Sleeping systems – Joan’s Picks

Joan’s hiked many days and miles in the backcountry over years. Here’s her take on the sleeping systems that work well for her needs. -PM
When I began backpacking, I remember one of my first questions was, “what is the best sleeping bag and pad?
Back then, I had no idea that I was missing a few critical parts of the equation. For what season? Where are you going? What kind of sleeper are you?

Now, my sleeping system changes over the year and depends on where I’m going. And the most critical thing is that I’ve figured out what kind of sleeper I am. Even for the same conditions, people sleep differently. The differences between sleeping styles are the secret that no one told me when I was starting: that some people sleep hot and others cold, and everyone needs different levels of padding from the ground. And some of us sleep better in a hammock.

I hadn’t entirely realized just how huge the variability was between people until I started backpacking a lot with Paul. He is a hot sleeper. Or, as he might say, I’m a very cold sleeper. Even though we are sleeping right next to each other, he can be toasty in a quilt rated ten to fifteen degrees warmer than mine, even given similar sleep clothing. So if you asked each of us “what’s the best sleeping bag and pad,” you’d get different answers!

I honestly thought all those people who said they slept well on foam pads were lying… until I started backpacking with Paul.

As many times as I’ve tried to make a foam pad work, it leaves my hips too sore. And I had always used my pack as my pillow, but at the beginning of the summer, Paul got me an inflatable pillow— and it sure has improved the quality of my sleep immensely. I still sleep more soundly and wake up with no soreness in my hammock, but I am reasonably comfortable sleeping on the ground now that I’ve got the inflatable pad plus inflatable pillow figured out.

I believe that we shouldn’t be asking “what is the best sleeping bag or pad,” but rather, we should be trying to figure out what kind of sleeper we are and then figure out strategies that work well with that.

The reason that I think I’m a cold sleeper and need more padding is that I’m a fair bit taller than Paul with long arms and legs. I also have Raynaud’s syndrome, which means I have lower circulation to my extremities, which means my feet and hands tend to be freezing. On the other hand, Paul is built like, as he says, a distant Mediterranean cousin of Gimli from the “Lord of the Rings.”

Cowboy camping in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.

My three basic sleep systems

I’ve got a different system for winter, three-season camping on the ground, and hammock camping. My winter system provides warmth for Moab’s long, mostly snow-free winter nights. Temperatures are usually in the 20’s but can dip into the teens. My 3-season system is for the spring and fall nights that typically get into the 30’s and 40’s, and are often quite windy. Then in summer, I switch to a hammock system for when I head off to higher elevation mountains where trees are plentiful, or I go long-distance backpacking.

Winter Camping
Sleeping Bag: Western Mountaineering Versalite 10-degree
Pad: Thermarest Neoair Xtherm
Clothes: Down booties, Montbell Alpinelight Down Parka, boiled wool-fleece lined mittens, fleece hoodie, long underwear bottoms, fleece skirt, down hat, and sometimes puffy pants

When it drops below 25-degrees, I use my10-degree Western Mountaineering Versalite sleeping bag, which I’ve been using for over ten years. I love having a full hood and draft collar to cinch around my head and neck to make a snug cocoon of warmth. A quilt does not work for me in these cold conditions since any draft is too much draft, especially if we cowboy camp to enjoy the bright night sky.I love the warmth of the Neoair Xtherm and the wide, rectangular cut. I supplement my sleep system by wearing warm clothes depending on conditions. My feet tend to get especially cold, so down booties are key.

3-SeasonTent Camping

(When Joan’s not “borrowing” my Montbell quilt. Her birthday is coming up…hmm.. -PM)
Pad: Thermarest NeoAir Xlite regular
Clothes: DIY fleece hoodie, long underwear bottoms, wool socks or sock liners
Quilts make for delightful sleeping on milder nights, and this bag rated to 25 (with extra down stuff from Nunatak) is suitable for spring, fall, and summer in the high country. I sleep wearing a fleece hoodie rather than a separate hat since it keeps my neck warm, and I don’t misplace it in the night.


After three years in Utah, I still don’t sleep as soundly on the ground as I do in my hammock. The social/ relationship aspect of sharing a tent makes it worthwhile for my weekend trips with Paul, though. I still don’t like the narrow width of the NeoAir regular since my arms always feel like they are falling off. I used to have the old-style NeoAir that was rectangular cut and fit me much better. I figure when this one eventually gets a leak, I’ll try to get a wider pad.

UPDATE Sept 2020: Sure enough, Joan rec’d  a Montbell one for her birthday. 🙂 PCO Joan.

3-season Hammock Camping

Top quilt: DIY Karo-style quilt
Bottom quilt:Warbonnet 3 season/ 20-degree Yeti
Hammock:Dream Hammock Darien UL,

Nothing even comes close to the quality of sleep that I get in a hammock. Even my bed at home! My hips and legs recover much more quickly, too, after a long day of hiking. For long trips where good sleep matters the most to me, I take a hammock. My DIY Karo-style top quilt that I sewed in 2013 is still going strong. I use a torso length bottom quilt and use my 6-section foam sit pad under my legs. I love using the foam pad at rest breaks during the day, and in a pinch, I’ve used it the few times I’ve had to go to ground. This system gets me down a little below freezing, but much colder than that, and I take the WM 10-degree bag and add a 1/8 foam pad section to my torso to prevent cold-butt-syndrome.

Car camping
Joan also wanted me to add that for car camping; she describes the Lightspeed car camping mats we use as “Blissfully better than any other sleeping arrangement we use.”
For deeper cold, we use the Sportsman Guide -15F sleeping bags with a fleece lining zipped together. Joan will take the same clothes as winter camping.
For three-season car camping, the combo of a poncho liner and a light fleece blanket each, and two inexpensive rectangular bags zipped together to form a large quilt give us much versatility from warm nights to early autumn car camping conditions. Joan takes the same clothes as three-season tent camping.


It does take time to figure out what kind of sleeper you are- i.e., if you tend to be hot or cold or if you need more padding (or a hammock). When you read reviews, it does help to be aware that everyone is different. What works for some people may not work for you. But it’s worth it to try other things and finally get that good night’s sleep in the backcountry.

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3 years ago

Thanks for the thoughtful post Joan! I too am a hammock camper but have never gone out below freezing. Reading this, I will have to consider a ground setup. Tangential question: what makes your Darien UL?

3 years ago
Reply to  Chris

Chris- I’ve taken the hammock down to 15 degrees using the ten-degree sleeping bag plus extra foam insulation in addition to the underquilt, but it is hard for me to stay warm below 25 degrees or so. Some friends swear by full lenght, winter underquilts so you can check that out as well. I use the ground setup in winter because here in Utah, the canyons are great places to go in winter but many lack good hang sites. I’ve got one of the older style Darien’s that were made with single layer of a different material that they no… Read more »

Dave Sailer
3 years ago

More useful information here. Thanks for the tip about the Lightspeed Camp Sleep Pad. Will keep it in mind. I more or less need something like this full time to help fight restless leg syndrome. As for outdoor sleeping, being a cold sleeper I’m convinced of two things. One is to use my shelter to block drafts, which can raise the effective temperature 10°F to 15°F with no weight penalty. Hiking in Finland’s post “MYOG Tarp – Pitched in the Snow” shows what NOT to do. But Hendrick is tougher than most. The other thing is to insulate my head.… Read more »

Chris F
Chris F
3 years ago

Thank you for the article. It is nice to see what you find comfortable in a variety of places and conditions.