This is the fourth video in our Lightweight Backpacking Foundations video series - Ultralight Sleeping Bags, Pads & Pillows. This series will help you learn how to backpack lighter and will cover a wide range of equipment options for ultralight backpacking. We also have a full Gear Guide on our site to help you find the best lightweight tools on the market.
For those of you that prefer to learn by reading, we've included episode notes as well as room for future updates and comments below. We hope you enjoy our content and we look forward to hearing your feedback!
Check out the sleeping page of our gear guide if you're interested in seeing our favorite ultralight sleeping bags, pads, and pillows.
Ultralight Sleeping Bags, Pads & Pillows
Your sleeping system is very important for safety on the trail and it'll also have a huge influence on your enjoyment.
Spending a night tossing and turning in your tent after a hard days hike can be one of the most uncomfortable parts of a backpacking trip. If you're sleeping setup is too hot/cold or you feel rocks and roots under your sleeping pad, you're likely to have a tough night.
Your sleeping system will also play a huge role in reducing the weight of your backpack. Traditional bags can easily weigh between 3-5 pounds and ultralight bags can be as light as a pound or less.
Your sleeping system will generally consist of three items:
- Your sleeping bag
- Your sleeping pad
- And some form of pillow
A lot of weight can be saved right off the bat just by choosing equipment that fits your backpacking preferences. For example, if you generally hike during the spring, summer, and fall, it's unlikely that you'll need a bag and pad rated well below freezing temperatures. If you choose equipment rated for warmer temperatures, you'll save a bunch of weight and still have the right equipment for your treks.
Sleeping bags work to keep you warm by creating a protected space where air flow will be reduced and your body heat will keep you warm. The loft and insulation of your sleeping bag will be two important factors in how much body heat your bag will hold in. In general, the more loft and insulation in your sleeping bag has, the warmer it's going to keep you.
The temperature rating of a sleeping bag is the manufactures best estimation of the temperature their sleeping bag will keep you warm until, but it isn't an exact science. Therefore, sleeping bags that are rated to 25 degrees will generally be warmer than sleeping bags that are rated to 35 degrees, but they will also be slightly heavier.
Choosing a sleeping bag with a temperature rating that fits your backpacking style is one of the best way to save weight and increase comfort.
For example, for many years I hiked with a synthetic sleeping bag that was rated to 15 degrees and weighed about 3.5 pounds. My bag worked great on winter trips, but I was always really hot and sweaty on spring, summer, and fall treks, which is when I do most of my backpacking. By switching over to a lightweight down sleeping bag rated to 35 degrees I was able save over 2.5 pounds and make my evenings infinitely more comfortable.
Many long-distance backpackers pick sleeping bags with temperature ratings between 25 and 40 degrees F (-4 to 4.5c). Bags rated to those temperatures will function well for people that rarely plan trips in temperatures that are well below freezing.
Also, it's important to remember that you can always wear extra clothing or a jacket in your sleeping bag to increase warmth on chilly nights. Sleeping bag liners, long underwear, gloves, hats, and down jackets are great ways to add insulation on cold evenings.
Choosing the best temperature rating for your bag will also depend on weather you are a hot or cold sleeper. For example, men generally tend to sleep hotter than women, so they tend to prefer sleeping bags with a slightly higher temperature ratings. So, if you know you're a cold sleeper, stick to a bag with a lower temperature rating.
DOWN VS SYNTHETIC
The choice between down and synthetic largely comes down to the difference between cost and weight savings. Down sleeping bags tend to weighs less and compress more, but they also tend costs more than synthetic bags.
The weight savings that you'll get with a down bag is significant though. A down bag will often weigh close to a pound less than a synthetic bag of the same cut and temperature rating.
High fill goose down provides the most warmth per ounce and down tends to compresses easily, which will give you more space in your pack.
Synthetic sleeping bags will cost less and keep your body warmer when they're wet because down tends to loose more loft in wet conditions. That said, your night is going to be miserable no matter what if your sleeping bag is wet, so always do your best to keep your sleeping bag dry.
In regards to long-term value, down bags are said to have a slight edge over synthetic bags and often claim a lifespan of 25 years or more. Still, with either choice, if you take good care of your sleeping bag, it will last for many many years.
SLEEPING BAG FIT
The fit of your sleeping bag is another way to increase warmth and decrease weight on the trail. Slimmer fit bags will have less materials and less space to keep warm inside your bag. For that reason, they tend to save weight and warm up quickly.
Most backpacking bags are mummy shaped these days to cut down on unnecessary material and create a more efficient system for maximizing warmth. Ultralight bags tend to have an even slimmer fit though, so you'll want to make sure that yours doesn't feel too snug.
Also, it's important to store your sleeping bag in a large, loose sack when you're not using it. If you keep your sleeping bag compressed for long periods of time, it can dampen the insulation and that will diminish the warmth of your bag.
A sleeping pad is another key component to a comfortable sleeping system in the wilderness. Sleeping pads will obviously will help to cushion you from rocks and roots, but they will also help to insulate your body from the cold ground.
Thicker sleeping pads generally offer more comfort and higher r-values, meaning that they will insulate your body from the ground better.
Lightweight sleeping pads come in many forms with a range of pros and cons but, your basic choice in sleeping pads is between air-filled pads and foam pads.
One key strategy to consider is reducing your pack weight by choosing a small size sleeping pad that will cushion your hips and shoulders, but not your feet. With a small pad, you will greatly reduce weight and still have comfortable protection. A small size pad won't insulate your feet, but you can use backpack or extra clothing to add protection.
Many ultralight backpackers find shorter pads to be a comfortable way to save weight, while other hikers prefer the extra cushioning that long pads provide for their feet. In the end, it's mainly a weight vs comfort decision.
Air pads are generally considered to be more comfortable than foam pads, but they come with some downsides as well. Air pads and foam pads both come in lightweight models, so your choice will probably come down to cost vs comfort.
Air-filled pads will pack up small, blow up thick, provide adjustable firmness, and offer good insulation from the ground. The downsides with air pads is that they tend to be more expensive and they can puncture in the field.
If you choose to backpack with an air pad, it's best to bring a small repair kit and be strategic about how you pack your pad. For example, placing an air pad on the outside of your pack where it could get poked by thorns, twigs, or cacti is not a good choice.
Despite the cost and possibility of puncture, air pads tend to be very popular among lightweight backpackers, largely because of the huge increase in comfort.
Foam pads are another popular choice for ultralight hikers and thru-hikers. Foam pads are also very light, but they are much more cost effective than air pads and they won't puncture in the field.
Foam pads will provide convenient comfort on the trail and they have a variety of other uses. They make a great seat while hiking or around camp and many lightweight backpackers use their pads to add structure and padding to their pack frames.
Foam pads do tend to be bulkier than air pads and they will also compress over time, so they will loose some of their thickness. Eventually foam pads will get thin enough that they'll need to be replaced.
Still, the main downside with foam pads is comfort, so if you're a gentle sleeper, this probably isn't the best option for you. Choosing softer sleeping spots can make a big difference with this though.
The easiest, cheapest, and lightest option for a trail pillow is simply to create one yourself with a stuff sack and some extra clothing. This is a great choice for lightweight hikers because it won't weigh anything and it's still very comfortable with a little practice.
Ultralight air pillows are another popular option that will often weight less than 3oz and can be very comfortable. Be careful of down and polyester pillows, which tend to be comfortable, but will also squish down very thin.
Check out our pillow recommendations for our favorite picks.