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Backpacking: How heavy should your sleep system be?

A sleep system – the items you use for sleeping on a backpacking trip – is one of the “Big Three” pieces of backpacking gear you need, alongside your backpack and shelter. Because it’s so important, and because you need several items to complete it, many backpackers worry that their sleep system is too heavy.

So, how much should a sleep system weigh? And, what potential drawbacks are there if yours is too heavy? That’s what this short guide aims to answer.

Backpacking Sleep System: What’s an ideal weight range?

How heavy should a backpacking sleep system be

Your sleep system is an essential, part of the “Big 3” backpacking items that make up the bulk of your base weight. So, you need to know how heavy it should be, and how much weight is too much. The answer to this question depends on a variety of different factors, including:

  • Your body size (bigger bodies = heavier equipment)
  • Your comfort level (you might be fine with a heavier sleep system)
  • Your budget (lighter stuff costs a ton)
  • Your desires (do you want to be as light as possible, or just avoid carrying too much?)

Now, we’ve gotten the obvious part out of the way. I do think there is such a thing as a sleep system that’s too heavy, even though the exact number fluctuates for each person. For today’s purposes, I’ll group everybody into two different groups: traditional backpackers, who aren’t that concerned with weight, and ultralight backpackers, for whom weight matters more than most things.

Sleep system weight for Traditional Backpackers: 4-7 pounds

The three items in your sleep system – sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and pillow – will generally weigh between 4 and 7 pounds, as long as you’ve found decent quality gear.

The heaviest item in your sleep system will be your sleeping bag, which can weigh up to four pounds although they’re typically 3-ish. The second heaviest item is your sleeping pad, which will weigh anywhere from just under 1 pound to just over 2 pounds. Finally, your pillow will weigh anywhere from a couple of ounces (inflatable pillows) to over a pound (heavier foam pillows).

For reference, my sleep system weighs 5.8 pounds; I’m 6’5″ and weigh 270 pounds. My wife’s sleep system weighs 5.6 pounds; she’s a lot smaller than me, but her sleeping bag is heavier.

Most people’s sleep system will weigh just about the same amount. If you have a heavy-duty sleeping bag with an ultra-low temperature rating or a foam pillow, your own sleep system might weigh more.

But, simply by purchasing decent gear that is made for backpacking, your sleep system will usually wind up in the 4-7 pound range. If you accidentally buy gear that’s designed for camping rather than backpacking, you can easily cross 10 pounds.

Ultralight backpacker: Under 4 pounds, with 3 as a target

Okay, now onto the Ultralight adherents: how much should an ultralight sleep system weigh? The simple answer is “as light as humanly possible”; after all, that’s the core of the ultralight backpacking philosophy. But, just to give you some real numbers, a maximum of 4 pounds, with a target of 3 pounds or less, is what you should be aiming for.

Getting your sleep system weight down involves a lot of research and testing. Find a few ultralight sleeping bags, compare their features, and try as many of them as you can. You’ll eventually be able to find the right combo of comfort, functionality, and weight savings.

What happens if your sleep system is too heavy?

Backpacking pack sitting on a hillside

Honestly? Not that much. If your sleep system is a pound or two heavier than it should be, you’re probably not going to suffer that much. However, you should still keep an eye on how much your gear weighs, because gear that’s too heavy can affect your backpacking experience in two ways:

  1. Extra weight = extra energy: the more your backpacking gear weighs, the more energy you’ll spend while hiking. Backpacking can be pretty grueling, so you want to make sure you aren’t wasting calories on heavy equipment when you have a choice in the matter.
  2. More weight = less space: The heavier your backpacking sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and pillow are, the more room they’re likely to take up in your pack. That means less space for clothes, food, survival gear, etc.

How much do sleeping bags weigh? Could your sleeping bag be too heavy?

Let’s skip past the “it depends” part and get right down to it: the average weight of a backpacking sleeping bag designed for three-season use is between 2.5 and 4 pounds. Some bags are lighter, others are heavier, depending on their temperature rating and size. But, generally speaking, that 2.5-4 pound range is what you should expect.

Do you need a sleeping bag liner?

Sleeping bag liners are used to make your sleeping bag warmer and more comfortable. In many cases, they can make your sleeping bag up to 25 degrees warmer! If you’re going backpacking in the cold, you may want to grab a liner to make sure you can sleep soundly through the night.

Sleeping bag liners weigh roughly a pound, which is a big deal for ultralight backpackers but not so much the rest of us. If the trade off for adding a pound to my backpacking base weight is that I sleep better at night, that’s a trade I’ll make every time!

Reasons to upgrade to a lighter sleep system

Backpacking tents pitched in the woods

If you’ve been reading this article, wondering if your sleep system is too heavy, you may be ready for an upgrade. You should measure your base weight and sleep system to figure out whether it’s actually taking up too great a proportion of your base weight before making a decision, though! But, it makes no sense to upgrade to a lighter sleep system simply because other people say lightweight backpacking is better. To be honest, 1-2 pounds isn’t going to make that much of a difference on your experience, but there are a few other reasons you might want to upgrade your backpacking sleep system:

  • More room in your pack: Typically, the sleep system takes up more space in your pack than other categories of gear. Having a smaller sleep system gives you more room for extra food, that heavy jacket you really like, or the luxuries you might otherwise have to leave behind.
  • Lower impact on your joints: Backpacking and hiking are great exercise, but they’re not really gentle on your joints. The less weight you’re carrying, the less wear and tear on your knees, ankles, and hips!
  • Easier to split gear with others: Backpacking in groups invariably means sharing the load. The lighter your pack is, the more you’ll be able to help balance the weight of other people’s packs. For example, if one of the people in your group has a pack weight that’s way too heavy (for whatever reason), you’ll be able to help them out by taking their tent body. Group backpacking means a lot of sacrificing for the good of the group; a light sleep system means you can do more for your buddies!
  • Smug sense of superiority: This is the real reason to upgrade your sleep system. The lighter, cooler, and more expensive it is, the more you’ll get to look down on others (though you’d better keep it 100% to yourself).

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