Do your research on the area where you plan on hiking and have gear that will keep you safe and warm in the lowest anticipated weather. Look at the Bureau of Meteorology climate data. I’m often surprised how warm the over night averages are for some areas. For example, when I first started out I used a sleeping bag that would go down to -10 degrees Celsius but looking at the data revealed that the weather for the last 50 years in my main hiking area seldom dropped to -1 degrees Celsius.
The gear I hike with would be regarded as 3 season – it would start to get very uncomfortable possibly unsafe in the snow – but I don't hike in these conditions. I still hike in winter below zero but avoid the snow region in winter. Please don’t do as I originally did and get gear that covers you for every possible situation, you will lugging around many unnecessary kilograms.
A good nights sleep is important for me therefore I invest a bit of money and weight into these items. You should be able to get a comfortable, full-length mat for under $140 that weight under 500 g and has an R-value higher than 3, to start out.
The first option is the closed cell foam mattress these are cheap ($25) and rather light at 320 g, however they are bulky and not very comfortable. The self-inflating mats tend to be heavy (900 g), not that comfortable and can be expensive too ($100+). I prefer something a bit more comfortable and go with air pads. These are comfortable, lightweight mattresses that you inflate, they are more expensive and can get holes if not treated carefully.
I always go for a full-length mattress; I don’t think the weight saving of a short mattress justifies the reduction in comfort. Air pads tend to be reasonably thick so you shouldn’t have trouble with your hips hitting the ground if properly inflated. Material is a bit of a personal choice some mattresses can make a strange noise or feel weird on your skin. However, warmth is very important when thinking about your mattress. I have two mats one that is very light but I can only use it in warm to mild weather, then in colder weather I use my warmer heavier mat which stops the cold radiating up from the ground (I found this out the hard way).
The R-value of the mat will give an indication of the warmth (or the resistance to heat flow). It’s a little tricky to gage what will work best for each individual but as a rule of thumb a R-value of 2.5 will be ok down to 0 degrees, R-value 4 down to around -7 degrees.
I also like a ground sheet when I’m camping on the ground with no tent to protect my mat. I’ll either use my poncho as the groundsheet or a thick plastic bag.
Mats I use
I use the following three mats that I have purchased with my own money. I'm not encouraging you to buy these, rather use the table as a benchmark to help you compare mats that you may be interested in purchasing. I also use a Sea To Summit Aeros Pillow as it really helps me sleep. It weights 82g and cost $35.
I pretty much alway use my Thermarest Neoair as it is so darn comfortable, warm and light.
Be careful with the temperature ratings provided by bag manufacturers they are all over the place. Good manufacturers are now moving to the European system that provides a categorised rating system (EN 13537). The bag should detail the:
Note for this classification system a standard man is 1.73 m and 73 kg and a standard woman is 1.6 m and 60 kg.
Also personal factors come into play, your metabolism, your gender, level of tiredness, food consumption, hydration and weather can make changes.
Tips for warmer sleep are to wear warmer clothes, shelter out of the wind, use a warmer mat, and use a sleeping bag liner. I like to test my bags in my backyard when a cold night is expected.
Things to think about when investing in a sleeping bag are:
I have mummy bags at they save a bit of weight and can be warmer but you could get larger bags for a bit more room. I also think a hood is a must for those nights when the cold rolls in. A neck baffle will also stop all the heat escaping.
I much prefer down bags to synthetic as they tend to weigh less and are warmer. However, it down can be more expensive and isn’t good if it gets wet. Newer bags are treating the down with water resistant material to combat this. Synthetic can be heavy, bulky and often expensive too (although technology is catching up here). I just make sure my bag is always inside a dry bag inside a plastic bag in my pack.
I recommend getting one warmer weather bag to start with and only getting a winter bag if you want to go out in the winter months. Check out the lowest minimum temperature ever recorded for your area and you will probably be surprised. I made the mistake of getting a bag that would “cover all my hiking needs” and found I was dragging round a heavy bag that I’d sweat in for 90% of my adventures. I now have two bags, the heavy warm one and a tiny lightweight one I use for most of my hiking.
Not exactly a sleep system but I always have a pair of earplugs with me. Sometimes your tent mate will snore or perhaps the other campers are having a party. I don’t use them often but when I do need them they are priceless.
Sleeping bags I use
The following is a list of sleeping bags I have purchased with my own money and their pros and cons. I'm not encouraging you to buy these, rather use the table as a benchmark to help you compare bags that you may be interested in purchasing. I have just upgraded to a hiking quilt, it was rather expensive but for what it is, a custom made amazing piece of kit, I am very happy with it. I use it solo hiking in winter and its also wide enough to share with my partner. I love quilts as I often feel trapped in sleeping bags and can't move around like i normally would. I purchased mine from Enlighten Equipment (USA) but now there are also some great local Australian brands that are making quilts.