Sleeping System – Gear Review

The day after bagging my first peak on the Pacific Crest Trail, my sleeping pad acquired a slow leak. I didn’t realize until I woke up in the middle night flat on the rocky ground and wildly uncomfortable. I re-inflated it, only to wake up a little later on the ground again. I got next to no sleep that night and woke up feeling awful. We descended the mountain and once we came to a highway, I bailed on my hiking partner to go into town and some sleep. I slept for 16 hours straight and woke up feeling like a new person. I wasn’t able to get to an actual outfitter, so I bought an $11 yoga mat from Big 5 and had to sleep on that for 2 weeks. It was so uncomfortable. It fell apart. And I didn’t get a lot of rest until I replaced it with a real sleeping pad.

Your sleep system is an fundamental part of your backpacking gear. Without proper rest and recovery, how can you be expected to daily walk distances further than many people’s daily commute? This will be the first post in a series of gear reviews covering the gear I took on the Pacific Crest Trail last summer. I will be covering sleeping pads, sleeping bags (or quilts), and other sleep accessories.

Sleeping Pad

A lot of people on the PCT used a Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite Sol for their pad. It does have the benefit of not being able to spring a leak, but as someone with a bad back the comfort of an inflatable pad was more important to me. YMMV. If you are interested in this pad, I would suggest checking out this excellent review from the Halfway Anywhere blog.

sleeping pads

I went through three sleeping pads on the PCT. From left to right, the REI Co-Op Flash Sleeping Pad, the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite Sleeping Pad, and the Big Agnes Q-Core SLX Sleeping Pad. Image sources linked below. (NTS)

1. REI Co-Op Flash Sleeping Pad

I had bought this pad for my Grand Canyon hike the previous year, and it had served me well. This specific pad is no longer available, but it is comparable to REI’s current REI Co-op AirRail 1.5 Self-Inflating Sleeping Pad.

Unfortunately, I eventually sprung a leak in this one. I was careful to clear my tent area and I used a groundsheet, but somehow I still managed to get a hole. All inflatable pads have this risk, so you need to weigh that against the comfort they provide. My Flash lasted maybe 4 weeks of hiking before getting a hole. With the right tools, you can repair some holes, but they can be very difficult to find. Depending on the location or size of the hole, it may not be repairable. I was unable to find it, so I switched pads when I got to the next REI.

Specs:

Size: 72 x 20.5 x 2.5 inches

Weight: 16 oz

Pros:

  • Comfortable;
  • Small packed size; and
  • “mummy” shape.

Cons:

  • Punctured quickly,
  • Not the lightest option available.

2. Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite Sleeping Pad

This is a great pad. Comfortable, lightweight. It has only one significant downside: this pad is noisy. It sounds like the crackling of a chip bag when you move. Personally, it didn’t really bother me. There are plenty of other sounds when sleeping outdoors, after the first few nights I didn’t even notice it.

The main reason I switched from this pad to the Big Agnes was the shape. I am a short but wide person with wide shoulders and hips. I would wake up in the night because I felt like I was falling off of the pad. Although it is technically the same (maximum) width as the Big Agnes, this Thermarest saved weight by trimming the shape to what is described in the specs as “semi-rectangular”. I much preferred the petite Big Agnes as it suited my shape better. If you are taller/slimmer, or if pack weight is your primary concern, the Therm-a-rest may be the right choice for you.

Specs:

Size: Women’s Regular (66″x 20″ x 2.5″)

Weight: 12 ounces

Cost: $129.95

Pros:

  • Lightweight,
  • Good quality,
  • Comfortable, and
  • Small packed size.

Cons:

  • Noisy,
  • Can be punctured.

3. Big Agnes Q-Core SLX Sleeping Pad

I love this pad. It is so comfortable, I could sleep on it forever. I hiked with some guys who were on more of a budget, so when we stayed in hotels they would sleep on the floor and pay less towards the room. I lent my pad to one of them in a hotel and he said that it was just as good as sleeping on a bed. I actually wanted to buy the couple’s version for my partner and myself but was distraught to learn that it is no longer sold.

It did get a slow leak in it after about a month of hiking with it, but I took it to REI customer service and they replaced it for me. I don’t think this speaks to the quality of the mat itself because I hiked on the replacement pad for several months with no problems.

This pad does creak a little when you roll around on it. After the noise from the NeoAir, I didn’t even notice until one day Shades burst out laughing from the tent next to mine. Apparently it sounded pretty goofy as I was settling down to bed.

