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How to Have a Good Night on Trail with the Right Sleep System

From choosing a type of shelter to your sleeping bag set-up, create a sleep system to stay warm and cozy on overnight adventures.

by Sandra Saathoff

You’ve been hiking all day, enjoying expansive views and the laughter of your hiking companions. Now, though, it’s time to sleep. Inside your pack, you’ve been hauling around the components to give you a safe, dry place to stay warm and happy overnight, so you can get up and do it all again the next day.

What do you need in your pack to help guarantee that cozy night? You need a sleep system, which is made of several components that work together to help capture and contain body heat. Choosing the pieces that work best for your individual needs will help you get a good night of sleep. The basics include a shelter of some kind, a sleeping pad and a sleeping bag or quilt. Then, those items can be mixed and matched to create a system that works for you.

Tents at night. Photo by Patrick Sloan.jpg
Colorful tents illuminated at night. Photo by Patrick Sloan.


The ability to stay dry and out of the wind is integral to keeping you warm and safe during the night — or during extended weather events. Here are some options to consider for a key part of your sleep system.

Tents: Single- or double-walled, free-standing or using trekking poles, tents offer myriad options in all sizes and weight classes, providing protection from the elements and a place to house your gear. Three-season tents work well for, you guessed it, three seasons. If you want to camp in winter or in very cold places, look for a four-season tent, which will provide more protection from the elements. In general, tents with rain flies that come lower to the ground will be warmer. Tents with more exposed mesh will be cooler. Consider the type of camping you most often do to pick a tent that will meet your needs.

Tarps: Like an old-school camp illustration, two sticks, a bit of cord and some stakes can create a simple, lightweight shelter to keep you out of the weather. Not so great during mosquito season or wet, windy weather, though.

Bivies: Like a little burrito for humans. You don’t have much room to move or store your stuff, but a bivy keeps you out of the weather and bugs and lets you set up home for the night pretty much anywhere. These are also useful to carry in case of emergency.

Hammocks: If you prefer to be off the ground, perhaps a hammock is for you. Two well-spaced trees are all you need to set up camp. Additions such as an overhead tarp, bug net and an insulating quilt add comfort and weather protection.

Bivy camp. Photo by Grant Roush.jpg
Sleeping without a tent, also known as "cowboy camping", can be a fun option on clear, bug-free nights. Photo by Grant Roush.

Sleeping Bags and Quilts

Both offer a cocoon of fluffy happiness for you to curl up inside each night. Choose what works best for your needs on a given trip. It might not always be the same.

Sleeping bags: Bags generally have a zipper the full length of the bag, and often come with hoods and neck baffles to help keep heat in. For three- or four-season backpacking, sleeping bags can be the warmest option, and they are available in both down and synthetic versions. Down tends to be lighter than synthetic but needs to be kept dry, even when treated to be hydrophobic, as it will lose loft and insulation properties when wet. Synthetic tends to offer better insulation when damp than down.

Sleeping quilts: A quilt is usually designed with a zipped or sewn footbox that extends to the calf area and is then open the rest of the way up. Quilts usually have snaps every few inches that allow them to also function as a bag. Most often, the quilt is snapped to straps that encircle the sleeping pad. The concept is that when lying on the insulation on the bottom of a sleeping bag, you are compressing it, thus negating its insulating properties, so quilts save weight by having you sleep directly on your pad. Most quilts do not come with a hood, but if the quilt is long enough, it’s quite easy to make a cocoon that encases your whole body and has a space to poke your nose out for air. For warmer nights, you can open everything up and just drape the quilt over you like a blanket, making heat management simple. Quilts tend to be much lighter than most bags and, if conditions warrant, can be the best option.

Considerations to keep in mind as you shop: All bags and quilts are not created equal. Bags specifically designed for women generally put more insulation in the core and footbox areas, to compensate for the fact that women tend to sleep colder than men. Of course, you can buy whatever bag works for you, regardless of your gender, but knowing how bags are made and marketed can help you make the right decision for you. Pay attention to the rating numbers and explanations for each brand of bag or quilt. Most rating numbers are meant to indicate that the bag will keep you alive down to that number, not necessarily that you’ll be comfortably warm all night.

