Wednesday, 2 March 2011

The sleep system

Folks generally like to rave about the newest knife or axe they are carrying with good reason too. These items are used often in our daily activities when out in the woods or camping and as such deserve some special attention. What I don't understand though, is why people don't often spend the same time, effort or money on their sleep system. Don't get me wrong, I love me a good knife. I have many good knives, most of which are sitting in the draw when I am out. Yet, I couldn't care less about wether my blade was forged in the fires of Mount Doom by elf warriors and the steel quenched in the blood of virgins if I have had a lousy nights sleep.

On average, we probably spend an hour or so with a knife in our hands when we are out camping with the family. This time increases if we are alone due to the uninterrupted time we can spend on carving or whittling projects. Although we could spend 3 - 4 hours with a knife, it is a rare day that we would spend 6 - 8 hours. We do however spend 6 - 8 hours most nights trying to get some shut eye. I enjoy my sleep and without it, I get irritable and lose patience. Apparently I inherited this trait from my grandfather. He needed a nap after work to avoid the risk of temper loss and sudden destruction of all things in his immediate vicinity. As such, I preach the importance of a good sleep system and understanding what we need and why. I'll start at ground level and work my way up. Lets begin with the mattress.

Mattress / Pad
The older you get, the more you tend to feel when laying on your back and side. There was a time I could have slept on broken glass and rusty nails, without waking up once. In recent years though, I wake up with a stiff neck and sore hip if I try sleeping without a pad or mattress between the sleeping bag and the ground. A couple years ago I bit the bullet and pulled the trigger on a self inflating mattress and was pleasantly suprised at the difference it made in my sleep. You have a choice of 3 basic types of mattress, inflating, self inflating or closed cell.
  • Inflatable pads pack the smallest of the matts but in general are useless at insultaing. There are sleeping pads with seperate chambers that reduce heat loss but the best are inflatables filled with down or synthetic fiber. Be aware that if your mattress springs a leak, the insulating properties and comfort level will be severely reduced.
  • Self inflating pads are more comfortable and often times roll up to be quite compact. They are good at insulating and reduce heatloss to the ground. They are more comfortable than a closed cell pad and often times roll up to be quite compact. They are good at insulating and reduce heatloss to the ground.
  • Closed cell foam pads are the middle ground. Less comfortable than the other 2 mattress types, they are the most robust. They are also quite good at insulating and on a positive note are cheap. These make a useful backup and are often times used with self inflating pads as a security measure in case of leaks.
I use a combination of a self inflating pad and closed cell pad when camping in winter. This is a security measure as I know other people more bold than I am who use just a single inflatible pad filled with down. My winter setup is below.

My summer setup is much lighter. You can get away with less insulation between your body and the ground and therefore can probably use an inflatable. In the spring or autumn I strongly recommend using caution and using a light self inflating rather than an inflatable. This is due to sudden changes in temperature and the risk of hypothermia. I would stress this even more if you are camping alone. Below is a picture of my summer / spring / autumn setup with the various pads I use. Nalgene is included for reference.

On the left is my CoTima self inflating mattress. This thing packs up very small and has light foam inside. It requires extra help to reinflate but is still better than an inflatable in cold weather. On the right, below the sleeping bag is my inflatable mattress. It is only slightly bigger than the nalgene and would have to be the most comfortable pad I own. It requires a decent set of lungs to inflate and is made from sil-nylon. It is slippery and is harder to stay on than a mechanical bull on speed, but even still on level ground in the summer, it's a great pad. The yellow sack below it is an inflatable pillow. Call me a wuss but I love having a pillow. The next photo shows the pads set up.

as you can see, the inflatable is much thicker and givers better cushioning. What it doesn't give is insulation. I took it out once in spring with my down bag, thinking it would be warm enough. That was a big mistake. I froze all night and vowed never to make the same mistake again.

When you compare the size of all the bags packed, it becomes apparent why you would buy a couple for the different seasons. Here they are packed and sitting on my main self inflating mattress. The self inflating they are sitting on rolls up to about 2/3 the diameter of the closed cell and weighs substancially more than all the others.

