Going Lighter Guide: Sleeping

Is there much to say about sleeping? I’m certainly not going to bang on about ‘sleep systems- as that phrase has always made me laugh. But there is a certain amount of commons sense that I think is probably worth re-enforcing, simply because all of us can get carried away on a lightweight gear obsession.

Other than, perhaps, a single overnight, the most important thing about sleeping on the trail is that — well — you do manage to sleep!  There is nothing worse than walking after a really bad night’s sleep. If all you are doing is walking back to the car or the train then maybe it is not a problem. But if you are about to tackle any kind of reasonably lengthened walk it helps a great deal if you are fresh and have slept well. On any multi-day walk of any length you will have the odd bad night, maybe the wind and the rain have had your tent rocking and rolling all through the night.  There’s not much you can do about this other than make sure on the other nights you do get a good night’s sleep.

So, let me introduce you to a hard and fast rule about life on a trail. It is one of your key objectives to sleep as well as you can!

When I first really started to get into lightweight hiking I found myself using a foam sleeping mat. This was the Nightlite sleeping bad from Gossamer Gear. This pad is only torso length (so three quarter length) and has three foldable sections. It weighed only 100 grams. The pad is formed from egg shell like material which gives more cushion than a simple foam mat.

When I first bought this it worked quite well and I was able to side sleep on it, something that is always a challenge for a simple mat. In my tent at night I laid out my back or other gear at the bottom of the bad to give me a little extra insulation from the cold floor.

Then I embarked on my first TGO Challenge taking the Nighlite Pad with me as my sleeping pad. Scotland can be cold and I certainly hadn’t used this for seven or eight nights in a row. By the time I reached Braemar I was beginning to suffer and not sleeping well. A few Challengers introduced me to the newly introduced Neo Air pad and I immediately rushed down to Bramear Mountain Sports and paid a ridiculous amount of money for one. I bought a small Neo Air — equivalents to the Torso size — and it weighed almost 300 grams. I was suspicious.

All of that suspicion evaporated away after I had slept on it. The thick Neo Air air inflatable pad gave men the best night possible. I’ve been using these pads ever since. I still carry the Nightlife with me, partially as a back up, partially to sit on during the day and partially to stuff down the back of my sack to give it a bit more stiffness. On very cold nights I have been known to place this underneath the Neo Air to give a bit more warmth. I’m still using the short pads but as these have got lighter still I shall be replacing it with a regular size.

So, the Neo Air weighed a whopping 200 grams more than my pad. But the difference in those 200 grams was incredible!

Now, of course, there are other brands of sleeping mat out there — some including an insulated filling — but the main point is that something like a Neo Air will give you a good night’s sleep. On the trail you want to awake fresh and ready to hike again. There is not much point playing at being an SAS commando out in the woods!

So, we can follow this principle through to other areas. What do you use as a pillow as these can make a difference (although this is more down to personal preference). I tend to still stuff clothes into a stuff sack and use that. I used to use a lightweight inflatable pillow which as wonderful until I broke it. I should probably go back to invest a small amount in replacing this.

For a genuine hike comfort and sleep its more important than pure weight carried.

The Genius of Down

Most serious hikers will settle on down filled sleeping bags (that is goose or duck down). Down is ultra lightweight, compacts down into a small package has the best warmth to weight ration that you will find.

Like many hikers I have two sleeping bags. I have a winter bag from Rab that has kept me toasty warm way below-10. I seldom use this bag though because for much of the year it is just too hot, too heavy and a bit bulky when compressed. My main sleeping bag is a Minimus from UK down specialist PHD. There are many good companies producing down bags and I’m not going to mention them here. But PHD has a special place in the hearts of UK backpackers. PHD gear is about as good as it gets. My PHD bag weighs under 500 grams and has been going strong for around 15 years. It has been washed a few times (down does need washing every three or four years) and it still very effective through there is a bit of wear and tear on the toggle that closes down the space around your head.

When backpacking I never feel the need to use a warmer rated bag and that is because I am using my ‘sleep system’ —see I succumbed.

