- Gwendolyn Dreyer
What I Carry: My Side-Sleeper Kit
"What I Carry" features members of CAGS Backpackers sharing collections of gear — the tried and true pieces we make room for in our pack.
NEMO Disco 15 Sleeping Bag (Women's), $319.95
Weight: 3 lbs., 1 oz.
Dimensions: 73” long, 31” shoulder, 29” hip, 30” knee
Temperature Rating: 17 degrees (F) Fill: 650 FP Down Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite Sleeping Pad (Regular), $189.95 Weight: 12.5 oz. Dimensions: 72” x 20” x 2.5” R-Value: 4.2 Exped AirPillow UL (Large) Weight: 1.9 oz. Dimensions: 18.1” x 11.8” x 4.7” (This pillow has been discontinued.) Your sleep system is no joke when you’re a side sleeper. And the stakes are even higher as you get older. I vividly remember my first backpacking trip in my thirties, after several years of not backpacking. I learned to backpack at a hippie summer camp up in the redwoods of Northern California from middle school through joining the staff in college. No tents, no pillows, a thin foam sleeping pad, and cutting weight out of your pack wasn’t a priority. We carried cans of beans and meat, pots and pans…. Cheap was the way we learned to backpack. And it worked just fine. I have fond memories of lying by the river, staring at the stars, having dug out little holes in the soft sand for my hip and shoulder bones. Fast forward to my thirties, pulling my gear out of storage and assessing what I have, what I’ve lost, and what might need replacing. I still have my 1970s hand-me-down, camp sleeping bag from my father. Still weighs eight pounds. Some things never change. I’ve lost my Therm-a-Rest Z Lite somewhere to time. Bummer. I borrow a self-inflating foam camping pad from a friend until I can save up for a new one. It weighs… I can’t be bothered to weigh it. It’s heavy. No bother. And of course, I’ll just use a stuff sack full of clothing for the pillow, as always. Fast forward to my first night on the trail, and I have immediate regrets. I am not in my twenties anymore. I feel EVERY rock, every twig… everything. The self-inflating pad is no match for my shoulders and hips, and it doesn’t matter how much clothing I shove into my stuff sack, it is never enough. I wake up tired, sore, and wonder how in the world I ever survived this. Frankly, the weight didn’t bother me; I was trained with a heavy pack. But I knew I needed to up my sleep game, as soon as humanly possible. Sleep gear, if you want the combo of comfort and lightweight, is expensive. It’s no joke. But I still carry my 20 year-old Kelty external frame pack and a Tupperware bowl to eat out of. I’m cheap most other places. I rarely replace a piece of gear before it’s worn out. (I wore the same pair of hiking boots for almost 20 years.) However, I saved up to splurge on my sleep gear. And I would make that trade-off again in a heartbeat. I prioritized my needs and spread the purchases out over multiple years. (And believe me, I took advantage of sales and REI dividends to get the costs down.) I started with the sleeping pad. There was just no way I could go another night without an inflatable. As a side sleeper, I needed loft. My bones could NOT touch the ground. My cousin, also an avid outdoorswoman and side sleeper, recommended the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite. She said it was the best pad she’s ever slept on. Well, as far as I’m concerned, she’s dang right. It is an excellent sleeping pad. I have struggled, as an asthmatic, with blowing it up at higher elevations. But I just take a break, then get back to it. The newest version comes with a pump sack, and I am jealous. While shopping for my sleeping pad, a salesperson tried to convince me to buy an inflatable pad that had divots all over it, like this Sea to Summit pad. Well, it’s clear he wasn’t a side sleeper, as my shoulders and hips found all of those divots, and thusly, the ground. The one negative of this pad is that if you toss and turn like I do, every time you turn, it sounds like you’re opening a potato chip bag. Obviously, this is only a concern if you’re sharing sleeping quarters with other people. As is validated by others on the internet, the sound DOES diminish with use and age. But I once used it indoors in a large room with vaulted ceilings and about 20 other women; I was asked to sleep on a cot for the next two nights. (Not that I blame them. It was horrifying to hear it echoing throughout the room.) Obviously, in a tent 35 feet away in the wilderness, it may not be an issue for your trailmates. A bit later, not quite ready for the biggest purchase of all, I bought myself the Exped AirPillow UL. Let’s be clear. A pillow is a pillow. It’s fine. It gets the job done. Sure, there are other, more expensive, ultralight pillows out there with plush fleece toppers. I didn’t see the need. All I cared about was height. When sleeping on my side, I wanted the pillow to fill up as much room as possible between my head and my pad. No backpacking pillow was tall enough for that, so I settled for the tallest one at the time (that was under $40), and knew I’d just add my puffer jacket on top. At that point, what did a plush top matter? And like I said, it gets the job done. Then, the Cadillac of the set. My first brand new sleeping bag I’ve ever owned, just purchased this past year. I will admit, there are so many bells and whistles on this bag, I couldn’t possibly talk about them all. But honestly, most of them had nothing to do with why I bought this bag. I only had two priorities. One, take off several pounds of weight. (If I’m going to go to the trouble of buying a new bag, I don’t want to be carrying eight pounds any more.) And two, as a side sleeper that tosses and turns, a mummy bag is not happening. Not surprisingly, these two conditions limited my options significantly. Enter the NEMO Disco 15, a bag designed specifically for side sleepers. Sure, it’s warmer than my old bag. It’s five pounds lighter than my old bag. But look at how spacious! Yeah, it still gets wrapped up around my body a bit when I toss and turn, but absolutely NOTHING like how a mummy bag does. And I don’t feel trapped and bound. I have ZERO regrets about this purchase. I ended up appreciating the Thermo Gills (zippered vents along the chest) way more than I thought I would. I can run very warm at night, and I find this bag, with all the zippers up, very warm for 60 degree (F) nights. I really appreciate the ability to bring in some air without the draft of unzipping the side. The pillow pocket in the hood is also excellent for keeping my pillow in place while I toss and turn. I can stuff my jacket in there too, and it stays with the pillow instead of sliding off onto the tent floor all night. And there you go. That’s my side-sleeper kit. It’s safe to say that this is a 3-season system. My gear would not be appropriate for snow camping or extreme cold. And that’s fine by me. I haven’t snow camped yet, and if presented with the opportunity, I would just rent gear as I doubt it would be something I’d do frequently. What are the takeaways?
Your sleep system needs to work for YOU. Everyone has opinions on the best gear. But your body is unique. Go to the store. Lay on the mat. Put the pillow under your head. Figure out what is most important for YOU and go with your gut. Don’t let bells and whistles distract you from what you’re looking for.
Prioritize your sleep gear. You can get away with cheap gear just about everywhere else. But how well you sleep directly impacts your ability to function and enjoy the trail. You don’t have to buy all at once. Figure out which piece will impact your quality of sleep the most, and start there.
What worked for you ten years ago may not work today. And that’s okay. Our bodies change, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Observe and adjust. It’s the backpacker way!
Gwendolyn is the Webmaster and Blog Editor for CAGS Backpackers and has been a Girl Scout for over 30 years. She is a Camping and Backpacking Trainer for Girl Scouts of Greater Los Angeles and was the Nature Director of a backpacking-focused summer camp in Northern California.