How to Build a Camping Sleep System

Camping & Hiking expert Ronnie Silveira Jr. breaks down everything you need to know to have a great night's sleep under the stars.

Photo courtesy of Deuter USA

Many a night I have drifted off into a peaceful slumber, surrounded by the vastness that is the wild frontier. Nonetheless, I have equally come toe to toe with insomnia caused by the same force that comforts me. Thoughts of a picturesque open landscape surrounded by stars and forest, appear on the surface to be a catalyst for better sleep and comfort. However, when pursuing such a tranquil feat, one must be fully prepared to face the elements; lest relaxation and relief be sacrificed.

What type of preparation, you ask? In simple terms, a sleep system. The perfect combination of sleepytime tools that will allow you to drift off peacefully without needing a hypnotist on the trail or a chiropractor when coming home. In order to achieve the deep sleep we all so desperately need, we will be focusing on how to build a camping sleep system, what it entails, and how to make the most of it. Stay tuned, your body will thank you.

What Is a Sleep System?

I’m fairly certain that a few of you out there are wondering what on earth a sleep system actually is. No reason to be bashful. The definition varies from person to person and manufacturer to manufacturer. The term also directly applies to how you kick off your shoes and relax your feet. Hammock enthusiasts will have a completely different setup in mind opposed to tent dwellers.

At its core, the common denominator consists of a good old fashioned sleeping bag accompanied by a type of sleeping platform or structure. We all know what a sleeping bag is, but a sleeping structure? If you sleep in a bed, you sleep in a structure or platform—different lingo, same concept. I think we can all relate to wanting that Four Seasons cushy mattress experience while resting in the backcountry. However, no one wants to lug around a Sleep Number bed and memory foam pillows while gallivanting on the trail.

Whatever suits your fancy, you need to ensure that certain objectives are achieved. A focus on warmth is highly desirable. The ability to impede moisture is equally advantageous. A durable and lightweight product should also be taken into consideration before making a decision. Remember, the quality of your sleep is at the mercy of how you choose your gear. Your selection will make a big difference.

A sleeping bag next to a tent on an overlook with the sun setting in the background
Photo by Jack Sloop

Papa’s Got a Brand New Sleeping Bag

First thing’s first. You need a great bag. It’s common to assume that a bag is a bag. Au contraire, there’s a whole cornucopia of sleeping bag options out there. Mummy bags, double bags, rectangular bags, semi-rectangular bags, synthetic insulation, and down insulation. There are summer bags, winter bags and three-season bags. Don’t even get me started with the zipper options. Which one is great? All of them. Which one is great for you? Now that is the million dollar question.

Two campers pulling sleeping bags and sleeping pads out of their packs next to an orange tent
Photo courtesy of Deuter USA

It Ain’t Heavy, It’s My Brother

In order to save your back, it is strongly suggested that you consider the weight of your sleeping bag. It may not be that big of a deal in the beginning. Especially, if you are still wet behind the ears. However, in time your knees will remind you otherwise and your back will be more than happy to agree with them. The importance of a bag’s weight may seem miniscule in comparison to your other gear. Don’t be fooled. When packed and carried, that insignificant amount may suddenly seem like an albatross.

Insulation is a major factor when evaluating sleeping bag weight. Obviously, you don’t want to choose the lightest option before considering what the climate is like. That’s where insulation comes in. It’s incredibly difficult to brag about your lightweight sleeping bag as you shiver uncontrollably.

Insulation typically falls into two categories: down versus synthetic. Down can be pricey, but it’s worth the bang for the buck. If you are in need of something compressible, lightweight with varying levels of toastiness, you should be down with the down, that is, if rain isn’t in the forecast. If there is thunder on the horizon and you are not protected, that comfy down might turn into a wet sock. Enter, synthetic.

Synthetic sleeping bags come in various forms in regards to insulation material. Commonly, the material of choice is polyester. To be clear, this isn’t a sleeping bag made of a suit your grandpa used to wear at the disco. We’re talking fluffy polyester that repels water. It not only will keep you drier if the occasion arises, but it also will be kind to your wallet. There is a definite price difference when considering the pros and cons of synthetic versus down. On the flip side, these puppies can be heavier and bulkier when evaluating everything you plan on packing. Regardless of which direction you move towards, make sure it’s the one that meets your needs. You don’t want a bad call to put a damper on your trip. When in doubt, buy both of them.

