule book in camping to the best of my knowledge, except for common sense of course, so there’s no reason you can’t get creative with your sleeping platform if the climate and weather allows it.
For example, you could consider a hammock. Not something I have ever used but it could be an option. On the plus side, it has the additional advantage of being very lightweight and packable with minimal fuss. As long as you have a couple of trees close by you are probably good to set it up anywhere you choose. It also keeps you raised from the ground which is really important, both in terms of insulation but also in terms of bugs and so on.
Photo Credit: Richard Lewis
The main downside I feel is that you of course have no outside insulation so suitable weather is a must. You could perhaps formulate a shelter of some kind but it just wouldn’t offer the same level of protection from the environment than a tent in my opinion.
Another possible downside is that I guess you would probably also be sleeping in a funny position. Probably fine for a snooze but not so sure how comfortable in would be for a whole nights sleep. That may suit some folks just fine though.
Another possibility is a bivi bag or tent. Not loads of space but there’s no reason you couldn’t climb into one in fairer weather and sleep for a night. I have a friend who did just that on a short hiking trek. I also met a mountain guide in The Alps who told me that he slept in one while hanging from a cliff face while climbing a cliff face, now that’s really pushing it, but it worked fine for his needs although given the climb he was doing he didn’t have much of a choice.
On the plus side, a bivi tent is again lightweight and easy to carry. On the downside, it would probably be a bit cramped in one and you really would need reasonable weather I think to have any kind of a comfortable nights sleep in it. You’ll also probably still need your roll mat to work in tandem with this.
These suggestions are just some ideas really. Overall, you can’t beat a good old fashioned tent 🙂
The second main part of a camping sleep system is your sleeping bag. It’s primary purpose is to keep you insulated and warm. There are various different options you can consider, for example a rectangular sleeping bag, a mummy sleeping bag (Pictured below the Vango Nitestar 250) and so on. Click on the image below to learn more about the various different types available.
There are many other factors to consider as well. Things like what time of year you will be camping, the colder it is the more insulated a bag you will need. There are also factors like material to consider i.e. to go synthetic or to go with down material. There are pay-offs in weight and warmth in one versus the other but other trade-offs in terms of if your bag gets wet e.g. a synthetic back will still keep you warm when wet, a bag made from down material won’t.
I won’t go into loads more detail on sleeping bags here as I wrote a post on how to select a sleeping bag and it lists all the various different kinds of bag you can get as well as all the things you need to consider when buying one.
Sleep System Accessories
These aren’t really a core part of your sleeping system per se. You can get away without them but they can be worth considering.
The first on the list is a sleeping bag liner. You can learn more about what a sleeping bag liner is by clicking here. Pictured below is the Tough Outdoors Sleeping Bag Liner. Basically this is a bag that kind of acts like a bed sheet that you use within the sleeping bag. It helps protect your bag from your sweat and so on. The liner is the same shape as a sleeping bag and you slip it inside your sleeping bag. When you go to sleep, you just climb in the bag and liner as normal.
The handiest thing about a sleeping bag liner is that it is much easier to take a liner out and wash it after a camping trip. On the downside, it’s more weight to carry. There are two material options, cotton and silk. Silk is more comfortable and lightweight but also significantly more expensive that the cotton counterpart. I have a cotton one and it does the job fine. To be honest, I don’t always take it with me camping though. Really up to you.
A Pillow is Always Nice!
Next up, you can also look to get a camping pillow. Again, these are usually self inflatable or only take a bit of effort from your lungs. Again this is something I don’t personally use, not that I wouldn’t be grateful or one I hasten to add. To me, it seems like more extra weight to carry. I usually fashion a pillow out of clothes and a bag or my jacket rolled up into the hood, rolled into a tee or bag. Has done me fine on many occasions.
However, everyone has their own special little comfort they like to bring out on the trail or on a camping trip and this could be a grand one to have in your backpack! That little bit of extra comfort giving a good nights sleep could be just the ticket for you so definitely worth considering 🙂
So, there you have it. I hope enjoyed this quick look at what a camping sleep system is. Nothing too complex overall as you can see but there is a fair bit to consider when you’re going to buy the gear.
If you’re ready to purchase some gear I recommend you click out through to the how to buy a sleeping bag post, the post explaining more about what a camping roll mat is and finally the post explaining more about what a sleeping bag liner is. That should give you a lot to chew on as you review your options.
Personally, I go with a roll mat and 3 season sleeping bag. I also have a cotton sleeping bag liner which I utilize from time to time. That system has worked great for me but I’m sure there are lot’s of other options I would enjoy too. Take time to find whats right for you and of course, take what you need it all for into account too.
For example, if you’re planning a long trek thru hiking the Appalachian trail over the next 6 months, weight is probably top of your list. If you’re going for a long hiking weekend with a night or two camping out on the hills, you probably have a bit more space for an extra bit of comfort that just wouldn’t be practical on a longer trip so a pillow and that type of thing might be great to take along with you if you like to have one.
Wasn’t that little exploration into a camping sleep system fun 🙂 I hope you found this all useful. What do you think? What’s your favorite camping sleep system? Do you take a pillow with you? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
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