What is a Backpacking Sleep System?

What is a Backpacking Sleep System?

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 gear list and provides the best bang for the buck in terms of gear weight reduction if you want to lighten your backpack. 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.

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

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

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 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 the face and head to your sleep system.

A down jacket is often used in conjunction with a quilt to add head and torso warmth.
A down jacket is often used in conjunction with a quilt to add head and torso warmth.

If you sleep 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
Most hammockers prefer using a top quilt and an under quilt instead of a sleeping bag and sleeping pad
Most hammockers prefer using a top quilt and an under quilt instead of a sleeping bag and sleeping pad

Sleep System for Hammock Based Camping

Most 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

More Frequently Asked Questions

About the author

Philip Werner has hiked and backpacked over 7500 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 2500 articles as the founder of SectionHiker.com, noted for its backpacking gear reviews and hiking FAQs. A devotee of New Hampshire and Maine hiking and backpacking, Philip is the 36th person to hike all 650 of the hiking trails in the White Mountain Guide and is 98% of the way through a second round. Philip is the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook of the best backpacking trips in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. He lives in New Hampshire.


  1. You’re just scratching the surface with this article; I’d love for you to expand it into an explanation of what I’d call system-based thinking: sleep system, shelter system, and all the others you mentioned. I love nerding out on pieces like this, so much more meaty than just gear reviews. Not that there’s anything wrong with a detailed gear review, but systems thinking shows how gear works in context. Good stuff.

    • There’s obviously a series in the works. I prefer chunking these into smaller digestible articles rather than a book which no one will read.

  2. Good info. I use a ZenBivy quilt system and one of the features I like is the insulated hood. I think it has the best of both a mummy bag and a quilt. I would add gloves to your list during the colder seasons. I have a light pair of fleece gloves just for sleeping; for the same reasons one takes a pair of socks dedicated to sleeping.

    • I bought a ZenBivy a while back – right before they came out with the ZenBivy Light – and I really love mine. I sleep in a hammock, and it’s taken some finagling to make it work. (I can’t seem to keep the bottom sheet in place.) I bought a 1/8″ foam pad from Gossamer Gear late last fall, and I’m hopeful that’s the missing piece to make it all work. I’m hankerin’ to get outside & give it all a try, but alas my boss has imposed a limit of 50 miles of travel or we have to self-quarantine (and use our leave time) and all the State and most federal land around me is closed to recreation.

      I just took advantage of a good discount and bought the ZenBivy Light mattress for those times when I’m headed to an area with no trees.

  3. To me a good “Sleep System” is:
    1. comfortable
    2, as light as possible
    3. versatile

    1. REi FLASH Insulates mattress (15 oz. R 3.7) and Western Mountaineering Megalite down bag
    2. See above. WM Megalite is factory overstuffed to 20 F.
    3. HOT NIGHTS- bag fully unzipped and used as a quilt COLD NIGHTS- bag fully closed, fleece balaclava, puffy clothes worn if needed. Works to 10 F.

  4. CAPT Gary Andres USN ret

    Phillip, especially now while we are all practicing self-quarantine, social distancing, and whatever God else has come of this pandemic, I can’t tell you how much I enjoy your newsletter. Something else to include in a sleep system….depending on season or expected temperatures….is a quality sleeping bag liner, which in summer months can be used alone, but also protects a sleeping bag from the day’s filth, and in colder seasons, can increase the bag’s temperature rating. Again…..a unique, quality, value-added article. Please take care of yourself……and keep on walking……second star to the right!

  5. Great article. Planning planning planning

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