Sleeping gear for camping that is both light/ultralight and cheap?
June 21, 2006 11:01 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking to put together sleeping gear for mild-weather camping, where low weight and low cost are equally important. So I'm seeking advice on the best way to balance these factors (since the lightest products seem to be the most expensive).

So far I'm leaning towards a layer of warm clothing + a fleece blanket wrapped around me like a sleeping bag + a sleeping pad.

Would a Space Blanket be a useful outer layer?

For the sleeping pad, what I'm seeing recommended are Big Agnes Insulated Air Core pads or the Thermarest "lite" orange pads (either of these would be about $50 for one of the smaller sizes, for a total of maybe $65 with the blanket).

Other useful info: I'm 5'7", I'm planning to do at least a month total of simple / mild-weather camping this year (don't anticipate any overnights below 40 F), and I care about minimizing weight because there's other heavy equipment I need to bring on my trips and I need to have only carry-on luggage for flights. My tent is a typical low-end Coleman dome, 5x7 ft.
posted by allterrainbrain to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Don't sleep with a space blanket, you'll end up soaked in your own sweat.

I would also recommend not foregoing the sleeping bag in favor of the fleece blanket. Even in a temperate climate with 60F nights a 300 gram blanket won't be enough and your nights will get very long at around 4am. If you get wet, you could begin to border on the dangerous side. Go for the sleeping bag, seriously.

If you are willing to spend the extra 8 ounces or so, this sleeping pad will serve your purpose well.

Trust me when I say that the weight you save on your sleeping gear is the most expensive weight in comfort you can save.
posted by 517 at 11:26 PM on June 21, 2006

I'm roughly your height and it's been my experience that full size therma-rests are so worth it compared to the small or 3/4 length versions. The full size doesn't add much weight, take away much extra space, and it makes that much easier to get a good night's sleep.
posted by Staggering Jack at 11:28 PM on June 21, 2006

Ooh also, if weight is an issue, look at sleeping under a tarp. It's the only thing I sleep under when backpacking. When you add in a cheap mosquito net, it beats a tent every time. They weigh nothing and after a few nights, you get a feeling for sleeping out in the open and eventually won't bother to even set it up unless it's windy or going to rain.

If you do sleep out in the open though, mind the dew that will form on your bag in the morning.
posted by 517 at 11:36 PM on June 21, 2006

Three tricks for cold overnights:

- Wear a warm stocking cap to bed. It won't substutite for a crap sleeping bag, but it helps.

- When you wake up cold at 4 am, eat the warm pop-tart you left in the foot of your sleeping bag. It'll give your body energy to keep itself warm.

- Make sure anything you sleep in is breathable. If it traps sweat, it'll just make you colder.
posted by Sfving at 2:10 AM on June 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Light 'n' cheap tips:
Alternative Gear
Homemade Outdoor Gear

The biggest help could be to lose the Coleman tent (I can't find the weight online, but if it's the one I think it is they tend to be really heavy.) There are plenty of lighter tents out there though they tend to be pricey, though I've seen a couple by Eureka! that are 3-4 lbs and under $100 (haven't tried 'em.) Coleman makes a couple in that style too, for about 80 bucks. I use a Sierra Designs Clip Flashlight but these are more expensive and these days I don't know if they're worth the money. These are all really solo tents; if you are going with a partner there are bigger, light options but they tend to be pricier. Don't forget to seal the seams before your trip.

Cheaper/lighter tent alternatives: A lot depends on where you'll be. If you'll be someplace like the AT or LT with a shelter network that may be all you need (indeed, when hiking there I don't carry a tent -- just an ultralight homemade plastic bivy sack as backup.) If bugs are a problem you can rig something with a Tyvek groundsheet, a tarp and mosquito netting. If you'll be below treeline, consider a hammock with tarp for rain protection. These range from dirt cheap to very expensive -- stay away from the "Army surplus" jungle-style hammocks as they're really heavy and cumbersome. I know folks who've raved about the Hennessys.

Dropping the weight on your shelter system will give you more leeway in choosing your pad. I've had good luck with the inexpensive EMS Mt. Hood closed-cell foam pad I got at EMS but if you're sensitive it'll probably drive you nuts. Before the Mt. Hood I used a Thermarest and really liked that too. Remember the pad -- not the sleeping bag -- is what keeps your back warm so if you sleep cold go thicker. It's your call whether to get a 3/4 length or full-length pack but if you're keeping the heavy tent the question's kind of moot.

