Best Backpacking
Sleep System:
How To Put One Together

by Diane Spicer

Meet Hiking For Her's Diane

If you're reading about the best backpacking sleep system, you've probably graduated from day hiking to overnight or longer hiking trips.


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.

And that's why you found this page:

  • to learn what you need to know about choosing the best backpacking sleep system for your hiking style.
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

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 (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 for your consideration.

  • Some of the links are affiliate links, meaning it costs you nothing extra to purchase from these fine outdoor companies while sending 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

Your sleep system for a backpacking adventure has these main components:

  • body heat containment unit: sleeping bag, quilt, bivy
  • liner for additional warmth
  • sleeping pad if you're a ground sleeper
  • hammock if you're not

Hammock sleepers have additional components 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.

Backpacking sleep system:
choosing your bag
or backpacking quilt

If you camped or had sleepovers as a kid, you're familiar with the idea of crawling between two layers of fabric, zipping up the bag, and scrunching yourself up within it as your body heat warms up the inside.

And you probably used a squeaky, slippery plastic blow up camping mattress beneath your body at least once before, for comfort and insulation.

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

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

Women are notoriously cold sleepers.

  • Except for that wonderful period of time when you get to "pause" and wallow in your own heat, albeit for intermittent chunks of time that you can never predict.
  • Tips for you, right here

A few tips for how to choose your "body heat containment unit":

If you're an exceptionally cold sleeper, you want a sleeping bag with extra padding in the hip and feet area.

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

You can also learn to use clothing as a deliberate part of your core warmth strategy - keep reading for tips.

What lies beneath:
choosing the best sleeping pad

There are many types of sleeping pads on the market, with various characteristics that might be important to your sleep comfort:

  • self inflating versus huff & puff
  • insulated
  • ultralight
  • inexpensive

Start your reading here:

Just for the record, when I need to go fast and light, I use a Big Agnes Q-Core Insulated SLX sleeping pad.

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

I also use a more cumbersome but comfy self inflating Thermarest: a women's Prolite Plus.

What else belongs in a
backpacking sleep system?

Including your choices of clothing and head covering, plus a pillow, seems entirely reasonable to achieve a good night's sleep.

  • Optional teddy bear, no judgment, I promise!

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. This Arc'teryx Bird Head toque is a good balance between warmth and comfort.

And then there's the nuclear option, staying as warm as in the belly of a star where nuclear reactions create massive heat:

  • A balaclava

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

This one is soft and cozy, and can be adjusted to be loose around your neck, or pulled up like a hood to fully cover ears and head.

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

Or you can go streamlined, like this Smartwool 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 that dedicating a lightweight but warm pair of long underwear to my sleep system serves me well.

  • 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 are my two favorite brands:

Smartwool Merino 150 Pattern Base Layer Long-Sleeve Top Patagonia Capilene Lightweight Crew Neck Long Underwear Top>

Pair them with their matching bottoms, and never shiver again.

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 yours kindly by line drying them.

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, and bring a pillow like this NEMO Fillo Backpacking Pillow.

  • Looks pretty snuggly, no?

For another great option, you can 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 modify or 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, which robs you of full enjoyment of your backpacking trip.


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!

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Best Backpacking Sleep Systems

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