What is The Perfect Hike? Well, I look at it like I do a plane landing -- any backpacking trip you can walk away from...
Backpacking is the art of comfortably surviving in an inhospitable environment with as little as is safely possible. Virtually anywhere you go backpacking is a food desert. Our frail, naked little bodies are comfortable in only a very narrow range of environmental conditions.
Seasonal backpacking trips present challenges all their own, but keep this in mind -- backpacking at any time of year requires a handful of systems to help you stay alive for as long as possible in a survival situation, at very worst; or at least to offer peace of mind that you have the things it takes to survive a bad trip.
In any climate, at any time of year, for a hike of any length, proper preparation and attention to detail are necessary for The Perfect Hike.
Note to those who have or may vote for my Instructable: I'm going to add to this Instructable as I think of the many, many more things to include. I promise to not change it in any fundamental manner, and to hopefully only make it more valuable to the reading public. This initial offering covers the SHTF stuff. Additional steps will talk to the softer side of a successful backpacking trip, such as gear selection, cooking, site selection, 'hanging,' (hammock camping,) cush sleep systems, etc.
Step 1: The Ten Essential Systems
Having established that backpacking is comfortably surviving an inhospitable environment, and considering that our frail, naked little bodies can survive comfortably in a narrow range of temperatures; that our skin is susceptible to second-degree burns if left in the sun, sometimes for just a couple of hours; that our soft gut can't handle even the slightest attack by germs; and that compared to many animals, especially the more highly-ordered, our lack of endurance is laughable.
Alas, the tactile thumb. Now, we carry with us into the wilds all manner of gadgets and space-age technology to protect ourselves from the elements, conserve our body heat, cook, make potable water, and evade danger like the cleverest little monkeys we are. To the surprise of many, we sometimes do this for fun.
However, when you replace the word 'comfortably' with the word 'barely' from the aforementioned notion, you start dying. How well prepared you are for a survival situation determines how long you live, and ultimately whether you are rescued, or recovered.
Too many times have we heard stories of a person, or a group, whose comfortable situation has become compromised, and because of a lack of situational awareness and preparation, they die.
Before thinking about a proper pack size, brand of boot, down or synthetic, or any other of the countless decisions you're going to make about your gear, there's a set of systems you'll take with you, no matter when or where you backpack:
- First Aid
- Protection from the elements
- Body temperature regulation
Why all this? Well, what happens when comfort is lost? What if you are injured? Your return compromised by weather? Or, you simply get profoundly lost?
It seldom happens. But as the adage goes; failure to plan is planning to fail. Once something bad happens, things move fast. First, don't panic. Sit down. Take deep breaths. Focus. How long you stay alive will depend on how well-prepared you are, and ultimately how long you give your rescuer a chance to find you, or you them. As of this writing, I've been backpacking for over twenty years. I've yet to toot my rescue whistle, or throw pine bows on a fire to signal by smoke. Even my knife; a simple Swiss Army Executive (it's about the size of my pinky) with a nail file, scissors and small blade cover most of my knife needs. I also have a credit card knife (pretty cool, and sharp) and may weigh two ounces. As a backpacker, you don't need much more than anything to cut cordage. The credit card knife is really in case I need to open a fish or small game. And I've never had to do that either...
It may not be apparent, but just as essential to preparing for a hike is recognizing your level of physical fitness. Simply, are you able to perform the activities necessary for a successful hike? Have you done the research on the terrain? Is that nagging pain in your foot going to turn into something worse on the trail? Are you just coming off an illness or injury?
Step 2: Navigation
Without a navigation system, you're lost. With one, you're not -- you're just not where you want to be.
Navigation can be as simple as directions scrawled on a diner napkin to a high-tech baseplate competition compass and military-grade, red-light maps printed on Tyvek. Of course it's important to know how to get where you're going, and a means to find your way if you get lost, but those aren't the only aspects of navigation to consider. If you'll be in the backcountry, having an idea of recent weather conditions would give you an idea of what trails might be inaccessible due to rain, ice, or snow. Some maps have springs and other water indicated on them. If there's been a drought, consider your water supply. Check with local groups/website forums as to trail conditions.
For hiking, even a dayhike, at least have a simple, round compass, big enough to read in the dark with a headlamp. I have a button compass on the shoulder strap of my packs. It's nice to be able to stop for just a sec and confirm my direction. Most backpackers, like myself, opt for a simple baseplate compass. You can find a decent one for twenty bucks. Some features to look for are;
- Tool-free declination adjustment. Declination, or magnetic declination, is a phenomenon which regionally alters true magnetic north. This is particularly important if you're going to be hiking off-trail, or, 'bushwhacking.' Your good map will indicate the declination angle.
