Sleeping Systems (Bags and Pads)

As the Eugene Field children’s poem goes; Wynken, Blynken and Nod one night sailed off in a wood shoe, sailed on a river of crystal light into a sea of dew… Ah, to sleep, to dream. What more could you hope for after a long day of running? That is the whole idea of your sleeping system, to get some Zzz’s.

Please note that there are not separate sections for “Sleeping Bags” or “Pads”. These should be considered together as a team with each contributing aspects to overall performance. Your sleeping system is the primary piece of your kit to aid in recovery. Most competitors will spend more hours in their sleeping system than they do competing so choose wisely. If you are not sleeping well you are not recovering well. Skimping in this department can have very negative effects on morale and performance.

Addressing the first component, the pad is usually a good idea. For certain races some bring just a small foam piece for their hips, others nothing at all. However most opt for some type of pad. The pad obviously provides comfort by protecting you from the rocky ground but more importantly it provides thermal insulation (thus helping you save calories to stay warm). Any winter camper or engineer will tell you that a major portion of your body heat is lost to the ground through conduction, not to the air above through radiation/convection. The compression of your sleeping bag under your body weight provides very little insulation.

As many are aware there are basically three types of options out there. A trip to the local outdoor store will allow you to look over many of the models. Sleeping pad technology and materials of construction are improving and there are more options available today than ever.

Foam Pads: These are quite durable, inexpensive and effective. Their major disadvantage is that they cannot be packed down to a small size so they typically ride on the outside of your pack along with the extra straps to attach them. These can be some of the lightest pads available (8 oz/225 g or less) especially if you cut them down to ¾ – ½ length. Some packs have removable back pads that can double as a very small hip pad.

Full length pad (right), cut down pad (center), pad on pack (left)

Air mattresses: These are the “blow up” models. These have the advantage of being more comfortable than foam pads with the disadvantage that care needs to be exercised to prevent punctures. They do pack down to the smallest volume of any pad. Many of today’s models have reflective materials in their interior to reflect body heat. These can also be procured in the 8 oz/225 g range. Many have used the same air mattress for multiple stage races without issues.

Race weight air mattresses (Nicholas Lamond enjoying breakfast in bed)

Self-inflating/foam hybrids: These are by far the most comfortable but they too can suffer from punctures on occasions, are usually heavier (12 oz / 340 g minimum) and are somewhat bulky. These may become the pad of choice in the future if/when smaller and thus lighter models become available.

No matter which type you select one with an insulating value of R3 is sufficient for most racing. Beyond that the weight penalty becomes significant.

Now that you have decided what you are going to sleep on, your next decision is what you are going to sleep under or in. The aspects of stage racing require optimization of three factors; warmth, weight and bulk (and sometimes a forth, cost).

Warmth: How warm of a sleeping bag you need will be dictated by the race conditions. Deserts while hot in the day can become quite cold at night very quickly. Sleeping bags rated to around 32 deg F (0 deg C) are quite common and are just barely sufficient for some. It is better to error slightly on the warmer side if unsure since you will be operating on reduced calories thus making it harder to maintain body temperatures in cold night environments. Note that sleeping bag temperature ratings are subjective (comfort?) and depend on many factors (fully clothed, etc.). Some manufactures have different ratings for males and females the latter tending to sleep “colder”.

Weight: Balancing out warmth is weight. Obviously the warmer the bag the heavier it will be. Most sleeping bags used by racers utilize down fill (800-900 weight) instead of synthetics. This keeps the weight down but requires keeping the bag dry. If there is any possibility of inclement weather than a waterproof stuff sack is a must (and perhaps a plastic bag over that). Many make the mistake of trying to skimp 2-4 oz (50-100 g) in this department and are miserable every night of the race. One should look for weight savings elsewhere in your kit first (IPod, solar charger, stuffed animals, etc.) before cutting into sleeping bag weight. A reasonable racing sleeping bag weighs around 16 oz / 450 g.

Manufactures of ultralight bags have many tricks to keep the weight down. This results in a highly functional piece of equipment but there are some trade-offs.

  • Ultralight weight materials of construction: The fabric of most race bags are very light and can be ripped if care is not exercised.
  • Smaller size: Girth (especially in the shoulder region) and length of race bags are smaller than regular sleeping bags. This can be a serious disadvantage for larger frame people. It is also an advantage in that the sleeping bag warms up quickly when you get in.
  • Short or no zippers: Most race bags will not have a full length zipper and it will not be a very robust one at that. This makes it a little harder to get in and out. It is also a disadvantage if you like to unzip the foot of your bag for thermal regulation.
  • No zipper tape: There will be no tape alongside of the zipper to prevent it snagging on the bag material. Care must be exercised to prevent jamming and rips.

Bulk: Bulk is also important but this is can be easily minimized by using a down bag along with an appropriately sized stuff sack. Compression stuff sacks while minimize volume have added weight due to the straps and are not generally recommended. Some racers dispense with the stuff sack and just cram their bag into their pack.

Now that we have discussed design criteria let us look at available models. There are many options out there to choose from all having pros and cons. There is not likely one best selection for stage racing, and your choice is dependent upon your preferences. Typical brands include: Western Mountaineering, PHD, Yeti, Enlightened Equipment, Raidlight, and others.

Classic Sleeping Bag: This is what we all know about. The cocoon of warmth you crawl into at the end of the day. There are many variants but for the purpose of this discussion they are all lumped together. Most racing bags are a modified mummy type with a zipper on one side. Some do not have a hood and necessitate the wearing of a cap at night.

Typical race bag (16 oz/560 grams)

Bivouac / Duvet: This design has its roots in mountaineering. This can be basically a coat with a half of a sleeping bag that attaches to it at the waist or conversely a coat that has a tail that tucks up in the back for your legs. The advantages are obvious – light weight, no need for a coat, etc. Disadvantages are not as obvious such as lack of flexibility to tailor to race conditions.

Quilts: These are just what they sound like however they are not like your grandmother’s! These are basically a sleeping bag that is unzipped and laid out. Shape is a tapered at the foot and there may be a foot pocket to slip your feet into. The engineering thought behind them is that insulation on top is better than on bottom. So using with a pad you get a lighter system at the same temperature rating or a warmer one for the same weight. You do need to have pad or some form of insulation under you for these to be effective. Additional weight savings are realized since they usually do not have zippers. Additionally, they do not have hoods incorporated into their design and require a cap at night.

Of course the “best” bag will most likely be the most expensive one you are looking at. If you are on a budget these can be a big ticket item, especially if you have no real intention of using it in the future. Search the web for a used one if you are in this boat. On the other hand, if you are an outdoors type person you will see the value in this piece of equipment and most likely develop an affection for your race bag. It will also, if cared for, provide you with years of service if you decide to continue with stage racing.

Finally, a word on pillows. Depending upon how you sleep (side, back, stomach) you will wish that you had a pillow. Side sleepers are more susceptible to this while back and stomach sleepers tend not to be quite as impacted. You may be tempted to bring along a blow-up type pillow and if you wish give it a try. You could consider using your pack, your sleeping bag stuff sack filed with spare clothes and/or shoes as a pillow also. This is usually sufficient however odoriferous. Fortunately, most get used to the smell after a day or so.