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 buy an expensive tent and skimp on the equipment used inside it.
Crucial Elements of Sleeping Systems For The Outdoors
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.
Let’s look at the parts of the system for sleeping systems for the outdoors, especially in Ireland and the UK.
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 I’ve 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 bag’s 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. Thats probably a bit of a stretch, but I’ve used it all over Ireland, the UK and on approximately 150 different nights spent at high altitude in the past 4 years, sometimes paired with a liner and its always performed for me.
Id highly recommend it as one option to 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.
Sleeping Bag Liners
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 day trip to the Himalayas for 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 night’s sleep.
You can choose a fold/roll-up mat or an inflatable one. Again each has its 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.
What you are looking for here is R value.
A sleeping pad’s R-value measures its capacity to resist heat flow through it (hence the “R”). The higher a pad’s R-value, the better it will insulate you from cold surfaces.
You can make all the arguments for or against which type is your preference, just make sure you bring one.
I’ve 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.
Since 2021, Ive upgraded to the Thermarest NeoAir Xlite. Its expensive, but packs down smaller than my original one and weighs very little.
Sometimes picking the right tent for you and your needs can be confusing and it’s easy to think the price is a 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 it’s 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 wouldn’t want to have to carry it every day. It’s 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 fulfil 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.
In 2021, I both two new tents. The Salewa Litetrek 2 and the MSR Hubba Hubba. My preferred of the two is most definitely the Salewa tent.
The Salewa is 2.5kg, which is a little heavier than I would like, but its extremely simple to put up and can stand up to some pretty extreme weather and winds for a 3 season tent.
The MSR is superlight and thats where my affinity for it stops. Its too delicate for Irish weather, it flaps a lot in any wind and its way to expensive.
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 doesn’t take up too much room when compressed and protects the sleeping bag, but it’s 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 didn’t afterwards. I trialled it as a system on a multi-day hike in The Mournes, but I didn’t 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 haven’t bought dry bags yet, but don’t rely on the compression sack from your sleeping bag to be waterproof enough.
If you’re confused as to what best suits you then maybe don’t just buy online, speak to someone like Ronan at Adventure.ie, he’s 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.