- An easy-to-rotate bezel. It can be a pain, or even dangerous, to have to remove gloves for an extended period of time to make an adjustment.
- Smooth, quick needle movement. Better compasses are more reactive, giving a true reading in quicker time. I'll say this; I've been more confident in a reading from a reactive compass to one that was more sluggish.
- Weight. There is a type of compass called 'lensatic,' which uses a sighting system where you put the compass to your eye and read the heading as it relates to a landmark in the distance. You'll find many of these made of brass. Other manufacturers make plastic ones. For the casual, ten trip-a-year, two-night backpacker, overkill.
Do not, I say three times, do NOT substitute any piece of electronic gear or equipment for its analog/physical world counterpart.
My local trail council offers maps printed on Tyvek. Brilliant. At about $8 per map of thousands of acres and hundreds of miles of backcountry hiking, invaluable. Tyvek is the stuff FedEx envelopes are made from -- virtually indestructible and entirely water-resistant. If you can't find these, there are websites where you can print topo maps. Just be sure to store them in a ziploc bag, and have a backup or two tucked away in a dry place. Topo maps, or, topographical maps, have contour lines and elevations of the terrain. Sometimes they indicate established trails, like the Appalachian Trail, the Long Path, the John Muir Trail and many others. Best to get maps from local trail councils and clubs for the most up-to-date trial info.
Having something is useless unless you know how to use it. Map and compass are a system for navigation. While they may be used independent of each other, they work better together. Learn. The internet holds a plethora of information, just double check the source. Because it's there doesn't make it correct.
As mentioned before, there's something else I include in my navigation system, what I call the three W's. I tell three people who might Worry about me three things:
- Where I expect to be;
- When I expect to return, and;
- What to do if I don't.
When you do, ask them to be reasonable. If you're going out for a little loop in a nearby state park, and expect to be back at, say, 7 pm, give them a window of a few hours before sending in SAR (search and rescue.) However, if you're going out on a two- or three-day trip, a longer window is recommended. Leave specific phone numbers for each agency, and instructions as to what to tell them. Email a picture of yourself wearing your gear, and also a list of your gear. Why? If I'll be out on a longer excursion, chances are I will have prepared to be out at least one more day than I expected to be. A picture of me in my gear gives searchers an idea of what to look for. My gear list will give them an assessment of how prepared I am to survive until a rescue attempt.
If you're with a group and suddenly find yourself alone, stop. Listen. Can you hear anyone? Yell out. No response? Get out your whistle, three loud blasts. Listen. Any response? Go to the response, or if none, SIT. Or at east don't move. No sense trying to get two moving objects in the same space at once. And your group should know the way back, or at least in a direction. Make inventory, collect bits of firewood, check your water... stay busy, but in your space. Part of navigation is knowing when not to move. If, of course, after some time you still haven't made contact, remain in your space and begin practicing your survival skills. Make yourself as visible as possible, both from the ground and air. When you're done, walk a small perimeter to see how well a job you did. If you do have to venture out to find food or water, make sure you can get back to your base.
Step 3: Hydration
Without water, you give yourself or the person who rescues you three or four days. After that, it's a recovery operation.
As much as we'd like to be able to carry as much water as we'll need for however long our trip is, there comes a point of diminishing returns. It's not uncommon to use a gallon of water a day per person. Between food, hygiene, and hydration, you go through a lot. At about twenty-five pounds, carrying three gallons for three days would be prohibitive, at least, not to mention the space it takes. This is certainly not to say that you shouldn't have some drinking water with you, but you should have a means of harvesting and making potable more. Whether it's a spring, creek, river, pond or lake, you should only under the most dire conditions drink water untreated. You could end up doing more harm than good. Bacteria from animal waste will make you sick. You'll vomit, have explosive diarrhea, you'll be weak and have virtually no control over your voluntary muscle functions. It won't kill you, but it will drastically cut down the time to find you alive.
There are a few ways to carry water with you. Probably the most popular right now is the hydration bladder system. It makes sense -- it's often advised to put heavier items higher up and close to the back, just where a hydration bladder goes. When choosing one, look for a few things, like:
- Ease of filling. Some bladders have small mouths and may be difficult to open and close with gloves on or in the dark. Also, try and cross-thread it. Several times. Find one that won't let you. Look for one with a larger opening.
