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Sleeping bags and mats. How we sleep on a bicycle tour

Alia Parker's picture
Sleeping bags and mats for bicycle touring. 1. Hard Ware Lamina. 2. Mont Hotwire. 3. Thermarest Prolite. 4. Mac Pac silk liner. Cycle Traveller

Good sleep is pretty important when bicycle touring as we need to be able to front up from an epic day's ride with another one, day after day. But creating a comfy nest for yourself can take up quite a lot of space in your bags, so there's always a bit of a trade off between comfort, warmth and the big one, affordability.

What we carry in our panniers or hiking packs has changed quite a bit over our years of bike touring and back country trekking. Overtime, we've gradually upgraded our gear from budget options to smaller and lighter gear, and as with most things when it comes to outdoor gear, the rule of thumb is generally the lighter and smaller it is, the more expensive. But there's no need to start at the top, especially for short or one-off trips.

We certainly didn't start out with flash gear at the start. Thinking back to our first overnight adventure almost 10 years ago, hiking the Six-Foot Track from Jenolan Caves to Katoomba in NSW, all our gear was either falling apart, borrowed or dirt cheap. Sure, the old adage “You live and learn,” certainly holds true when it came to that trip; we froze our butts off and didn't get a wink of sleep. But the important thing was we had a great time – it's a beautiful 44km hike through the Great Dividing Range – and thinking back gives us some good laughs (especially over the horrible tasting ash-flavoured water we needed to ration out on our last day).

Bicycle touring. Cycle Traveller

Put simply, we were so preoccupied with trying to travel ultra-light and on a budget that we didn't actually take the right gear. We decided since the Spring weather had been so warm in Sydney that we could save space by not taking sleeping mats, so we set off with just summer sleeping bags.

That night, the freezing chill pulsating from the earth as overnight temperatures in the mountains dipped to 0°C taught us a valuable lesson – sleeping mats serve a much more important function than just comfort; they insulate you from the cold earth. Oh, and you never quite know what the weather might do. Suffice to say, we've never gone anywhere without a sleeping mat again.

Foam mats

Our first sleeping mat was a piece of rolled foam. Foam mats are very cheap (often only a few dollars), super light and very effective as an insulator. The downside to foam mats is that they take up quite a bit of space, and if you're a bit like the princess out of The Princess and the Pea, you'll find them a little uncomfortable unless you're camped on a thick bed of soft grass. Even so, I highly rate the humble foam mat for anyone travelling on a tight budget (just make sure you have a plastic garbage bag to keep it clean and dry when cycling as you'll have to strap it across the top of your rack).

Inflatable sleeping mat

These days I use a Thermarest Prolite self-inflating sleeping mat (third object in the image). It weighs less than half a kilo and packs down small (28cm x 10cm), so it fits inside my pannier. The Prolite is a three-season sleeping pad and I've found it to be quite warm in conditions down to 0°C (that is, combined with a warm sleeping bag). I also get a much better night's sleep on one of these compared with a foam mat, so if you camp out a lot, an inflatable pad like this is worth the investment. I like to use the full length version as I get cold feet, but if you want to save more weight and space you can use a three-quarter mat and perhaps just layer some clothing beneath your feet if necessary. There are many great inflatable sleeping pads on the market and you may want to consider others if you're on a tight budget.

Sleeping bags and mats for bicycle touring. Cycle TravellerIn an emergency

If you find yourself freezing and without a mat, try this emergency trick. Many years ago I was out horse trekking for a few days in the mountains of Sichuan, China. Each night, my local guide built me a bed of sticks and leaves and my saddle became my pillow. The thick woolen blanket that lay across my horse's back underneath the saddle became my blanket. It snowed of a night, and although we were only covered by a canvas tarpaulin, I was warm. The sticks and leaves were surprisingly comfortable.

