Camping Sleep System 411 - How to Choose a Sleeping Bag, Sleeping Pad / Cot & Baby Bedding

by - Thursday, March 26, 2015

Now that you've chosen the perfect tent, it's time to decide on a camping sleep system. Sleeping bags and sleeping pads are critical pieces of camping gear that should be paid special attention. Most of the time, when I ask people why they don't like camping, they say it's because they don't like sleeping on the hard, cold ground, but there is no reason to be uncomfortable just because you are sleeping in a tent! The self-inflating camping mattresses and cots on the market these days are amazingly comfortable and excellent at keeping you insulated from the cold.

Your camping sleep system is comprised of something to sleep on and something to sleep in. When choosing your sleep system, your main considerations will be comfort, weight, size, and cost. My personal preference is for a self-inflating Therm-a-Rest mattress and down mummy bag because these items are comfortable and warm, but compact and light enough to take into the backcountry.  At $335 ($235 sleeping bag + $100 sleeping pad), this is a moderately priced sleep system, but you can do it for much less. In fact, we were able to get the kids' sleeping bags on clearance at MEC, and buy their sleeping pads second hand! Whether you buy new or used, keep in mind that high quality gear will last for several years. We are using self-inflating Therm-a-Rests that are over 10 years old and will probably last another decade.

Something to Sleep On

  • Air mattress - Air mattresses are comfortable, compact, and cheap ($32-100 for Queen or King size), but notorious for developing leaks. We slept on one for a month when I was pregnant, and loved the mattress when it was inflated, but woke up on the cold, hard ground several times. The other disadvantages are that every time your partner moves, you move too; and if you and your partner are very different weights, you will find yourself rolling into him all night. 
    • Purchase the self-inflating type (remember to pack extra batteries) or bring a pump or air compressor with adaptor.
    • Pack a patch kit and duct tape. 
    • Not recommended for backpacking; neither light not compact.
    • Not recommended for cold weather camping as they do not insulate against the cold.
    • I do not recommend using air mattresses with very young children as they could suffocate in a partially deflated mattress.
  • Foam sleeping pad (aka foamie) - Foam sleeping pads are light, relatively inexpensive ($15-45) and require no inflating or maintenance. In general, the thicker the pad, the more comfortable you will be, but some of the ridged closed cell sleeping pads are thin, but surprisingly cushy. At $40, the Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite Sol (which we also own and have camped with) provides great value as it is warmer than basic blue or yellow foam pads. The disadvantages of foam pads are that they are bulky and not the most comfortable to sleep on. 
  • Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite Sol - thin and light, but effective at buffering the cold
  • Self-inflating camping mattress - My favorite sleeping option is a self-inflating Therm-a-rest camping mattress. My Therm-a-Rest Trail Pro is light and compact enough to take backpacking and keeps me warm in -7 C (19.4 F). Averaging around $100, they are more costly than air mattresses or foamies, but are light, compact, comfortable, and reliable. I am still using the Therm-a-Rest I bought in 2004 and it gets slept on 14-30+ nights a year! 

    • If you camp in mild climates and backpack a lot, consider a "short" length mattress to save pack weight.
    • If you are not a backpacker, go for a thicker and wider mattress. We also have the Therm-a-Rest Base Camp for car camping. It is wide, thick, and super comfortable. 
    • If you camp in cold weather, look for higher resistance to heat loss, otherwise known as R-value (e.g. R 6.0 is good for -40 C/-40 F).
    • For winter camping, layer a self-inflating mattress on top of a foam pad for extra insulation.
    • Check reviews to ensure you get a product that will last.
    • A great camping mattress works in or out of your tent!
  • Cot - The latest cots are comparable in weight to thick self-inflating camping mattresses and are compact enough to take backpacking! Comfortable and only requiring a few minutes to set up, the only barrier is price. At over $200 each, they are not in everyone's budget. 
    • You may have to pad the feet so they don't damage your tent's floor. 
    • Check reviews regarding noise as some models have noisy springs or creaky frames.
    • We recently purchased the Therm-a-Rest LuxuryLite Ultralite Cot and so far, are really impressed with how robust the frame and cover are, as well as how comfortable the cot is. Full review coming soon! 
Thermarest cot on left side - see how low profile it is!

