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Backpacking Without a Sleeping Bag

backpacking without a sleeping bag

Regardless of the equipment you choose to camp with, there are certain comforts you cannot live without. In the night time, this includes warmth and protection from the elements.

If you’re like me, you probably want to cut weight for your week-long or month-long backpacking trips. Therefore you want expert advice about leaving behind your warm, but bulky sleeping bag.

Well, luckily this is an option in most circumstances. Unless you are winter camping or mountaineering, you can choose to camp without your sleeping bag. You need to know your alternatives and there are a few other factors to consider first.

The Elements

Trip planning is non-negotiable. As an avid backpacker, I can say that I have seen far too many people getting caught unprepared for the wilderness. The phrase, Know before You Go should appear somewhere on your radar because preparation is a life-saving skill. 

If you really want to drop the heavy sleeping bag, then you need to know:

  • What is the forecast?
  • How long will you be out?
  • Where will you be staying?
  • What is your natural comfort level?

All these things come into play and it’s not for me to tell you if a simple blanket will be enough, you have to research your trip and then make an executive decision. 

Alternative Sleeping Bags

Maybe you just want a light-weight bag, instead of the classic bulky kind. Then, you need to do a cost-analysis. Most light-weight sleeping bags are designed to compress and to last, and you pay for the technology and the quality. 

If you are still planning on camping with a tent, then a light sleeping bag may be a great option for you. The Adventure Junkies just put out an excellent top ten list of lightweight bags and it’s a good idea to consider these before choosing an alternative.

If you do choose a lightweight option: Synthetic filling is more humane, and stays warm even when wet, but it’s heavier and bulkier. Responsible down filling from a company like The North Face or Columbia will offer extremely lightweight and compressible bags.

Alternatives to Sleeping Bags

Okay so you checked out the options and you’re convinced you don’t want them. What else is there? Well, you can sleep in the nude if it’s warm enough. Your hiking clothes are also an option. You can bring a quilt that you have at home. However, if you’re looking for something more durable and more protective, then you still need to invest in some gear.

Hammocks

Hammocks come in two categories, insulated and non. The nice thing about them is that you can ditch your tent, your sleeping pad and potentially your sleeping bag. That being said, when you plan your trip, you will need to know whether there are trees to hang from.

You also need to ensure you’re not damaging the bark, so always use a strip of cloth to brace the ropes against when you tie in.

Superior Gear offers a down-insulated hammock that, complete with a tarp to protect you from rain and snow, is an extremely lightweight, compressible, and manageable set-up. They also give you a temperature rating, so you can choose between 45F all the way to -30F. 

The Outdoors
The Outdoors

That being said, I still do not personally recommend a hammock for winter camping. Research and experience tells us that a tent can be life-saving in the event of a surprise storm, while a hammock may not protect you or your gear completely.

Non-insulated hammocks come in a variety of sizes and colours, but I recommend choosing one that is covered and lightweight. Also, you still want to consider bringing a liner, or even an insulation pad, just in case the weather turns.

Liners

Liners are thin layers, usually made with microfibers or silk, so they can add a lot of warmth without any bulk or weight. What you need to avoid is relying on a liner for your only source of warmth. 

If you do find yourself in a cold environment, make sure to layer up as much as possible and protect yourself with a tent or tarp. The liner is not dependable as a life-saving alternative to sleeping bags.

Bivys

Bivy sacks are tent-sleeping bag hybrids. They are extremely light weight, but that means they can also be cold and uncomfortable. They may leak, or be water-resistant rather than water-proof. Condensation can also be an issue if you are forced to zip the bivy up completely at night. 

You will generally need a liner and a sleeping pad for comfort and warmth. Also, having a tarp beneath your bivy can protect you in wet environments. There are all sorts of different bivy sacks out there, depending on your climate and your needs. 

If you are hiking in the forest, then you may have the option of a hanging bivvy. Much like a hammock, the hanging bivvy is a completely covered and attachable shelter that keeps you suspended off of the cold ground. The rules of a liner and insulation still apply.

My personal favorite bivy hammock is the ETROL because of its price and its surprising durability. If you wind up in an area with small trees or no trees at all, you can always set it up as a regular bivy.

The Essential Bivy

Now, even if you are not planning on spending the night in the woods, you should still have an emergency shelter in your ten essentials.

There are emergency blankets out there too, but I recommend the SOL bivy because it is easier to keep wrapped around your body while you sleep. 

Bivys are basically what you are looking for if you don’t want to carry a sleeping bag or a tent. You can set them up anywhere, in a gully, in a cave, under the stars, or right on top of a mountain. They offer instant protection if you are caught in a storm, and they don’t require much set up.

Tarps

The simplest way to stay in the great outdoors without a sleeping bag is to lay out your sleeping pad with a tarp pitched low over top of it. While this offers an easy alternative, it is also the least protective.

When choosing a tarp, make sure yours is the right size for your needs, it should fit over your body and your gear fairly snuggly, so that it keeps your body heat contained. It also needs to have reinforced holes, so that you can pin it down without tearing it. 

You are probably going to want at least a thin bivy or liner to keep your body covered. It’s not necessary, but you ought to test your set-up in a safe place, before trying it in the wild. That way, you know if you are actually comfortable with that level of exposure.

Rain water can still infiltrate your set-up, so tack down your tarp into the ground like you would a tent, and use a smaller tarp underneath, to protect your sleeping pad and gear from the wet/dirty ground. Sleeping pads can be pricey, so you want to make sure you take care of yours. 

Inflatable or Non-Inflatable Pads

You have two options for pads: you can buy inflatable or non. The non-inflatable are bulkier and heavier, but they are reliable. The inflatable may pop, or leak when you need them most. When choosing a pad, consider their insulation rating. If you are only summer camping, then buy a cheaper, less-insulated brand. 

For fall camping, make sure to get something with an R-value of 4 or greater. R-value is the standard insulation rating for pads. Similar to how a sleeping bag can be “rated” to -20F, a pad with a R-value of 4 is rated for 3 seasons.

The ground is going to try to seep your heat, so you need a sleeping pad that can reflect as much of your heat as possible back to you. Your pad not only keeps you warm, but it offers comfort and a sense of a normal bed.

In an emergency, you can use the fallen boughs of coniferous trees piled up into a two-inch thick base and sleep on that, or you can reap wheat and tall grasses and pile it up in a similar fashion. If nothing else, use leaves and needles, anything to keep your body off of the ground.

Final Thoughts

I know this list has given you a lot to think about. There is no one-size fits all alternative to carrying a sleeping bag. You’ll notice that you have a lot of options and no one is stopping you from trying things out for yourself. 

If you go with a hanging bivy or hammock, you can conceivably still use it on the ground if you need to. If you choose the tarp and pad arrangement, maybe that will save enough weight to carry your sleeping bag, or a bivy.

Test out your set-up! Whatever you choose, make sure you can actually last a whole night in it and remember that what works in one environment may not work in another, so give yourself options. Have fun and always, Know before you Go.

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