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Improving your backcountry sleeping game—Part 1

Sleeping pads are great for glassing

Photo credit: Steve Opat

I’ve come to believe that too many hunters spent too much time researching gadgets, gear, and camo. They feel that finding a superior product will increase the odds of harvesting their desired game. I’m not a contrarian, but I don’t follow that logic. I’m more of a believer that we can give ourselves the advantage by spending more time researching proper nutrition and preparing our food. Also, we can increase success by learning more about staying dry, staying warm and getting rest while away from our cozy homes.

This is part one of a two-part series (for now) where I am attempting to give you some tools to both improve your sleep and stretch the value of your dollar. Here are my five essential tools for obtaining essential rest and staying in the game. In part two, you’ll learn more about how I utilize these items to stay warm throughout the wide range of temperatures we can experience on a backcountry endeavor.

Lightweight is imperative, but lightest is not always best because sometimes the only way to reduce weight is to eliminate features (i.e: make it worse). A vertical baffle paralleling the zipper is an excellent example of weight worth carrying. These extra ounces help retain immeasurable amounts of heat by preventing a draft through the zipper.

The KUIU Super Down sleeping bag

My favorite, the KUIU Super Down sleeping bag

To get a bag you can trust, buy one from a manufacturer that is passionate about your passions; from somebody who completely understands your needs. I recommend the KUIU Super Down bags. My bag has served me well through four full seasons. The bighorn sheep hunting nut-job friend I have—the one who’s been a part of 40+ Dall ram harvests—is a believer in them too.

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  • Sleep in merino wool.

It is loose, light and cozy, aids your thermoregulation and helps keep your bag from stinking like feet and fart.

These lightweight adjuncts now accompany me on every hunt. The different options have specific functions. I choose one that is antimicrobial to help keep my bag clean so it retains its performance throughout a long hunting season. All of the options add at least 5 degrees of range to both ends of your bag’s temperature rating.

These can be used all throughout the day while napping, glassing, shooting, etc. Experience has taught me not to depend solely on an air mattress. If anything, a lightweight z-lite foam pad can be that extra barrier protecting your air mattress from sharp rocks or thorns.

Improving your backcountry sleeping game

Being comfortably cool/warm at night is an essential key to obtaining necessary rest. It requires practice to hone your system and your skills. It requires diligence to execute and it takes discipline to maintain. This series is not the last time we’ll talk about rest and recovery. There are still things like tents and advanced-level rest tactics to be covered in subsequent articles. Stay tuned for part two where I divulge how I use these tools.

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Dave P. - posted 5 months ago on 12-08-2019 08:37:02 pm

For those out there who go the bivy sack route vs. packing a tent, I’ve had great success with buying a stuff sack that is slightly larger than the one that came with the sleeping bag and stuffing the bag & bivy into the compression sack together. Doing so eliminates the ability for the sleeping bag to get wet in any way. It’s worked well for many years now.

Putting a hand warmer at the bottom of your bag is also a cheap and easy way to keep toes warm on frigid nights. I echo the sentiments of the author, a 15 degree KUIU bag is versatile, and works well all season.

For those that like to tent it, do you go with a tipi style, tarp style, or ??? I know there’s a lot of options out there, I just haven’t found anything lighter than my bivy setup, and I’ve been able to handle some nasty weather in it. Now, if your gear/clothes are already wet, I can see that drying out in a tent would be a huge advantage. I just get silly about the weight I’m carrying...

Trail K.
Trail K. - posted 6 months ago on 12-04-2019 09:46:25 am
goHUNT Team

I can chime in with my two cents on quilts since there are a lot of questions and comments specific to them. I purchased a 10 degree Enlightened Enigma quilt a few years ago and have been using it on and off ever since. Two years ago I met with Western Mountaineering at the outdoor retailer show as they launched their quilts and they had some interesting feedback.

They felt like in their testing that no matter how much fill they pumped into a quilt the temperature rating is going to hover around that 26 degree level due to the design of a quilt (open back, no hood, no draft collar). In my use of the Enigma I would agree with their thoughts. I've spent some nights in it in single digit temps but I also had to add every layer I had including puffy gear and my hard shell. Ideally, I'd suggest that a quilt levels out around that mid 20's range, any colder than that and I've gone back to using a traditional mummy bag like the WM Alpinlite or a Versalite. I just sleep warmer and better with those as the temperatures dip. The extra 10oz is worth it to me at that point. Where a quilt shines for me is when I'm going fast and light on Aug to late Sept hunts. I have also used it with a tipi tent/stove combo and a bivy in Oct. A quilt is comfortable if you are a more active sleeper, but if you're cold, it's hard to sleep anyway. Ultimately, we all probably need a few different bags to cover the variance in locations, conditions, and temps.

