Your Best Backpacking
Sleep System:
What Works in 2020

by Diane Spicer

Meet Hiking For Her's Diane

Get the best sleeping system for backpacking put together with Hiking For Her tips. #sleepingbags #backpacking #sleepsystem #backpackingquilt #hikingforher


Reading about the best backpacking sleep system?

That means you've graduated from day hiking to overnight or longer hiking trips.

Congratulations!

But now you've got some hiking problems to solve.

One of the most important:

  • How to keep yourself warm through the night. Regardless of the type of shelter, and the level of moisture, which surround you. A big job!

And that's why you found this page:

  • To choose the best backpacking sleep system for your hiking style.

Skip down to backpacking sleep system components


Let's define a
backpacking sleep system

Your sleep system in your bedroom is your bed + bedding.

Breaking it down into individual components yields your unique sleep system:

  • silk or cotton or flannel sheets, soft or hard pillow, down or cotton comforter.

Same idea goes for your backpacking trip, except you're hauling around your sleep system on your back (you did realize this, no?).

AND it needs to be warm and comfortable, just like at home, but also:

  • lightweight
  • moisture resistant
  • keeps you warm when wet
  • dries quickly to avoid adding weight to your load
  • easy to deploy and pack up
  • compressible
  • easy to launder and maintain, both on the trail (your bedtime clothing) and back home

Geez, who knew, right?

But hang in here with me, and we'll get you on the trail to the perfect backpacking sleep system by the end of this page.

You have my permission

You have my permission to run away from anyone who tells you that there is one right answer to the "What is the best backpacking sleep system?" question.

You've got to find what works best for you!

And just so you know

I don't waste my precious time or money on gear that doesn't work.

Neither should you.

And I'm willing to bet cold, hard cash that you value your sleep every bit as much as I do.

That's why I'm going to put the best of the best outdoor sleep system components in front of you.

  • Some of the links are affiliate links. It costs you nothing extra to buy your hiking gear from these fine outdoor companies. It sends a small commission to Hiking For Her.

Ready to generate some Zzzzzz's?

Hey, wait! Not quite yet!

You've got some reading to do ;)


Best backpacking sleep system
components

Your sleep system for a backpacking adventure has a few main components.

You'll customize the system for your particular trail plans.

Here they are:

  • body heat containment unit: sleeping bag, quilt, bivy
  • liner for extra warmth
  • sleeping pad if you're a ground sleeper
  • hammock if you're not and have access to trees

Hammock sleepers have a few more choices to consider:

  • top -vs- bottom quilts
  • rain cover
  • These will be covered in a separate article, coming soon, so check back.

Some hikers consider warm clothing, a hat, a pillow, and a stuffed bear (not the live kind!!) as vital components of their sleep system.

  • And they wouldn't be wrong!

Let's take a peek at each of these parts of a backpacking sleep system. I'll share recommendations for what works for me.


Backpacking sleep system:
choosing your bag
or backpacking quilt

Did you car camp or go on sleepovers as a kid?

Then you know the drill:

  • crawl between two layers of fabric 
  • zip up the bag
  • scrunch yourself up in a ball as your body heat warms up the inside

And you probably remember this, too:

  • a squeaky, slippery plastic blow up camping mattress beneath your sleeping bag

Now, as a backpacker, you need a lot more than that for sleeping comfort.

And as a woman, you sleep a little colder than your male trail buddies.

Time for a little reading, beginning with your body heat containment unit of choice:

Gray and white backpacking quilt folded over on itselfSoft, cozy, inviting, but also water repellent, durable and compressable - that's what you're going for in a sleeping bag or backpacking quilt


The female angle to staying warm
at night on a backpacking trip

Uncomfortable fact of backpacking life: Women are cold sleepers.

Except for that wonderful period of time when you get to "pause".

Think of menopause as a backpacking bonus.

  • You will wallow in your own heat, albeit for intermittent chunks of time that you can never predict.

But extra heat can't be a bad thing in a sleeping bag. Can it?

Here's a good tip:

  • A sleeping quilt gives you the option of sticking your arms and legs out during a flash. 
  • You'll have to wrestle with your sleeping bag zipper otherwise.

More tips for women backpackers

Having backpacked through my teens and come out the other side of menopause, I know a few things about body heat.

Here are a few tips on choosing your "body heat containment unit":

If you're an exceptionally cold sleeper, you want a sleeping bag with extra features. Like a contoured footbox to trap heat around your toes and ankles.

Or buy a bag or quilt that promises lower temperature ratings. Even if that seems too extreme for the conditions you're facing.

  • There's no shame in sleeping in a 20F bag when it's 45F at night.
  • No one needs to know you need more fill power to keep your toes warm.

REI Co-op Magma 30 Sleeping Bag

This bag has baffle positions in the toe box aimed downward, where you want the warmth.

It's rated for 29F.

But the general rule for women's backpacking sleeping bags applies:

  • deduct a few degrees just to be sure of your comfort.

Super light weight and compressible, which a backpacking woman will appreciate.

You'll also appreciate a sleeping bag or quilt that cinches down snugly around your neck. You want to prevent cold drafty episodes that wake you up.

The Magma bag above can be had in this Magma 15 version with excellent head and neck protection.

It's rated to 17F.

It's a bit more tapered.

So if you like room to turn from side to side, be aware that you'll be somewhat restricted compared to the bag above.

Note how the hood is contoured to trap your body heat.

