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.”
My three basic sleep systems
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.
Pad: Thermarest NeoAir Xlite regular
Clothes: DIY fleece hoodie, long underwear bottoms, wool socks or sock liners
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.
3-season Hammock Camping
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.
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.