Next to nutrition, I rank sleep as one of the most important factors in maintaining mental and physical strength while hunting in the backcountry. The biggest challenge facing a good night backcountry sleep is being comfortable in potentially a new location every night.
I am big on sleep. There is nothing I hate more than waking up tired and having to crawl out of the bag and tackle the mountain. Over the last couple years I have been experimenting with my backcountry sleep system and in this article I will share what I have learned. Keep in mind that this system is what works for me but your environment or your needs might be different.
A Good Base
Before I jump into the actual backcountry sleep system gear, I want to point out the obvious. For a good nights sleep you need to have a flat, level surface to lie on. I can’t stress this enough. I have seen experienced backpackers rush the search for the perfect spot and they end up complaining all day about how tired they are.
Here is a quick breakdown:
- Spend the time to find a level spot that fits your entire tent footprint. If this isn’t possible, have your head on the uphill side of the slope, this prevents the blood from pooling in your head while you sleep.
- If possible, find a location that keeps your tent out of the wind. A quiet, stable tent means less noise and issues waking you up in the middle of the night if the wind picks up.
- Flatten your spot as best as possible, pull out pointy rocks and small bushes. Your boots work well but a Black Diamond Whippet comes in super handy for this. Check out the Whippet in my Top Takeaways from a Haida Gwaii Blacktail Hunt article.
When using your truck as basecamp, I highly recommend using a cot if possible. They aren’t expensive and the quality of sleep is so superior to lying on the ground. Helinox makes a really nice lightweight one: https://helinox.com/collections/camping-cots
My New Backcountry Sleep System Approach
I had a bit of a revelation earlier this year around my backcountry sleep system and it’s changed how I pack. In the past I would always pack a bag that is rated below the lowest temps I am expecting on the trip, offering me a good buffer if a sudden cold front moves in. When it came time to hit the hay I would strip down to my base layers and jump into my bag.
The problem with this method is it doesn’t maximize my entire gear system efficiently at all. I pack all these clothes and I only utilize them for 16 hours a day. At the same time I pack a sleeping bag all over the mountain and I only use it 8 hours of the day. My new approach is to use my entire system to keep me comfortable on the mountain.
On a winter goat hunt earlier this year, temps were expected to hover around -15°C so I packed a -18°C synthetic bag that weighed a metric ton and took up almost a third of my pack space. At the last minute I subbed in a -9°C synthetic bag. It weighed half as much and packed down to less than half the volume. I was winning in the pack department already.
On the mountain we slept in one man tents in shallow snow dugouts and I wore almost all my clothing inside the bag. The only exception was my Sitka Kelvin Down WS Hoody which I draped over top of my sleeping bag and used the hood to cover my face and keep the heat in. During the day our hunting involved some prolonged sits in the snow and I was able to use my synthetic bag as an outer mummy layer. It took a bit of experimenting during the trip but overall I was comfortable for almost the entire trip and my pack was significantly smaller and lighter than it would have been with my old sleep system.
Here is a breakdown of my backcountry sleep system for an average fall hunt
- Tent – Hilleberg Akto. A 4 season, 1 man tent designed for mountain weather. The 4 season part is important, in most environments hunting takes us we will experience more wind and weather than most users. The Akto has a solid door that keeps out the wind and keeps the warmth in. Hilleberg also makes some sturdier 1 man tents if you are expecting gale force winds.
- Sleeping Pad – Big Agnes Q-Core SLX. This thing is bomber. I have used it on everything from mid-winter hunts to sleeping directly on the ground in the cactus infested mountains of southern Baja. The R value isn’t amazing but I have never noticed an issue on any hunt. I sleep on my side and at 3.5” thick my hips never hit the ground. I love this pad.
- Sleeping Bag – I own a half dozen for different uses but I am moving to mostly synthetic bags because most of my hunting takes place in B.C. and moisture is always an issue. The Mountain Hardwear Lamina bags are highly rated in terms of synthetic bags.
- Pillow – I use an old Thermarest stuff sack that weighs an ounce or so and it my Sitka Kelvin Down WS Hoody fits perfectly inside. This is plenty comfortable for me and it’s super lightweight.
- For clothing, here are two examples of my sleep layers for two different hunts. Again, this is what works for me, it might take you a couple uncomfortable nights of experimenting to figure out what works for you. Lastly, I am a pretty skinny guy so space isn’t an issue in my bag with all my clothes but it might be a consideration for some people, I could see it getting a bit claustrophobic.
- Early Season
- Late Season
- Hiking socks. I use SmartWool Mountaineering Extra Heavy
- Heavy Baselayer. Sitka Heavyweight Hoody and Pants. The hood is crucial, keeps your head heat in.
- Hiking Pants. Sitka Timberline
- Puffy Pants. Sitka Kelvin Lite. These things are a huge game changer, sleeping or just sitting out in the cold. Amazing.
- Mid Layers. Sitka Kelvin Active Hoody
- Gloves. I use the inner glove from the Sitka Blizzard GTX Mitten
I acknowledge that this system might not be for everyone and that’s fine. For me this system offers some great weight and space savings and still provides me enough comfort to hunt happy on the mountain. Everyones personal style comes down to what you are comfortable with and what you are willing to put up with. This article is intended to give you food for thought and encourage you to continually tweak and test your system.