Something to Sleep In

Unless you live somewhere really warm, you need to get a sleeping bag. Here are some things to look for when sleeping bag shopping.
  • Mummy, barrel bag, or backcountry bed? Your warmest option is a mummy bag as the shape, hood, and baffles minimize heat loss. Another benefit of the mummy bag is that there is no dead weight. The bag tapers towards the feet, so there is less space to warm up and keep warm, and less bag to carry. Mummy bags are the bag of choice for backpackers and those who hike in colder weather or high altitudes. Some mummy bags can be zipped together (if you buy 1 bag with a right zipper and 1 with a left zipper), but given how narrow mummy bags are, I think that arrangement would be extremely claustrophobic! 
    • Backcountry beds do not retain heat as well as mummy bags, but are extremely comfortable. If you are not camping somewhere too cold, and prefer a roomier bag, a backcountry bed will work well for you. 
    • Barrel bags should only be used in warm places as they do not keep heat in well. One benefit of barrel bags is that they can easily be zipped together. 
    • There are integrated sleep systems on the market with the sleeping pad built in/attached to sleeping bag. The advantage of integrated systems is that the sleeping bag does not slip off the sleeping pad and you get better insulation.
  • Size? If the sleeping bag comes in various sizes, get the one that is recommended for your height so you do not have to pack extra weight or warm up extra space. 
    • Children's sleeping bags are worth the money! They are so much smaller (1/2 the size!) and lighter and a smaller bag means less space to warm up and keep warm. Also, when the bag fits properly, there is less heat loss. Even though we didn't backpack when the kids were really little, we still had kids' bags so the girls wouldn't get cold at night.
  • What temperature rating do I need? If it will be 0 C at night where you are going, get a -7 C bag. Always prepare for worse weather so you can have a good sleep. It's easier to unzip your sleeping bag than put on more more clothes in the middle of the night. A great, reasonably priced -7 C sleeping bag is the MEC Aquila. I have the older generation MEC Raven and have comfortably slept in -10 C in even though I'm a cold sleeper with low circulation (I was wearing fleece to bed, however).
  • Down or synthetic? Synthetic bags will still keep you warm when wet, but it's hard to beat the warmth and compressibility of a down bag. I have 1 of each: a -7 C down bag for mountain trips and a +10 C synthetic bag for trips to the coast where it's warmer and wetter. Big Agnes, LL Bean and Eddie Bauer make sleeping bags with DownTek water repellent down if you want to chance taking a down bag to a rainy place. 
    • A great compromise for cold weather camping is a hybrid bag. These bags have synthetic lowers and down uppers so you get the best of both worlds. The synthetic lower part of the sleeping bag does not compress as much as down so you stay warmer, while the down upper is light and compressible to reduce pack weight (vs a fully synthetic bag).
  • Pay attention to the zipper - do you want the zipper on the right or left side of the bag? A right-hand zipper would be on your right side if you were lying in the sleeping bag. I prefer a right zipper since I am left handed. 
    • If you plan on zipping sleeping bags together, get the same size and type of sleeping bags - one with a right zipper and one with a left zipper. 
    • Glow in the dark zipper pulls are a great feature.
    • A pocket can be helpful for keeping your cell phone handy and warm (cold kills the battery), but if you're a side/stomach sleeper, keep your phone elsewhere.
  • Draft tube - check that the draft tube adequately cover the zippers (the draft tube on my friend's sleeping bag was too narrow so cold air seeped in and warm air seeped out) and that it does not catch in the zippers. Very thin, flimsy material tends to get stuck; not good if you have to get up suddenly to take a small child to the washroom in the night.
  • Baffles - Baffles around the face help to keep warm air in and cold air out. Make sure the baffles are wide enough to be helpful. Try before you buy - get in the sleeping bag and see if there are any drafty spots when it's all zipped up.
TETON Sports Tracker -15C/+5F Ultralight Sleeping Bag
Please note that children under the age of 2 should not have a pillow or fluffy bedding (such as a sleeping bag) as they increase the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. I have provided safer alternatives in the "Sleep System Recommendations for Young Children" section.

3. Optional: Pillow
A small camp pillow can make a huge difference in your sleep quality. I like the Mountain Equipment Co-op "Go" down filled camp pillow and Therm-a-Rest compressible small pillow. They are equally comfortable and small enough to bring backpacking. You could improvise and stuff clothes in a stuff sack, but I have never managed to make an un-lumpy stuff sack pillow, so I prefer to bring my own pillow for a great night's sleep.
Therm-a-Rest Compressible Pillow - available in different sizes if the small is too small for you

Sleep System Recommendations for Young Children 

To decrease the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), avoid fluffy bedding, pillows, and air mattresses with children under the age of 2.

For babies and very young children (under 2 years old), I recommend that you:
  • Put baby to sleep on her back in a travel crib. We liked the Baby Bjorn Travel Crib for its size and ease of setup. The Peapod Travel Bed is another popular choice and is a lot cheaper, but your child will likely outgrow it before the age of 2. If you have enough room in your tent, a Pack n Play works just fine and makes a safe play space while you prepare meals.
  • Dress baby in a blanket sleeper and fleece bunting suit and/or wearable blanket. Ensure baby is warm, but do not overdress her. We love the MEC Ursus (fleece) Bunting Suit for its warmth, foldover mitts and booties, and double zippers that make diaper changes easy. Our kids pretty much lived in the bunting suit around camp when they were small. Halo Sleep Sack Wearable Blankets are excellent for sleeping in too.
  • Do NOT put baby in a sleeping bag.
  • Do NOT put loose blankets or a pillow in your baby's crib.
Halo SleepSack

For more information on safe sleep environments, please see this page from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. 

Where to Buy

Now is the perfect time of year to look on Kijiji or Craigslist for gently used camping gear. We lucked out last year and found sleeping pads for less than half price!

We purchased our sleeping bags at Mountain Equipment Co-op because their return policies and prices are the best. Camping gear usually goes on sale in the fall.

Need it new, cheap, and now? Throughout the year, deals can be found on online outdoor gear retailers such as Live Out There and Go Gear. Check out their outlets and Deals of the Day for amazing savings. 

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  1. That's a lot info. I have a military system that is comprised of two sleeping bags for extreme cold. Bulky, but efficient. I've read several reviews of the Therm-a-Rest pads that are very positive. I don't put must faith in reviews of "unboxing" or without using the product. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. That would definitely be warm and comfortable! I am only 5'3", and and need to keep my kit pretty light, so I do the down bag + thermarest. Forgot to mention that I own all of the products I recommended (and more - we have the Thermarest Trail Pro Z Lite, Basecamp, and LuxuryLite Ultralite cot) except the Teton Sports sleeping bag but the reviews on it look really good. I will update my post as others would probably want to know that these are tried and tested products. Thank you for your feedback! : )

  3. There is nothing superior to a good nights sleep. Antagonistically there is nothing more awful than a terrible evenings rest! There are various things that you can buy which will help you to have a pleasant camping encounter with regards to sleeping.

  4. I agree, Antonio! It's hard to have epic adventures if you're exhausted! I always have an eyeshade and earplugs (and cot if front country camping)!

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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