With a mid February start date on the Appalachian Trail, one of the biggest gear decisions was my sleeping system. Freezing temperatures and snow are common in northern Georgia through mid Virginia and proper gear is needed to not only survive the night, but wake up ready to tackle the next day’s challenges.
(Snow/ice when I went through the Grayson Highlands in early April 2017)
Using a hammock and tarp as my primary shelter furthered the need for an appropriate sleep system. As even a light breeze on a summer day can sap warmth from a hammock and its occupant.
When exploring backpacking sleep system options, you are immediately presented with a choice, sleeping bag or quilt.
Quilts are normally filled with Down or synthetic down, and are essentially a large blanket or sleeping bag without a back. You lay down on your sleeping pad (or hammock) and cover yourself with the quilt similar to a blanket. Many have straps that secure the quilt to a sleeping mat, trapping the air inside.
By cutting out the excess material, quilts are generally a lighter option vs traditional sleeping bags, but require a bit more set up to stay warm on a really cold night.
The second option is a traditional sleeping bag. by nature, these will trap more heat inside and require nothing more than sliding in and zipping up.
For an early start on the trail, I selected a Marmot, Never Summer mummy style bag, rated to 0 degrees.
(Picture from REI.com)
It is important to remember the temperature rating of a sleeping bag is simply the lowest temperature at which the bag will still keep you alive in. In other words, inside a 30 degree bag, you may survive the night in temperatures as low as 30 degrees, but you probably won’t be comfortable and won’t get much sleep. As a rule of thumb, I like to add at least to 10-15 degrees to any sleeping bag/quilts temperature rating. Though some manufacturers are now printing a temperature rating and a comfort rating to avoid confusion. My sleeping bag had a temperature rating of 0 degrees and a comfort rating of 12.7 degrees.
Another consideration in choosing a sleeping bag is the type of fill. Generally you have two options, Down or Synthetic.
Down fill is usually lighter and warmer than a synthetic fill, though tends to be more expensive. It also has little to no insulating properties when wet and therefore MUST be kept dry. This can lead to potentially life threatening situations in the colder months. If it does get wet, it can take a very long time to dry out, especially on the trail. Whereas Synthetic fill can be a bit heavier a little less warm, but will retain some warmth in wet conditions.
I selected a down filled bag to save on weight. By keeping my sleeping bag inside a waterproof stuff sack which was inside of my waterproof pack, I was not concerned about getting it wet.
The down itself was a 650 fill down. the number refers to the quality of the down. The higher the number, the warmer the down itself is. 650 is on the lower, more inexpensive fills. You can purchase bags/quilts of up to 850 fill down, though your wallet will be lightening up as quick as your pack weight! I have seen 0 degree bags of higher fill sell for 600+dollars.
The sleeping bag had a couple extra features that I liked, including a large glow in the dark zipper that was very easy to use (especially when you needed to hop out in the middle of the night!). It also had a small zippered pocket on the inside, this was useful for storing earplugs when camped near a snoring hiker. Finally the hood of the sleeping bag was constructed with a lot of thought. It has drawstrings on each end and a raised collar that would trap heat in from the neck down.
I read a lot of negative things about using a mummy style sleeping back in a hammock, but going back I would do it all again. I never had an issue with it and always slept warm.
The Never Summer bag retails for about $300, though I was able to find mine for $250 on sale at backcountry.com
For a full run down of the specs, check out the link below:
As I mentioned earlier, when using a hammock, some sort of insulating layer is needed underneath to stay warm. A common option and one that I went with, is the use of an under-quilt. Basically a down filled quilt that is attached to the underside of the hammock, it traps warmth and blocks out wind. Some people make their own while others (like me) lack the crafty handiwork to go at it alone, and purchase one.
I selected the Winter Wooki underquilt from Warbonnet.
One of the main reasons I went with the Winter Wooki (other than a great name!) was it was produced by the same company (Warbonnet) that produced my Hammock (the Blackbird XL). Being made specifically for the hammock, it was incredibly easy to set up. It is fitted to the hammock and only requires a clip on each end to be perfectly aligned. No adjustments needed. This saved a lot of time setting up the hammock and underquilt and also ensured I would not be woken up in the middle of the night by a draft and need to readjust it.
The underquilt was filled with 850 down, was rated to 0 degrees and weighed in around 24 ounces. Between the sleeping bag and the underquilt, I slept comfortably every night on the trail in the colder months.
For more details, check out the link below:
When the weather finally turned warmer (around the halfway point of the trip), I swapped out the heavier sleeping bag for a lighter quilt. The quilt kept me from overheating in the hammock on warm nights and still gave me the option to cinch it up with straps if it got colder.
I chose the Enlightened Equipment, Revelation quilt 30 degree 850 fill down quilt.
(Picture from enlightenedequipment.com)
Weighing in at less than a pound and taking up a lot less pack volume, I was really excited to swap it out with my winter sleeping bag.
The revelation quilt is a little different from other quilts with its zippered foot box. The zipper extends about a foot and a half from the bottom to trap a little more warmth when needed. This also makes for less adjusting to eliminate drafts.
Enlightened Equipment custom builds each of their quilts from a selected number of options including color, design, down fill and size. Because of the custom nature, it can be a while before you receive your quilt. Because I was on the trail when I ordered mine, I purchased one “off the shelf”, a number of quilts they have available for immediate purchase. some times orders are cancelled, returned or not processed for a number of reasons and these are available to ship immediately. They were also nice enough to give me a military discount, bringing the total cost of my quilt to around $225 I believe.
I would absolutely recommend a quilt over a sleeping bag for any hiking trip that is not expecting prolong time in sub freezing weather conditions (although they do make quilts rated that low as well).
For more details on the quilt, see link below:
In Pennsylvania I ran into a situation that led me to the switching over from an underquilt in favor of an inflatable sleeping mat.
somewhere after Boiling Springs PA I had put in a 20+ mile day, arriving at the shelter as it was getting dark. As soon as I arrived, it began POURING rain. In addition, the forest and undergrowth around the shelter was very thick and had no space for a hammock. So I decided to sleep in the shelter. The temperature started to drop as fast as the rain, cooling off to around 40 degrees. this presented a problem, as I knew the floor of the shelter would sap the warmth out of me without any kind of sleeping mat to insulate against it. I ended up emptying out my pack, laying it as flat as I could manage and sleeping with my torso atop the back padding of the pack. I stayed warm enough that night, but it was not comfortable to say the least. I vowed to find a solution the next time I made it to an outfitter.
I was able to find a Big Agnes Air Core inflatable sleeping mat on sale for about $60. There is a newer model out now that has a slightly different air valve/quick release. the picture below, is the model I had.
(Picture from Massyoutfitters.com
The model I purchased was 3.25 inches thick and had some insulating properties (down to around 35 degrees), more than enough for late spring/summer camping. It weight in at less than a pound and a half and folded up to the size of a small nalgene bottle.
It gave me the option to sleep in shelters when I needed/wanted to, and also provided a layer of insulation when in my hammock. One tip for the hammock though, you do need to under inflate the mat for a more comfortable nights sleep. I would inflate mine to around 40%, just enough to provide a layer of insulation.
The sleeping mat was especially helpful in the White mountains of New Hampshire when we were able to sleep in the dining halls of the huts.
With an early season start tot he hike, I would still recommend an underquilt for the hammock, but anything after that, an inflatable mat would be a better route to go with a hammock.