Sleeping the Hard Way

Jimmy's Backpacking Page -- Sleeping Bags

My new section at Jimmy's Backpacking Page, about to be published.

I didn’t always know this, but the most pleasant repeatable experience in backpacking is lying down at night. In contrast to climbing into bed at home – an activity most of us hardly notice – crawling into the tent and sleeping bag can be intensely sensual. Usually it’s cold, even if you’re camping in summer – fifty degrees may be toasty when you’re hauling forty pounds of gear down a trail, but at night when you’re sticky wet and tired, it’s cold outside. The worst experiences I’ve had as a backpacker all involved sleeping in the cold without the right gear – I’ve made mistakes on either side of the issue, both the hot and the cold, but the cold seems the most unpleasant. For example — on my first independent canoeing trip, when I was sixteen and knew all there was to know about camping, I decided that a sleeping bag was unnecessary and instead took only a blanket.

I’d seen this in the movies and never stopped to consider that if John Wayne was traveling through a blizzard with a blanket rolled up behind his saddle he’d actually die if that was all he had for protection from the cold. For a week I tested his theoretical gear, and fortunately the temperature on the river bank didn’t drop much below 50 degrees. I didn’t sleep much and spent a lot of time curled up on my knees with everything I had with me wrapped and piled around me against the cold, the wind and the damp fog that rolled in every morning just before dawn.

There was one optimistic day when my canoeing buddy and I climbed a peak beside the river, and I was hopeful that in the shelter of the rocky crags that were so hot during the afternoon I’d be able to keep a little warmer at night. Conditions were even worse up there, since the wind picked up soon after dark and whipped through every rocky crevice with an unbearable chill. I wandered from place to place on the crag and considered murdering my camping partner and taking his sleeping bag. Instead I found a dip in the bluff top where heather grew thickly and burrowed into it out of the wind. The plants were already shedding icy cold dewdrops when I snuggled into their midst and covered myself with my damp blanket, but a fit of shaking generated enough heat to get me through the night, and I actually did sleep a little.

john wayne statue

John Wayne never got cold.

I gained a considerable reputation among my peers for living through that, and I never let on to anyone that I had been totally miserable the entire week. My camping buddy spread the word through the high school that I was an incredible survival expert, living off the land and sleeping on the bare ground with nothing more than a thin blanket for cover. I accepted the fame as compensation for not having killed him. I’d like to say that I learned a valuable lesson from that trip and always took a sleeping bag with me afterward, but that isn’t true. In fact, I did that same miserable trip again, later that year, and fared only marginally better in late August. At least the blanket of mosquitoes that covered me added some insulation value.

Only a few years later, during my Road Trip period when I hitchhiked and hiked across the country several times, I did carry better gear; but since a PFC’s pay wasn’t much in those days I didn’t have the best. All that I carried while wandering from California to New York and back again was a square cut flannel camping bag. For some reason being rained on didn’t truly concern me then, and I’d weather storms sitting on my rucksack at the side of the road or huddled under a tree. When the storm passed I’d put my pack on and jog until I dried off, and being dumb and lucky seemed mostly good enough to get me through.

On one trip which took me through Wyoming, my luck changed. In one of the little cow towns I passed through I sat on my pack for some hours trying to catch a ride west. On that beautiful sunny afternoon, over towards the Rockies I saw a little cloud blossom. I watched it grow into an ever wider thunderstorm that eventually enveloped the entire countryside. My usual response of sitting it out didn’t work in that freezing cold mountain rain. I walked the rest of the day without catching a ride, and late at night found myself miles out in the country without a barn or a house in sight and not even a tree for cover.

The rain stopped about midnight and I looked for a place to camp, thinking I’d be ok because my gear was still fairly dry. The high plains isn’t very obliging in terms of convenient shelter. The only structure around was a double billboard on short posts, and propping myself against the back of it only cut the wind from the waist up. Soaking wet in blue jeans, with temperatures dropping into the 40’s, that wasn’t enough to keep me going.

I found a low spot, nearly deep enough to call a gully, and even though the ground was wet I scraped together enough grass and debris to cover the mud, and stretched out in my cheap cotton-batting camping bag to warm up. This started off well. Some hours later I woke up with my legs in cold water – runoff collected in the ditch. The ditch was still the best cover I had so I moved up-slope out of the puddle and crawled back in the bag.

nebraska thunderhead

No country for cold men. Photo by Mondo.

In the morning the air seemed cold enough for frost. I was so cold my teeth were chattering and my hands didn’t work. I fumbled my gear together and stood beside the road soaking up sunlight. Fortunately the weather had cleared and it was another beautiful but cold day. After about three hours I stopped shaking uncontrollably, and in the next town threw away my soaking wet sleeping bag and bought a new one just like it.

Breaking old habits, even bad old habits, isn’t easy. Survival training in the Army forced me to change. In winter survival training we had half a day of instruction and then were set loose in the Alaskan wilderness to fend for ourselves for a week. We had plenty of food and the essential gear – including very nice down bags – but the rest was up to us. I’m not quite sure what happened, except that I now have pretty decent winter survival skills, so I must have learned something.

