Friday, January 21, 2011

Sleeping on the Ground

To sleep or not to sleep...
That's the question right? How do you sleep comfortably on the ground...and better yet, how do you do it without lugging a heavy inflatable mattress around? Let's remove some common misconceptions and replace that 20oz "ultralight" full length inflatable mattress with a 4oz foam pad that does a better job of insulating and is much less expensive.

The ground is cold, so I need a big, full length pad   The best insulation from the cold ground is also the lightest...a closed cell foam pad. And by cutting the pad to just the length of your torso, it is even lighter. Lay down on the ground to find out which parts of you are actually touching the ground...from the bottom of your torso down, probably not much depending on how you sleep. I'm a back sleeper, so it's mostly just the heals of my feet. I insulate them by putting my Tilley hat inside the foot box of my quilt, under my feet. You could also use your backpack as insulation under your legs and feet, which makes it a dual use item. Oh yes, a multi-use item...the UltraLight backpackers quest! The key is to keep your torso and feet insulated from the cold ground. I'm 6'2" tall, and am very comfortable down to around freezing on a  3/8" x19 1/2" x 41" closed cell foam pad that weighs only 3.8oz. For warmer conditions, I use a 3.0oz 1/4" thick pad.

I'm uncomfortable laying on the ground so I need an inflatable mattress   I have used everything from a 2_1/2" thick inflatable mattress to a 1/4" thick foam pad, and for me it makes very little difference in how well I sleep. Foam pads do a great job of softening the sharp edged objects such as rocks and sticks so they are not poking you. If your back gets sore like mine does from lying on the ground, try this...take your rain jacket, fold in half lengthwise, then roll it up into a the shape of a cylinder. Now place it under your sleeping pad right in the small of your back. Ahh... instant relief! No inflatable mattress I have used works as well.

Site Selection   While most "camping" spots tend to be a nice hard piece of cleared dirt, level and free from rocks, sticks, etc., that is about the worst place to sleep. Instead, chose a nice spot under an ancient pine tree, but watch out for dead branches above that could possibly fall on you. All the pine needles and twigs that have fallen for the past thousand years or so do a wonderful job of both insulating you from the cold ground and also make for a very soft bed. Avoid the inviting grassy areas, as they are not as soft as they appear. Besides, it takes a very long time for alpine grasses to recover, and as punishment you will wake up with tons of condensation inside your shelter.

I can't sleep without my camp pillow   I also like to sleep with a pillow, but I can always find a way to make my head comfortable without carrying an extra piece of gear. Typically it's my spare clothing and insulated jacket inside a stuff sack. If it's so cold that I'm wearing everything I packed to stay warm while sleeping, I will just roll my backpack up and slide it into the stuff sack. You would be amazed at how comfortable this is, and it doesn't add any pack weight.

Other techniques   Some people swear by night time pain relievers (Tylenol PM, Nyquil, etc), but for me, they only work for a couple of hours or so, then I'm wide awake again. Others say that if you're tired enough you will eventually sleep. While this is true, it makes for a rough first night or two, and the vast majority of people go backpacking for only a few nights at a time. Making yourself comfortable is the key. By insulating myself from the cold ground and supporting my lower back, I can sleep well on the ground in UltraLight style.


  1. Sleeping mats may have been available when I started camping in 1968 but I wasn't aware of them. I used a WWII poncho/groundsheet and spare clothing in the small of the back, as you describe. My clothing also came from WWII, so wasn't light but was thick and excellent to sleep on in winter.

    Ten years later, on a cold night in spring, I slept on a map. A friend said it was the most expensive Karrimat he had ever seen. How things have changed!

    Sleeping on wooden floors in bothies finally persuaded me to buy a pad to sleep on about a dozen years after I started backpacking (a word which had not crossed the Atlantic at the time).

    Now, going ultralight, I don't have enough clothing to make a back pad and a pillow so I finally feel I need a sleeping pad.

  2. John,

    In the past I've considered my cut down GG Nightlight pad to torso length going ultralight, that's me at my most minimalist. I don't know how you sleep on a 3/8" pad, that's hardly what I'd call a pad, rather a glorified groundcloth. :) I haven't relegated the Nightlight pad to the closet for good, but I've since invested in a NeoAir in megasize for those times when I don't really care what's in my pack and care more about the quality of sleep. The verdict isn't out yet on the NeoAir, we will see. My goal this year is to be comfortable when I'm out, and to not snivel over a few ounces, heck even a pound. By the way, I did end up picking up a Sidewinder setup, I'm saving a few ounces there, but better than the weight loss, saving precious space in my pack for that NeoAir.

  3. I'm trying out a Gossamer Gear NightLight sleeping pad right now that is made from Evazote. It's amazing at insulating from the cold ground but is so thin (1/8") that it provides little in the way of padding.

