Sleeping Mats, Pads, Bags and Quilts

Pillow Talk

Getting a good nights sleep is crucial. Whether it’s in a tent, on the floor of an airport or wedged into an uncomfortable bus seat; savvy selection in the sleeping section can make all the difference.

There’s no end to the debate on PCT forums regarding the wisdom of a pillow, personally, I think it is worth sacrificing a few grams for a little luxury. I took a pillow and I would do so again! I used an Exped UL blow up thing. It weighed next to nothing and packs up to nothing too. It does have a tendency to ping out from under your head and I did spend a few restless nights chasing it around the tent. However, once I took the time to attach a securing bit of shock cord to the holes that good people at Exped so thoughtfully provide, it was fantastic. I used my pillow every night and I was very grateful to have it on the trail.

Oddly, the pillow is quite a coveted possession on the PCT. I walked with a guy from Seattle WA, a teacher on his second attempt. His girlfriend sent him a pillow, a proper big household style pillow. He carried it from the Sierras all the way to Washington and it earnt him the trail name Pillow Talk!

WM Pillow
WM – Like Resting on a Cloud

Anyway, even if you’re not walking across America … a nice comfy pillow is always great to have. If I’m embarking on any type of long haul or overland travel, I always bring my Western Mountaineering Cloudrest Pillow along. Trust me, it really is like resting your head on a cloud … I love this thing! It packs up small and I can poke it in the corner of any pack or bag. It has its own stuff sack where I can also keep my earplugs and eye mask. But the best bit is the lanyard which I stick around my next when I’m on a long-haul flight and dosed up with Sominex … ensures that I down lose it between the seat to the bloke behind me! This little beauty is fantastic for any overland travel and is absolutely my go-to travel pillow. I’m sure the gram-weenies have already moved on, but for those of us who are old enough and wise enough to appreciate a little luxury, this is the ultimate pillow!

What’s The Mat … Eeeeerrrrh …???

The very first time I ever backpacked, I spent a very cold, wet and uncomfortable Easter on one of those massive rolls of yellow foam. I have never slept on one since … that should tell you enough! To be fair, mat technology really has come on by leaps and bounds over the last 20-30 years. Once a market dominated by Therm-a-Rest, today the options are seemingly limitless and will keep the average procrastinating PCT prepper in a state option paralysis for months. For me the choice is simple, the most comfortable mat I can find that packs down to an acceptable size and doesn’t weigh a tonne. Clearly, I’m in search of camping Nivarna … the good news is that it actually exists.

It is all too easy to forget about how much heat the cold and sometimes frozen ground conducts away from us when we sleep. So the theory holds true that the more insulation between you and the ground the warmer you will be. Even if I’m only camping in the summer in the UK, I always use a well-insulated mat. Ultimately though it’s about comfort which is a bit subjective. However, for me I like a mat that doesn’t rustle like a crisp packet everytime I turn over, is of a sufficient size to actually sleep on, stays inflated, and is easy to blow up. Let me introduce you to the Exped UL7 Downmat with Schnozzel Pumpbag. I am not going to waffle on about its weight to warmth ratio … if you want to know more take a look at the review by TGO Magazine …

This mat is luxurious, and so comfortable that it’s like sleeping on a mattress at home. It’s also very warm. This is because it’s filled with down and is quite thick. I can’t say what it’s like at -24ºC but it was certainly fine at -8ºC camped on snow. As it’s down-filled it shouldn’t be blown up by mouth (moisture in your breath would dampen the down) so it comes with a large stuffsack that doubles as a pump. This is reasonably easy to use though a little awkward in a small tent. The down is held in welded chambers so it can’t move about. The mat is also lightweight – the lightest for the warmth tested – and compact. The shell fabric is quite grippy on the top so your sleeping bag doesn’t slide around but slightly slippier on the base – I found it slid around on a silicone nylon groundsheet when camped on a slight slope. The fabrics are not puncture resistant like those on heavier DownMats so it does require care. The drawback to the mat is the high cost. But if you want the warmest, most comfortable lightweight mat around this is it. There are two  shorter sizes than the one I tested, the XS at 120cm and 400 grams and the Small at 163cm and 500 grams, and one longer one, the Large at 197 cm and 735 grams which has a width of 65cm.

What the reviewer fails to tell you about is the simple but very efficient inflated/deflate valves and the clever Exped chair kit that converts the mat into a seat and/or chaise. Not exactly weenie weight backpacking, but still an awesome option to have for those car camping weekends.

So there you have it. In my humble opinion, the Exped Downmat UL7  is the best mat out there. However, because I’m a gear geek I do of course have another mat … an original Therm-a-Rest NeoAir – super lightweight, about the size of a coke can and perfect for a few hours on the airport floor.

Sleep System
Sleeping in Nivarna … Exped Downmat, Enlightened Equipment Quilt and Silk Liner

Bags of Bags

Maybe you are one yourself, if not you almost certainly know one … I’m talking about bag hoarders. The peculiar folk who take the time and trouble to carefully fold and store plastic and paper bags, particularly nice smart or unusual bags. The whole 5p debacle has exacerbated this type of behaviour, with entire draws now being set aside to store the precious plastics … well, this is pretty much me with sleeping bags. I currently own 3 bags and 2 quilts!

It’s hard to say if there is a “best” option, but unquestionably the one that I use most is my Enlightened Equipment Revelation 950DT 20°F Quilt. It is super versatile, warm, ultralight, packs down small and works in perfect harmony with my Exped Downmat. I used this combination throughout the PCT and if I did it again I would definitely go with another EE quilt but I would sacrifice the grams and go 10°F warmer and one size up on the length. Quilts don’t seem to work for everyone, but I found that if I used it exactly as suggested – with a good quality mat, silk liner and tucked in properly around the mat – it was as efficient and more comfortable than a regular bag. Enlightened Equipment makes beautiful bespoke bags and quilts. I would definitely recommend taking a look if you’re in the market for some top quality kit.

On the subject of bespoke, top quality kit, my EE might be the most used, but my PHD is the most loved. I got sucked into investing in this custom 5 season bag when I trekked to Everest Base Camp. I spent a few nights camped at “actual” Base Camp during the climbing season of 2014. It was fucking freezing … sorry but there is no other way to describe it! My handcrafted PHD Designs 1000 Fill Power 0°F bag basically saved me from a certain death. Far too warm for use in most situations, its perfect for that occasional winter wild camp and it is bizarrely comforting just to know its there, stored lovingly beneath my bed.

For completeness, I guess I should mention the others …

  • Mont Bell Spiral Hugger Quilt – Summer weight and I’m pretty sure they don’t make it anymore. Great for overland travel in warm and tropical climates where you need a little something. Packs to about the same size as a Nalgene!
  • Marmot Hydrogen – Great 2 season lightweight bag. Will see you through the summer in Europe and the UK. Mines 15 years old, been washed half a dozen times and is still in top condition.
  • Mountain Equipment 3 Season – My first down sleeping bag. It’s over 25 years old, warm, heavy and bulky. If you haven’t got your own bag and you want to come camping with me, this is the one you’ll be using.

So, that’s pretty much my word on sleep systems. Just a few more essentials I like to add … silk liner, earplugs, eyemask and Advil PM … G’night!


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