After taking jungle training, also while in Alaska, I shipped out to Vietnam, an adventure which overall was a much more pleasant experience for me than the arctic and seldom involved sleeping bags. I only had that luxury once, at a post near Quang Tri in the northernmost part of the country. Elsewhere it was either army cots and a blanket or the ground with my sleeves rolled down. Sleeping in Vietnam was an often bizarre experience punctuated with explosions, gunfire and extra duty and became a luxury you grabbed when you could. I came back from that with strange habits I was reluctant to let go. I recall sleeping on the floor beside the bed for a couple of years because I didn’t want to get soft.

What I did want more than anything else on return to the civilian world was to get warm. We out-processed at Ft. Lewis, Washington during the first week in December, with temperatures in the forties and a good breeze blowing, plus a constant light rain interspersed with fog. Acclimated to the tropics and still wearing our jungle fatigues, we stood in line outside the processing stations and nearly froze. Most of us had hypothermia, shaking uncontrollably and unable to speak clearly. First thing I did after leaving the post was head to R.E.I in Seattle and buy the warmest goosedown sleeping bag they had. Second thing was to stop at Redwing Shoes and buy their best pair of insulated boots.

Although the sleeping bag nearly killed me once (that story is already posted on The Marked Tree) I used it for some years, both at home during my slow acclimatization to North American weather and on cross country hitch-hiking tours and backpacking trips. I never found it was too much bag – the low temperature rating didn’t account for tropical conditioning, and once I got the hang of venting the bag properly I didn’t overheat in it. But I probably won’t buy another goosedown bag unless I’m headed to someplace really cold, like the Himalayas or the Antarctic. The reason I shifted to holofil or a modern equivalent is longevity.

In its last years of use the goosedown bag was very cold. Goosedown depends on air trapped between the fibers of the down to keep the person in the bag warm. Geese constantly preen their feathers to keep that layer fluffy and water repellent. Humans can’t preen, so our bagged feathers wear out. Moisture and body oils invade the goosedown, robbing it of loft and insulation value. As it becomes heavier, the feathers mat tightly together and shift to the low sides of the quilted pockets. Having smaller chambers and more quilting controls that gradual slide better, so goosedown bags build in multiple rows of quilted tubes. Quilting also creates cold spots at the seams, causing extreme bags to be built in overlapping layers and crisscrossing patterns. But, it all wears out. Eventually you’re sleeping in a bag with lumps of feathers scattered here and there and lots of places where there’s nothing between you and the weather but a couple of layers of ripstop nylon. Whether a goosedown bag in that poor condition can be restored to usable loft is still a matter of debate. Many home remedies have been suggested by owners. The original condition of the bag, once soiled to that degree, is gone forever.

Washing these bags can do more harm than good. Woolite and a thorough hand washing is supposed to be helpful, but I didn’t find it so. Dry cleaning increases the potential for trouble – the original oil in the feathers keeps the fibers from sticking together, and dry cleaning chemicals take it out along with the grease and grime. Without that oil, the feathers aren’t fluffy any more.

Machine washing a heavy down bag could wreck a washing machine and rip the bag open. Wet down bags weigh as much as an equivalent volume of water, and neither machine nor nylon casing can hold up with that much weight being tossed around in one big piece. Clothes dryers also get over-matched by down bags. Many laundromats post warnings against trying to dry your own gear in their heavy duty machines. Getting a wet down bag dry again requires hanging it on the line somehow, at the whim of wind and sunshine, and that may not work. Some people have said they managed to clean their down bags by hand with good results. When I tried it the result was not great.

For occasional use, a down bag could last for decades, like the down bag my father inherited from the military and used annually on elk hunting trips. I used mine more frequently than most people would, both at home and on trips, and in a couple of years it was worn out. I extended the lifetime of that bag by adding gear, including a heavy pair of wool long johns that often felt as heavy as the bag did, and I often put on every piece of clothing I had with me during cold snowy nights on the trail, before climbing into the bag. It was still warm in spots and I compensated. Having been through that – and never having been wealthy enough to buy a new bag whenever I felt the need – I decided that holofil was the way to go. It’s still warm when it’s wet; the loft doesn’t go away with age; and it’s washable.

sunrise over horton plains

Sunrise, always the best part of a rough night. http://www.flickr.com/photos /dumith/ / CC BY 2.0

Going beyond holofil, newer types of insulation feature even finer fibers and better insulation value than that first revolutionary synthetic. Snugpak, the last sleeping bag manufacturer in the British Isles, makes several different bags designed for different temperature ranges and conditions, building expedition quality bags for climbers, hikers and the military in addition to a less expensive line-up of travel bags. The warmer models of Snugpak’s sleeping bags even include a permeable metallic foil reflective layer, turning body heat back towards its source without trapping moisture in the bag. The new insulation forms sheets of fabric within the bag as well as fluffy downy material to fill the bag chambers. Inner linings permeated with anti-bacterial agents keep the bags sanitary even after heavy use and are much more comfortable against the skin than ripstop nylon. I always take along a fleece liner for my old-style sleeping bag, but most Snugpak versions build in that welcome comfort.

The synthetics have many excellent features, but in one important way do not out-perform natural goosedown. When dry, new goosedown is still ounce for ounce the best insulation available. The weight difference between synthetic bags and down bags, when comparing sleeping gear built for truly arctic conditions, can be as much as two pounds.

If you’re going camping where it’s really cold, you probably won’t have so much trouble keeping your critical gear dry. Water is pretty hard at -50 degrees F. That extra insulation value and weight advantage make goosedown bags the best choice so far for the world’s coldest places.

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