Packing List Question: What is a Sleep System?

Sleep System How-To

If you’re well-hydrated, well-fed, and you’ve slept well any adventure will seem that much brighter, especially outdoor adventures. Here are some suggestions on what your sleep system might look like and what to do to ensure a sound sleep in the backcountry:

What to bring:

I described my winter sleep system in some detail in this post on Planning Your First Winter Overnight. If you’re not heading out during the winter, here are some other suggestions for a good night’s sleep:

Sleeping bag

Sleeping bags are typically rated for temperatures from +5°C to -40°C here in Canada or +40°F to -50°F in the U.S. You can find them rated for colder temperatures if you need. They come designed for women’s shapes or men’s. They may be filled with down (anywhere from 575 fill to 850+ fill), with a synthetic filler, or a hybrid of both. Sleeping bags come in mummy, barrel, rectangular, or semi-rectangular shapes.

With so many options, how do you choose?

Go into your local outdoors store knowing how cold or warm you sleep under normal circumstances. Be prepared to stay a while and have a good conversation with the salesperson. Chat with them about what you intend to use the sleeping bag for: alpine camping, winter camping, summer camping at sea level, etc.

I bring my hybrid -20°C bag with me on my winter adventures, my -10°C bag (a version of MEC’s Aquila sleeping bag no longer made) with me on late spring or early fall trips, and my 0°C bag (an Eastern Mountain Sports sleeping bag that’s no longer made) on summer trips. Three sleeping bags sounds excessive. I’ve accumulated them over nearly 15 years, so don’t feel you need multiple sleeping bags to start. Buy the one for the season you’ll camp most in.

If you’re looking for more resources on how to choose the right sleeping bag for you, there are some great articles and videos here, here, and here.

Sleeping pad

This is where I now need an upgrade. My Therm-a-Rest ProLite is still going strong but I am feeling the ground and my aches and pains a little more these days.

A sleeping pad will provide you extra warmth in addition to some comfort from the ground. Look at the pad’s R-value to determine how much extra warmth it will give you. They typically run from an R-value of 2 (less warmth) to an R-value of 6+ (lots of warmth).

If space is a concern, also have a look at how small the sleeping pad packs down to (and keep in mind that it’s unlikely you’ll get it repacked as small as when you bought it in the store). And be sure to lie down on them in the store. Toss and turn. Is it noisy when you move? Do you feel the floor?

If you’re looking for more resources on how to choose the right sleeping pad for you, try this article.


A liner is a great way to extend the amount of time you can sleep in your sleeping bag and not need to wash it. They tend to come in silk, cotton, or fleece-lined synthetic and are far easier to wash regularly than your sleeping bag. On summer trips, I tend to sleep in just my liner on top of my sleeping bag. On winter trips, the fleece-lined liner gives me a little extra warmth.


I have a fleece-lined stuff sack that I turn inside out, stuff with clothes or a down jacket, and it serves me well as a pillow. I have had clients bring airplane neck pillows (they make for great portage cushions too!) as their pillows. And the outdoors stores have any number inflatable and/or compressible pillows if you require something a little more sturdy. Check some of your options out here and here.

sleeping bags in sleep system

What to do:

Food and Hydration

Yep, food and water are part of your sleep system. I work to stay hydrated and well-fed all day and I do the same for my clients on trip. I don’t like getting up in the middle of the night to use the loo so as long as I feel hydrated, I stop drinking a couple of hours before bed. (Not unlike what I do when I’m home.)

Keeping Warm

If it’s a cold trip, I will eat a high-fat snack before bed to keep my internal furnace going through the night. I make sure to completely empty my bladder before bed so that my body isn’t struggling to keep my urine warm and me warm. I’ll also do a little ‘run’ around camp or some other form of quick exercise before getting into my sleeping bag so that I’m starting the night warm. And finally, I have a woolly, warm hat that I reserve specifically for bedtime.


Sometimes I read. Sometimes I write. If it’s a work trip, I’ll fill out my log book about the day’s adventures. When I turn out my headlamp I’ll listen to the silence, broken by a frog singing or a loon calling. I say a little word of thanks and drift off for the night.

Try it out for yourself! Join us for an outing. You can sign up for that here.