A proper fall sleep system gives you the ability to capitalize on the exquisite shoulder season of autumn—no bugs, fewer crowds, no sweltering heat. Depending on where you are though, shoulder season can be hard to plan for. It is often characterized by unpredictable weather and dramatic temperature swings. Even in go-to shoulder season regions like the desert, you can see t-shirt weather one day and snow the next. Despite the variable conditions, thermal efficiency can be achieved with the right combination of gear, so let’s get started talking about how to build a fall sleep system!

We discussed building a sleep system in our How to Build a Sleep System piece. Just like we did for winter, here we drill deeper so you can head into fall with the confidence and quality rest you need to maintain your summer momentum.

1. Start with Your Sleeping Pad

A thermally efficient fall sleep system begins by selecting a sleeping pad with the appropriate R-value. If you want to be safe, aim for an R-value of 4.0 or higher, which will provide sufficient insulation for the early winter conditions you may encounter. If you sleep particularly warm, an R-value of 3.0 could be sufficient in most situations.

inflating sleeping pad outside of tent

Fast & Light: The Ultralight Option
Our fall sleep system pad recommendations begin with the NeoAir® XLite NXT™. With an R-value of 4.5, the XLite NXT provides year-round warmth while weighing just 12-oz. (230g) in the regular size. Year in and year out it impresses reviewers by the virtue of its versatility, reliability and a full 3″ of stable, sleep-inducing loft.

Its incredible warmth-to-weight ratio has made it an icon on long-distance thru-hikes where hikers experience three seasons (sometimes four) and a myriad of climatic conditions. When the weather can be deceptively summery before harassing you with the first taste of winter, the XLite NXT can be trusted to perform. If you move around a lot at night and want to trade a little more space for a few ounces, check out the full rectangular version, Xlite NXT MAX.

inflating sleeping pad

Trek & Travel: The Comfort-Oriented Choice
If your adventures don’t demand the ultralight profile of the XLite, the Trail Pro™ is a premier fall sleeping pad choice. With an R-value of 4.4, you get year-round warmth and a pad ready for anything autumn brings your way.

Due to its super-supportive and compact StrataCore™ foam construction, the Trail Pro is light and packable enough for backcountry pursuits (especially by watercraft). The stretch-knit fabric on the surface is remarkably soft-to-the-touch and will be the envy of your camp companions. Weighing in at 1 lb 13 oz (820 g) in the regular size, the Trail Pro won’t disappear in your backpack like the XLite, but it will change the way you sleep under the stars.

cuddling with dog on backpacking trip

Layering: Another Option
If you are just stepping into the world of fall camping and don’t want to drop the dough on a brand-new pad quite yet, we understand and offer a solution. R-value is additive, meaning if you add another pad between you and the ground, both pad’s R-values can be added for a higher total R-value.

Layering the affordable Z Lite SOL™ under your existing pad both adds its 2.0 R-value to your system and creates a layer of puncture protection under your pad. The Z Lite is also highly useful outside of the tent—seating, dog mats and cooler insulation are just three ways it can go beyond the sleep system. With a low price and weighing just 14-oz. (410g) in the regular size, it’s little wonder why the Z Lite is nearly ubiquitous in camps year-round.

2. Insulation – Sleeping Bags & Quilts

The variability of fall conditions means you should be looking in the 20F/-6C range of sleeping bags and quilts. EN/ISO Temperature ratings are standardized and applied in temperature ranges. Therm-a-Rest uses a handy graphic to show that a bag or quilt rated 20F/-6C has a comfort range of 32F/0C, a transition range of 20F/-6C and a risk range of -9F/-23C.

sitting in sleeping bags talking

The transition range is defined as the temperature at which a standard user is fighting the cold by curling up but still in “thermal equilibrium” (aka not shivering). Within this transition range lies the performance limit of a sleeping bag or quilt, which is the official temperature rating given to that bag.

Sleeping Bags
Being comfortable at freezing temperatures is a solid bar to aim for when camping in the fall. A sleeping bag like the Questar™ 20F/-6C is an excellent choice for the camper that wants versatility. With its W.A.R.M. fit profile, the Questar is well suited to both backpacking and car camping. Looking to go lighter? Try the Parsec™ or the Hyperion™ in the 20F/-6C models.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, fall means the return of rain. We use Nikwax Hydrophobic Down™ in our sleeping bags and quilts, which is proven to retain its loft and insulation properties when wet much longer than untreated down. Still, pay attention to your forecast and draw upon your experience. It may be more prudent to head out with synthetic insulation in wet conditions. With eraLoft™ synthetic insulation, the compact and comfortable Saros™ 20F/-6C sleeping bag is well suited to such a situation.

Quilts follow the same temperature standards as sleeping bags but offer the opportunity to trim a great deal of weight and packed size. If an ultralight fall sleep system is your aim, then quilts deserve serious consideration. None more so than the astonishingly light, compact and comfortable Vesper™ 20F/-6C.

Due to the nature of their construction, we don’t make a quilt that is rated warmer than a 20F/-6C. Relying solely on a quilt for your fall sleep system is certainly possible, but requires understanding what type of sleeper you are and what conditions will be encountered.

waking up with quilt and sleeping bag

Why Not Both?
Still, quilts are particularly useful sleep system components when you factor in the strategy of layering. Just as layering a Z Lite SOL under your pad boosts the overall R-value, adding a quilt on top of your sleeping bag lowers the overall EN/ISO temperature rating.

Say you have a 32F/0C bag but want to get some fall camping in with a group of friends. You expect temperatures to get below freezing at night, and feel your bag won’t quite cut it. Adding a quilt like the Corus™ 32F/0C will push your insulation into the appropriate comfort range for a comfortable autumn night and, come summertime, you’ll have a cool and lightweight quilt option.

Bonus: Layering camping blankets achieves the same effect and adds a utility blanket to your camp. Less expensive and always useful, our camp blankets are an asset to any fall sleep system.

air pillow for camping

3. Pillows

Regardless of the season, the ultimate goal of a sleep system is good quality rest. Sleep is the foundation for clear-headed performance each day.  With that in mind, our fall sleep system definitely includes a pillow for added comfort and cozy insulation.

In our line of pillows, you will find a light and packable model suitable for any adventure, from the ultralight and minuscule packed size of the Air Head™ Lite, to the ultra-comfy and upcycled Compressible Pillow.

Fall Sleep System from Therm-a-Rest

Instead of concluding with flowery language about the sublime beauty of autumn, we’ll conclude with our go-anywhere fall sleep system of choice:

Related Posts:


Updated. Originally Published September 16, 2021.