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One idea of roughing it might be staying at a Holiday Inn instead of a Marriott. For me at home, I sleep on a Tempur-Pedic pillow, on a nice firm mattress, with a fan blowing crisp breezes and soothing white noise – in other words, I like to be spoiled in my sleep.
So how do I fare in the woods? Well, it’s no Marriott, but as long as the cacophony of snoring from fellow hikers isn’t too bad, it’s not as bad as say a motel whose only selling point to advertise is that it is “American Owned”. Here’s a long how-to:
Getting Prepared - Setting the stage for a good night’s sleep
When It’s Cold Outside - Dealing with a three-dog night
Sleeping Bag Temperature Ratings - Understand sleeping bag rating numbers
Down vs Synthetics - Choose between plastic or feathers
So Which One For Me? - Choose the finalist
Camping Mattress Selection - Choose a sleeping partner, I mean, pad
Sleeping Gear Tips and Care - Take care . . . of your gear
A zillion-dollar sleeping bag won’t help if you start out with a crappy campsite and bad preparation. A few pointers:
1) Look for as level a spot as possible to pitch your tent - even a slight slope will be uncomfortable once you lay down. If you choice is rough ground or sloping ground, take the rough - your mattress will absorb most of the rough spots, but there's not much you can do for the slope;
2) If you do end up having to sleep on a slope, sleep parallel with it, with your head at the higher end. Avoid having your head downhill whenever possible;
3) Clean yourself up as best you can before you crawl in your bag: dirtiness = stickiness = sleeplessness. See here for more info on personal cleanliness;
4) Sleep close enough to water to hear it running for a soothing melody, but not so close where flooding is a danger or you’re in the only path animals use to come to drink;
6) and, hey, boys – you might sleep thru the night at home just fine without a pee run, but the extra water during the day, the early bedtime, and the harder surface underneath you is hell on bladders when you’re camping. You can either lie there awake from the pain, or lie awake after getting up into the cold or wet night outside your tent to take care of business. Or, be lazy and smart and take a pee bottle to use at night – just don’t forget which is which . . . . Sorry gals, don’t know what to tell ya about any equivalent solution.
When It’s Cold Outside
- Throw in a Hand Warmer or Water Bladder full of hot water into your bag – it’s amazing how much warmth that will add;
- Take a short walk or exercise briefly before getting into the bag. Don’t work up a sweat– just enough to warm up your body;
- Stay hydrated;
- Eat something before getting into bed. Not too much–just enough to have some calories to burn and convert to body heat;
- Wear a hat, long underwear and dry warm socks when sleeping to keep you a little bit warmer at night. Throw your other clothes in the bottom of the bag or use them as a pillow to take up dead air space;
- Stay away from alcohol - it can cause you to sleep in fits and leads to a cooling of the body;
- And, consider a liner to increase the temperature range of the bag - either ready-made for your bag or out of any synthetic material you can pick up at Wal-Mart in its sewing department.
There’s more about this in the next section . . . .
Sleeping Bag Temperature Ratings
Temperature ratings in sleeping bags are only intended as general guidelines, not absolutes. A sleeping bag's temperature or "comfort" rating identifies the most extreme temperature the bag is designed to accommodate. For example, when you hear a bag described as a "+20” or “20-degree” bag," it’s suggesting that most users should remain comfortable as long as the air temperature stays above 20 degrees Fahrenheit. The sleeping bag industry is working to develop standards for temperature ratings (EN Ratings), but not all brands participate. Some of the problems with coming up with manufacturing standards come from the wide variety of materials used (down, many different types of synthetic material, etc.) and construction techniques. These variables combined with variations in bag lengths and girths make for almost endless combinations. So, one company’s 20-degree bag might have the insulation effect as another company’s 30-degree bag. However, if you see two bags, both of which are similarly "EN-Rated", then in theory anyway they should be comparably warm to the temperature ratings.
But the manufacturers’ variables pale in comparison to the users’. A sleeping bag is an insulator—it will keep hot things hot and cold things cold. Ultimately, the user determines whether they sleep warm or cold within in a bag. Sleeping bags keep you warm by trapping and holding a layer of "dead" (non-circulating) air next to your body. This air, which is warmed by your body heat, forms a barrier between you and colder air or cold surfaces.
Here are a few of the user variables and how they can affect the warmth retention capability of the sleeping bag:
- Everybody's metabolism is different. If your friends are envious because you can eat a lot without gaining weight, odds are your metabolism is higher than average. You’d probably warm up the inside of a bag more so than your less-efficient fuel-burning friends. Generally, a man’s metabolism will burn more fuel than a woman, so it’s not unusual for women to want sleeping bags with colder temperature ratings. Better to err on the side of caution when choosing - select one with a lower temperature rating than you think you might need, as you can always unzip the bag if you get too warm.
