Improve Your Sleep While Hiking



If you want to get better sleep while hiking, you have to start thinking about your sleeping setup as a sleep system. A sleep system consists of 3 parts, your pad, your sleeping bag, and your pillow. All three of these work together to keep you comfortable. Now what is comfortable varies greatly depending on the person so you have to find what works best for you. But here is some useful info to help you put together your perfect sleep system.


Choosing a Sleeping Bag 

The first thing most people think about when they think about sleeping outside is their sleeping bag. So let’s begin there. The sole purpose of the sleeping bag is to keep you at a comfortable temperature. Notice I didn’t say to keep you warm. Just as many people experience poor sleep while hiking because they are too hot as those that are too cold. So what you really want is a sleeping bag that keeps you at your comfortable temperature. Another consideration is the style (shape) of the bag. This can have a great effect on your overall comfort and ability to control the temperature in your bag. There are basically 3 styles of sleeping bags: the mummy bag, rectangular bag, and the hiking quilt. 

Let’s start with temperature control. Mummy bags are generally considered to be the warmest and may be the best choice if you are in extreme cold. However, they offer the least amount of temperature control and can leave you feeling hot and stuffy.  Traditionally, most hikers that use mummy bags have two sleeping bags. One for winter and one for all the other seasons. This is fine if you don’t mind buying and storing multiple bags. Rectangular bags offer better temperature control because they usually have a full zipper that can be partially opened. Hiking quilts like our Versalight Hybrid Quilt offer the best temperature control because they can be arranged in a variety of ways to allow or limit airflow at the top and bottom of the quilt. But what about your back? Many people are afraid that the quilt will not keep them warm because the back is open, but your sleeping bag doesn’t either (when lay on the down and crush it, it doesn’t keep you warm anymore). This is why choosing the correct sleeping pad is important. Most quilts also come with pad connectors that hold it tight against the pad so cold air doesn’t get in. 

Now let’s talk about comfort. Mummy bags are the most constrictive of the bags. If you are a back sleeper you may find them comfortable but if you toss and turn or sleep on your side they can be quite uncomfortable. It’s true that you can roll the bag over with you, but remember what happens when you lay on down and crush it (it stops keeping you warm), so when you roll back and forth you end up with only the top of the bag providing warmth so you wake up cold. Rectangular bags are more comfortable because they usually have enough space for you to roll over inside. Quilts are the most comfortable and are most like the blankets we sleep with at home, but with added features. Our Versalight Hybrid Quilt lets you completely open it like a blanket or completely close it like a rectangular bag, but you can also tighten or loosen the bottom to control the foot space. 


Bag Type



Mummy Bag

Warmest Option

Good for back sleepers


Not good for side sleepers

No control over temperature

Back material is wasted weight

Rectangular Bag

More space

Good for all types of sleepers

Usually larger and heavier

Limited temperature control

Hiking Quilt

Most comfortable

Good for all types of sleepers

Excellent temperature control

Multiple uses

Wide temperature range

Not good for extreme cold (under -15℃)


My Recommendation:

Unless you are hiking in extreme cold (-17℃/0℉ or colder) hiking quilts are the best option. They are lighter, pack down smaller, and offer the best temperature control which means you only need to buy 1 and you can use it in all seasons. When paired with a proper sleeping pad and used correctly they can also keep you warm in very cold conditions. Check out our Versalight Hybrid Quilt or from other companies like Enlightened Equipment and Katabatic Gear.


Choosing a Sleeping Pad

The primary function of a sleeping pad is to protect you from the hard ground but it also plays a very important role in regulating your temperature. Generally speaking the thicker the pad the more comfortable, but it’s always a give and take between how much weight you want to carry, how much space you have in your pack, and how much padding you need to be comfortable. You basically have 3 choices: A closed-cell foam pad, a self-inflating pad, or an inflatable pad(you blow up yourself). 


