Gear - sleep systems for C2C

(The following is a slightly rewritten version of two chapters from my book Smarter Backpacking, in Swedish Lättare packning från A till Ö)

Down sleeping bags weighing 400-800 grams (14-38 oz) are good for temperatures around freezing. This is what I plan to bring on C2C this spring. Frost is not unlikely, but my guess is that nightime temperatures will be around 3-5 C. Down is still superior to any other material as far as volume, insulating capacity, longevity and weight goes. In my opinion, there are few pieces of gear that are more worthy of a substantial investment than a light, high quality down sleeping bag.

The sleep system belongs to the three big ones, meaning, some hefty weight savings are available here. When it comes to sleep systems, there are lots of factors to be considered. I will be very brief, maybe too brief, but a ton of information is available in books and on the Internet. Here I present only my own simple conclusions.

Sleeping gear or sleep system is a good term for what you need to maintain body temperature while taking (usually) nightly rest. It is mainly called sleep systems because there are other methods to stay warm while sleeping than using a sleeping bag. One such method is using a quilt, usually without a hood but with a foot box.

As the quilt covers you only on top, and leaves insulating the underside to the sleeping pad, you can save weight, as less material is needed than for a sleeping bag. There are also top-bags which are more like sleeping bags than quilts, where the insulation on the underside has been replaced by a long pocket where you can fit in your sleeping pad. You might also consider it a quilt with a pocket underneath.

My own experience of hiking in mountains during summer and early fall is that I need a sleep system that keeps me warm in temperatures down to around freezing point. The lightest solution to deliver this are quilts of top quality down and fabrics. Currently they weigh between 250-350 grams (9-14 oz). I have used both down and synthetic quilts and find them excellent for summer hikes. However, today I feel the quilt no longer has the weight advantage over the lightest sleeping bags, as it did in the past. But if you want the lightest they certainly are it.

Today, I can find sleeping bags made by leading manufacturers that weigh around 450-700 grams (16-27 oz) and which have the specs I want. I find only a small difference in weight compared to the quilts. However, all light sleeping gear has one notable disadvantage: they are expensive.

In spite of this, my recommendation for everyone who wants to carry a light load and plans to spend time hiking for a number of years is to cough up the dough needed for a quilt or a sleeping bag of this light weight quality. It will last most hikers at least 10-15 years if it is used 2-3 weeks per year, and will not lose much of its insulating properties during this time. This is the big difference between down and the synthetic insulation that so far has been developed.

Synthetic quilts and sleeping bags are heavier and cheaper, but my experience is that they lose considerable loft, in only a year or two, and therefore will not keep me as warm. Thanks to their price they do have a market and there are some really light quilts and a few sleeping bags with synthetic insulation that will keep you warm in temperatures around freezing without weighing more than 900-1,000 grams (2 lbs).

But most of the ones that handle these temperatures are huge and voluminous lumps that weigh 1.5-2 kilos (3-4 lbs). This means that they can increase the pack weight with a kilo (2 lbs) or more, for the same function as the light down bags. I would think more than twice before buying one of those. Again, I might add that I have three-four of them in my basement and a total of 13-14 sleeping bags collected during four decades by a guy that does not believe in throwing things away.

The experienced hiker will no doubt have an easier job motivating the investment of a really light sleeping bag. The less experienced might hesitate because of the cost. My advice is to think twice and avoid buying something semi-expensive and semi-good that will leave you semi-satisfied. You might try to borrow or rent a really light bag if possible. Even for kids, these bags are a good investment, as they can use them for 10-15 years or longer. And you have in fact saved a lot of money on all your other light weight gear, as most of it is far less expensive than the heavy stuff. At least, the three big ones are. If you want to save peanuts in weight by getting a titanium whatchamacallit instead of a regular one, you can expect to pay a lot and save only very little weight.

Now, the quilt or sleeping bag takes care of the cold air above you. You need something to protect you from the cold ground as well. Pads for resting and sleeping can be really heavy, but if you separate insulation from padding you can sleep both soft and warm. Pads have one main function: to insulate your body from the cold ground while you are sitting or lying down.

Personally, I need an extra function in order to sleep well; a soft pad. It is important to be aware that the comfort of resting softly often will come at the price of a considerable weight. If you want a well-padded and comfortable sleeping pad based on self-inflating foam, synthetic insulation or even down, the larger models often weigh more than one kilo (2 lbs 3 oz).

If you chose a minimal, closed-cell pad which insulates but provides less comfort, the pad will weigh around 100 grams (3 oz). I prefer something in between, as resting on something soft is important for my sleep and recuperation. The best solution I have found so far is a combination of pads.

I usually carry a full-length, 180 cm (6 feet) but thin and light closed-cell foam together with something softer and thicker for where I need softness, which is under my shoulder and hipbone, as I sleep on the side. A closed-cell foam of this length, and 5 mm (1/5 inch) thick, does not have to weigh more than 125-150 grams (5-6 oz). A short, inflatable pad, reaching from shoulder to thigh, weighs less than 300 grams (11 oz).

A type of recently introduced revolutionary air-mattresses do not only give excellent comfort and are very light, but also insulate much, much better than traditional air mattresses. Most wellknown is probably the Thermarest NeoAir. Because most people do not need much softness under their legs while sleeping, my recommendation is that you pick a mattress that is maximum 120 cm (4 feet) long and leave your feet sticking out onto the closed-cell foam pad underneath the inflatable mattress.

Most of the time I carry my closed-cell pad on the outside of my pack, although there are packs with special pockets, where the folded pad fits as a sort of frame. Both solutions are excellent as I want fast and simple access to my pad at every break. I use a pair of light, elastic bungee cords to hold the rolled-up pad in place, as they are lighter than the straps that are most common. The bungee cords do not need untying; you just roll up the pad and push it through the loops you have tied.

I use this pad at almost all breaks, except really short ones, in particularly benevolent (or nasty) weather. I try to find a rock or a tree to lean against and make sure that the pad supports and insulates me from wet and cold surfaces all the way from shoulders to heels. The padded comfort pad travels all day well protected inside my pack, as I do not need this softness until at night.

It is important that I get a good night’s rest in order to be able to enjoy a hike. For some, all this takes is a torso length of closed-cell foam; for others it takes more padding. It is good to know that a hiker can achieve an extremely high level of comfort without choosing the heaviest pads on the market. Most of us do not need to rest our feet on a particularly soft pad. If you recognize this, you can save half a kilo or even a whole kilo (1-2 lbs) by using the lightest versions of soft pads in combination with insulating but thin closed-cell foam pads. This saves lots of weight at no discernible loss of comfort.

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