- Ease of cleaning. Along with a mouth big enough to easily fill, make sure it's easy to clean.
- Interior ribs. Some bladders have interior supports that help keep the water better distributed. This helps as the day goes on, the water doesn't pool at the bottom as much.
- Removable hose/drink valve. When trying to fill or clean your hydration system, the hose can be cumbersome to deal with. Removing it to fill or to clean the system's constituent parts is easier.
- Universal hanging system. Some bladders have a proprietary hanging system, meaning you may not be able to switch it between packs.
One thing to keep in mind about bladder-style hydration systems; their convenience can be their drawback. Because it's easy to simply grab the bite valve and take a sip every now and again, they add up to you drinking ten miles' water in five. And you end up giving it right back two miles later. Tuck your bite valve out of the way so that you need help, or to remove your pack, to get at it.
Use care in choosing from where you harvest water, when you can. Clear, flowing water is optimal. Avoid water that is particularly foamy or off-colored. When collecting water from a shallow puddle or pond, you may have to get clever. One method is to soak an article of clothing and put it into a ziploc bag. Cut a corner from the bag over your container and squeeze. You'll have to pinch the hole closed to repeat the action, so don't make the hole too big. Now, for all you know, the container and clothing you used has become contaminated; treat it as such. Avoid using your camp towel or anything that may come in contact with your mouth and hands. Wipe down the exterior of the container you used and wash your hands.
With the advent of bladder-based hydration systems, water bottles have become less popular. They create 'negative, ', or, unused space as they empty. However, I do carry one which has a couple of lengths of duct tape and some paracord with a carabiner for the outside of the pack. I use it to get a really good, long drink rather than sipping out of a bite valve. I also use it to mix drinks.
Gathering, transporting, and storing water aside, you'll need a way to make it potable. Most backpackers carry a filter of some kind, be it the ubiquitous pump-style, or a squeeze system. If you have to get water from a questionable source and it has sediment in it, you can make a simple sediment filter to get out the big stuff. It can be anything from a sock to a purpose-made filter. Not only does this make the water a bit more appealing, it can save your filter, as well.
The filtration system I decided on is shown in the picture, the Sawyer Squeeze. It's light, inexpensive, and will filter a million gallons. You, me, and any ten people won't drink 1 million gallons of water, even if we'd started at birth and lived a hundred years. Also, the bladder and filter accept standard bottles and caps, so even if the bladder's compromised, you have a better chance of finding something to replace it.
Boiling is another way of making water safe to drink, and is the most effective at killing most everything in questionable water. Be sure you boil for five minutes. Longer at altitude.
A Steripen is a device that uses UV light to kill germs in water. Behind boiling, most effective in making water safe. Unlike most pump-style filters, they eliminate viruses. Unlike filters, they don't remove particulates. They run on batteries, so, bring backups, and have a backup for the Steripen.
Chemical treatments are also quite effective, and are easiest to use. They can, however, impart an off-putting taste.
Finally, the least-advised method, only preferable to drinking direct from the source, is using the sun to UV-treat your water. It needs to be in a rather clear container, and remain in sustained, full sunlight for a good eight hours, depending on the size of the container, of course.
In winter, where water in the form of ice and snow may be plentiful, caution yourself against eating it; it will drop your core temperature, forcing your body to expend more energy to get it back to normal. Towards that end, be careful to keep drinking water from freezing; you don't want to have to use fuel to melt it. Energy, in all its forms, is at a premium in a survival situation, even if you're just relaxing in your hammock on your first night.
In warmer weather, don't wait until you're thirsty to drink -- think maintenance; maintain a healthy level of hydration. You'll likely use less water, and it's more efficiently used by your body.
Step 4: Fire
Fire can not only cook your eggs, but it can save your bacon. It can offer comfort and warmth in a survival situation; keep you focused and motivated on survival; and it can signal someone to your location.
My fire starting kit is pretty simple;
- Cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly, stored in a pill bottle.
- Squares of birch bark (from a downed source -- don't go pulling bark off a tree.)
- A couple of lighters.
These go in a zip lock bag. I use the petroleum jelly balls for every fire I start. Gives me about ten minutes of flame, and with some bark, a good enough flame to get a fire going in about twenty minutes.
Where I often hike, I really don't have to worry about firewood, but if you do have to worry about fire fuel, consider a tablet system, like Esbit. They offer a titanium pot stand, and their tabs will give you about ten to fifteen minutes of flame.
