Getting good sleep on a hiking trip can be the difference between making memories you’ll enjoy for the rest of your life and your friends having to deal with a sleep-deprived sasquatch (AKA you).
Because no one really wants to come face-to-face with a sasquatch (especially a tired one) let’s dig into all the options for sleeping in the backcountry.
One thing to note before we start is that your body and conditions on each trip are different. Some people are camping in warm conditions with no bugs. Others are battling rain and prehistoric-size mosquitos that could fly away with small children.
Sleep systems have three parts:
- Shelter keeps you out of the elements and away from bugs.
- Warmth is crucial to a good night’s sleep.
- Comfort keeps you off the ground and provides further insulation.
There is no one sleep setup to rule them all and finding the ideal solution for you takes some testing. Do you like rocking like a baby in a hammock or do you like to have a home away from home in a tent? Are you a side sleeper who might like a quilt or a cold sleeper who sleeps like a rock where a mummy bag will do great? Beg, borrow, or steal (maybe not steal) all the different combinations you can and set them up in the backyard.
Shelters, just like your house or apartment, keep you out of the elements and away from critters. The more shelter you bring, the heavier it will be. Most people take a tent, tarp, bivy bags, or hammock with them on the trail. Even if only for emergencies, it’s a good idea to bring some sort of shelter.
Tents have a mesh body hung up by poles covered by a waterproof rain fly. They can hold one or many people, have good waterproof ratings, keep the bugs out, and can be staked to the ground to make a very sturdy shelter. Most tents can stand freely on their own on gravel or tent platforms, which can be good for places like National Parks. Depending on the size and materials used, tents can be very lightweight.
- Our recommendation: Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL2 Tent
- Best backpacking tents
- Best family tents
Backpacking tarps aren’t your typical Home Depot special used for car camping. Six- or eight-foot square nylon tarps are extremely light and pack down to a size smaller than a water bottle. With trees, trekking poles, and some careful guy line configuration, tarps can be set up as sturdy shelters. However, even with careful setup, tarps won’t block the weather quite like tents will. With no bug netting, tarps won’t keep the critters out, though there are some separate net options that you can hang under the tarp. A variation on a backpacking-worthy tarp is a tarp-tent, a tarp shaped like a tent rainfly that can be easier to set up and still lightweight.
- Our recommendation: Sea to Summit Escapist Tarp
A bivy sack (short for bivouac) is a waterproof bag that goes around your sleeping bag. It’s very small and packable. With some sort of groundsheet (tarp) and a sleeping pad, a bivy sack is really all you need for a night outside. That said, they aren’t all that comfortable in bad weather. There’s little room to move, but getting in while it’s raining can be tough. Many people put a tarp over their bivy for a relatively lightweight and flexible sleep system. Mountaineers and ultralight hikers like them for their small size and simplicity. Some just call them bear burritos.
- Our recommendation: Outdoor Research Helium Bivy
Hammocks are an exploding trend right now not just because they’re a great place to enjoy a cold beer. With a bug net and small tarp, they can create a lightweight sleep solution you can hang nearly anywhere. Some come with underquilts that hang underneath and prevent Cold Butt Syndrome as well as bug nets to keep the insects out. Once you get the hang of a good hang and turn 10-15 degrees so you lay flatter, a great night’s sleep on the trail is just two trees away.
- Our recommendation: Hennessy Expedition Zip Hammock
Along with tents, sleeping bags take up a lot of room in your backpack. Getting a smaller, lighter sleeping bag or quilt can give your back and legs a rest.
You’ve probably slept in a sleeping bag before. Some are shaped like a rectangle. Most backpacking bags are mummy- or tube-shaped to minimize the space to heat. More expensive options are lighter and pack down smaller. Most sleeping bags are rated to a certain temperature.
- Our recommendation: Marmot Phase 20 Sleeping Bag
- Best sleeping bags
With sleeping bags, some of the insulation is squished under your body, not providing much warmth. Quilts are just like a blanket from home and do not have a bottom — they just sit on top where they don’t get squished. Many will have some sort of attachment straps to go around your sleeping pad so they don’t fly off in the middle of the night. Quilt insulation is usually very packable, resulting in a smaller, lighter cover than a sleeping bag.
- Our recommendation: Therm-a-Rest Vesper 20 Quilt
Some folks got tired of squirming in sleeping bags and being cold in quilts and created the Zenbivy. It’s the best of both worlds: a quilt that goes on top and a hooded sheet attached to the sleeping pad. When it’s warm, you can lay the quilt on top. When it’s cold, you can clip the quilt to the shee, leaving the foot box open or closed and tuck your head in the hood. If you want to go ultralight, just take the quilt.
- Our recommendation: ZenBivy Light Bed
You’re warm and dry with a shelter and cover, but laying on the ground isn’t going to be so comfortable. Sleeping pads get you up off the ground and usually provide some additional insulation in the process.
Inflatable Sleeping Pads
Air mattresses have come a long away from the 10-pound Coleman with the electric pump you might have had growing up. They’re small, light, and packable while still getting you 3 to 4 inches off the ground for a great nights sleep. Air-filled pads can be filled via a pump or just your breath. Some have two sections that can be inflated differently for comfort. Those with insulation inside will have a higher R-value and keep you warmer. Watch out for crunchy fabrics that might be noisy when you move. Don’t forget to bring the patch kit to fix any holes from sharp rocks or sticks.
- Our recommendation: Nemo Tensor Sleeping Pad
- Best inflatable sleeping pads
To get away from patch kits and inflating all together, you can go with a closed-cell foam pad. These are made with a very thin, dense foam that is nearly indestructible but not as comfortable as an air-filled pad. They’re light, will last forever, and can be used as a chair in camp.
- Our recommendation: Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite Sleeping Pad
Self-inflating pads are similar to air mattress but they have thicker foam inside. Just unscrew the nozzle and the foam will rise, sucking air in so you don’t have to blow up the whole thing. You may still need to top it off to your desired comfort. These still require patch kits if you happen to run into a porcupine.
One last note on all these sleeping pad options: They’re usually available in a partial size so you could put a pad under your body and clothes or backpack under your legs and save even more weight.