In terms of pure comfort, self-inflating pads are the most comfortable. They usually have both air and foam which is the closest to your actual mattress at home and they make less noise than inflatable pads, but they are usually large and very heavy. Inflatable pads come in second for pure comfort, but they pack down much smaller and are significantly lighter than self-inflating pads. They do tend to be a little noisy though and sometimes the valves can fail or you get a hole that can leave you on the ground. Foam pads are the least comfortable and they are also bulky (usually attach to the outside of the pack) but they are pretty lightweight and you don’t have to worry about holes or valves failing on you. When choosing which pad is right for you, consider your weight, what type of sleeper you are, and what conditions you are sleeping in. For example, if you are fairly heavy and sleep on your side, you are not going to sleep well on a foam pad, but if you are lightweight and sleep on your back you might find the foam pad perfectly comfortable. Likewise, if you are “cowboy camping” (sleeping under a tarp on the ground) an inflatable pad runs a much higher risk of getting a hole so this would not be a good option for you. 


The other factor is temperature regulation. Your pad is what sits between you and the cold ground and is all that you have to protect your back from the cold (your sleeping bag does not offer much help here). One of the primary reasons hikers say for sleeping badly is waking up cold in the middle of the night. This is usually a result of an inadequate pad. Sleeping pads are rated with an R-Value ( how well they are insulated) and this can be used to determine the right pad for the conditions. Generally speaking, the higher the R-Value the heavier the pad (bulkier in the case of foam pads). Inflatable pads tend to have lower R-Value, but recently many companies have started to add insulation to them which has increased their warmth. With self-inflating pads and foam pads, the R-Value is directly related to their thickness (Thicker foam = higher R-Value). Here are some general guidelines for R-Values:

R-Value of 3 or less 

  • good for summer and spring (maybe fall depending on your location). Not a good choice for winter hiking.

R-Value of 3-5

  • Good for summer, spring, and fall (maybe winter depending on your location)

R-Value of more than 5

  • Good for any season but will be overkill for warmer months


So, when choosing a sleeping pad, you need to consider all the factors at play so that you can get the pad that works best for you. Below is a table of the pros and cons for each type of pad. 


Pad Type



Closed Cell Foam Pad

Higher R-Value


Can be cut to custom length/width

Very durable

Easy to pack up


Bulky and awkward to carry

Doesn’t provide much padding

Not good for side or stomach sleepers

Self Inflating Pad

Higher R-Value

Good durability

Most comfortable

Large and heavy

Harder to pack up

Inflatable Pad


Packs down small

Comfortable ( up to 4”/10cm thickness)

Valves can fail

Pads can bust

Tend to be colder (lower R-Values)

More expensive


My Recommendation:

For most people, I recommend an inflatable pad with an R-Value of 4. In my opinion, they offer the best comfort-to-weight ratio and are warm enough for most conditions. Brands like Big Agnes, Thermarest, Sea to Summit and Nemo all offer pads in this range at varying price points depending on size and weight. 


Choosing a Pillow


A pillow doesn’t really affect your temperature much, but it does play a crucial role in your comfort. There are a few types of pillows such as self-inflating, inflatable (you blow up), and clothes in a stuff sack or t-shirt. I’m not really going to go into as much detail about pillows as I did about sleeping bags and pads, because there really isn’t that much to talk about. So let me just say a few things about pillows. First, if you aren’t using one, get one. It will drastically improve your sleep (it’s definitely worth the extra grams). Secondly, get one that has a cover that is soft. They are removable and can be washed and also they just feel better. Lastly, get one that connects to your sleeping pad. The biggest complaint about pillows is that they move around and fall off the pad at night.  


    Ok that’s it. So let’s review quickly. First start thinking about your sleep setup as a sleep system with all parts working together. Choose a bag type that fits your style of sleep and make sure that the R-Value of your pad is fitting for the environment you will be sleeping in. Also, consider your weight and what type of sleeper you are when choosing a pad. Third, get a pillow and make sure that the pillow connects to your pad. Lastly, remember that a little extra size and weight (within reason obviously) is well worth a good night's sleep. 


** One final note. If you are going to be sleeping around other people (cabin or popular campsite)  invest in some good earplugs! They can be a life saver.