How To Get A Warmer Night’s Sleep

Every once in a while we hear of someone who is not able to sleep comfortably down to the suggested temperature capabilities of a quilt. Here are some points to consider that might help anyone sleep better when using a down quilt or sleeping bag.

1.  Down quilts, as well as down bags, are designed to drape gently over the body to achieve the maximum loft. It is the complex of micro dead airspaces created between and among the lofting down clusters that provides the insulation that retains the heat generated by the sleeper and keeps the sleeper warm. Thus, in standard mummy bags, rectangular bags and top quilts, the warmest sleep will be achieved by lying on one’s back, hands on the stomach or chest and remaining still. In this position, insulation can reach its maximum loft and effectiveness without compression driven thin spots or cold channels.

2.  Neither quilts nor sleeping bags generate heat. The individual sleeper is the furnace that drives the system. The quilt or sleeping bag only retains the heat generated by the sleeper’s body. If you go to bed already chilled, it’s going to take a while before the body generates enough heat to warm you up. That’s why many outdoor publications recommend a little exercise before going to bed. It helps to jump start the warming process. It also helps if the sleeper is well fed and well hydrated before going to bed. The body furnace needs fuel to generate body heat. Stoke it to last the entire night. Focus on foods such as slow digesting hard cheeses rather than quick burning sugars and candy bars.

3.  When using a quilt or a sleeping bag, what insulates the bottom of your body (the part that would otherwise be in contact with the ground) is as important as the quilt over the top. Cooler weather that requires one to use a warmer quilt/bag also demands warmer bottom insulation. If it is 20° outside, in addition to a 20° capable top quilt or bag, you need bottom insulation, be it a pad on the ground or an under quilt in a hammock, capable of keeping you warm in 20° conditions. If you are chilled from below, no amount of top quilt is going to keep you warm.

Longer and wider pads are also beneficial to the cold weather ground camper. Narrow pads that do not insulate the arms or short pads which leave lower legs and feet exposed may be fine for warm weather but are definite liabilities in colder temperatures. As a minimum they must be supplemented with other gear to provide adequate insulation. Items such as a pack with some gear in it under the legs, or a rolled jacket and pants under the arms are commonly used. However, these ultra-light/minimalist approaches are often inadequate because they tend to shift and are inherently less comfortable and result in excess tossing and turning which contributes further to lost heat from shifting and/or drafts.

While we’re talking pads let’s say a few words about comfort. Comfortable sleepers are still sleepers.  Less comfortable sleepers are more restless; tossing and turning all night.  Side sleepers who do not use thicker more comfortable pads are especially vulnerable to excessive restlessness.  Tossing and turning contributes to down shifting to the outsides of the quilt or sleeping bag and results in thin spots above the sleeper which in turn become cold spots.  Also, an active night of tossing and turning will invariably lead to heat loss when a top quilt comes untucked or lifts to expose a body part.  Thin pads may be inherently lighter; but thicker, more comfortable, and warmer pads will contribute to a better, warmer, and more restful sleep.  In the long run, that restful sleep will result in being able to cover more miles in a day.

4.  One’s sleep habits can and do defeat even the best of bags/quilts and pads. One of the most common errors committed by cold sleepers is to “hunker down” and pull the bag tighter around themselves. This is often done to reduce the air pocket of a larger bag. To a point this is beneficial. However, when you go past the point of simply eliminating the dead space, you compress the down and create thin spots that will result in cold spots. Another common habit, that is almost instinctual, is to curl up into a ball. The problem is, doing so causes knees and elbows and shoulders and hips to stick out which further contributes to causing thin spots which again result in cold spots. Invariably, the sleeper then exacerbates the situation by tossing and turning to warm these localized thin spots or cold invasion points. Again restarting the excessively active sleeper issues.

Note: The issues of paragraphs 3 and 4 are particularly problematic for side sleepers, especially when any two or more points apply. Active side sleepers are well advised to use thicker, wider pads to quiet their restlessness. 

5.  Sleep clothing is also important in the conundrum of warm, great sleep. The clothes you have worn all day are damp from sensible and non-sensible perspiration. We may think we have worn them dry. But this is often not true! Change into a dry, seasonally appropriate base layer, including socks and a warm hat before retiring for the night.

To summarize, to stay warm at night: put on dry clothes; go to bed already warm, well fed, and well hydrated; bottom insulation and comfort is as important, if not more so, as top insulation; and get the maximum effectiveness out of your insulation by allowing it to drape gently over your body to attain maximum loft.