The sleeping system has 2 main parts. Something to sleep on, and something to sleep in. So many people go camping bringing their new pride and joy of a sleeping bag, but neglecting a sleeping pad. Usually with the ‘ill be fine’ statement. Your body loses heat to the ground far quicker than it does to air. The amount of times I’ve been woken early by very tired and cold campers that lack a pads is surprising. It can make or break a great weekend. So we will start with the humble pad.
Foam pads have been around a long time and will continue to be, they are light weight(200-500grams) and provide warmth. They do however lack in the comfort zone. Personally I wouldn’t use one alone below freezing. It is possible however to get a foam pad with a -7c comfort rating which is silver on one side. They do have the added benefit of give a comfortable seat to sit on during the day for breaks. And probably most important, they dont puncture. If your on a budget, its the cheapest way to ultra light.
If you want comfort, this is where it starts. From 1″ inch to nearly 4″ thickness. A significant improvement over a foam pad. They can be ultralight the same as a foam pad . The lightest on the market, the ‘Klymit Inertia’ is a 3/4 length pad that supports your core for only 173grams. Dont expect a wonderful night sleep, but more an adventure racers sleep. I feel its worth having a few grams more for an insulated version.
The big agnes Q-core is one of my favourite for comfort, with slightly raise edges to help keep you on the pad, the warmest to my knowledge is the Thermarest Xtra-therm which I plan on spending a lot of time this next year using. This is where camping becomes next level and you start loving pitching up for the night. Its also where the lying in starts on cold days. The downsides- cost, you will pay more money for a decent insulated pad. They can also puncture. I punctured one of my original Thermarest pads, this made me unhappy. Since that day over 10 years ago i have looked after my pads like my life depends on it. I have also retired them at the first sign of not holding air all night. What can i say, I like my sleep.
Then there are the extra options
Ultra comfort. In the British climate you definitely need an insulated pad slipped in or a hammock quilt hung underneath to spend more than a few hours in one. The only downside is lack of versatility. You need two trees or similar solid objects to go to bed.
All sleeping bags are rated to different comfort temperatures. They give a higher and lower comfort, as a rough rule of thumb, most guys will be the lower level, and most girls will be the higher. Don’t go by the extreme rating, this is the point at which you will be alive for the night, but you really wont sleep at this level. Equally if you get a sleeping bag rated comfort 0c to -5c but plan on going to the Australian outback mid summer, you wont be able to spend any time in it without passing out. The one you need depends on where you are going and what time of year. This is one part of your arsenal you may need extras of.
You can get away with wearing extra layers inside your bag, but if you wear too much and are pushing too tightly against the inside of the bag, it will squash the insulation that traps the air. As a result your night will likely be colder.
Down or synthetic
If you want to go light and fast, down is the way forwards, if its summer conditions down is perfect. Its it’s a couple of nights in winter, down is good. However, the longer and colder your trip, the damper and colder the down becomes. Your body perspires naturally overnight to keep your skin moist. This perspiration then condenses in your insulating layer where the inside bag temperature meets the outside freezing temp. And there it stays till you can dry your bag out properly. Which over a few days can be quite a lot of extra weight in moisture build up to carry. Resulting in the heat retaining quality of the down being severely diminished. A synthetic bag retains a bit more heat when damp, But at the expense of being heavier to start. Down will pack down much smaller. Synthetic is quite bulky to lug about.
There is also the question of the ethics of down. I would agree live plucked down is disgraceful and should not be bought/sold. Most manufacturers are becoming aware their clients care about this and have gone to efforts to ethically source the down. This means the birds are treated more humanely and the down is plucked after the bird is dead. Slightly more expensive to buy but better ethically. Synthetic insulation is getting better each year though not quite to the weight/warmth ratio down manages.
Sleeping bag liner
Keeps your sleeping bag cleaner and adds a little thermal value (negligible in my experience, although I have only used thin cotton/silk liners, it is possible to get thicker ones)
For extreme cold temperatures with multi day duration there is no choice but to protect the outside of the sleeping bag and the inside with vapour barriers to stop moisture getting at the insulation. Trapping the moisture against your body is not pleasant, but at least provides a warm bag.
Lighter than a full sleeping bag, less the hood and underside.
when storing your sleeping bag, store hung up or in a big soft bag to allow the insulation to loft up (large pillow case or similar). If it is stored packed down, over time it damages the insulation and it will not spring back to its original loft.
Instead of sleeping bag liners, carry long johns and a extra base layer. These can be worn when sleeping keeping you warmer but also give extra versatility for those extra cold days on trail.