When you hear the term “backpacking”, many images come to mind: snow-capped peaks, pristine alpine lakes, and, of course, a starry night sky. One thing that many people don’t think of is where they will sleep while they’re backpacking – or, at least, I didn’t think about that when I first started backpacking.
If you’re a bit like me, wondering where exactly you’ll sleep, what you’ll sleep in, and whether or not you’ll like it, this short guide is for you.
Sleeping While Backpacking: An Overview
Backpacking sounds amazing to most people who’ve never done it. Amazing, that is, until you start to think about where and how you will sleep while on a backpacking trip. All sorts of questions start to pop up:
- Am I going to sleep on the cold, hard ground?
- Is it possible to stuff a battery-powered air mattress into my pack?
- Where am I going to poop at 3 AM when the Chili Mac I had for dinner hits harder than expected?
- Can a breathable nylon tent really stop the rain?
The good news is that each and every year, backpacking gear technology improves, which means that sleeping on a trip becomes a bit easier and more comfortable, too. You’ll most likely be sleeping in a small but cozy tent, using a sleeping bag that feels like a blanket straight out of the dryer, on top of a sleeping pad that makes you almost forget you’re only a couple of inches away from the dirt.
Sleeping while backpacking isn’t the worst, but I’d be lying if I said I got the same quality of sleep on a backpacking trip as I do when I’m in my own bed. That said, if you spend your money wisely, and set your expectations appropriately, sleeping when backpacking is pretty great.
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Where Do You Sleep When Backpacking?
Backpackers usually sleep in tents, but they do so in a variety of different places. From region to region and trail to trail, there are many different types of places to make camp. In the US, the most common site is simply called a “backcountry camp” or “primitive camp”. Here’s a list of different places you’ll find yourself sleeping over a lifetime of backpacking:
- Backcountry campsites: In many national parks and forests, backpacking trails will be dotted with campsites that, while they don’t have running water and electricity, are well-maintained and often have pit toilets. Pictured above is one such campsite that I slept at in North Cascades National Park.
- Frontcountry campgrounds: These are places where you’ll be mixing with RVers, Van Life kids, and other drive-up campers. You’ll have running water and hot showers, and some sites at these campgrounds even have electricity. Typically, you’ll only stay at one of these campgrounds at the beginning or end of a backpacking trip; thru-hikers may encounter them more.
- On a patch of ground: When you get further away from civilization, it becomes more likely that there won’t even be a designated place for camping at all, and you’ll be picking a piece of random, suitable earth on which to make camp. This is more common in wilderness areas and in the western US, where you can get really, really far out.
- Mountain huts and lean-tos: Europe is covered in gorgeous mountain huts, providing backpackers and mountaineers a respite from the wind and rain that can rage at high altitudes. It’s less common in North America, but there are still a decent number of huts and lean-to’s (a structure with three walls and a roof) around.
So far, I’ve only slept in backcountry campsites and established campgrounds. I’ve got a few trips in mind, though, that’ll have me further out than even those sparse accommodations extend.
Sleep System: What You Need for a Good Night’s Rest
There’s only one thing that’s just as important as food and water on a backpacking trip: a sleep system. The better you sleep, the better each following day will be. Not being prepared to rest and recover from long days and high mileage is a great way to ensure you’ll hate just about everything by the time you make it back to your car. A sleep-deprived backpacker is a grumpy (and sometimes unsafe) backpacker, which is what makes this part of your backpacking gear arsenal so crucial.
The term “sleep system” seems kinda hardcore, but that’s for a reason – unless you truly do have a system of equipment to keep you warm and comfortable at night, you’re going to be lucky to get 3 hours of good sleep.
With a well-planned sleep system, you’ll be able to get at least 5 or so hours of solid sleep, even if conditions aren’t ideal. What do you need in your sleep system? You can get a lot more complex than this, but the following three items should be part of every sleep system: a sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and pillow.
1. Sleeping Bag
What it is:
A zip-up sleeping bag, typically filled with goose down or a synthetic approximation. Most backpackers use “mummy”-style sleeping bags that surround your head as you sleep, trapping in warmth and providing a little more comfort for your head and neck.
What it does:
The sleeping bag’s primary job is to keep you warm. They usually aren’t waterproof, even if they are water-resistant, and they definitely don’t provide any sort of padding to soften the hard ground beneath you.
How to choose one:
There are two main considerations when choosing a sleeping bag: pack size and fill power. Pack size is pretty straightforward: the smaller your sleeping bag is in your pack, the more room you have for food, clothing, and other gear.
Fill power is a measurement of, for lack of a better scientific term, how stuffed the sleeping bag is. The more down/synthetic material inside the sleeping bag, the higher the “fill power” and the warmer the sleeping bag. But, with higher fill power numbers comes a higher price tag and often a bulkier sleeping bag.
Sleeping bags also list a temperature rating, but those ratings (in my opinion) are kind of a waste, because they don’t often tell you much other than how cold it can get before you die. Even when a sleeping bag goes more into detail, there are so many variables to sleep comfort that going by rating alone is useless.
2. Sleeping Pad
What it is:
Sleeping pads are your backcountry mattress. There are two types of sleeping pads: closed-cell foam pads that fold up like an accordion, and inflatable sleeping pads like the Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad pictured above.
What it does:
A sleeping pad has two jobs: insulation against the cold ground which can suck all your body heat away, and padding/comfort. Sleeping pads are usually measured by their R-value, a specification that tells you how well a product traps heat. The higher the R-value, the better the sleeping pad will be at keeping you warm.
