Our sleep system and shelter has evolved over the years as our experience has grown and our needs have changed. Now in our 50s, we want lighter packs and warmer nights on trail.
When it comes to sleep systems and shelters in the backpacking world there are a vast array of materials, temperature ratings and sizes to choose from. As a couple, our needs are quite different than a single individual, like that’s some new advice you’ve never heard of! But, seriously, choosing gear that would fit our needs as a couple is still just as mind-blowing, there really are a wide variety of choices on the market today. Materials, temperature ratings, sizes, uses, tent vs hammock vs tarp vs OMG…which one are we going with! Our approach, at first, was quite simple. We need a shelter, pad(s) and sleeping bag(s). No problem, we will just go to our local outfitter, tell them we need stuff and let them drain our wallet.
Walking into a store uneducated is not the way to go. While you might think it would be OK to rely on the expert opinion of the salesperson, what you are probably getting is their own experiences, preferences and, or, what they’ve been told to say and sell. The best advice you can get from a company or representative is what the gear is designed to do, how it is made, what kind of warranty it has and what type of return policy there is. Outside of that box, it is up to you to know your own needs and begin the journey to find gear that will work best for your needs. Now comes the balancing act. What are you willing to spend? Quality gear isn’t cheap, nor do you have to break the bank to get it. Shop around, look for sales, wait for sales, be patient.
Our plan of attack:
First things first, how are we going to shelter ourselves and our gear out there in the middle of nowhere. On the trail, weather is a huge factor. In Colorado one can experience all four season in one day. Choosing a shelter to protect you and your gear from the elements is one of the most important choices you can make. When it comes to backpacking you are ultimately faced with two material choices for your shelter, Nylon and Dyneema. This will be your first hurdle. Nylon and Nylon blends are the most widely used materials for shelters, and most affordable at that. A few drawbacks are weight and water absorption that causes sagging. Dyneema on the other hand, originally designed for sails, is extremely lightweight, weather resistant and, unfortunately, expensive. Know your budget and stick to your guns when choosing material. There are many great choices on the market made with both materials.
Size matters! Most will say a two person tent will comfortably fit one person, while a three person tent will comfortably fit two. What does that say about a one person tent? Here the debate begins about the size and weight of your shelter. After all, you will be carrying it on your back, sleeping in it at night and using it periodically to get out of the rain. Find a store that carries different shelter sizes and designs. If they are not set up already, ask them to set them up, get inside, move around and see if it would work for you. Is there enough room for you and your gear? Shelter material is one thing. Shelter design is another. Are you a tent camper? Hammock? Tarp? Do you just want to skip the shelter altogether and sleep under the stars?
Once you have made a decision on a shelter, it is time to move on to your bedding. And you thought the shelter choices were many! Start with a pad, something to go between you and the ground for warmth and comfort from the cold and hard surfaces. Pads consist of closed cell foam like a yoga mat, inflatable pads like swimming floats to next to nothing sheets of thin plastic not unlike Saran and Cling Wrap! Are you a cold, warm or hot sleeper? What conditions will you be hiking in? What will the terrain be like? How much (more) weight are you willing to carry? Are you about to pull your hair out yet? The choices are daunting! Again, budget, design and comfort all come together to create a happy balance. Closed cell foam pads are not that comfortable, but that is our experience. Nor do we feel like sleeping on a thin sheet of plastic better purposed for keeping food fresh in the refrigerator. We prefer inflatable mats with nice padding and a decent r-value for insulation from the cold ground, but we do hike in the Colorado high country.
Moving on to your sleeping bag. Choose one that will be at least 10° colder than the anticipated low temperature. Easy enough, right? Here we go again. Materials on the outside are generally Nylon, though on the inside it gets tricky. Fill power! Do you want / need down, treated down or synthetic materials? We prefer down for is comfort, weight and warmth. That said, down must be taken care of not to get wet. Don’t forget, everyone has their own threshold of what cold is. Women generally sleep colder than men and Chihuahuas can add a few degrees to your sleeping bag! Moving on, a sleeping bag is not the only choice out there. Quilts are a great option for weight savings and can offer just as much comfort! Finally, yep, the bottom line, how much are you willing to spend and carry?
Our sleep system and shelter has evolved over the years as our experience has grown and our needs have changed. Now in our 50s, we want lighter packs and warmer nights on trail. Backpacking the older you get can require gear to change a bit. Again, our experiences and changes in age dictated changes to our gear choices as yours will probably do over time. So goes the evolution of the hiker! As a couple, we love to sleep as we would at home. We love to spoon and cuddle, when our chihuahua isn’t getting in the way and hogging the blankets! A benefit and survival technique for sure, sharing body heat. We have moved on from sleeping bags to a double quilt, though a double sleeping bag could also work, quilts being lighter and helping to keep overall pack weight down. We also changed from two single pads to one double sized one. Another option would be to strap two single pads together, but there is the risk of the “cold spot” in the middle and pads can move around like shifting tectonic plates.
Our new shelter is a two person Dyneema tent with two doors and vestibules, we love the weight savings and roominess of its design. Keep in mind, we are 5’7 and 5’0 and do not need a ton of space. Speaking of space, how much room will your shelter take up when looking for a place to call home for the night? A shelter’s footprint can be another big factor in making the right choice for your needs. Try using a hammock above treeline or getting in and out of a tarp shelter with one door when your partner is sound asleep. Design plays a big role in usability.
Whatever you decide, we cannot encourage you enough to educate yourself not only to your own needs when it comes to comfort level, but the choices of sizes, materials, prices and policies of the brand you will ultimately go with. There is a lot to be said about comfort and experience on the trail, not to mention a brand that will back you up in case of failure and the need for replacement or repair.
Our choices for the 2019 backpacking season:
- Tent – Zpacks Duplex. 2p shelter made of Dyneema with an abundance of space as 2p tents go. Coming in at 23.9 oz (including stuff sack and stakes) it will be light in our packs and waterproof on trail. A single wall tent, so condensation is a factor. The two vestibules are a little small, but we don’t keep our gear outside (food bags hung in a tree), plenty of room to make coffee in the morning though!
- Pad – Exped SynMat HL Duo (Winter). A double size pad with an r-value of 5. A great option “for us” that balances weight and comfort. Separate air chambers allow us to choose our own firmness. Separate inflation and deflation valve system is also impressive. Ours came with the “Schnozzel” pump sack to aid in inflation and keep unwanted moisture from our own breath out of the inside of the pad.
- Sleeping Quilt – Enlightened Equipment Accomplice (10°) Double quilt with the freedom to move around and cuddle while keeping us plenty warm on those cold mountain nights all the while being light in our pack. can also be used as a blanket around camp while warming up in the morning or before bed in the evening. Very lightweight and yet surprisingly warm!
If you have any questions or comments feel free to contact us.