The quality of your sleep can make or break any expedition and when the temperature outside is -40 (°F or °C) with howling wind, getting good sleep can be a real challenge.
Don’t skimp on a good sleeping bag. Down bags are much more expensive, but pack down smaller, and have a better warmth-to-weight ratio. Their weakness is moisture. Synthetic bags can be a bear to carry, but they will keep their insulative properties even when wet, and will leave much more extra money in your wallet for filling your gear closet.
Having an oversized bag is the best. There’s room for you to sleep with your boot liners inside, so you don’t wake up to rock-hard bootsicles. It’s also nice to have a bag that’s big enough to change clothes inside of, but don’t go TOO large, because your body has to warm up all of that air space while you sleep, so pick a good middle ground.
In recent years, sleeping pad technology has come a long way. You can pay more for an inflatable camping pad than a nice used tempurpedic on craigslist. For our purposes, you don’t need the top of the line inflatable because we’ll get all of that juicy R-value (the measure of a pad’s insulative properties) from an old standby. Remember the good ol’ closed-cell foam eggshell pad your dad has lying around from the glory days of backpacking? Now-a-days it’s commonly referred to as a Z-rest, and in combination with your inflatable, will ensure the greatest warmth of your sleeping system.
There are two ways to couple your foam pad with an inflatable version. Foam-on-top (FOT) and Foam-on-bottom (FOB).
If the temps aren’t too low, FOB is your best friend. The tacky surface of the foam pad locks the inflatable in place so it won’t shoot out from under you in the middle of the night. It also makes your whole arrangement quieter, silencing the swish swish of pad on tent floor when you move around.
If you want the warmest night’s sleep you can get, go FOT. This arrangement puts the superb insulating powers of the foam pad right next to your sleeping bag, so you don’t have to use all of that extra energy warming up the dead air space of your inflatable.
The art of peeing while remaining fully inside your sleeping bag is one learned over time, and I have to hand it to all the ladies out there because you are playing this game on Legendary Mode. It might seem silly (it is silly but you should do it anyway), but practicing this skill before crunch time is a good way to avoid some pretty serious mishaps when the game is on the line.
Never try to hold it in unless you are within an hour of waking up anyway. Your body is using lots of energy to keep that half-liter/liter of urine at body temperature and getting that liquid out keeps that energy around for warming the more important parts. Also once your pee bottle is full, you’ve got an extra hot water bottle! Which brings us to...
If you’ve never used one, you aren’t living. You should use hot water bottles even when you aren’t camping! Seriously. You don’t know what you’re missing.
Nalgenes work great. Fill ’em up with very hot (not boiling) water, seal it tight, CHECK THAT IT’S FULLY SEALED, toss it in a thick wool sock or bottle cover, then into your sleeping bag. The better insulated it is, the longer the heat will last. Plus, if you wake up thirsty, you’ve got lukewarm water on hand. It’s a win-win-win.
Pro Tip - Don’t mix up your pee bottle with your water bottle. There are some scars that never fully heal.
Author: Eric Lillstrom
Raised in the Midwest, Eric is now based in Portland, Oregon, enjoying the bumpier side of the country. Eric is an expedition guide, specializing in the ski expeditions to the North and South Poles. He also guides sea kayaking adventures in the warmer latitudes of the world.
When not out guiding, you’ll find him somewhere in the woods, on a mountain, or in a canoe, passing the hours enjoying the outdoors.