A reliable sleeping system for the outdoors can be compared to a chain, only as good as the weakest link.
Why prioritise buying an expensive sleeping bag and not prioritise the mat you are sleeping on, or think by just having a good quality tent, you can skimp on what to use inside it.
For most comfort, put some thought into all the parts of the system.
This blog is aimed mostly as those who go hillwalking in Ireland or the UK, or trekking abroad and not so much aimed at the needs of alpinists.
Obviously the approach to sleeping systems taken by alpinists can be extreme to suit their needs for fast and light, while on Irish and UK hills we can afford to carry a little extra weight without it being too tasking on our objectives or safety.
Lets look at the parts of the system.
Whether you choose down or synthetic insulation it doesn’t really matter too much, there are pros and cons of both. Down will pack and compress to a smaller size, but requires greater care and will be less effective if it gets wet. Synthetic insulation will take up a larger space in your backpack but isn’t as costly as down.
My personal preference is for a down sleeping bag and the one I have been using since 2012 is the Rab Ascent 700. It didn’t break the bank especially considering how many times ive used it, has always performed and can be paired with a liner layer to increase its warmth.
Most bags come with a three part rating, comfort, limit and extreme. Personally, I base all my opinions about a bags warmth on the limit rating and I view the extreme rating as a complete work of fiction.
The Rab Ascent 700 has a limit rating of -12c. Ive used it all over Ireland, the UK and on approximately 150 different nights spent at high altitude in the past 4 years, albeit sometimes paired with a liner. Id highly recommend it to anyone serious about spending overnights in the outdoors.
It weighs about 1.3kg, which is light enough for Irish Hillwalking needs. Yes you can get bags as warm that are half as light, but they are three times the price and Id imagine nowhere near as durable.
Ultralight gear can seem important, but shouldn’t be a massive consideration unless you’re going to the Alps or greater ranges.
I once bought a 16 euro sleeping bag in ALDI as a liner and paired it with my Rab bag above and successfully used it on a 23 trip to the Himalayas to do Island Peak. At the lower tea houses I just used the cheap bag, and mixed and matched between the two for the trip as we ascended. Our highest tented sleeping altitude was 5500m.
This is hardly applicable to the Irish hills, but the point is that a liner can give you versatility and a layering system that can work effectively for you, while protecting and elongating the lifespan of your sleeping bag.
There are all types of liners on offer. Very thin silk ones only marginally increase the thermal properties of a system, but are great for keeping the inside of your sleeping bag clean.
A fleece liner can be a bit bulkier but is cheap and offers a good return in terms of heat retention.
A good mat is essential. It doesn’t matter how good a bag you have, if you cant insulate your body from the ground, your heat will be leeched from you and you’re destined for a poor nights sleep.
You can choose a fold/roll up mat or an inflatable one. Again each has their pros and cons, a fold up is cheap and simple to use, but has loads of bulk. An inflatable can be punctured and a good one is relatively more expensive.
You can make all the arguments for or against which type is your preference, just make sure you bring one.
Ive been using a Thermarest pro lite for a good few years now. I bought it the same day as I did the sleeping bag, from Nigel at Alpinesports.ie. Its never been punctured, but then I’m careful when using it. Carrying a simple repair kit will solve any issues.
Sometimes picking the right tent for you and your needs can be confusing and its easy to think price is good indication of value.
The tent that I use most often for the Irish hills cost me 50 euro in a sale. Its cheap, generic and basic but its heavy, 1.5kg heavier than I ideally want. It has stood up to many nights of high winds and desperate non stop rain though.
On foreign, expeditions, I use a Mountain Hardwear Trango tent and love it too, but it costs 800 euro and I wouldnt want to have to carry it every day. Its too heavy and oversized to carry in a backpack for the hills at home.
The point is that the price differential between the two isn’t a factor, they have different characteristics to handle different scenarios, but essentially they both fulfill their primary function, they keep a barrier from the wind and the rain off my head.
I do keep meaning to buy a lighter tent for use on the Irish hills. I used a Marmot Limelight 2p tent for a week long trip recently and would strongly consider buying one, but apart from the excessive weight, my current one works well and will do me for a while yet.
I have a lightweight waterproof RAB bivy bag that I will sometimes bring for an external layer to my sleeping bag if heavy rain is forecast. It also adds another thin layer to retain warmth, but I often leave it at home too.
It doesnt take up too much room when compressed and protects the sleeping bag, but its not always essential.
There are heavier bivy bags on offer, more like a 1 person tent, which would have obvious weight and space saving options in place of a full tent. It’d be a bit grim to use though, as they lack in space or comfort and for me take away from the fun experience of camping in the outdoors.
I considered this approach for my ML assessment, to go light, but was so happy I didnt afterwards. I trialed it as a system on a multi day hike in The Mournes, but I didnt enjoy it, so went with my tent for my ML instead.
The comfort of being able to sit up, organise your gear and get a bit of headspace on a tough weekends assessment was invaluable and worth carrying the extra weight.
I like to put all the gear in my rucksack inside dry bags, it makes packing and finding things in a hurry super efficient, but mainly its to guarantee a dry sleeping bag at the end of the day.
A night sleeping in a wet bag would be grim.
Use heavy black plastic bags if you havent bought dry bags yet, but dont rely on the compression sack from you sleeping bag to be waterproof enough.
If you’re confused as to what best suits you then maybe dont just buy online, speak to someone like Ronan at Adventure.ie, hes active in the outdoors, a qualified International Mountain Leader and an outdoor gear shop owner, so he knows what works and chooses to stock good quality items.
I personally like the look of the Salewa Micra II Tent they are selling at the moment, for that price, weight and waterproofing it looks like a great deal.
I hope the above post is useful. Please feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss any aspect of this post.