The 4 Key Pieces of My Camping Sleep System

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The 4 Key Pieces of My Camping Sleep System

The outdoor sleep system that I use today is the result of thirty-five years of trial and error and I wish I’d thought of it earlier. It suits my style of outdoor activity perfectly and can be modified infinitely to accommodate many unique activities, environments and weather conditions.

I’ve used many systems and each one has suited the time and place, from a simple blanket as a cover and a cheap tarp as a groundsheet to a variety of sleeping bags, mattresses and tents. Each had it’s time and place, but the sleep system I use now is the best and can be modified depending on my activity, each of the four main components easily interchanged.

The four key components are;

  1. Sleeping pad (full body support and comfort)
  2. Sleeping bag (body temperature management)
  3. Pillow (skeletal alignment and comfort)
  4. Shelter (weather protection).sleep system

In certain situations, the sleeping pad and pillow can be eliminated, but as I get older I’m finding that they are critical components for my comfort and the long-term health of my musculoskeletal system. In basic terms – I hurt if I don’t use them.

One major advantage of this sleeping system is that I keep it all together, rolled up and stored in one dry sac.  To set it up, all I have to do is pull it out of the dry bag, unroll it and blow up the air mattress with the included air pump.  Within minutes, I can climb into it and not only be dry and protected from the weather, but with the bug net zipped up, I’m safe from biting insects as well.

Solo canoe trip gear

Complete sleep system is rolled up, pre-assembled, in the 20 litre dry sac, shown here in the middle.

My sleep system contributes to my self reliance in obvious ways, primarily in that it allows me to sleep anywhere with a minimum of effort and impact, perfect for stealth camping.  From a life-cycle costing perspective, three of the components can be made to last many years, possibly a lifetime if properly maintained.  The exception is the sleeping pad, which really is not good value if life-cycle cost is an issue.  It can be patched in the event that it springs a leak, and the air valve can be replaced quite easily, but I still don’t expect it to last a lifetime.

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The Sleeping Pad

Sleeping pads have improved dramatically in the last few years. Gone are the days of lugging a big, heavy closed-cell foam pad or an inflatable mattress more suited to the swimming pool than a good sleep system.

I look for a pad that is lightweight, small when packed, large enough when set up and versatile in a variety of weather and environmental conditions. My favourite pad over the last couple of years is the Therm-A-Rest NeoAir All Season Mattress. It’s light enough at 510 grams, and packs small. It inflates to a large and comfortable size, unlike lighter pads that compromise size and comfort for pack-ability. It has an R-value of 4.9 so I can easily use it winter-camping as well.

ThermaRest NeoAir All-Season Mattress

ThermaRest NeoAir All-Season Mattress

Sleeping Bag

I sleep hot, so I don’t need much coverage in the summer. However, some nights can be cold during the three temperate seasons in Canada, spring and fall in particular, and temperatures often drop below freezing. I need a flexible system to deal with a variety of conditions. My Mont-Blanc Protex sleeping bag packs small but is rated 5C – 0C, easily covering most conditions. On warm nights, I sleep on top of the bag, on cool nights I sleep with it open and on cold nights, I climb right in, often adding a Coolmax Sleeping Bag Liner to provide an extra 5 degrees of comfort. When the temperature drops below -5 Celsius, my thirty-year-old synthetic mummy bag does the trick, but I’m currently researching the best down sleeping bags to replace it.

Protex summer sleeping bag


I slept for years without a pillow, even at home in bed, but old sports injuries are coming back to haunt me and sleeping without head support often leaves me in intense pain and limited mobility in the morning.

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I’ve tried a few and I use what I have interchangeably, but my go-to pillow is a Therm-A-Rest Comp Pillow stuffed with extra clothing. I carry a down vest or down winter jacket in my ditch kit at all times, and either one of them provides decent comfort when placed inside the pillow case. If I get cold, the down garment is easily accessed to put on in the middle of the night, although it leaves me without a suitable pillow in the meantime.

My second favourite pillow is the MEC Base Camp Pillow, which I like almost as much, but I find it more comfortable if I slip it into the softer ThermaRest pillow case.

Camping pillows


Here is where I made by far the biggest change to my outdoor sleep system – I bought a bivouac sack.  Many years ago, I would sleep under my canoe or a tarp during the shoulder seasons when bugs were non-existent, or in a tent during the summer. In the winter, I would build a quinzhee or sleep in an old trailer or the log cabin that I built on my property. Each of these options has inherent inefficiencies, primarily in speed of assembly and disassembly and the necessity of a large, flat ground space. With my bivy, I can set up or tear down in a few short minutes and I can sleep in literally any flat space the size of my body.

There are lighter and smaller versions on the market, but I use the Outdoor Research Advanced Bivy because of it’s bomber design, which I can use during all four seasons. When I’m on a solo trip, I can explore until the last minutes of daylight knowing that I can lay down almost anywhere within minutes, and I can fold it up and be on the water or trail in no time in the morning. I don’t need to search for a suitable campsite – any spot will do. I’ve slept in the bivy under my canoe, inside a winter tent, at the base of a tree, out in the open covered in snow, in the bed of my pickup truck and often right alongside the fire.

By |2017-01-10T20:50:11-05:00January 10th, 2017|Camping, Gear & Advice|1 Comment

One Comment

  1. John September 23, 2017 at 3:14 am - Reply

    You’ve convinced me to take a look at the bivy sack. I bicycle tour. Often in the north of Ontario. This past July I rode from Kapuskasing to Hamilton. For that trip I gave a Hennessey hammock a try. For comfort it’s the best I’ve ever experienced. My problem with it was finding a place to hang the thing. The bush was often too thick to penetrate and campsites are just big squares for tents cars and trailers. Despite the youtube up loaders assurances of fast set up and take down I found it to be a pain in the.. Especially at 5am. Your system of unroll and inflate looks to be just the sort of fast set up take down I’m looking for. Thanks for sharing your experience. I enjoy your videos and look forward to seeing the cabin completion.

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