Sleeping pad. Photo by Alisse Cassell.jpg
Inflatable pads can be incredibly comfy, but they do take a bit more set-up time. Photo by Alisse Cassel.

Sleeping Pads

Mother Nature is really good at sucking heat from your body, so it’s important to have an insulating layer. That’s where sleeping pads come in — and they add important cushioning for your tired muscles and bones. Pads may either be foam or inflatable, and each has pros and cons. Insulation ratings are important for both options. The higher the rating, the warmer you’ll sleep.

Foam pads: These can be a multipurpose piece of gear — a place to lay your sleeping bag and also to sit during rest breaks. They don’t fail often and can even be used as the structure inside your backpack, to save weight. They are light but tend to take up more space and can be too thin for comfort for those with older bodies or bad backs.

Inflatable pads: Inflatables take up less space and can be a heavenly air cushion, offering inches of space between you and the ground for a wonderful night’s sleep. Some care must be taken to not lay them on pokey things. They can generally be repaired if punctured, but if they fail spectacularly, the rest of the trip becomes quite uncomfortable — or dangerous, depending on conditions. That said, a majority of backpackers have transitioned to inflatable pads, due to their benefits.

What if your pad fails? If you have an inflatable pad, make sure to bring a repair kit. As long as there’s a stream or lake around, finding and repairing most leaks isn’t difficult(submerge your pad and look for air bubbles coming from the site of the leak), though you may have an uncomfortable night first. If it’s a slow leak, adding air throughout the night may get you through until morning.

Backpack: Some people elect to save weight by purchasing a shorter sleeping pad and then putting their empty backpack at the foot of their tent to provide insulation and lift for their calves and feet. In this way, your backpack becomes part of your sleep system.

Tips for Staying Warm

  • Choose your site carefully: If you have a choice of sites, you can choose one that will be warmer. Sheltered sites will be warmer, as will sites that aren’t too close to water or in the bottom of a drainage where cold air and mist can collect overnight. Of course, wherever you camp, make sure you follow Leave No Trace principles.
  • Shake your bag: When you set up camp and free your sleeping bag from your pack, give it a good shake and enough time for its fibers to expand before bed, so they’ll be better at trapping your warm air.
  • Have a snack before bed: Foods that include fat (like a handful of nuts) give your body slow-burning calories to stay warm during the night.
  • Hydrate: A hydrated body sleeps warmer. Of course, this may mean you need to get up to use the restroom during the night; if you need to pee, get up and pee. Your core spends more energy heating liquid inside you, making you colder.
  • Exercise for core warmth: If the evening is chilly, remember that your bag doesn’t add heat, it traps it. Consider doing a few jumping jacks to warm your body before getting into the tent, though not enough to get sweaty, of course. During the night, you can do a few crunches to help you warm up if needed.
  • Keep moisture out: Once you’re all cuddled into your bag, make sure to leave a hole for your nose and mouth to poke out, so the humidity you exhale doesn’t end up inside your bag.
  • Layer up: Nothing says you have to “only” sleep in your sleep clothes. If it’s cold out, consider adding your hiking pants (or even down pants, if you have them), jacket, socks, hat and gloves — having them handy to add during the night. Sometimes all that is needed is to drape your puffy jacket over your core in the early hours of the morning. For trips when colder weather is predicted, an option like down booties can save the day.
  • Liners: Another option for expanding the warmth rating on your bag or quilt is to add a liner — kind of a thin mummy bag you slip into before getting into your sleeping bag.
  • Hot-water bottle: Heating up some water and taking it to bed inside of a well-sealed bottle can help you start the night out warm. Once the water gets cold, though, push it outside the bag, so your body isn’t trying to heat the water in addition to yourself. It may take some trial and error to find your perfect sleep system.

Don’t underestimate the value of camping overnight in your backyard to test different combinations of gear before taking your sleep system out on trail. Once you have things dialed in, have an excellent adventure, knowing you’re prepared for (nearly) anything!

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Washington Trails magazine. Support trails as a member WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.