- You also need water as fuel – avoid alcohol as it will dehydrate you – causing the body to run cold. Sorry, but that flushed feeling you get when drinking isn’t good body heat. On the other hand, drinking so much that you have a full bladder is a diversion of resources for your body as well, not to mention just plain uncomfortable. You can better warm the air around you in your sleeping bag if you have an empty bladder.
- The size of your tent and how many “roommates” you have – the inside of a large tent won’t warm up much from your body heat if you're the only occupant. On the other hand, a smaller tent with several hikers in it will sleep much warmer.
- What you’re wearing – much of your body's heat loss goes out of your head and feet. Sleeping with your head covered with either a toboggan hat or the hood of the bag will go a long way towards more warmth. Socks on the feet help too.
- Your body burns calories in part to stay warm. Eating well prior to going to bed will provide your body with fresh calories to burn through the night. Going to bed on an empty stomach will be adding insult to injury as your body heat goes down.
- The insulating mattress pad beneath your bag makes a big difference. See the discussion on sleeping pads further below in this section.
- Bag style and adjustments - Mummy bags tend to keep you warmer than rectangle ones. You can also control the heat levels by how much of the bag you zip up, and how tight you draw the hood.
Our bottom line? If you camp in a wide range of temperatures, but only want one bag, we believe a majority of trips for most of the year can be handled with a bag in the 25- to 30-degree range. But December – February in higher elevations probably warrants a 0-degree bag. In summer, just unzip the 30-degree bag as needed to stay cool. But that’s the great thing about renting - watch the weather forecast or call a nearby ranger station for their suggestions, and rent accordingly – get exactly what you need! We have bags rated from 0" to 50'. See all of our sleeping bags for rent. For more information, watch our video on our sleeping bag selection.
Down vs Synthetics
Once you’ve decided on a temperature rating, another decision awaits you – down or synthetic insulation material. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.
Down is the wispy, fluffy undercoating found just beneath the outer feathers of geese and ducks. This natural fiber is an extraordinary insulator. Goose down is preferred to down from ducks; sorry, ducks. Synthetic materials, in comparison, are basically just hollow plastic threads, usually in one long strand.
Down is a more expensive, but has a longer lifespan— a well-maintained sleeping bag can easily last 20 years. It offers excellent insulation for surprisingly little weight, and can be compacted into very small sizes. Its biggest drawback is if it ever gets wet, it’s useless until it dries - which can take awhile – as in days if it's cold. So cost, maintenance and cleaning are its major issues.
Synthetic insulation materials are improving every year for warmth and compressibility. Comparable temperature-rated bags filled with synthetic materials are nearly always significantly cheaper than down, are easier to clean and are safer to use in wet conditions. They won’t last as long as a down bag, but who keeps anything for 20 years anyway? Down or synthetics – either will rip wide open if caught on a nice little thorn bush, so keep it inside your bag when backpacking.
Because of its value, ease in keeping clean, and better performance if wet, we’ve selected synthetic as the insulation material for the bags we offer for rent.
So Which One For Me?
When making your final sleeping bag selection from us or other source, consider all factors, including temperature rating, insulation type, bag style, length and weight.
1) Rating. The temperature rating we’ve already discussed above. We offer a full range for comfort between zero freeze-outs to warm summer nights. We offer only bags with synthetic insulation, but if you buy one, consider down bags for the absolute in lightest weight and maximum compressibility- as long as you’re normally in dry conditions. Otherwise, the new synthetics are a better value and have very few drawbacks.
2) Style. Bags come in two basic shapes, with a number of hybrid versions. “Mummies” are slim, close-fitting bags designed to save weight and retain heat as efficiently as possible. They start narrow at the feet, get wider toward the shoulder, then taper to an insulated, fitted hood. Nearly all lightweight backpacking bags are mummy-shaped. “Rectangular” bags are usually for warm weather, car-camping use where heat-retention and weight are less of an issue. Mummies are better for cold weather, but can feel confining to some campers. Rectangular bags have room to toss and turn a bit, but let a lot of body heat escape since most don’t have hoods. Most of the ones we have are mummy bags.
Another hybrid option is to take two sleeping bags and mate them together to create a “cocoon” for two. You can pull this off with two bags that have similar sized zippers, with one a "right-hand" zipper and the other a "left-hand" zipper. (A bag with a right-hand zipper means the bag opens and closes to your right when you are lying in the bag on your back. Note that in cold weather this setup will be less efficient at retaining heat, no matter how cozy you get. We also have a sleeping bag for two for rent.
3) Length. For most sleeping bag makers, 6’ is the arbitrary cutoff between a “regular” and “long” style bag. For women’s bags, the cutoff is often around 5’5”. Your bag should be snug, but not too tight or short; go with the longer version if you are on the fringes of the regular size. You can always use some of your clothes to take up dead space in the bag if it’s too long, or tie off some of the excess space around your feet. We also offer shorter versions of bags for children. Learn more about renting a kid-sized sleeping bag. Or see all of our various bag sizes and styles for rent.
