Some type of sleeping insulation is a primary piece of any campers gear list. Nearly everyone owns a sleeping bag of some kind and for starting out (assuming it is warm enough) that will do just fine. For that matter a warm blanket from your home could be sufficient. For me there are three things to consider when selecting your sleeping insulation. First of all warmth. You will want to consider what the worst case scenario will be for your trip and be sure you are prepared for it. The second factor is, you guessed it, weight. This is a great way to save weight in your pack based on the materials it is constructed from and other factors that can save you pounds in your pack. Third, and far more subjectively, comfort. The materials used to construct the bag with can range for something soft and plush (like fleece) to something that has more of a plastic feel and noisy (like cuben fiber). Obviously the fleece would give a great deal of comfort but with that comes a weight penalty.
Sleeping insulation is commonly found in the form of a sleeping bag. Some of these are mummy bags (meaning they have a hood you can hide down in) or just a regular bag that stops near your chin. I do own a few cheap sleeping bags but a new (not probably new to the market but new to many people) is the idea of a sleeping quilt. The theory is this; the warmth of a sleeping bag all comes from the loft that is created. If you compare two sleeping bags of a similar style but with different temperature ratings side by side you will see the same materials but one will appear ‘thicker’ having more ‘loft’ and that will be the warmer bag. With this being true when you climb in a bag and lay down with your body weight on it you completely eliminate any loft and therefor warmth from the underside. What this means is that all the backside material on your bag is nothing but wasted weight (and frankly not easy to get in and out of). This is particularly important for hammock campers who don’t have the ground to shield them from the cold air and wind below them. It is also very quite difficult to get in and out of a standard bag in a hammock.
A sleeping quilt is basically a big blanket but with a foot box (think of the backside of your normal sleeping bag but it usually goes up to about the back of the knees or lower). This helps to keep you in the quilt but also eliminates drafts at the bottom end. They often have a draw sting up at the head so that it can be tightened around the neck (eliminating drafts from the top end). They also often have straps every 2 feet or so to help secure the quilt around the sleeper (usually around the pad that the user is laying on even).
I got connected with a great company called Enlightened Equipment and their owner Tim Marshall and worked closely with him to design a custom piece to be used for 1 season (warm weather) camping. This is basically just a sheet that Tim made for me out of a material called 15d nylon. This has a very soft comfortable feel and is extremely light. This is not just your basic bed sheet though. Tim added snaps at the bottom for the foot box and the draw string at the top to secure it around the neck. He also added the removable straps wrap around my body on the underside to keep this less then 4 ounce insulation from blowing away in the wind. When it’s all ‘buttoned down’ it fits snugly around me to provide relief from any drafts and I am in hopes this will take me down to about 60 degrees and if I added on all my packed clothes even into the 50s! Obviously if I am sleeping in summer temps possibly in the 80s i can still use this (with out all trappings) as a basic sheet to keep the middle of the night chill off that could sneak in and frankly I am just more comfortable having something on me. I could always kick out a leg or fold it off my top half to vent if it gets to warm.
When temps are expected to be consistently below 60 for a low I turn to my cold weather insulation. This is also a quilt from Tim at Enlightened Equipment but no need for a custom order on this one. I went with his regular length (6′) wide version of 30 degree rated quilt (insulated with down and I had them throw in an extra 2 ounces of over-stuff). The quilt is made of 30d nylon and weighs 22.25 ounces which I am VERY pleased with. I haven’t tested how low I can take this setup but if I add the warm weather quilt inside as well as all my packed clothing I expect to be comfortable well into the 20s and possibly even teens. Frankly If the temps are in the single digits you are more then likely to find me in my bed at home then out in the woods.
I am a big proponent of quilts for anyone in the market for sleeping insulation. These provide the best warmth for the least amount of weight (since there is less material) and are far easier to get in and out of; this is especially true for hammock campers but obviously true for ground dwellers as well.
The final thing worth mentioning is that obviously the move to the quilt over the bag is due to the loss of loft when body weight is on the underside of the bag. As mentioned above ground campers can simply use the ground itself and when temps drop use sleeping pads or some other type of insulation from the ground. For hammock campers that cold air and wind below is immediately noticed. This means that in cooler temps (anything below 70 for most people) a layer of insulation for the underside is needed. This is something that I will probably explore in greater detail later but the two options are to lay on a pad; closed cell foam or blow up OR to use an underquilt. This quilt is attached to the bottom of the hammock (not between the bottom of the hammock and the camper) and therefor the loft is not compressed. For me I plan to go with a CCF pad I picked up assuming the comfort is sufficient not only because of the weight and cost savings but also because I can always take that and my tarp to the ground in the event that the hammock can not be used.