AT Backpacking Gear: Sleep System

I’m preparing for an Appalachian Trail thru-hike next year. In addition to physical and mental preparation, I’m working through what gear to carry. My goal is to have less than 25 total pounds for a week’s hike, including food, water and fuel. One of the key items is the sleep system, since getting a good night’s rest is paramount. Hiking for 6 months across the eastern United States is hard, physical labor and you can’t do it on a couple hours of fitful sleep. As I’ve said before, the weight of your pack is all about what you are afraid of. My biggest fear is being wet and cold and freezing to death, so it’s not surprising that this category is a heavy one, over 4 pounds.

Sleep system

  • Sleeping bag: Big Agnes, Juniper SL 25F, Petite, 34 ounces   $224
  • Silk liner: 5 ounces  $70
  • Sleeping Pad: Big Agnes, Insulated Air Core, rectangular, 20×66, 22 ounces    $85 (THIS ITEM HAS CHANGED. I NOW USE THE Therm-a-Rest ProLite Plus Sleeping Pad, R, 20×72 AT 16 OUNCES)
  • Bivy SOL Emergency Bivy 4 ounces    $17 (NOTE: After a November shake down hike, I ditched this item. With a better tent, I didn’t need it)
  • Pillow Cocoon Hyperlight Air-Core Travel Pillow 3 ounces $30

Sleeping Bf96e7781-662c-483e-96db-d0b603c854afag

I chose a down bag to keep the weight-to-warm ratio high. I upgraded from my Mountainsmith Vision 15F bag (under 2 pounds) because of moisture. The down feathers and the outer cover of the Big Agnes bag are treated to repel water. That adds weight, but a wet bag is worse than useless—it’s heavy and it won’t keep you warm. I also plan to carry the bag loosely in a trash compactor bag inside my pack, rather than forced into a stuff sack. It’s been my experience that I’m colder each successive night of a long hiking trip. I theorize that the loss of loft in the bag is a big part of this issue. It’s the trapped air inside the loft that keeps you warm. If you keep crushing it into a tiny stuff sack the bag simply traps less air.

78536664-aeb1-4bd5-bec2-e0089996a351Silk liner

A silk liner will add 8-10 degrees Fahrenheit on a cold night. And it can keep your bag cleaner, reducing the number of washings (since that will eventually wear off the anti-water treatment). Wear it on the inside to protect your bag from your dirty clothes and body. Wear it outside your bag to protect it from the surroundings (like at a hostel). And in the summer I can use it as a light sleeping cover. This is an item I’ve had for years. Personally, I slip the silk liner over the outside of my bag because it don’t lose it in the dark recesses of the bag. I’ll also slip the foot of my sleeping bag into my backpack (and the trash bag liner) if my feet are still cold. I also keep an extra fluffy pair of socks just for sleeping in and will add my coat, gloves and hat if I need it.)

aa544dd6-8600-4cb8-8c96-b7f06ce7df1dSleeping Pad

This is an area that I could cut some weight on, but at least for the colder parts of the hike, I want the comfort and warmth of a full length air mattress. I sleep cold. The Big Agnes pad gives me some reflective heat AND it will insulate me from the ground. Plus it’s long and wide enough that I won’t have any part of my body on the cold, hard and possibly wet ground. I can switch to a closed cell foam to reduce weight. This pad replaces an older model Therm-a-Rest, which has served me well, but weights too much.

As an aside, I gave the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm Sleeping Pad a very serious look. Though horribly expensive (about $200) they weigh less than a pound and have a shiny, space blanket material inside to reflect back your body heat. But honestly I rejected it because of noise. I don’t want to hear it every time I move. It would be like sleeping on a bag of potato chips. And it looks fragile.

(THIS ITEM HAS CHANGED. I’VE REPLACED THIS WITH THE Therm-a-Rest ProLite Plus Sleeping Pad, R, 20×72 AT 16 OUNCES. Part of the change was weight, but also the amount of time/energy it took to blow up the mattress. The Therm-a-rest is partially self inflating.)

78a4e9f7-6941-4b4c-b066-dc3bc06f2b33Bivy (NOTE: After a November shake down hike, I ditched this item. With a better tent, I didn’t need it. If I were starting my hike in early March or–heaven forbid–February, I’d carry it.)

I’ve had the SOL Emergency Bivy in the trunk of my car for months and I’ve carried it once or twice on a trip, but I hadn’t even unrolled it from the tiny stuff sack until my last trip. At 4 ounces and $17, it’s surprising how nice this is. Totally reflective inside to trap heat so it might add up to 10 degrees F on a cold night. But the material is both tough and stretchy so it doesn’t tear like an emergency space blanket. It’s large enough to fit my sleeping bag, sleeping pad and me inside. And it doubles as a ground cloth. That’s a lot for 4 ounces. I’ll destroy it within a couple months of hiking, but by then it will be warm weather and I won’t need it. And they’re cheap to replace. Most bivys are $150+. Even the SOL Escape Bivy is $50 and double the weight. It’s possible that I don’t need both the bivy and the liner. I certainly won’t need this item in summer.

0cb41cb8-687d-4efc-9a32-36e629397611Call me a wimp….

..but I need a pillow. Lately, I’ve been carrying my clothing in a stuff sack that has a silky feel on one side and a brushed surface on the other (fairly heavy for a stuff sack). I’ve used it as a pillow by stuffing extra clothing into it. That works as long as you have extra clothing to put into it. But the essence of Ultralight backpacking is to avoid  “extra” weight. I’ve just added the Cocoon Hyperlight Air-Core Travel Pillow to improve my sleep. I’ve ditched the stuff sack and will just keep it inside my sleeping bag. According to the advert, it weights 2.4 ounces. My scale says it’s 3 without the stuff sack. Grrrrrr


(With changes, this category now includes a Therm-a-Rest Stuff Sack Pillow, rust at 2 ounces. The total weight is now 60 ounces)

June backpack: Testing new gear and methods under the super moon


Isn't this quite the view? This is what I saw outside my tent this weekend along the AT, in the Blood Mountain Wilderness.
Isn’t this quite the view? This is what I saw outside my tent this weekend along the AT, in the Blood Mountain Wilderness.