    I usually carry a Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite sleeping pad which does a great job at making those lumps and bumps more comfortable. I'm thinking that combined they might be a great solution.

  4. Sleep systems are a personal choice, and no one should feel like they have to defend taking an inflatable mattress along. I knew in writing this post that it might stir up some of these emotions, but it was not my intent. Hopefully a few people will be encouraged to try a lighter system after reading what works for me.

    John, We don't tend to have shelters out west, and if I did sleep on wooden floors, I just might consider more padding. The photo of Bandit above was a most comfortable bed...I really didn't need any padding/insulation that night. We slept under an ancient Bristlecone at about 11,000' elevation. You can imagine how soft it was!

    Eugene, You're right, my 3/8" pad is not much of a pad. What it does do a great job of is #1 insulating you from the cold ground and #2 smoothing out the bumps and such. The real key for me was utilizing my rain jacket to support my lower back.

    Brian, The GG Thinlight 3/8" is what I usually use. My wife prefers the egg crate style Nightlight + a 1/4" Thinlight pad for the extra padding & insulation. I've heard good things about the Z-Lite pad...they're just too heavy for me :~)>

    I guess I stopped considering using inflatable mattresses a couple of years ago when I was car camping and brought my Big Agnes 2 1/2" thick insulated inflatable. I realized that night that I missed my foam pad, and that I didn't sleep very well on that glorified raft.

    Thanks for your comments!

  5. Oh Eugene, glad you picked up the sidewinder...I hope you like it as much as I do!

  6. Walk 20 miles per day. You'll sleep like a baby.

  7. "The best insulation from the cold ground is also the lightest...a closed cell foam pad."

    The numbers disagree with this strongly. At the extreme (used for arctic camping) you've got the Exped downmat 9 (inflatable & with down inside) which has an R-value of 8. On the other end you've got something like the Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest SOlite Sleeping Pad with an R-value of 2.8

    R-value is a measure of thermal resistance (how well it insulates).

    Combine down with Air and you've got one of the best forms of insulation possible. I know someone who actually had to send their Downmat back home because it was reflecting far too much heat.

    Note for others reading this: exped has another downpad that isn't quite so warm.

    Now, at 990 grams the Exped Downmat 9 is probably never going to get into *your* backpack. But, unless you're about to take up mountaneering it probably shouldn't. ;)

  8. follow-up: the Exped Synmat UL 7 has an R-value of 3.1 and weighs 430 grams. The Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest SOlite Sleeping Pad with it's R-value of 2.8 weighs 540 grams and is roughly six times the size.

    So, with an inflatable you can get better insulation, less weight, and far less size than a standard closed-foam pad.

    "Foam pads do a great job of softening the sharp edged objects such as rocks and sticks so they are not poking you. "

    This is true, but it's also true that, unless you're talking about a very large sharp edged object, an air mattress will simply float over the top of the object rather than softening it and feeling it press into you still.

    I agree with all your other tips though.

  9. Hi masukomi, thanks for the comments!

    Looking purely at the numbers, if your 430g pad (15.2oz in my world) has an R-value of 3.1, and my 3.8oz pad has an R-value of 1.35, I could simply double or even triple the layers, have equal or better insulation, and still have a lighter pad. I wouldn't compare the Therm-a-Rest because I agree they are very heavy for what you get. Try Gossamer Gear or even the cheapo blue foam pads.

    For most of my situations, 1 layer of either 1/4" or 3/8" thick foam works fine and keeps the weight under 4oz. Your mileage may vary :)

  10. It is uncomfortable for me to lay on the ground. What I don't like with camp mattresses is that they areheavy to carry. We will be using the neoair on our next camping trip. Let's see if it can deliver the in-the-field performance it promises.

    buy mattress online

  11. I would definately recommend the Neo-Air for anyone looking for a very comfortable and light inflatable pad, as I have been using mine for some time now. I would like to lighten my load a bit though, so I'm thinking of picking up a Thinlite 3/8" for my next trip.

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  14. I'm thankful for Foaming Agent for CLC.This is a blog about home inspections and home related topics, so I'm going to stay focused on that. To fully explain why I'm so thankful for foam insulation, I first need to complain about my house a little bit.

  15. We rarely go on long backpacking trips but I avoid bulky gear just on principle. I bought a full size, 2 in. memory foam pad from Big Lots for $11 and sliced it in half for my husband and me. We can roll the foam right into our regular camping pad. Its weighs more but is not as bulky as bringing a second pad. We have 1 in. inflatable pads too. I bring a thin outdoor blanket for our sleep system and layer these components together in this order from bottom to top: sleeping pad, inflatable pad, memory foam, blanket. We then put the sleeping bag on top of the blanket. The cushioned bottom is very well insulated and soft. Everything rolls up and fits into our back pack or duffel well. If we were backpacking, I'd drop the blanket and the bottom pad but would roll the foam into the inflatable.

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