Bushwalkers tent and sleeping gear

If you are camping overnight on a multi-day hike, you will need a bed of some kind. Factors you need to consider include:

  • How cold will it be?
  • Are you carrying it on your back, or are you camping near your car?
  • What shelter you will have from the elements?

Apart from a good tent, a comfortable night in the bush requires three items: a warm sleeping bag, a protective mat or camp bed, and a pillow. Bushwalkers traditionally use a sleeping bag and sleeping mat, and you will learn more about these below.

People camping near cars can use a sleeping bag and mat too, but there are other options.

Sleeping bags

Sleeping bags are usually made from a very lightweight nylon, and therefore can be fairly fragile and need gentle handling. Some have the outer cover made from waterproof, breathable fabric to minimise the chances of them getting wet.

The method of sleeping bag construction is an important consideration. If the stitching on a sleeping bag penetrates the bag from outer to inner layers, there will be little insulating effect in that area. A quality sleeping bag has box wall construction, where the outer and inner never meet, and there are small baffles sewn in to keep them together and keep the filling in place.

A sleeping bag can be rectangular, which gives you more room to wiggle around in the night; however rectangular bags leave a lot of space for cold air. The solution is to choose a mummy shaped bag, which is warmer and more lightweight. A semi-rectangular bag is a good compromise between the two.

Most bags have a zip down one side to make it easier to get in and out. Most quality bags will have a draught strip along the zip to prevent the escape of warm air. This is a hollow tube containing insulating fill.

Some bags can be zipped together with left and right zips to form a double sleeping bag to share with a partner.

Mummy bags generally do not have zips to reduce weight and improve the insulating effect.

A hood can decrease heat loss around the head, increasing warmth.

Sleeping bags can be filled with synthetic fibre or feathers (down). Synthetic bags are cheaper, machine washable and dry easily in damp conditions. They will keep you warm even if they are wet.

Down bags provide more warmth, but are more expensive and take longer to dry if they become wet. Down sleeping bags are lightweight, highly compressible and have the best weight-to-warmth ratio of any fill. Wet down bags will not keep you warm.

Down bags are given a loft rating. A quality down with a high loft rating fills more space for the same weight.

Sleeping bags are often given warmth ratings in degrees of temperature. Note that many women are more sensitive to temperature than men and may need a higher rated sleeping bag. Select a bag with a temperature rating for the coldest night time temperature you expect to experience. If you camp at high elevation the nights will be colder than at sea level.

Some suppliers comply with European Standard EN 13537 temperature ratings:

  • Comfort temperature rating is based on a ‘standard’ adult woman enjoying a comfortable night’s sleep.
  • Limit temperature rating is the lowest temperature at which a ‘standard’ adult male is considered able to have a comfortable night’s sleep.
  • Extreme temperature rating is a survival only rating for a ‘standard’ adult woman. Note that in this range there is a strong sensation of cold and a risk of hypothermia. This is an extreme survival rating only and you should never rely on this rating for general use.

Sleeping bags may also be defined as three or four season bags. A three season bag is not suitable for the colder months of the year. You may need to purchase two bags of different warmth ratings if you camp year round.

Use an inner liner to protect the sleeping bag, reduce the need for washing and provide added warmth. Silk liners are very light and compact. Other fabrics include cotton for summer time or a synthetic thermal fabric for winter.

How do I choose a sleeping bag?

Seek advice from a specialist outdoor retailer or from fellow bushwalkers on the sleeping bag most suited to your purpose. To get the right bag, weigh up the cost, the purpose, the weight, the filling and the bag construction. A cheap bag could mean sleepless nights spent shivering. An expensive down bag may be a waste of money if you only camp in summer.

Sleeping mat

A protective mat underneath your sleeping bag provides insulation from the cold ground, and adds an element of comfort.

For overnight pack walks you need a lightweight mat. The cheapest and usually least comfortable is a roll of closed-cell foam. This is typically about 1 cm thick and provides good insulation, but is bulky to carry and prone to damage if passing through thick scrub.

Most bushwalkers now choose something a little more comfortable for not much more weight. Self-inflating mats come in various lengths and thicknesses.

More recently, lightweight inflatable mattresses filled with down or other insulation have appeared. These are often lighter than self-inflating mats, but more comfortable. They come with a built-in pump or other inflating method.

When purchasing a mat you will need to consider the weight, desired length, and cost, which can be several hundred dollars for a superior model. Both types need care as they can be punctured.

Caring for your sleeping bag

Sleeping bags can be washed according to manufacturer’s instructions, using specialised detergents available from outdoor suppliers. Reduce the need for washing sleeping bags by using a sleeping bag liner.

Never store sleeping bags in their stuff sack or the fibres will compress, reducing their ability to keep you warm. Store sleeping bags loose in a breathable fabric bag, or hung over a coat hanger inside a wardrobe.


If you are saving weight fill your stuff sack with a jumper. For more comfort use an inflatable pillow, or a small soft pillow.

Car Camping

When camping near a car, light weight and compactness are less of an issue.

A swag has been used throughout Australian history. Typically, it is a canvas bag in which are rolled up a mattress and blankets. Take it out of the vehicle and unroll it on the ground, and your bed is ready. Newer types often have a hood to protect the occupant from insects or rain.

People have also been known to bring sheets, blankets and doona from their bed.

On a car camp a good option to sleep on is a foam mat or an inflatable air bed. Air beds are available in single or double width and can be heavy. Don’t forget to bring a pump. Electric pumps are powered by a 12 volt socket inserted into the car cigarette lighter, but foot pumps can also be used.

Another option is a camp bed. These allow you to sleep off the ground, and fold up with varying degrees of ease. Some can be quite heavy.