As I'm hiking, I'll look for good firewood stands, and will grab some old man's beard moss or dried grass from near tree trunks in case I have a hard time finding kindling later.
I made a homemade HEET stove (you can see it at another instructable here,) that I've also made to burn wood and accept Esbit tabs. Cover your bases.
When building any fire, please be careful to clear a good ten foot diameter from the fire pit, and never leave a fire unattended. Abide fire bans unless your situation means life or death.
One mistake backpackers make is building a fire too big for its purpose. Remember, in the wild, energy is expensive. Everything about fire involves the expenditure of energy in one form or another -- you have to get up, look for suitable things to burn, return with them, pare them down for use, and then apply them to the fire. The bigger your fire, the more often this has to be done.
Most of the time, fires that are fed with sticks no thicker than your bunched fingertips (1 - 1.5") will suffice. I personally like the 'log cabin' or 'council' fire -- essentially starting off with two fire constructions, one in the other. Inside is a small tipi-style fire construction surrounded by a series of cross-stacked thicker tinder. This is a good fire for a circular pit, and primarily built for comfort.
For simple food preparation, you usually don't need fuel much thicker around than your forefinger, and cut down to as long. Feed these fires relatively often with smaller sticks, as well. After a good bed of coals, this little fire with boil water in no time.
For rescue fires, use green boughs over the top of a larger fire to create thick smoke.
Step 5: Food
First, let's make an assumption that seems counter-intuitive -- food is likely the least of your concerns in a survival situation. You'll get hungry and not feel well for a week or so, and eventually succumb to lack of energy, but you've even got some time after that.
To that end, my survival food items are simple, require only water for preparation, and include some 'comfort' items. On the menu:
- A cup of couscous
- Several packets of instant oatmeal
- Two bullion cubes
- Instant coffee
- Tang instant breakfast drink
- Rock candy
All this fits into a sandwich-sized ziploc bag, and would provide sustenance for a day or longer if I thught it needed to last. If you're going to be out for a few days, bring a couple of days' extra. Remember, it took you forever to get out there, it'll take them longer.
It wouldn't hurt to learn about some of the edible flora where you'll be. There are some simple ones that you've likely seen in your local park every spring, like dandelion, nettle, and violets -- flowers and all. The younger, the better. Older leaves should be prepared like spinach.
If you don't know, don't eat it. Better to have enough for a couple of days without needing that kind of desperation.
Step 6: First Aid/Repair/Signal
Because I use these system components so seldom, I pack them together. Not only does this keep these things out of the way of the things I use most, it also keeps these items in a single place. Now, if I have to find a patch for a pad at two in the morning, or if I have to run back to the shelter to grab first aid items, I know where they are.
For the most part, every first aid kit (heretofore referred to as FAK) is pretty much the same. Plastic bandages of various sizes, some gauze, tape, moleskin, an antibiotic cream, alcohol swabs, pain relievers, laxatives, anti-diarrheals, pepto tabs, hand sanitizer, ace bandage, and a pair of tweezers. When considering your FAK, consider when and where you're going. Extra hand warmers in winter, electrolyte drink packs in warm weather, etc. Check expiration dates
As for your repair items, bring the the tent patch squares, as well as the repair kit for your sleeping pad. Also a blade of some fashion. You'll probably carry a blade on your person or within reach, but have an extra one here. A well-shielded razor blade or small box cutter will do. For your sewing kit, bring fifty or so feet of strong nylon thread. It can serve more than one purpose; suture a wound, fish, gear repair. DUCT TAPE. Wrap it around things like water bottles, hiking poles, small bottles... And get the good stuff. Include your spare batteries in this system.
If you get lost, you need to be seen or heard to be found. Part of our navigation system included the three Ws, so if you're pretty close to where you should be, SAR (search and rescue) will have a better idea where to look. And because you provided a picture of yourself in gear, they have a better idea of what to look for. But even the best precaution isn't going to get a helicopter hovering over your head in an hour. So, with whistle, mirror, and fire system, your job now is to hone in that rescue effort to your specific location. I'm not going to get into the finer points of fire building and what kind of mirror, etc. As long as the mirror isn't made of glass, and the whistle you choose is designed to be used in an emergency situation, they will suffice. Remember to use these things in threes; three whistle blasts, things built to be seen from the air to form triangles, S-O-S.
Choose the color of your gear in general with some consideration. I enjoy brighter colors for outer layers, and more muted colors for mid and base layers. If it's cool out, I'll be seen wearing it. If it isn't, I could still use it as a signal flag. Please don't buy camouflage gear. Why? Why would anyone make anything that, if dropped, would be hard to find in LOW LIGHT? My word...
