Friday 14 October 2022

Tent Camping Sleep Systems

So, now you've chosen your tent (see previous post), you may be wondering what else you need for a successful camping trip.  

After your tent, the next most important thing is your sleeping system.  Generally this consists of something to keep you insulated from the ground and something to keep you warm.  Most campers opt for some kind of sleeping mat and a sleeping bag.

Sleeping Mats

Sleep Mats or Camping Mattresses can range from simple foam mats, through self-inflating mats, up to air beds.  Clearly there is a trade off between comfort and size/weight.  The key thing to look for is the R-value; this is a measure of the insulation and the higher the number the warmer it will be.  Values range from 1-10; less than 2 is only suitable for warm weather, a value of 2-4 is sufficient for 3-season use, and if you're going to be winter camping you'll need at least 4.5.  
Sleeping Mat R-values seasons
Once you've looked at the R-value, the next thing is the shape and size.  For back-packers, a thin mummy shaped mat will help save some space and weight, but if you are car camping you can afford to go for a thicker and larger rectangular mat.  We prefer rectangular shaped mats, as they can effectively cover the whole floor of the tent so if you (or the kids!) move around in the night you don't end up in a cold spot. 
We seem to have found a happy medium with self-inflating roll mats.  They give good thermal insulation, reasonable comfort levels, and roll up into a manageable size.  There are many versions available, and we've had a couple of different ones over the years.  We've tended to go for relatively cheap versions and although comfortable to begin with, unfortunately, they've all developed leaks at some point, so I can't recommend any particular brand from personal experience.  I've heard good things about Sea to Summit and Therm-a-Rest though!
Sleeping mats inside a tent

Sleeping Bags

Sleeping bags are generally rated by season.  A 1-season bag is only suitable for warm summer nights, a 2-season bag will extend the season from late spring to early autumn/fall.  If you want to start early in the spring and camp right through fall, you will need a 3-season bag, and for winter camping a 4-season.

The majority of sleeping bag manufacturers now also conform to an EN/ISO standard which allows direct comparison between bags.  According to the standard the comfort temperature is the lowest outside temperature at which an 'average' woman can have a comfortable night's sleep, the lower limit value marks the end of the transition range and is the lowest outside temperature for a comfortable sleep for the 'average' man.  The risk or extreme temperature is the survival temperature, a strong sensation of cold and risk of hypothermia exist at this temperature.  If you're really struggling to compare, just focus on the comfort temperature and make sure it's a couple of degrees below the minimum temperature you expect to be camping in.
Sleeping Bag ISO EN Standard
Sleeping bag shapes vary from simple rectangular bags to shaped 'mummy' bags with hoods.  Here are some pros and cons of each shape.  Generally I'd recommend a shaped bag, unless you are only planning to car camp in warm weather.

    Rectangular        Rounded        Mummy

    Roomy           Moderately roomy Close fitting

    Cheaper           Mid price range More expensive

    Bulky to pack Lighter and more compact Very light and compact

    Summer use only Suited for 2/3 Season use Best for 3/4 Season use

If you've filtered your search by comfort temperature and sleeping bag shape, it is then worth comparing packed size and weight.  Modern sleeping bags have come along way in the last few years and can now pack extremely small and still be comfortable.

We've been really happy with our Mountain Warehouse bags, and found Summit ones that could zip together to make a double (back in the day when we were young and in love!). However, we have just upgraded from the Summit to the Extreme version, due to it's very small packed size.  Sarah is always cold, so we also take a small packable outdoor blanket if we're expecting low temperatures.  We have some nice ones from Eddie Bauer.

Camping Pillows

We don't have a huge knowledge of camping pillows, Ridley only relatively recently agreed that they are a good addition having always insisted that our clothes would do just fine! Sarah, however, has always been more of a camping wimp and always used stuff sack style camping pillows. Sarah uses 2, the rest of us all have 1 each. They are certainly way more comfortable than their inflatable counterparts (or your clothing!) and take up way less space than a standard pillow, however for car camping if you have space do consider a pillow as a stiff neck can ruin a camping trip. If anyone has come across a great solution for this do let us know!

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