I’m preparing my gear and my body for a thru hike of the Appalachian Trail. Right now, I’m fairly obsessed with gear and the weight of everything I’m carrying. As part of this effort, I’m going on a weekend backpack monthly to check out new gear and techniques.

AT hike June 2013, 3This trip I was checking out my new backpack, sleeping bag, sleeping pad and—most importantly—my new tent. I’d timed the hike to coincide with the beginning of Summer and that “Super Moon” that’s been all over the internet. Bonus!

I went hiking last weekend in the Blood Mountain Wilderness area and had a particular spot in mind. The exposed rock outcropping at the top of a mountain gave me a good view and I thought it’d be the best test of the tent if it got windy or started to rain (it didn’t).

Overall experience

The site I picked is about 3 miles from where I park the car, mostly straight up a mountain. I’m in better shape than a month ago when I hiked this same mountain. Plus I’ve dropped my pack weight by almost 5 pounds. Those changes really made a difference. And the moon was lovely! The breezy spot kept down the mosquitos, but the tiny flies were pretty bad. I had to resort to bug spray. Never seen so many Daddy Long Legs, though. And they were really attracted to my tent.

New backpack, sleeping bag, pad and tarptent.
New backpack, sleeping bag, pad and tarptent.

New Gear

The Contrail TarpTent replaces my beloved Hennessey Hammock. With extra-large rain fly, two sets of Snake Skins and Four Season Insulation System, the Hennessy tops out above 4 pounds. I’ve spent a fortune on this system and I’m loath to abandon it, but I must be practical. A tarp tent will almost always weight less than a hammock system made for outdoor camping, and the Hennessey is the top of the line. But the real problem with a hammock is not just the weight of the system. The problem is that you end up carrying redundant gear. I still have to carry a pad and ground cloth for nights I stay in an AT shelter, which I expect to be more than half the time. I also carry tent stakes to convert the tarp into a tent, in the event there are no trees or the weather is just too cold and windy. I hate carrying redundant gear and frankly my body can’t take it. I’ve done a full review of the Contrail, for geeks who care.

Also new this trip is a sleeping pad (Big Agnes, Insulated Air Core, rectangular, 20×66, weight 22 ounces) and bag (Big Agnes, Juniper SL 25F, Petite Rated to 26F for Women, weight 34 ounces). The pad slept comfortably and the bag seemed fine, though late June doesn’t give a real test of the warmth of the bag. I can say that the down bag did NOT soak up the moisture of the air like my existing down bag, which weighed about the same and packs smaller. The Big Agnes is treated to reduce moisture and I think it’s worth the investment. A wet down bag is worse than none at all.

Finally, I’ve got a new backpack, the GoLite 70L. It’s probably bigger than I need and I’ll detail it in another post.

Hiking means enjoying the things you see along the way, like this Indian Pipe.
Hiking means enjoying the things you see along the way, like this Indian Pipe.

What I didn’t carry/replaced

What you leave behind matters too, since Ultralight backpacking is all about taking only what you need. I didn’t carry my MSR Sweet Water filter pump, opting only for a liquid water treatment to kill virus/parasites/bacteria (saving another pound). And I’m using an emergency bivy by SOL to double as a ground cloth (saving a couple ounces).

I also left my fancy water bottles at home (6 ounces each), opting for two, one-liter soda bottles (one ounce each). That’s a total savings of 10 ounces.

Finally, I ditched my pack cover (4ounces). It won’t keep your stuff dry in a downpour. Instead I’ve gone to a simple, white Glad trash compactor bag (1 ounce). If it has to stay dry it goes inside the bag. Total weight savings, 3 ounces.

Another view of the Super Moon, roughly 14% larger than usual and as close as it will get to us over a year.
Another view of the Super Moon, roughly 14% larger than usual and as close as it will get to us over a year.

New Techniques

It’s important to try something new with each hike. In addition to gear I tried these new things.

Pillow: Call me a wimp if you want but I need pillow to sleep well. The usual answer is to stuff extra clothing into a stuff sack. That’s fine IF you have a lot of extra clothing and an extra stuff sack. With Ultralight camping, you don’t have extra anything. What I tried was inflating plastic Ziploc baggies about half way with air and putting them in a stuff sack. It didn’t work for me. They were flat in minutes. Back to the drawing board.

Bear Bag Hanging System: I hang my food well away from my tent at night and don’t cook near the place I plan to sleep. This keeps down all critters, but especially bear. I’ve got a terrible throwing arm, so I’ve focused on just getting foodstuffs away from me. But I have to improve this method. I used a system from Mike Clelland’s book and it worked really well. It’s outlined here, and it’s the PCT method. Easy, lightweight. The drawing in Mike’s book is better than the photos, however.

One less stuff sack: It isn’t really the sleeping bag that keeps you warm. It’s the trapped air. Every time you stuff a sleeping bag into a tiny stuff sack you force the loft down. It may or may not come back. So I’m just putting my sleeping bag into the trash compactor bag loosely. I’ve got a pack with large volume and now that I carry less, I don’t have to worry about everything being forced into such a small space. I think allowing the bag to stay fluffy means it will keep me warmer. This wasn’t the trip to test that theory since June is warm, but I can say that I have enough room to do this.