Attack of The 35 Below Zero Sleeping Bag

This is one of those hiking memories which sticks. Most of the long hard miles are only a blur in retrospect; what remains after decades on the trail are moments of exquisite beauty or singular hardship:  the dog that was my traveling companion for almost fifteen years seeming to fly over the crest of a mountain ridge, all four feet in the air; the moment I misstepped on a hairpin turn high in the Cascades and ripped a groin muscle seven hard miles from my car; and of course the incident with the down sleeping bag.  The special moments, benign or malevolent or both, become treasured.

In 1972, fresh out of the Army and just back from Vietnam, I was severely bitten by the travel bug and decided to spend the first part of my new freedom backpacking on the road.  My first stop after Ft. Lewis, Washington, which I recall only as miserable hours of standing in a freezing cold rain with only jungle fatigues to keep my tropically adapted body from the cold, was the hiker’s mecca of Recreational Co-op, Inc., in Seattle.  I had the intention of never being cold again and outfitted myself in gear fit for an Arctic expedition, even though the temperature seldom dipped below freezing while I was there.  I recall that my main purchases in preparation for a journey across country in the middle of winter were heavy insulated boots and wool socks; ten or fifteen of the huge menthol laced sugar bars that Hillary apparently used as a staple energy food on his first Everest expedition; and a goosedown sleeping bag with a 35 degree below zero comfort rating.

If you haven’t done much shopping for sleeping bags, you probably don’t know how crazy that is.  The only features to concern yourself with are type of insulation (primarily a choice between Holofill and goosedown, anything else being useless for wilderness conditions); style of bag, either rectangular or mummy; and temperature rating.  A bag rated for 35 below zero will be intolerable on a warm zero degree Fahrenheit evening; a bag rated for 32 degrees will be miserably cold on a night when the temperature dips to fifteen.  You can make tradeoffs between type of insulation and bag weight, Holofill being heavier per degree of insulation value, goosedown being warmer but less durable, but you need a bag that is designed for conditions you’ll face.  The bag you use in summer will not be the bag you need in winter.

I tried to ask smart questions when I bought that bag.  I recall the puzzled expression of the clerk who sold it to me when I asked him what you do if the zipper gets stuck.  I don’t know why I thought of that–maybe it was a premonition.  He explained to me that the zippers were breakaway types, and if that did happen you could simply push them apart.  He thought the bag would be way too warm for my needs, but for most of that first winter I slept in it even indoors.  It was the only place I could really get warm; my body clung to memories of the jungle’s warmth like a leech to a soldier’s ankle.

On one of my trips across country, touching base with America by walking and hitching rides, the goosedown mummy bag turned out to be just about perfect for the wintry conditions. I remember a crystalline clear night when I stepped out of a stranger’s car into the snow and the cold and walked to a field behind a drive-in movie, made my simple camp with only a foam mat and that down bag for shelter, and ate my warming meal of canned tuna and mentholated sugar in comfort, lying back luxuriously on my cushion of feathers and snow. When I felt like sleeping I pulled the mummy bag’s nylon cord snug, so the only opening was the size of a half dollar, tied it with a slip knot, and was immediately dead to the world. I almost stayed that way.

Maybe it was the sugar and tunafish firing off that woke me up a few hours later with a rush of internal heat.  I reached for the slip knot in the dark, intending to open the hood up and cool down a bit.  The cord had become a little frayed and fuzzy and the knot wouldn’t cooperate, so I tried the zipper.  Fibers from the cord had fouled the zipper, so I fumbled with first one and then the other until both were hopelessly jammed and there was nothing else to do but use the escape feature the clerk had mentioned:  break the zipper apart and hope there was some way to put it together again later.  I jammed my elbows into opposite sides of the bag and pushed.  I grabbed opposite seams of the zipper and pulled.  Nothing happened.  It was like trying to punch my way out of a paper bag, with not enough leverage and angles all wrong for the task.

I was beginning to be concerned, because everything I did made me hotter, and I was now on the edge of heatstroke, drenched in sweat and gasping for breath.  I thought of the headlines that would be in the local paper if I didn’t make it out — Hitchhiker Found Dead in Sleeping Bag; Coroner Says Death from Natural Causes! I wondered how many of the people who died on the road every year had expired for this same reason.  I thought about calling for help, but didn’t.  At three a.m. on the Nebraska plains in winter, no one is listening.

I put my mouth to my little blowhole and tried to cool off by deep breathing, pushing out the hot air like a whale spouting, sucking in the cold air and holding it in my lungs, and managed to cool down enough to hold off the panic.  I thought about trying to walk to the road in the bag, hopping sack-racing style or crawling like a caterpillar, but the road was a few hundred feet away, across a barbed wire fence.  Sitting up was enough to make me lose my breathing hole.  I didn’t think I’d make it to the road.  I’d be a dead lump hanging on the fence by sunup.

I tried to think the problem through.  Maybe, if I turned to the side I could get more leverage, push out with both arms and pop the bag open.  I sucked in all the cold I could swallow, wriggled and thrashed my way sideways in the bag and pushed out with all my strength, once, twice, and three times.  The zipper wouldn’t give.  I thrashed my way back to my breathing hole.  So this is how it ends, I thought, dying of heatstroke in a snowbank, cursing the man who sold me my cocoon of doom.

In the end I escaped by becoming calm, realizing that the only way out was to figure out the knot, seeing the jammed cords with my fingertips and thinking it through–if this strand is over this one, I have to push this loop this way–and after half an hour of careful struggle and many trips to my breathing hole I did get it loose.  Nothing ever felt so good as that freezing cold night air when I wriggled my steaming way out the top of that bag.  Before I froze my fingers I pried the zipper loose, and eventually reached a balance of warmth that took me through the rest of the night in reasonable peace.

These days, I tend to err on the cold side rather than the hot side when it comes to sleeping bags.  My usual sleeping gear is a pad, a Holofill mummy bag, fleece liner and space blanket, not all of which I will use unless it gets really cold.  Goosedown is nice when it’s new, but it doesn’t stay new for long; tends to get matted up with moisture and oils and become a nylon shell filled with lumps of feathers.  People have lots of ideas about how to clean a goosedown bag, but I’ve not seen that work well in practice.  If you use one very often, you’ll soon need a new bag.  Holofill is a little heavier, but it’s warm even when it’s wet, it’s washable, and will last for years.

I’m always careful with zippers, and make sure the drawstring pulls shut with a slide rather than a knot; and I always sleep with a knife close to hand, in the bag with me, because you never know.  It’s been decades since a sleeping bag tried to kill me, but it might happen again.

J. T. Hats

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