Alternative Sleeping Gear for Backpacking

The most important gear I carry is the gear I need for a good night's sleep. If I don't get a good night's sleep I'm not a happy camper. If I'm going to not enjoy myself I may as well stay home. It's cheaper and easier.

—Jerry Goller, BackpackingLight, (5.22.08)

 Central Issues Addressed In This Article

Should I use a traditional mummy bag or adopt some of the alternatives (e.g., quilts, top bags, half bags or no bag options)? What are the alternative choices for sleeping gear? What are the pros and cons of sleeping quilts? How important is it to think in terms of a sleeping system (as opposed to just bag and ground sheet)? What are my priorities in a sleeping system?

Alternative Sleeping Systems: Thumbnail Sketches

Sleeping systems commonly include two or more of the following elements: insulating bag or quilt, inner bag liner, outer bag cover (bivy), the clothes worn inside these components plus a sleeping pad, pillow and a protective ground sheet. In this article I purposely exclude the “shelter” aspect of sleeping systems. To include this element would unnecessarily complicate the article.

There are many possible combinations and alternatives when thinking about sleeping systems. The following sketches cover most of these alternatives. Included are all of the conventional options plus three of the most popular unconventional systems: top bags (sleep system with no bottom insulation), quilts (sleep system with no bottom), and wearable bags. Here are most of the alternatives starting with the stereotypical bedroll of the American cowboy.

Cowboy Style Bedroll: Construct a bedroll of woolen blankets supplemented with a canvas cover. Early backpackers often rolled up their other gear into their bedroll, tied the ends together to make a horseshoe and slung the roll diagonally over their shoulders in lieu of a backpack. An alternative arrangement would be to lash the bedroll over the top and down the sides of a regular backpack. Modern equivalent materials for the bedroll would likely be fleece blankets and plastic sheeting although there are those (purists?) that still use wool blankets.

Conventional Sleeping Bag: Full-length, insulated rectangular, semi-rectangular or mummy style bag. Instead of the traditional unisex, mummy bags are now available in sizes designed more for the typical female shape. More important is the availability of bags that come in different lengths and different girth measurements at the shoulder, hip and foot to better fit the intended occupant. These size variations are also valuable for those desiring to layer clothing inside the bag. Most conventional bags come with hoods and zippers. Here is fervent summation about the popular mummy bag option.

Mummy bags are generally considered the darling child of a backpacker's sleep system. Crawling into a mummy bag packed with high fill down and drawing a perfectly contoured hood around your face on a cool night is considered by some to be a religious experience. If you haven't experienced this, then you should try crawling into a Western Mountaineering Puma or Valandré Shocking Blue on a zero degree winter night. It's hard to break free from the mummy's grip. Mummies are the cornerstone category of nearly every sleeping bag manufacturer's product line.

— Ryan Jordan, “2006 Unconventional Sleep Systems

Half bag (“Elephant’s Foot”): A traditional mummy bag reduced in length to come up to the chest area (used in combination with a high loft insulating parka). Half bags sometimes have shock cords that run over the shoulders to keep the bag up. Half bags have traditionally been used by “fast and light” mountaineers, especially when a bivouac is likely.

Top Bag Construction: Top bags are traditionally shaped bags (rectangular, semi-rectangular, mummy with hoods) constructed with no insulating material on the bottom side. The bottom side is often constructed with one or two thin fabric layers to keep out drafts and to contain a sleeping mat. Therm-A-Rest has even joined the list of top bag providers. The reasoning behind top bags is that the bottom insulation in a traditional bag gets crushed so why not save bulk, weight and cost by removing it. This arrangement allows for flopping the bag over in hot weather to sleep only under the fabric layer.​

[Plus Ten More Alternative Sleeping Options]


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Alternative Sleeping Gear for Backpacking – Word Format

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The sub-topics listed below are developed in this complete article:

Alternative Sleeping Systems: Thumbnail Sketches

Reader Participation: Acknowledging Favorite Sleeping System

Priority Values and Sleeping Systems

Reader Participation: Sleeping System Priorities

In-depth Look At Sleeping Quilts

Principles of Effective Sleeping Systems

Minimalist Sleeping Systems

Final Thoughts on Sleeping Systems

Additional Issues For Reflection