My Sleep System

UK walks — like the TGO Challenge — always see me carry some down clothing. I have a wonderful down jacket that is a real comfort blanket and put on as soon as I am in my tent. After a few years I bought some down trousers for the tent and a pair of down booties. Let me tell you, down booties have been a total revelation. Once I am dressed in this does stuff I can happily move around the tent, cooking food and so on, in total comfort. If the temperature really drops I simply wear all of this down clothing in my sleeping bag and effectively I’ve transformed my bag into a winter bag. My last overnight was a week ago on a warmish-summer evening. I didn’t carry my down jacket with me or my down trousers but I did carry the down booties. I didn’t need the booties but it is nice to know I have them close at hand. There is nothing worse than cold feet.

My sleeping bag does not quite have the loft or warmth that it used to have but it is not too hot in a typical UK summer and as part of the wider system it keeps me warm on very cold nights.

Down Quilts

When it comes to replacing my sleeping bag I’m pretty sure I shall be moving to a quilt based system. The only reason I haven’t embraced this yet is that my sleeping bag is still going strong — PHD bags are long lived and as they are expensive they need to have earned their keep!

So, what is a backpacking quilt?

Let’s consider the downsides of a mummy sleeping bag for a moment. My sleeping bag is tight to the body. It is designed to be like that to eliminate cold spots. But the tightness means that it can be a struggle to get in and out of and particularly to move around in. I’m a slde sleeper who turns around in the night — it is very easy for the bag to lose its orientation and for the hood to find itself in the wrong place. So, sleeping bags can be a pain in that regard,

The next issue with sleeping bags is that the down that is compressed when you lie on it cannot hold in air, so it is not warming or insulating you. When you look at the stats for that bag —for example the amount fill it has — you have to accept that you will never actually get to use that much fill.

This is where the down quilt comes in.

A backpacking quilt  is not a complete tube, it has an open back. It is designed to work with a sleeping pad like the Neo Air. The quilt is clipped to a strap that is placed around the sleep pad and clips onto the quilt — this system allow you quick and easy access into the quilt. You can have the same amount of fill as in the sleeping bag nut you will get the benefit of all of it. Quilts can be more generously cut to allow you to more freely and to cut out air. The quilts a little less claustrophobic. Most modern, high performance quilts have a footbox in them to keep your feet warm. As this is a quilt it is easier to open in warm weather and easy to drape around your shoulders when sitting up sitting out in the camp.

Quilts don’t have hoods and this may be a bit of a downside in cold weather. Some allow you to draw the quilt around your neck tightly and you can then rely on other balaclavas and gear like buffs to keep our head warm. Or you can buy a down hood which seems a pretty good option.

Backpacking quilts were not really a thing when I bought my PHD bag and as they became available here it took me a while to understand the benefits. But my next sleeping system will be built around a quilt.

Like so many lightweight gear innovations quilts were once the preserve of cottage industry lightweight providers. Many of these companies still going strong, including Enlightened Equipment, Nunatak, and Z Packs amongst others. These are high performance products but they have to be imported from the US. However, now a number of mainstream producers such as Thermorest are getting in on the act and are available from UK retailers. PHD do make down quilts but I don’t think they have quite got the design right yet — they seem not as good as attaching the quilt to a sleeping pad. UK specialists Alpkit have been producing high quality quilts for many years now.



So, there you go — some thoughts on the importance of sleep and how a sleep system can be versatile and a life saver. Down is expensive but is probably the piece of quality kit that you should target first. A food sleeping pad like a Neo Air is a must!  Don’t deprive yourself of a bit of luxury!

I’ve mentioned a few manufactures but there are some great companies now making competitively priced down equipment, including PHD, Rab, Alpkit (great quilts and bags) and of course there will be others.

You don’t need overkill. As ever versatility and multi use are the lightweight hiker’s friend. That down jacket can more than happily function to boost the warmth of your bag or quilt. On cold, cold nights the jacket will also mean you don’t have to worry about cold spots or a gap in your quilt.

And have a think about down booties. This is one purchase you will never regret.

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