Definitely go with a sleeping bag. Depending on where you are a 40-degree F or even a 20-degree bag is a good idea (I've seen it get into the 30s on mountains in NH in late summer.) If you're expecting 40-degree nights go ready for 20. Hopefully your bag has a full-length zipper so you can use it as a quilt when it gets hot. This has turned out to be the easiest way for me to keep the temperature comfy at night without having to get up and put on/take off clothing (too hot -- stick your feet out; too cold -- bundle up, etc.)

Cooking system: Pepsi-can alcohol stove and Lipton/Knorr dinners with tuna/chicken pouches. Unless you'll be away from civilization for more than a week at a time you won't go nuts. Use a Wal-Mart (Yeah, I know) Mirro Grease Saver as your cook pot (replace the plastic knob and/or add a wire bail). These are almost as light as the titanium pots that go for 5 times as much. Carry the alcohol (HEET-brand -- but not Iso-HEET! -- works well) in a Poland Springs bottle (mark it well!) or the bottle it comes in. A windscreen, lexan spoon and a small scrubby complete the system and it'll all fit in the pot. Use locally-available rocks for a pot stand or make a combo stand/windscreen from a bigger can.

Clothing you might not have considered: fleece stocking cap and lightweight balaclava -- use one or both for sleeping depending on how cold you get. Dirt cheap at Army/navy stores and light. A boonie hat is good for keeping rain and sun off your head -- ten bucks at A/N store. You really don't need more than two pairs of hiking socks (I carry one pair myself) but two pairs of liners is nice. Camp/fording shoes: Wal-Mart sells Waldi/Crocs knock-offs for under 9 bucks. They're just as light and just a little stiffer than the 30-dollar ones, but they get comfier with a little wear. Lightweight gloves if you'll be doing a lot of scrambling. Compression shorts instead of underwear if you have chafing issues (don't ask how I know this :( ) Compeed pads instead of Band-Aids for blisters/bad chafing.

Hydration/purification: Nalgene bottles are heavy. Soda bottles are light, essentially free and surprisingly durable. Consider a lightweight water bag like the 4-liter MSR DromLite if you're going to have long distances between water sources (a morning hike before cameling up is a bummer.) I still haven't found a purification system I'm completely happy with but if you're going to be in the U.S. you probably don't need to worry about one that kills viruses.

Also keep in mind the more discount store-type stuff you use the less you'll need to take on the plane -- just buy it at your destination.

Have fun!
posted by Opposite George at 3:49 AM on June 22, 2006 [3 favorites]

Just to be clear on the viruses thing: You still need to find a system that kills/removes bacteria/protozoans/multicellular parasites.
posted by Opposite George at 3:55 AM on June 22, 2006

I'd spend the money on the bag and tent, if you decide that you can't go with a tarp. The modern down bags are not only very light, but they pack very small. Small is also important. Small means smaller pack. Smaller packs weighs less.

The tarp and groundcloth is great, if you are in an area without bugs. Otherwise, you need to also carry mosquito netting, and be able to rig it all -- by this point, a small tent starts to win.

If you're going to carry fuel in a non fuel bottle, the *only* safe fuel to carry is ethyl alcohol, and not denatured, either. One big swig of white gas or methanol can do real harm to you. So, if you can't drink it, don't put it in a bottle that says "I'm drinkable." When you're tired, you'll do stupid things like grab the wrong bottle. Make sure the wrong bottle says "FUEL" in all ways -- leave it in the original bottle, or use a dramatically different bottle that holds nothing but fuel.

(The difference between denatured alcohol and regular ethyl alcohol is that stuff has been added to make it unsafe to drink, which means that it isn't liable for drinking alcohol taxes. That's why Everclear costs more than the can of denatured alcohol at the local home supply shop. Everclear burns just as well in a given stove as denatured alcohol, but isn't nearly as poisonus.)

If you make the Pepsi Can Stove, you should make three. One of them will work very well. After three, you'll have mastered it, but don't declare that it's crap until you try it a couple of times -- getting the holes even is important, and thin aluminum is occasionally tricky stuff.

