Summer is here! And you know what that means … evening swims in alpine lakes, dusty trails for miles and long days in the backcountry. But have you dialed in your backcountry summer sleep system yet? Or are you still deciding on your preferred insulation, and considering where to shave those unwanted ounces (or pounds!) from your pack? If so, we can help. Check out these steps for building the ultimate summer backpacking sleep system.

What’s in a Summer Backpacking Sleep System?

summer sleeping pad

1. A Sleeping Pad

Though the camping mattress is often overlooked in the sleep ecosystem, we’re here to tell you that a great night’s rest in the backcountry starts with your sleeping pad. First and foremost, your camping mattress provides comfort. But here’s the clincher: your sleeping pad is also a major source of insulation—meaning you’ll stay warm and cozy at night by choosing the right mattress. That’s why we’ve spent the last 40+ years developing technology that provides ample insulation at a weight you can still carry into the backcountry.

For summer backcountry travel, you still have four basic choices of construction when it comes to choosing your mattress: NeoAir® construction, the self-inflating foam option, a hybrid of both foam and self-inflation, and the good ‘ol closed-cell foam pad. As for weight, we organize our mattresses into two categories we feel is apt for backpacking: Fast & Light and Trek & Travel. Sure, you can still haul a two-pound mattress from our Camp & Comfort category deep into the backcountry, but that old phrase comes to mind: If you’re going to be stubborn, you better be tough.

summer camping mattress

Previously, we’ve gotten into more detail about how to choose the right sleeping pad, but we’ll give you a quick run-down here too.

NeoAir

This is the crème de la crème of air pads . Basically, these bad-mammojammas employ cutting edge technology like the Triangular Core Matrix™ to achieve high performance in ultralight designs. It may sound like it, but the Triangular Core Matrix is not an extreme wrestling move. It’s actually a patent pending construction technology that provides the best warmth to weight ratio on the market. Need warmth, lightweight performance and a minimal packed size? Look no further than our NeoAir models.

lightweight sleeping pad

Perfect For … the ultra-light, ounce-counting gear-head who wants the lightest, most bad-ass mattress for deep forays into the bush.

Not So Perfect For … the backpacker who seems to break, destroy and demolish every bit of gear they use. If you puncture your NeoAir in the woods, you’ll be sleeping on the ground or making repairs by headlamp.

Self-Inflating

The classic Therm-a-Rest, originally designed by a couple of backpacking engineers with a sandwich press, was a self-inflating pad. To this day, self-inflating pads provide comfort and reliability and ease of use. We’ve perfected these pads over the years and offer several lightweight iterations, like the classic ProLite™. Proven by generations of trail junkies, this pad could be perfect for your summer backpacking sleep system.

Perfect For … a backpacker who values reliability, proven thermal insulation, and easy set up. A backpacker looking to save time rather than every ounce possible will be stoked on our self-inflating models.

Not So Perfect For … a thru-hiker trying to set a speed record, or an alpinist gunning for a fast and light summit push.

The Hybrid

These pads combine the cushion of air with the stability of foam. Helmed by the relatively new StrataCore™ construction technology, these bad-boys and girls are catching on and getting backpackers stoked. StrataCore allows us to build a pads that are supportive, warm and self-inflating, yet still light and packable enough for the backcountry. To experience the best of both worlds check out the ProLite™ Apex™ or the Trail Pro™.

sleeping pad and sleeping bag connection

Perfect For … the comfort conscious gear-seeker who values innovation and versatility, but still maintains a soft-spot for reliability.

Not So Perfect For … the backpacker who only wants gear that has been thoroughly tested with years in the field, or requires the lightest weight mattress available. The foam still makes these heavier than NeoAirs.

Closed-Cell Foam

The true OG backpacking mattress. We’ve perfected this tried-and-true design over the years to make them warmer and lighter. They’re still as simple and reliable as it gets, which is exactly why some adventurers swear by them. The frequent sight of a Z Lite SOL™ strapped on the outside of a backpack is a testament to its flat out utility.

closed cell foam sleeping pad

Perfect For … a backpacker who values simplicity, ease of use and utter reliability above plush comfort.

Not So Perfect For … a backpacker that demands both cushy loft and tiny packed sizes for their trips.

2. A Sleeping Bag or Quilt

The thought has crossed every backpacker’s mind: I’ll just get a zero degree, super warm winter sleeping bag and call it good. After all, I can always unzip it while sleeping out during the summer months.

OK, sure. You certainly can lug a lot more insulation than you’ll actually need into the backcountry during the summer months, but remember that old phrase again?

There are two major reasons for eschewing a winter bag for summer backpacking trips. First, you won’t be carrying a heavier, inefficient amount of fluff in your pack. Thinking of shaving some weight and saving your knees this season? Well, here’s a great place to start.

Also, an important, though often disregarded, downfall of carrying a winter bag during the summer is overheating. Here’s a scenario: You go to sleep with your winter bag zipped up and you feel cozy and warm. Stoked right? Exactly! Stoked like the coals of a campfire! Once you’ve given your winter bag the opportunity to work (i.e. efficiently heat the surrounding space around you), you wake up drenched in sweat. OK, so you’ll just unzip and everything will be cool, right? Right! Everything will be really cool, especially when your sweat evaporates and you start shivering, which is not so cool … figuratively speaking, of course.

In truth, you’ll be much happier carrying the appropriate amount of insulation, so don’t be shy to go light. Something like a Questar™ 32F/0C will have you prepared for any unexpected temperature drops, while still being cool enough for a balmy summer.

Cut even more weight by going with a quilt like the Vesper™ 32F/0C. By relying on the sleeping pads insulation beneath you, a quilt allows for a greater degree of ventilation and temperature control.

3. A Pillow

Pillows are a really important aspect to some sleep systems. Even with limited room in your pack, there are countless lightweight down and air pillows. Gone are they days of waking up in the middle of the night to try and “fluff” your fleece jacket back up.

One Last Tip: Consider Weight

Well, the majority of full-zip sleeping bags are designed for below-freezing temperatures. So ask yourself: What will the lows be during your summer nights spent under the stars? If you think you may experience below freezing temps, we recommend a three-season bag, but nothing more. However, more often than not, to reach that holy grail of just the right insulation, employing our quilts and blankets to build an adaptable sleep system is the ticket for efficient summer backpacking insulation.

summer camping quilt

Some of our quilts are designed to work well down to 35 degrees Fahrenheit, which is usually right in the wheel house of summer nights. This means you’ll be carrying the appropriate amount of insulation and nothing more, while also eliminating the dreadful overheating cycle.

The other cool thing about quilts is they are great additions to an adaptable sleep system. Are you planning a winter camping trip but only have a three season sleeping bag? Throw the quilt you rocked all summer into the mix and you’ve efficiently added more warmth to your sleep system. Boom. Done. Pro Tip: do the same thing with a closed cell foam pad under your three season air pad.

Our camping blankets also make great sleep system components. Pair one with a quilt for a summer system ready for sudden mercury dips, or throw one in your fall-time pack for a “security blanket” of warmth when chilly nights are the norm.

So as the Northern Hemisphere tilts toward that glowing ball of hot plasma we call the sun, make sure you’re ready to hit the trail with the right sleep system for the season. See you out there!

Originally Published May 16th, 2016.