How to choose one:
Most of the time, it’s hard to go wrong when buying a sleeping pad from a trusted retailer. The only thing you really need to pay attention to is R-value. If you’re going to be backpacking where nighttime temperatures get below 40 Fahreinheit, I recommend a sleeping pad with an R-value of 4 or higher. If not, a lower R-value is fine. Backpacking in sub-freezing temps requires a sleeping pad with an R-value above 6, like the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm, which has an R-value of 6.9 and a price tag that matches it.
3. Backpacking Pillow
What it is:
A pillow, but one that packs up small enough so as not to dominate the available space in your pack. Backpacking pillows are usually inflatable or made from squishable foam; when packed, they have a volume roughly equivalent to a can of soup.
What it does:
You know you have a perfect backpacking pillow when it does two things:
- Provides comfort enough that you can fall asleep at night
- Stays out of the way otherwise
How to choose one:
The best way to choose a backpacking pillow is to simply start testing them. I wish I’d tested my current pillow first, because I’m not a big fan of it at all. Try to find something that your head and neck don’t hate – that’s the main consideration here.
Next: An average backpacker’s advice on staying safe
Your Sleep System should be small enough to fit in your pack
The weight of your sleep system is one thing; if it’s too heavy, the only consequence is that you’ll be more tired after each day of hiking. What’s more important is having a sleep system that fits in your backpack. Here’s a photo of my sleep system (tent excluded), packed down:
As you can see, my sleep system isn’t the smallest in the world, but it’s certainly small enough to fit in my pack. It helps that I purposefully bought a larger pack to make sure I wouldn’t accidentally run out of room; you can do the same, too, as long as you’re comfortable with the added weight that bigger equipment brings.
Backpacking Sleeping Accommodation: Tents, Hammocks, and… Tarps?
We’ve covered where you sleep when backpacking, and what you need to have a good’s night’s sleep when backpacking. Now, let’s spend a minute or two talking about what you will be sleeping in:
This is far and away the most common type of lodging for backpackers. Like other equipment, backpacking tents aren’t really that different than normal camping tents. The main difference is that they’re designed to be very light and to have a low packed volume.
Whereas most camping tents are sold in bulky bags, backpacking tents are typically small enough that you can fit all the components into a shoebox. They’re easiest to pack by separating the components; tent body inside the pack, poles strapped to the outside, rainfly and footprint tucked in a pocket here or there.
There’s really not that much difference between sleeping in a backpacking tent and sleeping in other tents – they’re just a little smaller. I use a tent that’s on the cheaper side, and, other than not being able to handle heavy rain, is just as good as a $400+ Nemo tent.
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In the last 7 or 8 years, hammocks have exploded in popularity for all types of outdoor lovers, backpackers included. Lightweight hammocks that are easy to set up are by nature perfect for backpacking, because they meet the two requirements backpackers have for their sleep system: effectiveness and packability.
Hammock camping isn’t all that different than tent camping, except for one thing: how incredibly easy it is to find two suitable trees. Hammock camping gives you the ability to sleep practically anywhere without disturbing or damaging the environment you’re in. This convenience and lack of impact on nature convinces thousands of backpackers to ditch their tent every year.
Hammock-based sleeping requires more than just a hammock, however. If there’s going to be rain, you’ll need to bring a tarp or rainfly. And, you’ll still need a sleeping bag and sleeping pad if you want to get anything close to a truly refreshing night of sleep.
Some backpackers simply put their sleeping pad in the bottom of the hammock, slip into their sleeping bag, and doze off. Others purchase special hammock camping equipment, like underquilts that surround both you and your hammock in incredible warmth. Either way, hammock camping is a terrific alternative to using a tent, provided you’ve got what you need to stay warm and comfortable.
Bivy/Simple Tent Backpacking
Ultralight backpackers and those who prefer the feeling of “roughing it” will often forgo even the paltry comfort of a backpacking tent. Instead, they’ll use extremely light (and cramped) tents that are pitched with their trekking poles. These tents save weight, allowing the user to carry more water and food while moving faster.
Bivy sacks are basically sleeping bags that function as a shelter. They’re waterproof, incredibly well insulated, and they can meet all the basic requirements you have for sleeping… barely. While some people love the minimalistic feeling of sleeping in a bivy sack, most adoptees will readily admit that they aren’t very comfortable.
Can you Sleep Directly Under the Stars?
This is one of the things you’ll covet most when you get really into backpacking: that picture-perfect night under the stars, not a cloud in sight. One of those nights where you can just leave the tent in your bag and sleep without it, trying to soak in the Milky Way as you pass out.
Unfortunately, nights like those are rare. Whether it’s
- or bugs,
… there’s almost always something that’ll get in the way. In the Western US, those nights are relatively easy to find in the summer. Those of us in the Midwest and on the East Coast need a fair bit of luck, however, to get a perfectly starry night.
All that to say, consider these nights bucket list events, not hard set expectations, and you won’t risk disappointment. It’s just usually not a good idea to sleep under the stars if you can’t cover up/get warm quickly.
Not really. Camping tents aren’t designed to fit in a backpack, and they can be pretty heavy. While you might be able to stuff one in your pack, it’s not going to be a very good time.
I always bring one, but there’s no written rule about it. If you think you’d be more comfortable using your arm or a hoodie as a pillow, that’s all you!
Probably, although you never have to rule out an item simply because of its weight. More weight just means that you’re going to be using more energy as you hike. That’s a trade-off that you’ll have to contend with, but a 3 pound sleeping bag isn’t a hard “no”. If you want to learn more, read my guide to base weights when backpacking here.
Packing a backpack can be tricky, but the placement of the sleeping bag inside your pack isn’t. In almost every situation, your sleeping bag will be at the very bottom of your pack, which helps reduce pressuer on your back and hips.