Specs:

Size: Petite (66″ x 20″)

Weight: 15oz

Cost: $139.95

Pros:

  • Very, very comfortable (seriously),
  • Good quality,
  • Small packed size, and
  • Good shape for a short, wide person.

Cons:

  • Expensive,
  • Not the most lightweight option, and
  • Can be punctured.

 

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One of my favourite moments of each day was the time between opening my tent and climbing out of my sleeping quilt.

Sleeping Bag: Enlightened Equipment Revelation Quilt (20°F)

quilt.PNG

Before delving into the world of ultralight backpacking, I had never heard of a sleeping quilt before. They are quite clever, weigh much less than a sleeping bag, and are extremely lightweight. Not only are they technically impressive, I always found traditional sleeping bags to be confining and uncomfortable. I am very glad that I made the switch over to a quilt.

If you are interested in learning more about quilts, there are a plethora of articles out there that go into great detail. Here is one that does an excellent job of detailing the benefits of a sleeping quilt versus a sleeping bag.

topbottom-1200

Because the top of the quilt is more open than a standard sleeping bag, it is more comfortable for restless sleepers or those who sleep on their sides. Many can be laid completely flat. The Art of Sleeping Warm – A Guide to Sleeping Bags and Quilts

One of the guys I hiked with (ICU) had used shock cord to attach the clasps of the quilt to each other underneath his sleeping pad making an adorable little cocoon to sleep in. I didn’t manage to find shock cord small enough to do the same while on trail, unfortunately.

Specs:

Size: Custom

Weight: Approximately 17oz

Cost: Approximately $400.00 (price varies with customization options)

Pros:

  • Very, very comfortable;
  • Customization (size, material, temperature rating);
  • Lightweight;
  • Compact; and
  • Can be laid flat like a true blanket.

Cons:

  • Very expensive;
  • Too cold (get the 10ºF unless you are a very warm sleeper!).

Other

Pillow

As mentioned in my initial gear post, I did not carry a pillow on trail, but would stuff my extra clothes into the Sea-to-Summit dry sack that I kept them in (8L). For extra comfort, I would put my merino Buff over it like a pillow case. This was much more comfortable than having my face pressed into the synthetic stuff sack material.

If you are set on bringing a pillow, I have a few suggestions:

  • The Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow is both lightweight (2.5oz) and very comfortable. I take this pillow on car camping trips. It only takes 3-4 breaths to inflate and provides good support to your head and neck.
  • Some people don’t find inflatable pillows comfortable since they raise your head several inches. If you want something flatter, try the NEMO Fillo Elite Pillow. It’s a little heavier than an inflatable pillow (3oz), but still compacts to a small packed size.

Sleeping Bag Liner

I sleep rather cold, so I wish I had gotten the 10ºF quilt instead of the 20ºF. It’s hard to sleep when you’re cold, so I wasn’t getting as much rest as I would like. When I returned to trail after taking some time off and when I came back, I brought a Sea-to-Summit silk sleeping bag liner. I was glad to have it. I also used it during breaks on bad bug days to take naps without getting eaten alive.

Pump Bag (Big Agnes Pumphouse Ultra)

apump17_pumphouseultra_inflated-001.jpg

One additional piece I added with the purchase of my final pad was the pump bag that comes with it. It was a luxury, to be sure, but coming into camp late, exhausted, the last thing I wanted was to have to wind myself even further blowing this up.

Weight: 2.3 oz
Cost: $34.95

They say everyone has a camp chore that they hate. Blowing up my sleeping pad was mine. After hiking all day, I would walk into camp (often at dusk) completely exhausted. I would set up my tent, throw all my gear inside, then settle down for dinner. By the time I was done eating, I was ready to pass out so having to sit down and wheeze into a sleeping pad just seemed tortuous to me. I carried the extra weight to avoid this chore. Also, I kept my sleeping gear in the sack while hiking, so I never had wet sleeping gear. Worth it. If you hate blowing up your pad as much as I did, I would recommend getting the pump bag.

Most sleeping pad brands have a comparable product. Before purchasing one, make sure the valve is compatible to the valve on your sleeping pad. The easiest way to do this is to buy the pump from the same brand. Here are a few examples:


And that is all I have to say about sleeping gear for the moment. Having a good night’s sleep is crucial, so it is important to find a system that works for you.

I have a few more gear review posts in progress, the next one I post will be about clothing.  Until then, happy hiking.


Notes:

  • Due to purchasing most of my gear in the USA, all costs listed in this post are in USD or have been converted to such from CAD.
  • I have received no payment or other compensation for reviews of products included in this article. 

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