Military Life

Sleeping Well Anywhere: Tactical Sleep Systems

When you have an operation to see through to the end, it’s much easier after a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately, that’s one thing it can be pretty hard to get under operational conditions. Climate, spartan accommodations, and busy schedules can all conspire to keep you awake, so it’s important to take every opportunity for decent rest. A big part of that is having the right gear.

Those of us who remember Cold War exercises in Europe all have memories of nights in damp German woods wrapped in a damp sleeping bag. To be fair those old sleeping bags, if you could keep them dry, worked pretty well all year round. Throw in a decent insulating mat and a Gore-Tex bivvy bag and it all added up to a pretty good system. These days it’s a bit more complicated, but luckily the equipment has evolved to keep up.

Sleeping Bags

An operational tour in Afghanistan can see you go from sweltering summer nights infested with insects to shivering in the snow when winter comes, so it’s obvious one sleeping system isn’t going to suit you all year round. If you’re going on a year-long deployment, you probably need to look at taking two sleeping bags – a lightweight one for summer or use in heated accommodation, and a heavier model for cold-weather comfort. British manufacturer Snugpak has an outstanding range of bags in various weights, all designed in close collaboration with military users; their Tactical series are a perfect choice, for example the Tactical 2 for summer use and the 4 for when the snow starts.


A sleeping bag won’t protect you from the environment on its own; if it gets wet it will lose most of its insulating power, so you need to keep the rain off. In a non-tactical situation, a tent is an ideal solution, but a lot of the time you’ll be relying on a shelter half. Wind will blow rain and snow under the sides of that, so a bivvy bag is essential equipment anywhere it gets wet. Some models, like Snugpak’s Stratosphere, can be used as a tent (with the included poles) or as a simple sleeping bag cover. The Stratosphere also has a good long zip to allow rapid egress.

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Ground Penetration

Don’t forget the ground you’re lying on; your body weight will compress the sleeping bag’s insulation, and can even force moisture in through Gore-Tex. A quality sleeping mat is essential. Traditionally these were made out of closed-cell foam, but a semi-inflatable model like a Thermarest will give you better insulation plus packs up a lot smaller for stowage. Old-style mats aren’t heavy, but having to strap them to the outside of your rucksack is awkward – especially if you’re working around helps or vehicles.

If you’re on a base, you’ll probably be sleeping on a GI camp cot, but there are other times you might want to stay off the ground. In jungle conditions, sleeping on the deck will make you a tempting meal for every ant and beetle in the area, so a hammock is essential. Don’t forget the value of mosquito nets either – insects don’t just keep you awake, they can be a disease hazard.

Even with the best of equipment, chances are you’re not going to sleep as well on ops as you would at home, but without the right gear it’s going to be a lot more tiring than it has to be. When your life and the lives of the people around you depend on you being awake and alert, that’s not a risk worth running.


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