The right gear - Sleeping gear

If you are camping, you need to be warm and comfortable at night. Don’t under-estimate how cold you may feel: you will not be exercising, so your body creates much less heat than when hiking, and at altitude or in exposed camp-sites the night-time temperatures can be very low. Assuming that tents and cooking equipment are provided by your holiday organiser, your main needs are to buy or borrow:

  • a suitable sleeping-bag (and perhaps a liner bag)
  • a sleep mat or mattress.

Sleeping-bags are filled with insulation of two main kinds: down or synthetic. Their warmth used to be measured by reference to seasons, as in “3 season” (i.e. spring, summer, autumn) or “4-5 season” (meaning winter including snow/ice), but this vague system is giving way to specifying temperatures. Check whether this is measured in Celsius or Fahrenheit (-10 °F is much colder than -10°C; the two scales equate only at -40°).

Sleeping gearAt a given weight, a down bag is warmer than a synthetic but is more expensive to buy. Down does not insulate well if wet, so get a good waterproof stuff-sack. If vehicles or mules are carrying your bags, the extra weight of a synthetic may not matter, but if humans have to carry the load, down is preferable. If you can’t afford to buy a good enough sleeping bag, consider borrowing or hiring one, and buy a liner bag to use inside it.

Liner bags may be used for cleanliness or warmth: for keeping the main bag clean, a simple cotton liner works fine and is cheap to buy or make; silk feels luxurious and is lighter. Any liner is easier to wash than the main sleeping-bag. For added warmth, get a micro-fleece thermal liner: it extends the flexibility of the main sleeping-bag by adding warmth only when needed. If your trip covers a wide altitude range, this may be a blessing.

Beware of an older sleeping-bag loaned by a kind friend, especially if synthetic. A bag which when new might perform to its rated temperature will lose its ‘loft’ (the ability to trap air, making it bulky and warm) over a period and be colder than you expect. If it is stored in a compression sac, it can deteriorate rapidly and may never recover. Down bags seem to bounce back much better than synthetic ones, but no sleeping-bag should be stored compressed except when on expedition.

Sleep mats range from cheap. lightweight foam to thick, self-inflating air mattresses with valves that you blow into to top up the air. Self-inflating mattresses are, naturally, much more expensive and heavier, but they are more comfortable and provide much better insulation. If you are camping at altitude, you need all the warmth you can get. Even if sleeping in huts or refuges, some sort of mat underneath will help to insulate you and improve your chances of a good night's sleep. Self-inflating mattresses should be stored unrolled and partially inflated.