Use the 2 internal drawcords on the hood to customize your adjustments as the night unfolds.

Or to avoid that pesky mosquito that always seems to get inside the tent!

You can also learn to use clothing as a deliberate part of your core warmth strategy.

Keep reading for tips, or skip down now.


What lies beneath:
choosing the best sleeping pad

There are many types of sleeping pads on the market.

They have various characteristics that might be important to your sleep comfort:

  • self inflating versus "huff & puff"
  • insulated or not
  • ultralight
  • inexpensive or not

Start your reading here:


Backpacking sleeping pad recommendations

When I need to go fast and light but want to stay warm at night, I use this Big Agnes Q-Core Insulated SLX sleeping pad. 

  • I love its small lightweight footprint and cushiony warm sleep experience.


When I want to avoid head rush from huffing and puffing (hey! it warms you up on a chilly evening!) I make a different choice.

  • I bring along a more cumbersome but comfy self inflating Thermarest: a women's Prolite Plus sleeping pad.

Love the toughness of it!

And it's higher R-value and tapered cut are great features to have in a sleep system.


What else belongs in a
backpacking sleep system?

Clothing and head covering, plus a pillow is completely reasonable to add to a sleep system.

Your goal: to achieve a good night's sleep so you can hit the trail hard in the morning.

  • Optional: teddy bear
  • No judgment, I promise! 

Do they make inflatable cuddly bears? Hmm...

Why, yes, they do!

The extra 2.5 pounds in your backpack seems like a small price to pay ;)


Want warm feet while you sleep?
Cover your head!

The fastest way to a warm body is pulling on a hat.

A female hiker should have a repertoire of hiking hats, and sleeping is no different than the trail.

  • As conditions change, so should your hat

Over the years, here's what I've noticed works really well to fall (and stay) asleep in:

  • An inexpensive, cozy fitted fleece beanie for summer, like this one from REI Co-op
  • A wool cap lined with fleece for spring and fall. Try this Arc'teryx Bird Head toque - a good balance between warmth and comfort.

And then there's the nuclear option.

In other words, staying as warm as inside the belly of a star where nuclear reactions create massive heat.

Here's your best choice:

  • A balaclava

Your options for this complete coverage of head and neck are fleece and merino wool, just as with your hat!

This Seirus Hoodz is soft and cozy, and adjusts to be loose or tight around your neck with 2 separate drawcords.

Versatile, too, when you pull it up like a hood to fully cover your ears and head.

During the day, use it to cushion and protect electronics inside your backpack.

Or put it inside your sleeping bag hood for cushioning your head.




You can also go streamlined with this Smartwool Merino 250 clava.

Not as versatile, but not as heavy, either.

You pull it on in one smooth motion, and it's fitted but not claustrophobic.

Moisture wicking, breathable and soft!





Backpacking pajamas
a.k.a. long undies as pjs

I've found a good hack. A lightweight but warm pair of long underwear added to my sleep system serves me well at night. 

I only wear this clothing inside the tent.

  • No food odors in bear country
  • No sweat stains or odors in my nostrils as I fall asleep
  • (Relatively) clean and dry to crawl into after a long day of hiking on a multiday backpacking trip
  • Feels great against my skin; helps me with full body relaxation so I drift off faster

Here's a great pick:

Smartwool Merino 150 Base Layer Long-Sleeve Top

Sizes XS - SL

Six color choices

Comfy crew neck

87% Merino wool + 13% nylon  for moisture wicking, fast drying and coziness


Available in 2X - 3X

Two color choices

Same specs as above


Pair this shirt with matching bottoms, and never shiver again.

Still cold?


Trail tip:

Because I only wear this clothing for sleeping, it has lasted for many, many seasons.

Even if you put yours into regular rotation in your hiking wardrobe:

  • Treat this hiking clothing kindly by line drying.


For sweet dreams,
remember your pillow

Some backpackers belong to the "I'll just cobble something together from clothing" school of thought.

Others take no chances with their sleep comfort.

They pack a pillow like this NEMO Fillo Backpacking Pillow.

  • Looks pretty snuggly, no?

Want another great option?

Read my review of the Outdoor Vitals ultralight backpacking pillow here.


Now you're one giant step closer
to the perfect
backpacking sleep system!

Congratulations again! You rock!

Now it's time to start making a shopping list.

And heads up:

As your body ages, your hiking style changes.

So you might will discover that you need to change your sleep system components.

  • But you've gotta start somewhere, right?

So get crackin'!

Or risk sleep deprivation from being cold and uncomfortable during the night. That robs you of full enjoyment (and safe decisions) on your backpacking trip.

Ewwwww!

Put together the perfect backpacking sleep system and use it for car camping, too. Hiking For Her tells you how to do it. #backpacking #sleepsystem #hiking #sleepingbag #backpackingquilt #carcamping

Oh, and one more little thing...


A prepared backpacker
needs to embrace systems

You've got your backpacking sleep system dialed in.

Now turn your attention to how to haul it around a.k.a. choosing your backpack.

And there's one more system: your shelter.

Oops! One more!

  • Your clothing layering system

Looks like you've got some more reading to do ;)

Enjoy the journey to a well stocked gear locker!


You might like to read these next


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Best Backpacking Sleep Systems




About the author

Diane is the founder of Hiking For Her.

She's been on a hiking trail somewhere in the world for 5+ decades & loves to share her best hiking tips right here.


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Photo credits: All photos on this website were taken by David Midkiff or Diane Spicer except where noted.


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