Silk sleep sheet

I love silk sleep sheets and always take one cycle touring. They take up next to no space, are lightweight and add a few degrees of warmth to your sleeping bag. I use one from Mac Pac (pictured fourth in the sleeping objects in the image), but I'd say they're all pretty much the same. On a practical note, silk liners also help to keep your sleeping bag clean and are much easier to wash and dry than attempting to clean the sleeping bag while travelling. It's also very handy to have in summer when on humid nights the last thing you want to do is climb into a sleeping bag (yes, I'm one of those people that has to be covered by something, no matter how light, in order to fall asleep).

Sleeping bags

I have a choice of two sleeping bags – a winter bag with a minimum comfort level of -10°C and a summer bag rated to +2°C. When on long trips where the weather changes from hot to cold or vice verse, I'll ship one home and have the other sent to me (thanks family!).

Synthetic sleeping bag

My winter bag is a Mountain Hard Wear Lamina (the top sleeping bag in the image). I got this one years ago while living in Canada and love it. Mummy sleeping bags are the best when it's cold and the ability to stop all that warmth escaping by pulling the chords tight over your head is significant. It's worth noting, however, that this sleeping bag has synthetic stuffing. It's not overly bulky, but compared to a down sleeping bag, synthetic sleeping bags take up more space in your pannier. Having said that, I bought the synthetic material on purpose because it has one (just one) advantage over down – your bag won't get ruined if it gets wet! Actually, there is a second benefit – synthetic bags are cheaper than down bags, so good for those on more of a budget. But back to staying dry... camping out in cold and damp conditions, I wanted to make sure my sleeping bad would stay usable. Having said that, having a wet sleeping bag has never been a problem for me in all the years I've been camping out, so while this bag has served me faithfully, when it comes time to get a new one I will definitely get feathers.

Camping on a bicycle tour. Cycle Traveller

Down sleeping bag

My summer sleeping bag is a Mont Hotwire STD (the second sleeping bag from top in the image). This one is filled with 680+ loft duck down. It is light weight, coming in at just 600g, and stuffs down to be quite small. What I love most about this summer sleeping bag is that I tend to use it more as a blanket than a sleeping bag. That's a significant space saver for those travelling in pairs. In summer, Simon and I will just take a sleeping mat and silk sheet each, then unzip the Mont Hotwire and use it as a blanket – meaning one whole less sleeping bag to pack.

Keeping the down dry hasn't been a big issue for us. The most common cause of dampness occurs around the foot area, as feet potentially bumping against the tent wall will soak up a bit of condensation. This is rather superficial and can be dried out quickly over breakfast. However, a handy trick to prevent this happening if it does become a problem is put your rain jacket over your feet of a night.

Pillow

You can buy a lightweight inflatable travel pillow to add some comfort while sleeping, although I'm yet to ever try this. I've always made do with a rolled up jacket or pile of clothes. One little trick I've found quite comfy is to get a compression sack and stuff it with some clothing, making quite a nice little pillow. You can then compress the sack in the day so your clothes take up less space in your pannier.

Thermal clothes

I always like to have a thermal top and long johns on me in case it gets chilly. Wool thermals in particular are nice and don't get stinky and can also be used to cycle in if the weather turns for the worst.

That's it! If you've got any tips of your own, please share them with us in the comments section below.

Image: The four sleeping items in order from left to right (and top to bottom); Hard Wear Lamina sleeping bag (winter), Mont Hotwire down sleeping bag (summer), Thermarest Prolite sleeping mat, Mac Pac silk sleeping bag liner.

Comments

Bubble wrap - the cheapest lightest sleeping mat invented!
I Used a sheet of hubble wrap x2 my bodylength touring for 2 weeks in new zealand....very comfortable when used over grass. You dont lose many bubbles to bursting as one might expect but indid mit try it in rougher ground

It also makes nice waterproofing if wrapped around valuables and stored in a stuff sack for light weight touring (with stuff sack bungy cord strapped directly to bike rack)

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