Sleep is sacred. It is especially sacred when exercising 8-12 hours a day back to back for weeks and months on end. Nothing is better for your body after a long day than a restful nights sleep. If I had one piece of advice when choosing your sleep system for the trail, it would be to go with the most comfortable gear you are willing to carry. If having a 3 lb. sleeping pad is the only thing you can get a good nights sleep on, carry it. If you are happy with a $5 foam pad from walmart, great. There may be some trial and error in choosing what's right for you. Here's what I liked...
Thermarest NeoAir Trekker
I've tried all sorts of pads. Z-lites, foam pads, and the classic self inflating thermarests, but this pad takes the cake. Being a side sleeper, the foam pads just never cut it. I tried to like them, I don't. I eventually ended up with this pad and for me it's the perfect balance of weight, packability and comfort. I like how the ribs run perpendicular to your body which makes the air tuning match your body shape really well. I like the pad to be blown up about 85%. I chose the trekker model because I am not the best campsite selector, and inevitably I choose a spot with a rock or a stick or something poking through my tent floor at night. Most of the time i'm too lazy to fish it out from underneath, so the tougher fabric on bottom adds a bit more protection. This pad is also a lot less noisy than the original NeoAir. This pad never lost air and I never, ever regretted taking this pad on the trail. 100% satisfaction. Weight: 20 oz
Sleeping Bags: Cross Mountain 45* & Lost Ranger 15*
I've long been a fan of the Big Agnes sleeping bags. Yes, i've tried liking mummy bags. I've sewed myself a quilt. Then I slept in a Big Agnes bag after buying Ruthie one. I was sold. It's slightly non traditional in the fact that you slide your pad into the bag, where there is no underside insulation. The result is a bag you can't roll off your pad.
First of all, I would not hike the AT with just one bag. Many people tried and seemed miserable 50% of the time. I would recommend one summer bag (rating above 45*) and one winter bag (rating below 30*). There will no doubt be nights when it is below freezing and nights when it is above 90*. I left Springer Mtn. with the Cross Mountain foolishly thinking the temps wouldn't be so bad because of the mild winter. Dumb. I toughed through a lot of cold nights wearing all of my clothes and my wet rain jacket wrapped around my feet. Start the trail with a bag rated 30* or below and you will be happy. This was one instance of being a little stupid light. Nothing like waking up cold in the morning and going to walk in the rain. Be smart, and be warm at night. Weight: 27 oz.
After the elevation dropped off a bit; like when we passed through the Smokies, I supplemented some warmth for weight with a space blanket. I never used one before but I am an advocate for them now that I have. Not expensive, not heavy and can be used to help others if the need arises.
Downside: They do not breathe. Nothing can be waterproof AND breathable, no matter now much the company says it is. You will wake up a little wet from your own body heat and moisture not being able to ventilate. But on a cold night, you do what you have to. You will no doubt be much warmer than you will be without it, even if you're a little damp.
Summer bag I would use next time: Big Agnes Pitchpine or maybe try and get comfortable in one of the GoLite quilts.
I've had my Lost Ranger for a bit now and I LOVE this bag. It's very warm and accurate for its rating. I've used it in Arkansas when there was ice and frost on my tarp and cowboy camping at 4500' in 25 mph winds. Can't say much for this, you will want to start with this kind of bag and get it back in Vermont or New Hampshire once you start gaining and staying at elevation. I like the yoke that traps a lot of heat and the hood is nice on really cold nights. On not so cold nights I slept with the bag unzipped a ways and let out some heat that way. Weight: 46 oz.
My suggestions for a sleep system are to try different things. You can certainly save more weight than I have, but this is what I like. I would defenitely try to buy bags with the same zipper side, no matter which you choose. Getting used to one side of a zipper and then switching is a slight annoyance. Down vs. Synthetic. My theory is to buy synthetic if it's light and warm enough. If not, buy down. Everyone knows that down has no warmth when wet so careful attention must be kept to ensure it stays dry. This goes for dampness from a unventilated tent as well. After a few wet days and nights, most hikers learn trial by fire.
Winter bag I would use next time: Big Agnes Zirkel or a quilt from Golite or Jacks-R-Better.
Yes, I carried a pillow for much of the trail. Some hikers scoffed. I laughed at how comfortable I was. In the summer months I wasnt carrying enough clothes to substitute a pillow. I saw people using there food bags as pillows(2/3!), shoes(disgusting), and backpacks. All of this is ok if it works for you but I carried the Cocoon Ultralight Aircore Pillow and LOVED it! I was willing to carry 3 oz. to be comfortable at night. Some time around Vermont the pillow sadly would not hold air anymore. I had most of my winter clothing back by this point so I was able to make a pillow out of my Patagonia jacket. I have not further investigated it yet, but would buy a new pillow if it can not be repaired. Worth my money. I would not suggest any other pillow but this one. Others can get to be much heavier and not pack well. I stuffed this into the same stuff sack as my sleeping bag most of the time. this also doubles well for hostel stays where the pillows can be all shades of funky or for zero days where you can sit by a lake or river reading the paper with a beer or coffee.
If you are a side sleeper, go with an inflatable air pad. Same goes for a restless sleeper like myself. Back sleepers will probably be happy with a foam pad. Buy the lightest weight bag in whatever style you are comfortable in. Make your own mind up on the material used to insulate the sleeping bag and for gods sake PLEASE buy a nice water resistant compression sack to store your bags.