This is a continuation of our sleeping gear review as we take a break to visit family.
Gear Report: Sleeping bags, bag liners and pillows
Unlike sleeping pads, I’ve owned very few sleeping bags. As a kid I had some massive synthetic, cheap, rectangular cut K-Mart bag (probably with Super Friends or Star Wars characters) used for backyard camping and sleepovers. It rolled up the size of a small barrel.
When I started co-oping (cooperative work experience is a program where the student alternates working full time one semester in some engineering related function with full-time classes the next semester) while in university and earned a little money beyond tuition, room and board, I started buying some higher quality gear. One of my first purchases was a better sleeping bag.
I read a few articles in Backpacker magazine and stopped by a local Chicagoland gear shop, Erewhon Mountain Outfitter, several times for advice and to take naps in their sleeping bags. After drooling excessively in one during a successful blissful power slumber (facilitated by a La Bamba “burritos as big as your head” Joseph Merrick burrito), the store manager strongly suggested that I had found my bag-mate and I should make the purchase that day.
I walked out with my first “real” sleeping bag. It was a down insulated mummy bag from Moonstone¹ rated about 25ºF (-4ºC).
A Sleeping Bag Primer
The basics function of a sleeping bag is to keep you warm while sleeping. For backpacking and bicycle touring this is preferably accomplished in the smallest and lightest form. When deciding between bags there are three main elements to take into consideration:
- Temperature rating²: You want a bag to be rated for the coldest temperature you expect to encounter.
- Roominess: Sleeping bags come in two basic shapes: rectangular and mummy. Backpackers and bike-packers are focused on minimizing weight and gravitate towards a mummy bag which is narrower at the shoulders and tapers towards the feet. The bags can be restrictive, especially if you are a restless sleeper, and some people can feel claustrophobic. Rectangular or semi-rectangular cut bags are all about comfort and roominess and are better suited for car and family camping.
Insulation: There are three main choices of insulation, synthetic, down (the fine feathers of duck or geese found below the outer feathers), and water resistant down.
Down has the benefit of being light, durable breathable and compressible. It tends to be expensive but is more durable than synthetics and has a longer useful life. The downside is that if your down gets wet, it clumps, turns into a soggy mess and insulates as well as a wet rag.
Water-repellent down is treated to resist moisture (not be waterproof) but is more expensive than down.
Synthetics excel in damp weather but they do not compress as well as down and over repeated packing and unpacking and they lose their loft (ability to trap air and therefore insulate). Synthetic insulation also tends to be heavier. They are relatively inexpensive compared to down but do not last as long.
I prefer down’s light weight and packability. Not all down is created equal. It is rated by fill power (down quality is determined by the number of cubic inches one ounce of down can fill) which is the loft/fluffiness of the feathers. Put another way, the higher the fill power, the more air a given ounce of down can trap and therefore insulate.
Like everything else in life there is a trade off. The higher the fill power, the less down you need to insulate a bag for a given temperature rating, which results in a relatively lighter and smaller bag. But, high quality down is relatively more expensive.
There are other factors such as the baffling, shape of the foot box, shape of the hood, etc., to take into consideration but instead of writing more on the subject and creating a cure for insomnia, I suggest going into a good gear store and test drooling on some of their sleeping bags.
My first real bag, the Moonstone, was well used for over 6 years. However, rated at 25ºF, it was always a bit too hot for me. I considered it big and bulky (at the time it was state of the art with about 500 fill power down) and decided to replace it with a smaller and lighter Marmot Arroyo (a 35ºF, 800 fill power) before I left on my England to Singapore trip.
After almost daily usage during that 11 month trip, followed by 3 months of use across the USA, the Arroyo’s loft was essentially gone. Since we ended up in Texas where it tends to be warm most of the year, it was not so much of an issue and I continued to use the bag for backpacking and car camping.
When it was time to replace the Arroyo I was looking for another lightweight, higher temperature rated bag (aka “summer bag”). I sleep “hot” and never felt the need for a true cold weather sleeping bag. If it does get uncomfortably cold you can always put on all the clothes you are carrying. Another trick for staying warm if the temperature drops to where your bag is uncomfortably cold is to pour boiling water in a nalgene bottle and put it in the bottom of the sleeping bag.
The replacement I found was the Marmot Arete. It also has 800 fill down. It weighs about 23 oz (650g) and is rated at 40°F (4°C) and packs up to a small 6 x 12 inch (15 x 30cm) cylinder. Overall I have been happy with it. For my next bag, I would strongly consider one with water resistant down. Except for one occasion³, I have never had a problem keeping my down bags dry. However, I would consider the extra expense of water resistant down cheap insurance compared to being in a situation where hypothermia is a real threat.
