As a short (4'10"), cold, & frugal backpacker myself, I have spent years hyperoptimizing for this and have finally achieved the envious goal of sleeping as happily outdoors as I do indoors, without spending a bajillion dollars. Let’s go.
Get the shortest bag that fits your body
Any empty space in the bottom of your bag is not only wasted space and wasted pack weight, it is actively bad for you because it will turn into a cold air bubble that sucks precious warmth from your iceblock feet.
If unable to find a shorter bag, tuck the excess under your feet.
Get a bag rated to 20F or better
Sleeping bag ratings are “survival ratings”, not comfort ratings. They also assume you will wear all your clothes to sleep.
As a cold person, your bag is likely to perform 20F worse than you expect it to, even if you wear all your clothes to sleep.
Therefore, you want a 20F bag if the coldest you plan to go is 40F, clothed, or perhaps 50F naked. A 40F bag is not very versatile because you will only get a good night’s sleep down to 60F.
20F is the most useful all-purpose bag rating for someone who doesn’t live in a temperature extreme. As an iceblock, you may want to get an even warmer bag if possible. But as a short person, you may have trouble finding one.
To my knowledge, REI makes the best affordable off-the-shelf youth (5'-5'3") sleeping bags, ranging from $70 for a bulky synthetic 25F bag to $150 for a down-filled 25F bag.
(The main functional difference between down and synthetic is that down compresses a lot more. This is helpful for backpacking, but not important if you only ever plan to go car camping. Down is also somewhat lighter weight, but not enough to justify the cost to me alone.)
Your girth may be wider than these bags allow, or these may not work for you for some other reason. In that case, you have a few alternative options.
- Bring every blanket you already have at home. Extremely bulky and heavy, but free.
- Stack together multiple cheap sleeping bags. Bulky, heavy, and affordable.
- Find a warm secondhand bag on eBay, at an REI used sale, etc. Can often get 20–40% off this way. Wash old down bags with down wash ($10) to restore loft.
- Get a custom bag. Very expensive ($200+), even if you get lucky on a secondhand one ($120–150).
- DIY your own bag. Usually doable at half the MSRP of an equivalently good off-the-shelf bag. Search “MYOG sleeping bag” for patterns and tips. The best balance of easy/affordable/performant DIY insulation is Apex Climashield, a sheet of super-insulating synthetic material that you can sew into a cover material. However, it does not compress well.
Extending your bag’s warmth
- The most straightforward free method is to wear all of your clothes to sleep, especially your socks. But as an iceblock, this will still not get you anywhere near the bag’s warmth rating.
- A sleep sheet will extend your bag by about 5F. Silk ($35) offers excellent weight and wicking, but you can also bring a literal bedsheet from home and wrap it around yourself before sliding into your bag.
- A blanket or puffy quilt can be stuffed in with you to give you maybe another 5–10F of warmth. (If you don’t already have one, Costco often sells good $25–30 puffy packable quilts.)
- If you are totally desperate for more warmth, you can also borrow a second sleeping bag and stack it.
Its most obvious purpose is for comfort, but it serves another very important purpose: insulating you from the cold ground, which wants to suck away all your body warmth. There are many options, but the short-cold-frugal holy grail options are:
- inflatable: Klymit 3/4-size sleeping pad (50" long, $45)
- closed-cell foam: Thermarest Z-Lite Sol Small (51" long, $40)
Inflatables tend to be more comfortable, while foam is more durable and reliable. You can also use a foam pad as a chair any time over sharp ground.
Hark! you may say — I am short, yet not 50" short!
I make up the remaining several inches by putting a $5 foam sitpad under my feet. But you can also shove a backpack under your feet. Really anything that fills airspace and lifts your body away from the ground will work.
If this is outside your budget, you can get a $10 closed-cell foam (CCF) pad, which will not keep you as warm or comfortable, or a $30 self-inflating foam pad, which is not as comfortable.
