Welcome to part 5 of my beginners backpacking series. In Part 4 we discussed the tools used in the camp kitchen to filter water and cook our food. In this episode we’ll talk about our sleep system, backpacks, and the ever controversial trekking poles: useless or a lifesaver? These items also are very much dependent on personal choice and preference so I’ll just lay out the facts and leave the rest up to you! As always, look for “The Quick and Dirt” for my basic no frills recommendation, but keep reading The Nuts and Bolts if you want more information.
The Quick and Dirty:
Buy a decent foam pad for your first pad and upgrade later if you need to. They are cheap, reliable, warm, and light. Always be sure you’re taking a pad warm enough for the conditions. it provides all of your insulation against the ground.
The Nuts and Bolts:
Let’s start with sleeping pads. Things have come a long way since the massive bedroll that always appears in old pictures. Sleeping pads may be the place where technology has allowed for some of the greatest improvements. The biggest two factors to consider when choosing a sleeping pad are insulation or “R-value,” and your personal comfort needs.
There is two basic types of sleeping pads: foam and inflatable, so let’s discuss each one.
These are certainly the more lightweight and far cheaper option. I used a foam pad for many years before switching back to inflatable and loved the weight savings. What I didn’t love was the fact that the foam breaks down and offers very little padding after about a year and a half of steady usage, and is bulky which means it has to be strapped to the outside of my pack. I am also a side sleeper and I found that I was waking up with sore knees, sore hips, and sore shoulders after a few nights on hard ground.
However, I won’t leave the house in winter without a foam pad in addition to my inflatable. They are easily the warmer option.
Why does the insulation of your sleeping pad matter?
This is an often overlooked fact about sleeping pads. They provide almost 100% of the insulation between you and the ground, not your sleeping bag. The warmest goose down bag will provide virtually zero protection from the ground or snow beneath you because all that goose down insulates by trapping air. When it’s compressed by laying on it, it’s insulating properties are dead in the water.
So always check the R-value of your sleeping pad and make sure that it’s suitable for the conditions you’ll be encountering. A summer pad will have an R-value of between 1.5 and 3, while a winter or “4 season” pad will have an R value of 4+. R-values are also additive, which means that if you stick a foam pad with 5.0 R under an inflatable with 2.0 R, you’re sleeping on 7.0 R (and ready for an arctic storm apparently).
These are far more comfortable than foam pads and thanks to new innovative technology, they are almost as light and warm which wasn’t the case only 6 years ago. If you choose an inflatable pad, then make sure to check the R-value. If you’re a cold sleeper then go with a 4-season pad and you’ll always be sure that your sleeping pad isn’t the difference between too hot and too cold.
There are a few downsides to inflatables. The main one is that they simply are not as light as foam pad and probably never will be. They are also about 3 to 4 times the price of their foam cousins, and be prepared to pay even more than that for a 4-season version! They also take time and effort to inflate, and can be crinkly and loud when shifting in your sleep. However, if you’re a side sleeper like me, then these pads make sleeping out in the wilderness comfortable like you never thought possible, and in the end I’ll choose carry a few extra ounces for a solid night’s sleep.
So for beginners, I would definitely recommend a foam pad because they are cheap, reliable, no hassle, and ultra light. Thermarest makes excellent foam and inflatable pads. Big Agnes, Klymit, and Exped are also good choices. Just makes sure you check your R-value!
The Quick and Dirty
Buy a 20 degree 800-900 fill goose down mummy bag for your first bag. It is the most versatile temperature rating, the lightest, and the will pack down the smallest. Just make damn sure that you keep your sleeping bag dry! Goose down is useless if it gets wet.
If that’s out of your budget, buy the lightest 20 degree synthetic fill mummy bag you can find within your budget.