Shape Up or Ship Out

In order to not wake up on the wrong side of the bed, we need to chat about sleeping bag shapes. There are a plethora of factors that go into shape consideration. If you are a toss and turn type of person, sleeping like King Tut might not be your cup of tea. Pass on the mummy bag. If having a snuggle fest is on the menu, consider a rectangular double bag or bags that will daisy chain together for your plus one. An alternative cut might be beneficial for those of us who are broad or have wider hips. All of these things are important to consider. Different positions, the size of the human body, and the optimal temperature needed to get those Z’s will all play a role in how to gain comfortable sleep and maintain it.

A light illuminating a bright green tent from within. The tent is set up on the snow, the night sky and brightly lit city in the valley in the distance
Photo by Sam Marx

Go to the Mattresses

The time has come to go to the mattresses. Despite its mafioso meaning, a person needs to prepare for battle when entering no-man’s land as well. Having a stellar sleeping bag is a far cry from the level of readiness needed to survive inclimate weather. It’s also worth mentioning that the ground is hard. As hard as the terrain may be, it is equally chilly. Nature will not be serving up hot plates for you to rest upon. If you are pursuing the perfect balance of comfort and warmth when squaring off with ground temperatures, you will need to strongly consider a pad.

There are three types of sleeping pads. The first would be air pads. If you are looking for something lightweight and comfortable, these are definitely worth taking a gander. Beware, they can easily be punctured by man’s best friend or the garden variety stake you have been using. Additionally, it is worth noting that outside temperature shifts will directly impact the firmness of your mattress. If you choose to go this route, make sure you have packed a repair kit.

The second option is known as a self inflating pad. These are a mashup of air and foam insulation. In regards to durability, they give a bit more protection than the run of the mill air pad. However, they are far from indestructible. Your field kit will come in handy if a tear occurs on the journey, similar to option numero uno. These beauties fold and roll up in an efficient way. Yet, they are a bit bulkier than their air pad cousins.

The last option falls into the closed cell foam category. Filled with dense foam, they allow quite a bit of insulation regardless of climate. The biggest drawback is their stiffness—stiff enough to prevent a puncture, rigid enough that your back will be none too pleased. Due to the rigidity, a camper cannot roll it up and be on their way, which may be a dealbreaker for some. Anyone interested in utilizing this piece of gear would need to carry it outside of their pack. In any case, you need to ensure your sleeping pad choice accurately reflects your needs and environmental conditions.

Two hikers napping on a rock in the mountains with their hat over their face
Photo by Kal Visuals

Bare Accessories

So, you have a fantastic sleeping bag. You managed to score an excellent inflatable pad that you are truly stoked about. You may have even doubled up on sleeping pads to boost your comfort layers. The whole point was to live the sweet life, right? Now is the time to take your basic sleep system to the next level. I’m talking about accessories.

Accessories may seem extravagant when roughing it. However, it’s occasionally nice to treat yourself when out in the woods. Not everything has to have all of the bells and whistles. But, the little things matter. You might want to invest in a mattress topper, unless you are a fan of bugs and dust mites. That inflatable pillow might just help stave off your excessive snoring. Like I said, the little things. The point is to relax and have fun. You don’t need to prove anything to anyone. Consider it. You can thank me later.

Final Thoughts

As you know by now, sleeping in the dirt may not be as simple as it seems. However, I am confident that a person who is committed to building their sleep system with laser-like precision will have a rewarding experience, perfectly balanced with counting sheep. If you have any questions about finding the right gear for unlocking restful sleep on your next adventure, chat with me or one of my fellow experts here on Curated for free advice and recommendations. Until next time, stay outdoorsy my friends.

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Written By
Outdoorsman, Backwoods Foodie, Family Man and Destination Event Planner ​ I have been an avid backpacker all of my life. As a child, I grew up on a ranch in Northern California, surrounded by nature. I come from a family of outdoor enthusiasts. Whether it was hiking in Utah, hunting in Arizona or sw...

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