One of the things that puts people off camping the most is that it’s generally viewed as cold, wet and uncomfortable. In the tents section, I’ve covered the shelter side of things which removes the wet factor. A good sleeping bag (seperate section here) is your best weapon against the cold but what else can you do to ensure a decent night’s sleep?
First off, the sleeping bag on its own is useless unless you insulate it from the cold ground. It’ll also be extremely uncomfortable. So I’ll start with sleeping mats. Sleeping mats insulate you from the ground and give you a cushion to sleep on, so it’s extremely important to get it right.
There are three types of mat:
– Foam/rubber (not actually sure rubber ones still exist tbh)
– Self inflating
(there are camping beds too but not going to cover them due to weight and pack size)
Most important for judging any mat, is the r-rating. Essentially a scale from 1-6, 1 having next to no insulation, and 6 being suitable for Antarctica. If a mat is decent enough, it should have an r-rating listed in the product description. For general, year round sleeping (except cold winter), an r-rating of 2.5-3 is what you’re looking for, higher than that if you’re snow camping. It is possible to boost your mat by puuting, for example, a cheap foam roll mat underneath or some kind of insulating layer
The air mats are by far the thickest, most cushioned and most comfortable. I’ve had better nights’ sleep on camping air mats than I’ve ever had indoors. They have the added bonus of packing up far smaller than the other mats too; a decent one will pack to the size of a water bottle. It’d seem like an easy choice and I should probably end this section here with a few good examples. One of the more popular mats at the moment, although with a low r-rating of 1.6, is the Trekology UL80. I have one myself, and use a foam mat underneath to insulate forther and prevent any damage to the mat. It’s quieter than some of the more expensive air mats, is very thick, and has a curved top to stop you rolling off during the night, which is a great touch.
Or this insulated NeoAir Xlite by Thermarest.
The NeoAir is probably the highest rated air mat on the market, with an r-rating of 4.2 seeing it through most conditions. Extremely small and light, it’s not going to eat up space in your pack.
But there’s a slight flaw with air mats. Air. Which is kind of integral to the design. And no, I don’t mean the added effort to blow the thing up in the first place. Here’s a quick diagram.
If you put an air mat down on the ground, which we’ll assume is in winter to help with the demonstration and therefore freezing cold, the air in the mat will cool to match it because the thin material it’s made from doesn’t do much to insulate it from the ground, and neither is the base of your tent or bivi. What you need to do is put something inbetween the ground and the air mat to stop it from cooling in the first place. The best thing to use? The second option on the list. A foam mat.
The humble foam mat is generally the thinnest option of the three, doesn’t pack down very small, and isn’t the softest thing to lie on. But it is superb insulation against the cold, and very cheap to buy. You could use it as above, with an air mat on top for the best performance, or just on its own to save carrying two mats. Mats do come in different thicknesses for different seasons, but I’d always recommend going for the maximum for extra comfort and warmth.. What you’re paying for with the most expensive mats is an insulating layer, usually sprayed on the inside of the mat to provide protection from the cold ground.
Another option to the traditional roll mat, is a folding version, like this one;
Which you might find easier to pack into your bergen or bag – utilising space properly is very important. I’ve spoken to a couple of guys who use them and they do rate them. If you’re going to pack a foam mat anyway, make it a good one.
The last option, and the one I use most often, is a self inflating mat. Sounds like a lazy persons option, and it is. A self inflating mat does exactly that – it inflates itself. It’s basically a compressed foam, and when you open the valve, air gets in and the foam expands, so it’s a bit of a hybrid between foam and air. The major downside with self inflating mattresses is that they’re about the same size as a sleeping bag, although that’s a bit less than a foam roll mat, and a the heaviest option. I use the Highlander XL one, because the thought of a 3/4 length sleeping mat to me seems stupid – I want to be insulated off the ground, not just partly. It’s been a really good bit of kit the last few years, though a little thin. A good self inflating mat is pretty cheap compared to a good air mat.
You can “upgrade” the warmth of any mat by adding a foil mat onto the the top of it, the idea being that it reflects heat back up. They’re dead cheap to get hold of. Here’s a link to a Highlander one that’s low profile and a bit easier to pack (you don’t want another big roll up mat on top of everything else).
Assuming that you’re not starting fires in the woods to avoid fire risks like your kit catching fire, or a green gas canister exploding, your cook kit isn’t going to be a great source of heat and not for very long either. So what else can we do to stay warm? First up, when you unpack your sleeping bag take a few minutes to shake it and fluff it up – remember it has been compressed into a stuff sack and all the lovely insulating fibres are going to be pretty flat, and that’s not as good at trapping your body heat. Another idea for your bag is to buy a liner for it to add an extra layer – I pack a cheap cotton one like this one partly to add warmth, but also to help keep the inside of my sleeping bag clean. A fleece or thermal one like this one will keep you super warm, but always remember that you don’t actually want to be too warm – the last thing you want is to wake up on a morning having sweated to death during the night and have a wet sleeping bag to sort out. Similarly, you don’t want to be up chugging beer all night either in case you piss all over the sleeping bag. Wet stuff soon gets cold, and ruins the insulation.
Beyond that, in cold weather it’s well worth wearing thermal baselayers anyway and keep them on inside your bag. These Highlander baselayer sets are really good and comfortable to sleep in. I’ve had cheap thermal sets from high street shops for about the same price but they’re not always reliable – keeping your body temperature up is obviously very important. The only other thing I’d recommend is a balaclava (cover the mouth but not the nose types so you can breathe), and then if it’s really cold I’ll add a wool hat on top of that. Obviously in a sleeping bag your head is exposed so make sure you have that bit of extra cover for it. This should all help you get a pretty decent night’s sleep.