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How To Choose A Backpacking Sleep System

Rest Easy No Matter How You Make Camp

Good sleep is important when you’re on the trail. When you’re properly rested you’ll have more energy for hiking, exploring, and simply enjoying yourself out in nature. Whether you’re out for a quick overnighter or spending weeks on a thru hike, good sleep can make or break your experience. 

A lot goes into sleep, especially when you’re backpacking. You’ll need a comfortable shelter that won’t weigh your pack down, a lightweight and packable sleeping bag and pad, and clothing that keeps you warm when the low night temperatures roll in. Choosing what types of gear you’re going to bring along on a trip is personal, but with a good knowledge base you’ll be able to confidently gear up for any backpacking mission.

Choose Your Sleep System

There are three basic shelter systems for backpackers: Tent, tarps, and the minimalist bivy sacks. Each system has it’s on set of pros and cons and can be used in a variety of situations. Knowing the differences between them and their strengths and weaknesses can help you decide which one (or which combination) will be best for your backpacking trip.


The classic, traditional camp shelter. Tents are easy to set up, roomy, and will most likely have space to store your pack should it rain. You can choose a single walled design for high and dry alpine trips, or double-walled if your route takes you through more humid environments. Tents can be surprisingly lightweight too. This Big Agnes Scout 1 Platinum Tent, for example, weighs in at only 13 ounces making it ideal for those fast and light trips.

Having a tent so lightweight you can barely tell it’s in your pack is great for those ultralight or thru-hike missions, but not all backpacking trips require weight savings to be this extreme. You can pick up a tent from the Stoic Camp Collection that offers high performance for great value for your nights off the grid. These tents were designed with input from gearheads and will keep you comfortable at camp without weighing you down on the trail.


Tarps have less fabric than a tent and are therefore more lightweight. They also have no zippers, bug netting, or a floor meaning they can pack down to roughly the size of an apple, taking up hardly any space in your pack. This lack of features also makes a tarp more versatile than a tent. You can set one up with a branch, a trekking pole, tie it to a tree—your creativity is the limit. Once you become proficient in setting up a tarp, you can arrange it to trap heat from your fire, cook under it, pitch it so you can keep a low profile, and more. Tarps do take more time (and more skill) to set up than tents, but as you get more and more experienced on the trail, they can be a great option for weight and space savings.

Because tarps lack a fabric bottom, you’ll probably want some sort of ground cloth to go between your sleeping pad and your camp surface to keep your sleeping pad protected from moisture and tears. This wall-only design also means that there isn’t much protection from the elements. When it rains, you’ll most likely get hit with backsplash (water that hits the ground then splashes onto you). So if you’re going to use a tarp for your shelter and you’re expecting rain, you can bring along a protective bivvy to help keep you dry and comfortable.


The ultimate minimalist experience. Think “cowboy camping” but with protection from the elements. Bivy sacks are essentially something you can zip you and your sleeping bag into to keep dry, bug-free, and more comfortable while sleeping under the stars. They’re lightweight and packable, making them the ideal shelter for fast and light backpacking, bikepacking, or big wall sleeping. You can sleep on rocky ledges, in snow caves, on slopes—no flat, prepared surface required. In a bivy sack, you can be totally immersed in the natural environment.

Bivys can be used alone or paired with a tarp. On poor-weather backpacking trips, having only a bivy exposes your pack (and the rest of your gear) to the elements. In these situations, having a backup tarp in your pack can help keep all of your things dry.

Choose Your Sleeping Bag

A backpacking sleeping bag needs to be warm, packable, and lightweight. There are a few specific features of sleeping bags that you can look for to help you narrow down the perfect one for your backpacking trip.

Fill Type

Sleeping bags have two different fill type options: down and synthetic. Down has a greater warmth-to-weight ratio and is very packable making them the more popular option for backpackers. Though synthetic insulation is more bulky, its appeal is its ability to retain its loft to keep you warm in damp environments. However, you don’t have to sacrifice warmth for extra weight in your pack. You can find sleeping bags that are stuffed with hydrophobic down to help keep you warm even when it’s wet.


There are three main sleeping bag shapes: rectangular, semi-rectangular, and mummy. Mummy bags are shaped like your body and maximize material usage making them very packable. This shape also maximizes warmth making them the most popular choice for any backpacking trip.

Choose Your Sleeping Pad

Sleeping pads provide both cushioning and insulation for warmth and comfort at night. Pads that work best for backpacking need to have a balance between durability, packability, and weight. There are a few features of sleeping pads to pay attention to to make sure that the pad you’re picking up will work best for you out on the trail.

Pad Type

There are three pad types out there: Air pads, self-inflating pads, and closed-cell foam pads. All can be used on a backpacking trip. Air pads and self-inflating pads are popular on the trail, just make sure that they’re lightweight and that their packed size is small enough for you. For longer trips and thru-hikes, closed-cell foam pads are the most popular as you don’t have to worry about punctures and leaks, they offer consistent ground insulation, and they’re very affordable. Thru-hiker and minimalist backpacking tip: To save weight, opt for a ¾ pad and lay down a pack or extra clothing at your feet.


Your sleeping pad works in conjunction with your sleeping bag to keep you warm at night. For example, if your sleeping bag’s comfort level rating is 30F, you’ll want to use a pad that has an R-value of around 2 to stay comfortable in those low temps. If temperatures are expected to drop below freezing on any night of your backpacking trip, and you’ll want a pad that has an R-value of at least 3.5. However, what you wear to bed can also impact how warm you stay at night.

Dress For Success

Proper layering keeps you warm any time you’re outdoors—but at night on a backpacking trip it’s especially important. A comfortable pair of dry socks, baselayers, a down jacket, and a beanie can make a world of difference when the temperatures drop. You’ll want baselayers that provide insulation while also wicking moisture. Pieces made with merino wool options like the Backcountry Spruces Merino Baselayer Crew not only do this, but also resist odors so you can comfortably wear them on multi-day trips.

Rachel Jorgensen is a freelance writer based in Michigan, but doesn’t stay put for long. She’s lived in three countries, four states, and is always after the next adventure. When settled, you’ll find her climbing, skiing, or trail running with Scuba, her Thai rescue dog. Follow along @rjorgie