The one exeption to the stove is if you plan to boil water to purify it. The ultralight stoves just can't do this on a reasonable scale. The right answer is to pick a different method.

Finally, the magic trick of ultralight is the boots. Namely, the lack thereof. If you get your pack right (total weight without consumables, 30 lbs or less.) you don't need sturdy boots, you can get by with sturdy shoes. That can shave a pound or so off your feet -- and pounds off the feet are like ounces off the rim of a bike, the energy you save is huge, compared to the mass you shed.

Echoing the sleeping cap. Mine is a wool watch cap. Important. Food is as much a part of keeping warm as insulation, so you need to make sure you eat before you sleep, and whatever food you carry, you like to eat. It's a mistake to go lighter on food if you won't want to eat it because of the taste.
posted by eriko at 5:14 AM on June 22, 2006

If you make the Pepsi Can Stove, you should make three.
I've had great luck with Don Johnston's Photon Stove -- it puts out a lot of heat (for a very short period of time -- mine boils a liter in 3-4 minutes.) Fortunately, the first one worked for me, but on that note try to do a one or two night dry run, or keep the first couple of nights of your trip close to civilization, in case you need to reengineer some of your setup. And yeah, if you need to boil water for purification, an alky stove won't cut it.

Food is as much a part of keeping warm as insulation, so you need to make sure you eat before you sleep, and whatever food you carry, you like to eat. It's a mistake to go lighter on food if you won't want to eat it because of the taste.
Word. If you're not used to hiking all day, for several days running, be prepared to have no appetite for a few days starting out as your body's "fuck you" for putting it through the ordeal. Please do your best to eat regardless. High-calorie density foods are good for this (Peanut butter works; also King-sized Snickers bars have 510 calories -- read nutritional labels when stocking up.) The same can happen with water, so keep an eye on your hydration.

What's nice about the instant-type grocery store foods (if they don't disgust you) is that they're usually full of sodium, which makes electrolyte depletion less of a concern. Or carry a zip-lock full of Gatorade and have some with dinner.
posted by Opposite George at 5:56 AM on June 22, 2006

Oh, and on keeping warm, don't sleep in the clothes you hike in unless they're thoroughly dry.
posted by Opposite George at 5:58 AM on June 22, 2006

I like sleeping on a Z-Rest - they're lighter and much cheaper than a Thermarest, and only a little less comfortable.
posted by exogenous at 6:51 AM on June 22, 2006

Best answer: Z-Rest is a good pad. (exogenous, 2nd!) And seriously about 30% of the cost of a thermarest. That said, your criterion is really "size" and not weight -- if you care about carrying on your gear, the difference of a few ounces is not much, but the difference between being able to fit the tent in your travel bag is.

NF Kilo Bag. This is a 2.2 lb 30° bag. It was a good compromise for me (how many nights will I spend out at less than 30? A few, but that's what the silk liner is for). It compresses to roughly the size of a grapefruit. It's warm enough for chilly nights, but cool enough that you don't die in it in the summer. It's down, but it's got the pertext shell, so it's dew resistant (to a point). It was $99 on sale at campmor (I think it was last year's model or something).

Or, if you don't care as much about compressability, I think that REI and others sell fleece sleeping bags. These are about $40 and they will keep you warm on a summer night, but not at any elevation (and you'll have to make sure you're not in direct contact with the ground for sure). They pack pretty small, but not grapefruit sized -- more like "loaf of bread". You could bring one of those and a silk liner for it, which is the size of an orange, and that would probably do for temperatures down to 40-ish. Wear clothes to bed if you're cold. Besides, it sounds like you'll be doing weekends (though on a second read, you don't mention this specifically), so it's not like you'll die if you're a bit cold one or two nights. I say this as someone who's spent a few cold nights out. A night at 12° really does something for the soul!