Sarah currently uses an REI Downtime 15°F bag. Her previous North Face, half-dead, four year old, synthetic bag did not provide blissful nights of sleep the first time I took her to Big Bend National Park in January (we drove straight through from Maryland to Texas after her finals). On our way back through Austin we stopped at the REI and found the bag heavily discounted, in a clearance bin. It uses 600 fill down and it is massive next to my bag. It weighs about 43 oz (1220 g) and packs to a cumbersome 8 x 15 inch (20 x 38cm). It takes up one complete pannier on Sarah’s bike.
A dedicated pillow is a luxury. We have inflatable versions.
Our NEMO Fillo pillows work like an inflatable sleeping pad. A few breathes and they inflate to about 4 inches (10cm) thick or less depending on your preference. A foam pad sits between the air bladder and the microfiber cover making it a welcome place to park your weary head.
A pillow violates my rule of thumb that everything that you carry should have at least two uses. However, stretching the definition of use, besides providing additional slumbering comfort, they sop up drool very well. Additionally, deflated and folded-over, our pillows make a great place to kneel when the ground is hard and rocky while packing up inside the tent in the morning.
Up until this trip I used a jacket or a stuff sack full of clothes as a pillow. Both work great and I would counsel using this method on shorter trips. However, when you are out for months and run out of clean clothes, your “pillow” can become a funky, skunky, unpleasant head cushion.
There are other brands and versions of camping pillows available. I did some cursory research but never tested this or other pillows. Instead, I based the purchase on three factors. First, I was pleased with my NEMO Cosmo sleeping pad, I found them insanely discounted online (but back ordered by months) shortly after they were introduced, and one was a surprise Christmas present for Sarah.
Camping pillows are completely unnecessary, frowned upon by elitists, and ridiculously expensive (considering most people will use them a few times a year). But if it’s so wrong, why does it feel so right?
Sleeping Bag Liners
Why do you need a sleeping bag liner if you have a sleeping bag?
A liner helps keep your bag free of dirt and body oil which extends the life of your sleeping bag. Sleeping bags, especially down bags, are difficult to launder. It is much easier to clean a liner than a sleeping bag.
Another benefit of a liner is that it provides extra warmth. Manufactures claim it adds 5° to 15°F (2.7° to 8.3°C) of extra warmth to your sleeping bag, depending on the liner material.
In hot weather, we don’t use our sleeping bags and only use the liner as a light sleeping bag if necessary. If it is too hot for the liner, we’re most likely in sauna conditions, and sleep on top of them to help keep the sleeping mats clean (free of sweat and body oils).
There are four main materials used to make sleeping bag liners. I’ve tried cotton and synthetic liners which tend to be relatively inexpensive but they are bulky and heavier than silk. They also come in fleece versions, however, they remind me too much of a Snuggie to be taken seriously.
I prefer silk for it’s breathability, low weight and compactness when packed. However, there are several detrimental aspects of silk. Silk is delicate and if you toss and turn a lot while sleeping, most likely you will end up ripping the seams or the silk itself. I destroyed one after nearly 10 years of use and my current one is showing signs of my abuse. Unfortunately, silk liners are expensive.
Like a camping pillow, which most people will only use a few times a year, a silk liner is not necessary and probably an extravagant expense. If you absolutely want a silk liner, wait for it to go on sale or learn how to sew. Otherwise, if you use your sleeping bag enough that you are considering buying a front-loading washer or the local dry-cleaner knows you as “ol’ stinky sack”, a synthetic liner is a worthwhile consideration.
¹Moonstone was an innovative gear manufacturer that unfortunately went out of business in the mid 2000’s. I think Columbia picked up the rights.
²Sleeping bag ratings vary widely by manufacturer. One manufactures 0º bag might be another’s 10º bag. Manufacturers will indicated that it is the lowest possible temperature where one will sleep comfortably. I call “liar, liar, pants on fire” on that one. In my experience they are meant to indicate the lowest temperature where the occupant will not die of hypothermia. It is meant to keep Mister Snow Miser from turning you into a popsicle minion.
Many manufacturers have adopted a more standardized rating system called the European Norm testing protocol or EN Methodology for short. Men and women have different metabolic rates while sleeping – women sleep colder than men. The EN Methodology takes this into account and provides two temperature ratings. The first is the comfort rating which is the lowest temperature at which the bag will keep the average women warm. The second rating is the lower limit rating which is the lowest temperature at which the bag will keep the average man warm.
Unfortunately the EN Methodology is probably doomed in the USA due to the use of the term average. I foresee a scenario where a parent will complain that their pudding-head child is not average and insist that they be given a Gifted and Talented temperature rating along with a participant ribbon.
³While biking through Siberia during late Fall, I was wearing all my clothes (“clean” and dirty) inside my sleeping bag. I was uncomfortably cold to the point where I could not sleep. I draped an emergency blanket over my sleeping bag and warmed to the point where I fell asleep. I woke in the morning to a damp and soggy sleeping bag. Condensation collected on the emergency blanket and soaked back into the sleeping bag while I slept. Subsequently, I spent a good portion of a morning gathering wood to make a fire and dry the sleeping bag as best I could. A few sparks created additional opportunities to practice my field sewing skills.