Backpacking Sleep Systems for Tents, Tarps, and Hammocks

Backpacking Sleep Systems

A backpacking sleep system refers to the collection of gear and clothing used for sleeping in camp. It’s called a system because the items have to work together and complement one another to perform a common function. For example, a sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and a pillow are all common components of a sleep system.

A backpacking sleep system is also one of the Big Three:

  1. Backpack and Packing System
  2. Shelter System
  3. Sleep System

The gear in these categories is usually the heaviest stuff on your backpacking gear list and provides the best bang for the buck in terms of gear weight reduction if you want to lighten your load. There are additional systems that backpackers use to categorize gear including a Clothing System, Electronics and Navigation, Health and Hygiene, Cooking System, and so on.

Multi-Function Gear

It’s important to understand that a single piece of backpacking gear or clothing might have multiple functions and be part of multiple gear systems. For example, the plastic bag that you use as a waterproof pack liner can also be used as a bivy sack to protect your sleeping bag from rain/wind/condensation or as a poncho in an emergency.

There will also be some dependencies between different gear systems, especially between a shelter system and a sleep system. For instance, most people who sleep in a hammock prefer a top quilt and bottom quilt for sleep insulation instead of a sleeping bag and inflatable pad because they’re easier to use.

Example Sleep Systems

Here are three sample sleep systems: one each for tent camping, tarp camping, and hammock camping.

Sleep System for Tent-based Camping

A tent sleep system can be as simple as a sleeping bag, pad, and sleep clothing.
A tent sleep system can be as simple as a sleeping bag, pad, and sleep clothing.

If you camp in a tent, you’re likely to have a pretty basic sleep system with a sleeping bag or top quilt, perhaps a pillow, a warm hat, and sleeping clothes. The temperature ratings of most sleeping bags and quilts also assume you’re wearing clothing and a hat which is one reason to wear them if you sleep cold, although they can also be used as warm backup clothing in a Clothing System.

  • Sleeping bag or top quilt and pad attachment straps
  • Sleeping pad
  • Pillow
  • Fleece hat
  • Long sleeve shirt
  • Long underwear bottoms
  • Dry Socks

Sleep System for Tarp-based Camping

Sleeping under a tarp, including a mid (pyramid tarp), is usually much more exposed than sleeping in a tent because you have less insect, wind, and rain protection. One way to augment a sleep system for tarp camping to protect yourself against bugs, cold-robbing wind, and rain splashback (under the tarp walls) is to add a sleeping bag cover or ultralight bivy sack with insect netting over your face and head.

An ultralight bivy sack can be hung from a tarp to provide insect, wind, and splashback protection under a tarp.
An ultralight bivy sack can be hung from a tarp to provide insect, wind, and splash-back protection under a tarp.

If you sleep with a quilt, many people also wear an insulated down hoody or hooded jacket to provide their head and shoulders with additional insulation.

  • Bivy sack for added warmth/wind/insect protection
  • Top Quilt
  • Quilt pad attachment system
  • Down insulated hoody
  • Sleeping pad
  • Pillow
  • Fleece hat
  • Long sleeve shirt
  • Long underwear bottoms
  • Dry Socks
  • Earplugs
  • Gloves
  • Headlamp

Sleep System for Hammock-Based Camping

Many hammocking backpackers prefer using a top quilt and an under quilt instead of a sleeping bag and sleeping pad
Many hammocking backpackers prefer using a top quilt and an under quilt instead of a sleeping bag and sleeping pad

Many hammock campers prefer a top quilt and an underquilt instead of a sleeping bag and sleeping bag because they’re less of a struggle to use when you’re not on the ground.

  • Top quilt
  • Underquilt
  • Fleece hat
  • Long sleeve shirt
  • Long underwear bottoms
  • Dry Socks

Alternatively, you can lie on a foam pad in a hammock for insulation to prevent cold-butt syndrome.

More Frequently Asked Questions

10 comments

  1. I eschew tarps and hammocks, having had enough of both in my younger days.
    My 3 season tent is a Tarptent Notch Li.
    My sleep system is an REI Flash insulated (R 3.2) air mattress that weighs exactly 1 pound and an eight year old Western Mountaineering Megalite down mummy, overstuffed to 20 F.
    *An essential part of my sleep system is a light synthetic balaclava or a KUIU Merino light pullover hoody. I need my head covered in temperatures below 60 F.

    • BTW, “sleep socks” are used all the time to keep foot stench out of the bag as much as possible. Long johns are carried when I know temps will be below 40 F. at night.
      Back at home I open the bag to expose the inside to the Nevada sun and then spray it liberally with Fabreze.

  2. Super article as usual. I’m telling you Phil, a good sleep system starts with a nice clean layer that makes nighttime trips quick and easy and one you can adapt to the temperature. It would be so great if you were to seriously consider the Unightie. For Eric B., it has a hood!

  3. Several times we have slept in shelters and so cold, we have put the body of our tent over us. Yes our bags were damp in the am, but better than freezing.

  4. Great article Philip, an item I did not see mentioned was a sleeping bag liner. I tend to rely on my liner heavily to give me added warmth or the opposite, lighter layer on a warmer night. This way I’m able to pack less clothing. There have been times I’ve used my buff and liner as clothing when all my clothes got sopping wet. As mentioned above it essential to multi use items you carry.

    • These are suggested components for sleep systems – everyone has a different way of doing things for their needs. Liners usually weigh more than just getting a warmer bag/quilt although they can save you money if you want to extend the temperature rating without paying significantly extra for a warmer bag/quilt.

  5. I don’t take a sleeping bag. Instead I invest in the weight and cost of custom parka, down pants and booties. Similar weight as a bag, but they do double duty as my in camp warm gear and as my emergency hypothermia avoidance gear. I also add a 6 oz DCF tarp to keep my tent drier, when conditions are very wet, windy or sunny (as more shade). Takes longer to setup but normally one knows when bad weather is imminent and are willing to take the extra setup time. Once spent two days in a tent waiting out a sever higher altitude storm. The tarp converted my light tent into a 4 season version – sure appreciated the double layer above.

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