This month I’ll discuss the last component of the “Big Three” pieces of equipment carried into the field when backpacking. In previous articles, we discussed the backpack and the shelter. These two items combined with a sleeping system make up the “BIG THREE”. The goal is to keep the total weight of these items below six pounds. If you have done your homework on the backpack and shelter, then you have around one to two pounds to work with on your sleeping bag or quilt. If you have chosen a tarp as your primary shelter, you may need to consider some type of ground sheet as a part of the sleeping system. The advantage of a tarp or tarp/tent is the reduced weight over a tent that enables you to develop a sleeping system that may incorporate a few extra ounces while still operating under six pounds total weight. At this point, I should define “Sleeping System”. A sleeping bag or quilt is only one part of the sleeping system. To achieve an ultralight sleeping system requires several components used in conjunction with one another. The concept is to use a sleeping bag or quilt rated for warmer conditions along with insulated underwear and additional clothing items to keep you warm when the temperature drops. A forty degree sleeping bag combined with insulated underwear and a goose down jacket can keep you comfortably warm in temperatures down into the twenties. The key to developing a system that’s going to work for you will require an honest evaluation of your individual physiology. Are you a hot or cold sleeper? If you are a cold sleeper, you just might not ever get to the six pound goal without sacrificing comfort at night. Don’t fret, there are other areas where you can still make up the weight savings.


Very simply, a ground sheet is a thin water resistant sheet the protects you from the wet ground. If you are using a tent or tarp/tent with a sewn-in floor, then an extra ground sheet is usually unnecessary. Most tent manufacturers sell additional “footprints” to protect the tent floor, however, by carefully removing sticks, stones, and other debris from your tent site, you eliminate the need for the extra protection. The product that I have found to be superior for use as a ground sheet is Tyvek. Tyvek is a material developed by Dupont and is used in home construction as a vapor barrier. More information on Tyvek can be found at the following link, You can purchase Tyvek at any store that sells building materials. For best results, after cutting to the proper size for your shelter, run it through a couple of wash cycles in your washing machine. This will soften the material making it easier to fold. There are many other options for ground sheet materials, however, they tend to be either less durable or much heavier.


A sleeping pad is nothing more than insulation between you and the cold hard ground. For me, a thin foam pad is all it takes. For my wife, it’s the second floor of a luxury hotel. If you’re serious about going light, hopefully, you lean toward the thin foam pad end of the spectrum. I actually own two types of sleeping pads. I have a self-inflator that is made by ThermARest. It’s the Prolite 3, 3/4 length.  It weighs in at 13 ounces. Not exactly ultralight, but not too bad. It’s one of the few comfort items that I use on occasion. My main sleeping pad is a 3/4 length RidgeRest that weighs 9 ounces. To insulate my lower legs and feet, I typically use my backpack or a small piece of closed cell foam pad. Either type pad will work, however, the ultralight choice is the non inflating closed cell foam pad.


Mummy style sleeping bags have been the standard for backpacking for many years. Recently, more attention has been given to quilts. There are several companies that sell backpacking quilts that work exceptionally well. The mummy bag and the quilt share one common trait. They both incorporate a foot box into the design. Modern backpacking quilts are best described as a mummy bag that is open down one side. If your mummy bag has a full length zipper, you could try the quilt idea by simply running the zipper down to around 12 inches from the bottom and then draping the bag over you. I have a bag that I use in just this manner. During the summer months this is all I use. The bag is a 12.5 ounce MontBell goose down rated at 50 degrees F. In the spring or late fall, I combine this bag with my other 19 ounce MontBell super stretch #5 that’s rated at 40 degrees F. The two bags have kept me warm in temperatures down to 20 degrees F.