You should also look at downsizing your tent. I'm sure that puppy weighs like 10 or 11 lbs. Paying $50 more to save a few ounces on a sleeping bag, won't change the fact that your tent is really weighing you down. A tarp might do you well, depending on the bug situation where you'll be camping. You don't need to buy the really really expensive ($100?!!) tarps from a tent company. Something from Home Depot will probably do. Get two small tarps, at a cost of approx $10 each. One is for the ground and one is for the tenting. A bag of rope and stakes ($4) will help you rig it. If you go this route, practice setting it up before you go. You want to know how to setup a leanto, or a three corner job, and what to do if there aren't acceptable trees, or no sticks. This idea won't work if you're going to deserts or somewhere else without a lot of tree cover. But for most "good to fair" weather, campsite, or small hike in, camping, you'll be fine.
posted by zpousman at 7:19 AM on June 22, 2006

I have a comma problem. (Step 1 of 12).
posted by zpousman at 7:21 AM on June 22, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the great answers so far! For people interested in this thread, I'll definitely report back on what I buy (and then on how it worked).

It's definitely true that the Coleman tent (at 7.8 lbs) will be the heaviest part of my camping gear -- it was just so cheap, and I couldn't find anything affordable in a lightweight-tent category. Hopefully someday I'll have a Jungle Hammock -- they seem perfect for me but they're waaaaay expensive.

For food, another great idea (imho) is seaweed, especially wakame and hijiki -- doesn't require heat to rehydrate and is VERY nutritious for the weight. Each kind of seaweed is really unique in terms of taste, and wakame is probably the most interesting and mild taste if you feel like trying some seaweed...
posted by allterrainbrain at 9:40 PM on June 22, 2006

No wonder you need cheap camping gear if you're eating a 7 course meal from nobu as your dinner!? Haha. Just kidding with you. I've never taken seaweed camping; I might have to try it.
posted by zpousman at 12:13 PM on June 26, 2006

Response by poster: :) ... maybe someday I'll be eating at Nobu and buying all ultralight gear (not to mention that pony)...

So the setup I'm trying is listed below. When I'm done with my travels in mid-September, I'll report on how it all worked out and whether I needed to make any modifications. I'll be doing three weeks of camping -- about one week each in in NY, MA and MI (all with other people, in semi-developed campgrounds).

$30 -- 7.8 lbs -- Coleman Sundome tent, 5'x7' (from

$12 -- 1.8 lbs -- thick fleece blanket, 300 weight, 68"x60" (from

$9 -- 0.4 lbs -- Cocoon TravelSheet, Nylon, 86"x35" (from

$7.50 -- 1.3 lbs -- Insulite sleeping pad, 66"x20" and 3/8" thick (from

$2.50 -- 0.9 lbs total -- two shower curtain liners, for an under-tent tarp plus an over-tent emergency tarp if needed (from local dollar store)

[existing clothing, socks & knit hat to be worn as sleepwear and used as pillow]

Total cost incl. taxes & shipping: $61.

Total weight: 12.2 lbs (mostly from heavy tent -- tent is the first thing I should replace if I have more $$ in the future).
posted by allterrainbrain at 2:23 AM on June 27, 2006

Response by poster: I should clarify that I plan to use the fleece blanket folded around me as a sleeping bag *inside* the folded TravelSheet. The 35" dimension of the TravelSheet is its folded-in-half or closed width. That will help with both comfort and warmth.
posted by allterrainbrain at 2:52 AM on June 27, 2006

Response by poster: Okay: the promised report on how this all worked out!

TENT: was great for warm weather; would be bad in even mildly cold weather.
I would call the Coleman Sundome tent a 1-season tent rather than a 3-season tent. It is, amazingly, impossible to close the mesh sides (of the tent's four sides, two are mesh-only for their entire upper halves, and the rain fly -- which is held taut several inches out from these mesh panels -- is their only covering, and its lower edge is the same elevation as their lower edges). For $30, I'm not sure how critical I can be, but I think this is purely a summer tent. It did set up very easily, and it was completely rainproof in heavy rain.

BLANKET & TRAVELSHEET: excellent combo that worked perfectly.

SLEEPING PAD: replaced.
The insulite pad was too hard & thin for me to be comfy with it. (It is, however, the perfect thick yoga mat and that's how I'll be using it.) I replaced it with a 66" Big Agnes inflatable pad -- not self-inflating, but takes only 20 good breaths to inflate. An outstanding pad that I can't recommend highly enough.

TARP: the shower curtain liner (I only brought one, since the tent's fly tested out as waterproof) was the perfect $1 tarp.

posted by allterrainbrain at 10:08 PM on September 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

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