The Nuts and Bolts
Good sleeping bags are not cheap. Be prepared to shell out between $150 and $600 for a high quality sleeping bag. There are two main types of sleeping bags that are good for backpacking: the classic mummy bag and the over-quilt. The perfect sleeping bag should weigh nothing, pack down into a ball the size of a grape, and keep you warm in -50’F. Since we don’t live among unicorns, we’ll just have to try to get as close to this goal as we can. We are looking for weight, packability, and warmth, and essentially the more you pay, the better you’ll get on all 3 factors.
The one thing that has the biggest impact on all of these factors is the fill material. This is the insulation and the stuff that your life might depend on in a freak spring snow storm. For the lowest weight, warmest, and most packable sleeping bags, focus all your effort on goose-down. If you’re on a budget or will be camping in very wet places, go synthetic. What are the real differences between these materials?
Try as we might, we still haven’t come up with a material that works better than what mother nature gave geese to stay warm. Goose down has one huge disadvantage. If it gets wet, its useless. Many brands advertise a “water resistant treatment” but in my experience, these are all useless and it’s better to keep water and goose down far apart. If you’ll be in snow, or dry conditions then you simply can’t beat it!
As the picture implies, not all down is equal! Down is classified into a “fill” power that basically describes the ability of the down to expand and trap air while maintaining compressability and low weight. The highest quality down is called 900 fill, while many of the low-end down bags will use 650 fill or less. If you want to learn more about the technical aspects of fill power, check out the wikipedia page.
In my opinion, unless you’re prepared to shell out for an 850 or 900 fill sleeping bag, go with a synthetic because any lower fill power than that and you’ve lost the warmth and compressability advantage while still paying more money.
There are tons of various materials used as insulation, most of which attempt to mimic down in some way. Synthetic material is heavier, but it is also somewhat water resistant, and can be just as warm if you’re willing to carry the weight. They are also usually half the price or less of a warmth equivalent down bag. My first bag was a synthetic fill simply for the cost savings and I added a down bag later when I could afford it.
Ultimately the choice between these two options is a personal one dictated by budget and water. Keep an eye out for good deals!
A note on the warmth rating of sleeping bags: always choose about 15 degrees lower than what you expect to encounter. A 20 degree sleeping bag will NOT keep you comfortable at 20 degrees in my experience, it will keep you alive. I use a 20 degree sleeping bag as my 3 season bag, I can use it unzipped in the summer and it keeps me warm in early spring and late fall when the temperatures dip to around freezing. I use a 0’F or -15’F bag in the winter.
Now what about mummy bags vs. over quilts that I mentioned earlier?
These are the old classic that everyone uses (including me). They are widely available, and are a time tested design for keeping you warm when it matters most. But remember back when we were talking about sleeping pads, how I said that a sleeping pad does all the insulating from below? That basically means that you’re paying extra money for a bunch of material that you’re just laying on and isn’t keeping you warm!
This is where quilts come in.
This is basically either a blanket that you throw over yourself while lying on your sleeping pad or a mummy bag with the stuffing removed from the underside. They save weight and increase packability by removing the underside fill and usually have a way to attach to your sleeping pad so that you don’t roll out of them in your sleep. The only reason that I don’t use a quilt is that they have been pretty specialized until the last few years and there wasn’t an affordable mass-produced option when I bought my mummy bag. I intend to switch!
Big Agnes now makes affordable down quilts that have an integrated sleeve for sleeping pads. They are lighter, smaller, and just as warm as traditional mummy bags.
All my raving about quilts aside, mummy bags are still way more common and much cheaper for a synthetic fill. I like, REI, Big Agnes, Kelty, North Face, and Marmot. In the end, it’s a personal choice and now you’re armed with the facts and one man’s moderately experienced opinions!
Now that you have the knowledge to choose a sleep system, let’s look at the workhorse of backpacking: the backpack itself.
The Quick and Dirty
Buy the lightest backpack you can find made by a quality manufacturer such Black Diamond, North Face, Osprey, Gregory, Marmot, or Kelty. You’ll want a 30L pack minimum for multi-day trips but not more than 50L unless you’re mountaineering or winter camping.