Hopefully this hybrid kit will see the least work, but its pragmatic value aside, having them provides peace of mind.
Step 7: Shelter
In a survival situation, shelter can be anything from a shopping bag to a cave to an improvised shelter to a lean-to. The important thing to remember, especially when choosing natural shelter, is its stability. An old tree might seem like a great place to get out from under a thunder shower, but with that sound came lightning with high winds possible. I've seen countless toppled trees that have succumbed to lightning or gusts of wind. Some caves and overhangs offer quick shelter. But if it holds true for you, it likely holds true for other critters. Investigate natural shelters for other occupants.
As a backpacker, I am seldom without my hiking poles, nor a tarp. In a pinch, and with just a few feet of rope, I can pitch a shelter in minutes. Tarps are not only reasonably inexpensive and light, but there are myriad ways to construct a shelter for a variety of situational challenges. I have a couple of tarps, but my favorite is an 11' x 11' tarp of coated nylon with several tie-outs. It's big enough for two, works great for 'hanging,' (camping in a hammock,) or for a large shelter for several people to huddle for a bit. And it only weighs 22 oz.
Many use a tarp as their primary shelter. If you do, and enjoy warm weather backpacking, get a bug net. It's as important to protect yourself from biting and stinging insects as it is to protect yourself from the wind. Those little buggers can cause stings that beg scratching, or bites that make wounds -- and perfect opportunities for infection. Not to mention that it's damned near impossible to get any meaningful sleep with mosquitoes and black flies buzzing your ear every thirty seconds.
Step 8: Insulation
One of the hardest things for your body to do is regulate its temperature. Remember, without some form of insulation, we survive in a very narrow range of environmental conditions. So, helping out where we can, we bring with us layers of clothing and other gear to trap some of that warm air our body's making, and to avoid allowing it to be stolen by other environmental concerns. The best insulation that we can attain is still air. But it's difficult to keep air from moving; even breathing will push out warm air and pull in cold. So, we've found things to help maintain a layer of air while absorbing warmth, and help keep it from moving around.
There are three types of 'fill' insulation; down, synthetic, and improvised (grass, newspaper, other clothes.) Down is likely the most efficient and lightest insulation backpackers have access to. The best, eiderdown, has the best compressability to insulation ration. From there, the 'Fill Power' ranks from 850+ down to 550. The higher the FP, the better the compressability. Thus, a 0* 800 FP sleeping bag compresses better than a 0* 550 FP sleeping bag, and will subsequently be lighter.
There are also synthetic options, and while usually less expensive, are almost always heavier than down. Don't be fooled by anyone stating that synthetic fill is more effective wet than down. Wet insulation sucks, and it will kill you. As such, keep your insulation dry.
Finally, there's improvised fill. Look around. Dig through your pack. Protect groin, head, neck and armpits -- those are places where we lose heat most. Protect anything sticking out; digits, ears, nose. If you're relegated to, say, stuffing handfuls of grass into your jacket, shake it out, maybe a perfunctory investigation. How much would it suck to fill it with grass and ants?
The other type of insulation is textile or fabric insulation. For base layers, the oldest is silk, and today we use silk, Merino wool or synthetics. And for middle layers, the oldest is wool, and today the most common is synthetic fleece. All of these options provide a system that allows you to vary the amount of heat your body retains while allowing moisture to escape. That's important -- you start sweating, you start dying faster. If it's hot, you're losing valuable moisture; you get cold you start developing hypothermia.
Cotton kills because it's hydrophilic; it's highly absorbent. It also takes too long to dry. Thus when wearing cotton and sweating while it's hot out, your body is simply heating the water trapped in the garment, and the water simply never cools. Or, while cold, it saps your body's heat at an accelerated rate over being dry.
Keep in mind that you're not trying to be warmer or cooler; you're trying to regulate your body temperature. In my experience, it's harder to do in colder weather. As I'm expending more energy, I'm more likely to sweat. In warmer weather, it's normal. But in colder climes, it can kill.
Step 9: Illumination
Of course light is important, whether in a survival situation or not. This is one system that you'll use a lot, so choose its components carefully. Most backpackers use a headlamp; it keeps your hands free and points light where you need it. When choosing a headlamp, look for a few features:
- Multiple functions; different power levels, a strobe feature, and/or a red light feature
- Easy to see; avoid black, and certainly camouflaged headlamps
- Ease of changing batteries
- Common battery size
You can also choose to bring a backup light source like a small candle or battery lantern.