Steve O. - posted 6 months ago on 12-03-2019 02:19:01 pm

There are some great comments coming on here. Thanks for engaging guys. I'll attempt to respond to most of the inquiries or thoughts. First off, in Part 2, I will talk more about the application of these things. Namely on pairing a down sleeping bag with you down "puffy" layers.
To emphasize: the key with sleeping pads is CLOSED CELL FOAM. The thermarest accordian pads are closed-cell and top notch. I don't personally utilize air mattresses.
I don't have history with down quilts. There was a time when I was into minimalist backcountry excursions and would use just a woobie - the old military poncho liner - they are great to have along, but just not cozy (heavy) enough for cold nights sleeps. In regards to that, I'm the kind of guy who likes weighted blankets. So, I bet a down quilt just wouldnt give me the kind of snuggle I need at night.
Good Ole Trail K at GoHunt is a user of the down quilt though. I will see if I can entice him to comment.

Al C is absolutely right about vapor barriers and dew points. I've been ruminating for two years on how best to teach backcountry hunters about dew points. Al, if you see this, shoot me a message.

Jay K. - posted 6 months ago on 12-03-2019 09:08:48 am
Dallas, TX

Jason - If it's going to be especially cold, I will throw on a down jacket and some gloves. Personally, I find the liners to be restricting. I will just add a little more clothing and pay close attention to my pad setup. I generally run the Big Agnes Q Core SLX. But, if the temp is going to be below about 20 degrees, I will use my Exped Downmat 9. It's heavy, but well worth it when the temps start getting really low.

Will F. - posted 6 months ago on 12-03-2019 08:22:27 am

Great article Steve and thanks for posting. After reading, I just ordered the Western Mountaineering liner. I wish you guys sold the Zlite folding mat and would have ordered that as well. I called your office yesterday and Trail gave me 30 minutes of his time on this same subject and helping me on putting together an order. I have been looking for a gear supplier for some time with folks that actually hunt the way I do and it has been a pleasure having this Insider service, folks that are super helpful over the phone, great content online, etc. You guys are doing an awesome job - keep up the hard work. Thanks again.

Jason K. - posted 6 months ago on 12-02-2019 06:19:53 pm
Windsor, CO

Hey Jay- As a stomach sleeper who tosses & turns all night, I've been considering a 10 degree quilt for a while but wondering about staying warm enough during Oct hunts in Colorado. I've had at least one or two at or below 0 nights each season. Do you use a liner of some sort or just sleep in down clothing if it gets especially cold?

Al C. - posted 6 months ago on 12-02-2019 02:12:52 pm

Bicycle bags was an auto correct for bivy bag.

Al C. - posted 6 months ago on 12-02-2019 02:10:12 pm

Don’t be afraid to talk about vapor barriers. If you are not snow caving in sub zero weather you better think about vapor barriers to maintain your down insulation for those week or longer back country cold camps. A person’s body gives off moisture no matter how cold. Think about how your feet sweat in your boots no matter how cold it is. Well your body does that in a sleeping bag no matter how cold it is. Specifically feet, groin and arm pits. This warm moist air is actually moving away from your body through your sleeping bag insulation until it cools enough to condense. Let’s call that the dew point. This is typically in some layer of insulation. Eventually as down becomes moist it looses it’s insulation value and the dew point gets closer to your body unless you can completely dry your sleeping bag insulation. So this is why mountaineering and extreme cold expeditions have used vapor barriers.

Never heard of this? Well it’s been around for quite a while. Back in the late 90s I was in a unit that could purchase equipment through civilian channels. We were issued feather friends sleeping bags with vapor barriers and bicycle bags.

Brentten S. - posted 6 months ago on 12-02-2019 06:50:33 am

My advice is look up Big Agnes sleep systems. A sleep system is a big investment why they are not at all cheep it will be one of your top expensive purchases so make it worth it. As stated light weight is not always good the key is to go as light as possible without sacrificing comfort. Big Agnes makes extremely lightweight/comfort bags that are not over-the-top expensive. Check them out I promise you will not be disappointed. One more thing to think of they are pro hunting!!

Brentten Stowe

Zackary G. - posted 6 months ago on 12-01-2019 08:16:13 pm

Which Kuiu bag do you use ? I've been debating on buying the 30° bag or the 15° bag, but not sure, using it for September high country mule deer and elk.

Jay K. - posted 6 months ago on 12-01-2019 06:55:34 pm
Dallas, TX

I converted to a down quilt a few years ago. I wish I had sone it years ago. As an active sleeper, the quilt is infinitely more comfortable. I have an overstuffed 20 degree quilt from Ketabatic Gear. I have taken it down into the single digits, with a well-insulated pad. Enlightened makes great stuff. I would also check out the Western Mountaineering quilts. All of the WM quilts and bags are top notch. If you are a back sleeper that doesn’t move much, the quilt won’t be much different than a bag. But, if you toss and turn, a quilt is fantastic.

Curt V. - posted 6 months ago on 12-01-2019 07:07:42 am

Thanks for the great and timely insight, as I'm currently 'shopping' to upgrade my backcountry gear. I'm curious - have you tried down quilts (such as those made by Enlightened Equipment)? I have not used one, but I'm intrigued by the lighter weight and claims that a full bag is a waste of insulation. But, worry it might be "eliminating essential features". Would you consider a quilt over a full bag in early-mid season hunts (say everything above 25 degrees)?