The Nuts and Bolts
There an absolutely dizzying array of backpacks out there. The only major differences are weight, stitching quality, comfort/fit, and compartments. There are internal frame and external frame. External frame packs are a relic of a bygone era. Don’t buy one. Period.
For me, the biggest factor when choosing a pack is the weight of the pack itself. If the backpack weighs 6lbs or more, it’s too heavy. Most of the major pack brands all have similar quality unless you get a lemon. Don’t let all the crazy straps and webbing freak you out. For the most part, there’s no wrong way to use a backpack, just follow this packing diagram
stick things where they fit, don’t be afraid to stick things on the outside, and be creative!
The size of your pack is usually measured in liters. To give you some idea of how much room you need I use a 30 liter pack for everything from a quick overnighter to a 4-5 day summer backpacking trip and a 50 liter pack for mountaineering.
When fitting a pack, you want to make sure it’s long enough for your spine (I’m fairly tall so this is sometimes difficult for me) and that the hip belt comfortable sits around the top of your hip bones. The weight of the pack should always be on the hip belt. The shoulder straps are just for stability. There’s no substitute for simply going to an outdoor store and trying a few on. See what feels good, and what hits you in the right places. It should be snug at the small of your back and there should be a slight air gap between your shoulder blades. The sternum strap should be right across your nipple line for men, and a little higher for women.
In the end, my biggest piece of advice is to go as light as possible when choosing a pack. This is a commonly overlooked place to save weight, and there’s now more lightweight options than ever before. If you are carrying less than 25 lbs then look for a frameless pack. these use a piece of stiff foam instead of a rigid aluminum frame and are very light. They just can’t carry heavy loads, so if you’ll have more weight, get a pack with a frame!
I use a GoLite pack and I love it. Unfortunately GoLite went out of business recently, but if you’re lucky maybe you can snatch up one of their packs from a used gear sale. Other than that, REI Flashpacks are extremely well designed and probably my second choice. Black Diamond, North Face, Osprey, Gregory, Marmot, and Kelty all make great packs.
Now what about those dorky looking walking sticks that a bunch of people use? What good are trekking poles really?
The Quick and Dirty
Trekking poles help, I recommend them. Buy a pair of Leki or Black Diamond poles, and as always the lighter the better. I prefer aluminum or carbon fiber and the Z-pole design because they break down easily for stowing. Look for cork or foam handles instead of rubber to help reduce blisters.
The Nuts and Bolts
The commonly quoted statistic that I’ve heard is that “trekking poles save you about 30% of their energy expenditure during hiking.”
That’s plain old fashioned horsesh*t. This study shows that using trekking poles actually results in increased overall energy expenditure. So you’ll burn more calories walking the same number of miles using trekking poles. However, the perceived energy usage feels lower because the energy expenditure is spread out across more major muscle groups and not just focused on your legs.
While its true that trekking poles force you to burn more calories, a different study has shown that they can improve muscle function, reduce muscle fatigue, and decrease soreness and result in a faster recovery time. I use trekking poles 100% of the time when hiking. I’m a 6’3″ 220 lb man and walking down hill for long periods of time destroys my knees without trekking poles to take some of the strain. They are also excellent ways to maintain balance during log crossings, and can double as your tent poles if you use a trekking pole tent as discussed in Part 3 of this series.
Trekking poles are a personal choice and certainly not cheap, but even if you hate the idea, just borrow some from a friend and try them once before choosing to go with or without. I’ve had most people go “oh wow these actually help a lot!” when trying poles for the first time.
My only advice on choosing poles is go as light as possible and get cork or foam handles, not rubber otherwise you’ll be fighting blisters on your thumbs. The choice between collapsible and fixed length poles is really a matter of personal preference except that fixed length poles tend to be slightly lighter, but they are also impossible to stow in your pack. I use collapsible poles for convenience and they are still fairly light. I like Leki, Black Diamond, and Kelty the best of all the poles I’ve tried.
That’s it for Part 5 backpackers! In Part 6 I’ll discuss the sundries of backpacking, all the little clutter that fills the voids between large items in your pack. Until next time,