4) Weight. Finally, consider weight in your decision. As a general rule (exceptions apply of course), remember that synthetic bags will be heavier than their similarly temperature-rated down bags; the colder the temperature rating, the heavier the bag will be; rectangular bags weigh more than mummies; and long versions of bags will weigh more than regular-length versions. But the total difference between a light one and heavy one is maybe 2 pounds – not much unless you’re on a long trip. All bag weights are included in the product description text.
For more information, watch our video on our sleeping bag selection.
Camping Mattress Selection
Lots of people have sleeping bags; a lot fewer have a sleeping mattress – the latter folks are really missing out on at least half of the comfort formula. Sleeping pads keep you comfortable when you're sleeping on hard, uneven ground and provide an important layer of insulation between you and the ground. Sleeping pads insulate the same way that sleeping bags and clothing layers do, by trapping a layer of non-circulating air between your body and the ground. Your body warms this air and it becomes a important barrier against heat loss to the ground.
Like bags, your selection of a mattress requires you to factor size, weight, comfort and outside temperature. We offer for rent a broad selection of ThermaRest brand camping mattresses – the undisputed top seller for backpackers, as well as others from Big Agnes and Klymit. Most we carry are self-inflating pads - open-cell foam pads wrapped in air-tight, waterproof nylon shells. They roll up small and tight for carrying, and then inflate by themselves as the name suggests (although you will end up blowing more air into it for additional firmness). We have pads of different width, thickness and lengths to choose from. See the category and product descriptions for more details on which one is best for you.
Hike with your sleeping pads in tough sacks to protect them from sharp objects in your pack or protruding from the sides of the trail, or, strap the sleeping pad vertically along your pack in its nylon bag to limit the pad getting caught on sharp objects.
For more information, watch our video on our sleeping mattress pads.
Sleeping Gear Tips and Care
- Fluff up your sleeping bag before use. This is especially critical for down bags. You'll restore the bag's full loft and thus maximize its effectiveness. Unpack your bag and pad as soon as you get your tent up when making camp.
- If your bag gets wet on your trip, open and spread it out as much as you can in the heat, but try to avoid direct sunlight as this is hard on the shell material. If you’re on the move, tie it to the outside of your pack to encourage faster drying, but be careful not to rip the shell as you hike.
- Avoid stepping on or getting into your bag with shoes on, and if you’re sleeping under the stars without a tent, lay the bag down on a trash bag or tarp if you don’t have a sleeping pad.
- Keep the sleeping bag in a plastic or waterproof bag while in your pack – you never know when you might drop the entire pack into a creek while crossing; your water bladder in your pack might spring a leak, or you might face a sudden deluge from a summer storm. Keep it dry!
- For our rental gear, all you need to do before returning it is to remove any surface dust and dirt, and wipe it inside and out with a wet cloth. Unzip the bag and open it as far as it will go to allow it to fully air and dry out. Only when you are sure it is 100% dry – otherwise it may mildew, meaning you will have bought the bag - stuff it back in its sack and return to us. We'll clean it when it gets back in. Here's me in action - Chief Washing Officer.
- Never dry clean a down bag as the process strips oil from the down fill. You can wash the sleeping bag yourself, but only with a front-loading washer and detergent designed for down, on gentle cycle. Never use a top-loading agitator-style washing machine for any type of sleeping bag, or add bleach or softener. Rinse, making absolutely certain that all of the soap is removed from the feathers by rinsing multiple times in clean water. When you are sure that all of the soap residue has been removed, tumble dry at a low- or no-heat setting, or better, let it air dry, which could take a couple of days. Do not attempt to speed the process by drying at a higher heat level. Nylon sleeping bag shells will melt if exposed to high heat in a dryer. Check your bag frequently throughout the drying process. The addition of a couple of tennis balls will help to break up any clumps of down, and make sure your bag regains its maximum loft. Never steam, press or iron a down sleeping bag.
- Synthetic-fill bags are easier to clean. You can wash them yourself, but again, only with a front-loading washer and mild detergent, on gentle cycle. Never use a top-loading agitator-style washing machine for any type of sleeping bag, or add bleach or softener. Rinse thoroughly. Drip dry or tumble dry at a low heat setting; synthetics will dry much faster than a down bag. Check your bag frequently during drying to make sure that no "hot spots" are developing which might melt the shell or insulation. Heat should never exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit. If in doubt, air-dry your bag, or use the no-heat setting in the dryer.
- Between trips it's best to store your sleeping bag in a large cotton sack that comes with it – not the smaller stuff sack, since, over time, this will reduce your sleeping bag's loft. Never use a plastic bag since it can trap moisture and encourage mold, mildew and bacterial growth.
- You can clean the surface of your sleeping pad with water and mild detergent, but be sure it is fully dried before rolling up. Sleeping pads should be stored unrolled – under my bed at home seems to be a good place between backpacking trips.
When we send you sleeping gear for rent, we’ll send along additional tips and instructions to help out. For more suggestions on trip preparation, what gear and essentials to take, and other helpful reference information, check out our advice pages.
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