A grey tent for backcountry camping

Backcountry Sleep System

The Importance of a Quality Sleeping System

By PNWild

When I first started big game hunting, the thought of sleeping anywhere besides my own bed had never even crossed my mind. I would hunt blacktail deer locally during the day and then back to the comforts of a home cooked meal and a comfy bed. It didn’t take me long to realize that if I wanted to get away from other hunters and have a better overall hunting experience I needed to figure out a way to pack in and sleep where the animals are. Aside from improving my odds of being a more successful hunter, it was the need for adventure that pushed me to finally give it a go.

Before I dove into a lightweight sleep system and backpacking into the wilderness, the next step in that journey included years of sleeping in a wall tent on a cot. My buddy’s dad would have a fire going, dinner ready, and a cooler full of ice-cold beer waiting for us when we got back to camp. I thought, “I could get used to this.” As fun as those years were, it still left me feeling like I needed to toughen up and hunt harder. We would kill bucks from time to time but not consistently. We still found ourselves not being able to get away from other hunters or having the adventures we craved. Don’t get me wrong, occasionally we will spend some nights at deer camp with a wall tent and all of the comforts that come with camping around a vehicle, but for the most part, we live and hunt out of our packs miles away from any road.

The Error of My Ways

The first time I ever packed in for a hunt was in 2016 when Jeff drew a quality bull tag here in Washington State. At the time my shelter was a Kelty Salida two-person tent that weighed nearly four pounds. My sleeping bag was a synthetic insulation Kelty rated for twenty degrees and weighed over three pounds. Since it was synthetic, it was very bulky and did not pack down very well. The benefit of having a synthetic insulation bag over down insulation is they perform better in wet conditions and they are cheaper. I used a sleeping pad that we nicknamed Big Blue because it was so bulky that it didn’t even fit inside my pack. It was a Therm-a-Rest BaseCamp pad, with a R-Value (resistance value, the higher the number the better the pad will perform in cold temperatures) of five and it weighed three and a half pounds. All three of these items totaled over 10lbs which is way too high if you are wanting to put on the miles in rugged country. Sometimes I find myself missing Big Blue, but then I remember how heavy and bulky it was and that thought quickly fades away.

a green exped sleeping mat

Upgrade and Adapt

Since packing in for the first time on that elk hunt my backcountry sleep system has changed quite a bit. My shelter, sleeping bag, and pad have all gotten either lighter, more functional for the task at hand, or both. The goal is to stay warm, dry, and light. The shelters that I am using now are made by Argali and they are extremely lightweight, simple to set up, and durable. When all of us are hunting together we will be using their Absaroka four-person tent; which is floorless and weighs thirty ounces. If I ever want to hunt solo or with one hunting partner I will use their Rincon two-person tent that is also floorless and weighs just nineteen ounces. Argali sells inserts for both shelters if you want a floor and some protection from creepy-crawlies. They both can be pitched with a carbon fiber tent pole or a trekking pole, which is nice because I already have those on any hunt I will be doing. You also have the option to run a stove for those cold nights on later season hunts. If you plan on using a floorless shelter, get yourself a Tyvek ground sheet to lay down underneath your sleeping pad. It will help prevent anything sharp like rocks or sticks from poking a hole and deflating your sleeping pad and will also keep you dry if the ground is wet. During a high-country mule deer hunt a few years ago, Zack’s sleeping pad got punctured by something and he had to spend multiple nights sleeping on the cold, hard ground. A simple Tyvek sheet and a patch kit hardly weighs anything and is worth its weight in gold.

a man with a blue bag and sleeping mat

Now that Big Blue is retired, I have been using a sleeping pad made by Exped called the Ultra 5R. It weighs twenty ounces and packs down to about the size of a thirty two ounce Nalgene bottle. Inflating the pad is super easy, and one of my favorite features is that it is thick enough that my shoulder and hip don’t touch the ground when sleeping on my side.. With a R-Value of 4.8, it will keep you warm down into the single digits. I also use Exped’s Ultra pillow that weighs only a couple ounces and packs down to about the size of your fist. Some people make fun of me for bringing a pillow but a good night’s sleep in the mountains is priceless and that small pillow makes a world of difference, it’s tiny and the weight is minimal so it is a no brainer for me. When temperatures get really cold, I like to pack a pair of down insulated booty’s that are made by Exped as well. They have a couple of different options like their down socks that keep your feet very warm and only weigh five ounces, or their camp booty’s that are synthetic and have a grippy outer sole that allows you to walk around camp while staying warm and comfortable. These are definitely goofy looking but never worrying about your feet being cold as night is a gamechanger.

The School of Hard Knocks

Although that Kelty sleeping bag served me well for a few seasons, I found out the hard way that you should have a bag that is rated for temps that are lower than you plan to hunt in. If you have ever gotten cold in the backcountry at night even with all of your layers of clothing on and no way of warming up I can promise you that will be the last time you let that happen. That happened to me one time on a hunt and ever since then I have been using a Hyke & Byke Eolus zero-degree ultralight 800FP goose down sleeping bag. It comes in at just over three pounds and compresses down fairly well. The most important part that I like about the bag is that it has kept me plenty warm, even in freezing temps. I have had more expensive bags fail on me but this one has never let me down. Another great thing about this bag is that it only costs a couple hundred dollars and the quality is top notch.

I consider the clothing that I pack into the backcountry to also be part of my sleeping system. The saying of “what if’s weigh a lot” is very true, but I have learned that you can never be too prepared when you are spending long durations in the mountains. The weather is totally unpredictable and you have to be ready for anything. We have encountered all types of crazy weather, from early season snow in September, to crazy rain storms when the weather called for blue-bird skies. You truly just never know what mountain weather is going to do.. So, for when temperatures drop really low and my zero-degree bag isn’t quite enough to keep me warm, I will sleep in my puffy jacket and pants to add some insulation. Having plenty of layers gives me peace of mind knowing that I will be able to handle whatever temperature mother nature throws at us.

Closing Words of Advice

A good piece of advice that I could give someone who has never slept in the backcountry is to test your gear and sleep system before you venture out into the mountains. Put up your shelter in your yard and spend the night on your pad and in your bag. Choose a night that will have similar temps that you’re expecting to have on the mountain. The last thing you want to do is learn that you’re not warm enough at night or that your pad is uncomfortable while you’re packed in on a hunt and you have eight nights left. After you’ve done your research and tested your new backcountry sleep system, grab a friend and give it a go! Have fun and stay safe out there. See you on the mountain!

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