The type of insulation used in the construction of a sleeping bag or quilt makes no difference in regard to keeping you warm. A bag rated at 40 degrees F with goose down will provide the same warmth as a 40 degree F. synthetic bag. For that matter, shredded paper will work just as well. The fibers do not conduct heat, all they do is trap tiny pockets of air. It is the air, warmed by our body heat that provides the insulation. The problem with shredded paper… it just doesn’t compress very well and once compressed, that’s it…done… Warmth in a sleeping bag or quilt is important, however, for either to meet the ultralight hikers expectations requires that they be light weight, fit into small stuff sacks and instantly fluff up when ready for use. The insulating material must be low in density and high in loft-retention. Goose down is still the best at meeting all these requirements. Technology is rapidly closing the gap between goose down and synthetic materials. So, when you set out to purchase a new bag, it’s going to be more difficult to choose between down and synthetic. Many backpackers opt for synthetic because they think that they won’t be able to keep a down bag dry in the wet conditions that we have here in the Pacific Northwest. This is a valid concern, however, unless you will be spending a lot of time in a snow cave or igloo, goose down is still the best option, in my opinion. Something to keep in mind when deciding on either a bag or quilt, on goose down or synthetic is that compressed insulation does not trap warm air. All that expensive goose down that you are laying on between you and your sleeping pad is doing nothing…There are a couple of manufactures that have designed mummy bags with all the insulation on the top. A sleeve on the bottom of the bag holds the sleeping pad. One of my hiking partners uses this type of bag and he swears by it. When you weigh all the facts, the quilt makes the most sense.


The last piece to the ultralight sleeping system is wearing clothes to bed. Even in the middle of summer, I always bring at a minimum a pair of lightweight long johns, goose down jacket, and a warm hat. By incorporating the long johns and a hat, I can get by with a lighter rated sleeping bag. When sleeping in cold weather, the tendency is to duck down deep into your bag, covering your head. Not a good idea… The moisture from your breath will condense in the bag, reducing its ability to insulate. It’s also not a good idea to sleep with your bare head exposed to the cold. Simple solution, wear a hat…Keep your grape warm. Pound for pound, a goose down jacket is lighter and provides much more warmth than the finest of fleece or wool jackets. My down jacket is also made by MontBell and weighs 9 ounces. It is with me on every outing and has served me well for years. On really cold nights, I slip it on inside my sleeping bag. It provides that little extra bit of insulation that keeps me warm as toast on frosty nights.


In a previous article, I mentioned vapor barrier liners. In discussing sleeping systems, this is the appropriate time to add them to the discussion. Simply put, a vapor barrier liner is a plastic bag used inside a sleeping bag that prevents moisture from your body from escaping into the sleeping bag’s insulation. You might think that by using one that you could reduce the weight of your sleeping bag even more. A vapor barrier liner can be very effective when sleeping in sub-zero conditions for extended periods. It will prevent your bag’s insulation from wetting out, however, if you choose to use one, keep in mind that any clothes worn inside the liner will become soaked with your perspiration. When you climb out of the bag in the morning, your clothes will be wet and you will freeze. Not good… I recommend staying away from vapor barrier liners unless your will be spending a lot of time hiking in sub-zero conditions. If that’s the case, you probably won’t be trying to go ultralight anyway.


This concludes the discussion on the “Big Three”. Pack, shelter, and sleeping system. The goal is to keep the combined weight below six pounds. How have you done? In future articles we will be discussing everything else. Clothing is the next topic of discussion. If you’re wondering how well I’ve accomplished meeting the “Big Three” challenge, I submit the following.

Backpack – Golite Jam –                              22.0 oz

Shelter – Henry Shires Tarp Tent –            27.0 oz

Sleeping bag – MontBell Down Sheet –    12.5 oz

Sleeping pad – RidgeRest 3/4 length –       9.0 oz

TOTAL:           70.5 OZ  OR 4 LBS 6.5 OZ

The first two articles on the Big Three can be found here: Shelters and Packs

May the road rise up to meet you, may the wind be ever at your back.  May the sun shine warm upon your face and the rain fall softly on your fields.  And until we meet again, may God hold you in the hollow of his hand.  ~Irish Blessing

Happy trails, Pat


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