As previously mentioned, if weight and bulk are not concerns for you, you can also always extend crappy gear by bringing more blankets from home.
If your budget is $0 and you have a LOT of cargo capacity, you can bring couch/seat cushions from home, or again, anything that lifts you off the ground.
Fun fact: compressed insulation is not effective. If you lie on a sleeping bag directly on the ground, the compressed fluff under you will not adequately protect your body heat from the ground. This is why many people like quilts, which are open at the bottom! Hot air rises! I personally avoid quilts due to potential air leakage when I toss and turn, but might consider a sleeping bag with the insulation removed from the bottom.
BONUS TOPIC: Hammock camping
I stopped ground sleeping when I got into hammocks. Before you interject, let me answer the most common FAQs that everyone inevitably responds with.
Q1: But you can’t sleep without trees to hammock from, right??
I decided to start hammocking because I love being around trees, so it is not a hardship at all to me to only go camping in places with lots of trees. Your mileage may obviously vary if you love camping in completely flat places with no trees, but that’s not really my jam, so I’m safe.
I will also throw some shade that it is 100x easier to find two hammockable trees in a forest than to find a perfectly flat spot to ground sleep. You can hammock between ANY two sturdy trees even if the ground beneath is a sloped spike trap, so it really opens up your options.
Q2: Isn’t it uncomfortable to sleep in a banana shape?
A: Correct! That is why we do not do it.
Instead, we make use of a secret technique called the “diagonal lay”.
Q3: Doesn’t your butt get cold at night?
A: O ye of little faith! Do you truly believe that a perpetual iceblock such as myself would willingly endure a sleeping setup without a solution for supreme warmthiness?? Observe:
Hammock underquilts are the solution for retaining warmth in a hammock. Because they are slung underneath the hammock, they do not get compressed, and they can wrap around the whole underside, insulating you from windchill. (Less-iceblocky people can get away with different solutions, but iceblocks typically need an underquilt.)
My short-cold-frugal holy grail underquilt is the ArrowHead Equipment (AHE) Jarbidge 3/4 length 25F underquilt. At $109 (edit: pandemic raised the price to $119) and 20oz, it is the only hammock underquilt I know of that satisfies the triple whammy of:
- Under $150
- Under 1.5 lbs (22oz)
- Comfortable down to 40F (specifically for my permafrost body)
And it satisfies all these constraints by a landslide! In fact, it is LEGITIMATELY COMFORTABLE DOWN TO 30F FOR ME, which is unheard of in any other single piece of gear I have ever tried.
According to popular anecdotal opinion on HammockForums.net, Apex Climashield insulation appears to be genuinely comfortable down to its warmth rating; it’s not just a survival rating. This is a really big deal for me as a perpetually cold person.
By the way, do not buy hammock gear from REI. I love many, many things about REI (especially their kids’ sleeping bags), and I love supporting them in general, but for some reason, their hammock gear selection is utterly execrable, heavy, and yet still inexplicably more expensive than good hammock gear. HammockForums.net and The Ultimate Hang are your go-to resources for learning about hammock camping.
Having searched the entire internet before settling, I can say with confidence that the AHE Jarbidge is, by a huge landslide, the best hammock underquilt insulation deal you will find as a short, cold, frugal person without DIYing your own quilt. I sleep better in my setup than I do in a bed.
That said, here are some cheap substitutes you can noncommittally try if you’re still deciding whether hammock camping is your thing or not.
- Tie a random blanket underneath a hammock. This works ok for me down to 60F. Many hammockers have converted Costco’s packable down quilt ($25–30) into a cheap summer-weight underquilt.
- Tie an exceptionally warm blanket, such as a military doobie ($30), under a hammock. Some warm-blooded hammockers have been known to take this to 30F, but if you’re a human iceblock, I doubt you will get further than 45–50F.
- Borrow an extra sleeping bag, unzip it all the way, and tie it under your hammock. This will look very silly and not quite be the right shape for bottom coverage, so you may experience windchill, but it works if it’s all you’ve got.