Tuesday, November 9, 2010

How to Buy a Sleeping Bag

I watched Oprah the other day as they prepared to go camping in Yosemite.
It was hard to image she had never gone camping in her life. Ever.
So, in preparation, off she and Gail go to REI to buy stuff. The camera crew comes as well, and they look at tents (they end up with a state of the art pop up camper) and then they look at sleeping bags.
Now I know the show was not really instructional, but more an entertainment and message to blacks: get out more!
Nothing was said about down versus synthetic bags, men or women's sizing, temperature ratings, or care of this major purchase. Of course, Oprah can afford anything she wants, and it appears she and Gail both chose by color only. The sleeping bags looked very fluffy, so I'm guessing an upper end power fill goose down bag rated about 10 degrees. I believe Oprah's was a Big Agnes. I don't recall them mentioning Gail's brand name.
Anyways, I thought I'd offer a little insight into my experiences buying bags.
First off, get one that fits, more like a glove than an over sized sweatshirt. The body must heat all the air space in the bag so the closer the fit the less air space being warmed. I prefer a mummy style bag over a rectangular bag for this reason.
If its too tight, you'll be cramped and end up stiff in the morning.
I always suggest a 30 degree bag for general use. A twenty degree bag is over kill for late spring into fall weather. A forty degree bag means bringing warm clothing in all but low elevations summer camping.
Most bag ratings are optimistic. Many people, women in particular, say they sleep cold.
Sure, a bedtime snack of nuts and jerky will help you sleep warm because of the extra calories, but having a thirty degree bag makes sense.
If you decide to go winter camping, take a fleece liner for your bag, or invest in an ultralight quilt for a topper. I've used a 40 degree synthetic quilt (weighing 16 ounces) over my 30 degree down bag (weighing 24 ounces) for winter camping with great results.
When choosing a bag, spend a little extra money for a high quality bag. You can and should wash it after a lot of use, to restore the loft. Body oils penetrate the bag lining which causes the feathers to clump, which makes the down shift and cause cold spots.
Both synthetic and down bags benefit from washing after several years. Wash in mild detergent, being sure to get all the soap out. A front loading wash machine works great. Then, put a clean tennis shoe in the dry with the bag and tumble to near dry. Follow manufacturers recommendations.
I've always followed the four layers rule for protecting my sleeping bag from moisture like rain and snow when backpacking. Line your stuff bag with a plastic bag. Stuff the sleeping bag into this, twist the plastic bag shut, then close the stuff sack completely. Place into the pack, preferably not at the bottom, and use a good pack cover.
Protect your sleeping bag as you do your life. It is your main defense against hypothermia.
If you follow the 4-Layers rule above, the decision to buy synthetic or power down fill (800-850) will be based upon:
1-Economics. A superior bag will cost several hundred dollars, but will last many long trails. A good synthetic bag can be had for just over a hundred.
2-Weight. Ultralight backpackers will opt for power fill because not only is the weight incredibly low, it packs down so it can fit in a smaller pack, saving additional weight on the pack itself. If you pack it tight, remember to immediately pull it from the stuff sack when ever possible to restore loft. Shake it out, hang it up.
3-Location. Some fear getting a down bag wet, making it "useless", listening to the adage that a synthetic bag is warm when wet. Not true. A damp down bag will dry with body heat. So, on the wet Appalachian Trail people think synthetic, and on the Pacific Crest Trail they're more inclined to down. Once I changed from synethetic to down, I never went back. Again 4 layers.
4-Color. I always chose earth colors because of the stealth and safety factor.
A sleeping bag is one of the greatest investments you'll make in outdoor gear selection. Try it on if you can before purchasing, and be prepared for sticker shock. Remember, with proper care, they will last a long time.

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