Step 10: Before the Trailhead
As important as are the logistics of a backpacking trip, there are things you can do to ensure your body is prepared, as well. Also, a few other notions for a bit more peace of mind:
- Drink a LOT of water in the 72 hours before you head out. Pee clear.
- Get your sleep.
- Trim and file nails. Grabbing a loose nail on thin fabric may cause runs or tears. The nail may also get bent or torn on a quickly pulled on sock. Trim and file.
- Don't pack too early, especially water.
- Constantly monitor the weather, before and during your trip.
- Don't bring any wood with you, nor any home. Something benign or controlled in one ecosystem may become a nuisance in another. In some places it's illegal.
- Leave any electronics at home you don't absolutely need. I very seldom use them. And as mentioned, never substitute an electronic gadget for its analog counterpart.
Step 11: Finally...
Some final thoughts, here.
Backpacking is an enjoyable sport that involves risk. How well you mitigate that risk may mean the difference between life and death, or, as in most cases, peace of mind while out doing 'the thing.'
A friend of mine was on a day hike in Van Cortland Park in the Bronx back in 2006. While out, the vast majority of the northeast US and southeast Canada suffered a blackout. He lived in Staten Island, some 35 miles from home. Because he was prepared, he was able to hike to Central Park, spend the night there, then finish the long walk home the next day. Without that preparation, he would have had to travel all that distance at the mercy of a hot, dark city.
So, I'll finish with that anecdote. That's the great thing about combined and shared experience -- why learn the hard way?
Also, be respectful of the environment. Look up Leave No Trace principles -- in essence, leave the place just like or better than you found it.
Practice this stuff, don't just read it. Next time you're out, try building a fire with little, test your visibility system, work on your orienteering skills. In the end, the enjoyment of the wilds is a lot easier when you feel prepared for the worst.
Step 12: Ah, Sleep...
After long, arduous, thoroughly rewarding miles on the trail, your body and mind want a place to relax, and to recharge, for the next day's journey. Your sleep system is every bit as valuable as shelter. As with so much of your gear, what you bring with you for relatively comfortable sleep will depend on where you'll be and when you'll be there. In what I'll call three-season backpacking, you'll want a ground cloth, an inflating mattress and a sleeping bag or quilt. Pretty simple stuff. You can choose a self-inflating mattress that contains an infrastructure that expands when it's unrolled to provide loft. You may also opt for the type you blow up yourself. These tend to be lighter as they don't have that infrastructure.
When it comes to weight, there are options available to really shave ounces, and ultimately pounds from this system. It'll cost you, though. As of this writing, a down bag from a reputable manufacturer may run you as much as a thousand bucks, US. A decent synthetic insulation bag rated at 20° F might weigh 3.5 lbs., whereas a good down bag rated to 0° F might weigh about two pounds. That pound and a half might cost you several hundred dollars, though.
When it comes to choosing gear for your cold weather sleep system, what I'll call 'fourth season' backpacking, you'll be more discriminating when choosing gear. I'll put it this way; if it's 35° out, and you have a bag rated to forty-five, simply wearing clothes to bed can help you sleep through the night. Do that when it's in the single digits and you'd be dead by midnight. Most mattresses have an insulated option. Some even come filled with down. Mattresses' insulation is rated using 'r' value. A mattress with no insulation is generally regarded as having an 'r' value of one, having little or no insulating value. As a matter of fact, non-insulated mattresses can actually make you colder; the surrounding cold air cools the air inside better than your body can warm it. Another way to insulate yourself from the cold ground is by utilizing a closed cell foam (CCF) mat. A popular size is about two and a half feet by about six and a half by a half inch thick. This can add one or two 'r' value points to your system. For frigid climes, you'll want to be pushing an 'r' value of nine or ten. To compare, an insulated three-season mattress may only have an 'r' value of two to four.
You'll have to travel with your sleep system, and winter has a habit of being wet. Perhaps not tromping through a frigid forest in two feet of champagne powder, but as that snow comes in contact with things you're wearing, it begins to melt. That melt sneaks into everything it can. Therefore, it's important to ensure your sleep system remains dry. One popular way of doing this is with a pack liner. Sure, you can buy a purpose-built liner, but many have found a good contractor's trash bag works just fine; they're big, robust, and cheap.
When you get to your site, it's a bit more problematic keeping things dry as you'll have to expose your system to the environment outside your pack. It's actually important to do this, as your bag has to have time to loft fully.