To close on the topic of mats and pads, I will say to get quality. These things are often made with plastic and as such, are not the types of items we need in landfills. By buying good quality, you get a longer service life and reduce the garbage we see filling the dumps. Now I'm no tree hugging hippy, but I do love to see companies who are responsible. That is why I can recommend these guys:

Just have a read and I'm sure you will agree that their products are well thought out. I have had no complaints with my inflatable that they made.

Sleeping Bags
Winter bags-
I use a synthetic winter bag, despite the weight penalty. Yes they weigh more and offer slightly less warmth, but, there are positives. Condensation does not freeze in the filling causing clumps of ice to form. They also don't lose as much insulation when crushed out between your body and the pad or mat, meaning you can get away with a thinner pad / mat combo. They also stay warmer than down when wet. This may not be such an issue in very dry snow, but if you fall through some ice and your gear gets wet, this could be a life saving factor. Now the setup shown above is much bulkier and heavier than my summer setup for obvious reasons. The following photo is just to give you an idea of the size difference between my winter bag and summer bag. I have thrown in a Nalgene for reference.

Now not all bags are made equal. Often the ratings of the bags are outrageously over stated, to the point of being dangerous. My winter bag has the following ratings:

You will notice it has a standard EN 13537. This is a rating most bags sold within the EU have to try keep things honest. Yes, it's not a perfect system, but it's better than dying of hypothermia. You can read more here:

My bag is filled with Thermolite Extra, which I havce found to be quite excellent. Insulating material varies in it's properties and quality so do your research and check reviews before lashing out and buying a bag. Also be aware that many companies use shills to talk their products up, so go with an item that has a lot of reviews from independant sources.

My summer bag-
I sometimes learn things the hard way. This bag was an impulse buy at a sale before I really knew what I was on about when it came to bags. It has duck down filling, which when compared to goose down is like comparing a drunk five year old on rollerskates to Mike Tyson in a boxing ring.

It has a fill power of 450, which is pretty useless when your talking down. It needs a good shaking to loft and therefore is not the kind of bag you can just roll out onto your mat and come back to sleep in. It also has generous ratings. I would not use this thing if the temperature got below 6 degrees C, and I am a warm sleeper. It packs up small though and has some well thought out features. It has a pocket inside the bags and also a good neck baffle / collar to reduce heatloss through pumping. It also zips up without snagging which is a big bonus. It has served me well but when I buy a new bag to replace it, I'll be much more careful.

You probably noticed the condition of my gear. I look after my things and enjoy having gear that is in good shape. I use a bivy bag when out, even if sleeping in a tent. My bivy is not the completely waterproof type, but has cotton on top for breathability and PU coated nylon for the floor. This is only to keep my bag clean and tear free. I always use a liner too, to avoid oil destroying the lofting ability of the bag.

These items pack up small and are light. They also extend the life of your bag and add a little warmth to the system. I never go out overnight without them. I also never go out without my pillow. I have tried rolled up jackets, shoes, waterbottles etc... but have never had a decent nights sleep with them. I need a pillow and despite the ridicule, I am fresher in the mornings compared to my he-man counter parts who scoff at my girly pillow toting ways.

Never leave your sleeping bag in it's stuff sack for long periods. This will destroy it's lofting ability and eventually you will have a bag that won't keep you warm. Also, after you get out of your bag in the morning, unzip it and hang it out. This is hard to do if it's raining but in good weather I make this a rule. This allows condensation to evaporate and disperses any smells that may have accumulated overnight (hey, maybe someone likes beans for dinner!). If you do have to wash your bag, be that down or synthetic, do so with a very mild detergent. To dry it, put it in a drier with a couple tennis balls to break up the insulation and leave it fluffy again. This may not work with some synthetic bags so always check the instructions.

I will add as a final note, be careful how close to a fire you sleep. sleeping bags can catch fire very easily and can be very difficult to get out of. This is not the way I would want to go so I always exercise caution. Well, I hope this article was interesting and possibly helpful. Now get out there and go camping!!


  1. Thank-you so much for this post! I have been debating what I should get, and I think you've really helped my decision.

  2. Your welcome shadow stalker. Keep me posted on what you decided.

  3. then I simply started tacking the burlap onto the velcro, creating a tuft of fabric in between the spindles. I left enough fabric at the top to allow it to be discretely tucked beneath the mattress.