THE ART OF SLEEPING BAGS
all the info you need to make the right choice
"There are important decisions to be made
when venturing outdoors and none more important than choosing the right
Without a doubt the best person to answer this question is the person who will be sleeping in the bag and knows what environment they will be going into - this is not a one size fits all call. A top end bag for alpine conditions has a completely different set of characteristics to a bag that will be used for tramping or light weight travel in summer. Warmth, weight, size and features are all attributes that need to be taken into consideration and compromised in the final decision clearly chosen around the final end use. There was a time when sleeping bags could be easily placed into one of three or four categories and often the only variance was price. However due to technological advances in this area there is a great cross-over of purpose and product and those category lines have become blurred, but in general you can look at bags falling into these categories:
Alpine bags are intended for extreme environments, as the title would suggest - above the snowline but obviously not exclusively. The requirements are they need to be lightweight and warm – predominantly a mummy shape (we’ll look at why later). The fabric needs to be lightweight and durable, historically they were down but this is not now always the case, but there is still the need for a high warmth to weight ratio and of late they will often include water-resistant shell fabrics, as a wet bag in these environments could be fatal. The next group, let’s term them tramping bags, these bags still need to be as light as possible but there is more emphasis placed on comfort with additional features to make them more user friendly. As these are under more pressure in terms of cost, a corner that is often cut is in not using such high-tech fabrics and materials. Generally these bags come in tapered form rather than mummy.
Travel bag: here the emphasis is really on size and weight – generally not used outside, these bags have less technical features and often warmth is not really a major factor either – ease of use, weight and size are paramount.
Everything Bag: these are for comfort, heavier and robust, ideal for sleep-overs, camping or whenever extra bedding is needed. Comfort, function, washable and durable are the key aspects whereas weight, size and shape are not a priority but construction and price are.
WHAT SOrTA SHAPE ArE YOu in?
As stated sleeping bags are a balancing act of comfort and performance and cost. The bigger the bag the more room inside and more comfortable. But the more room there is the more your body has to heat, therefore what you gain in ‘wiggle room’ you reduced in thermal efficiency. So basically there are three main shapes:
Tapered – the most common as it is a good compromise. As you would expect it is tapered at the foot to keep down on dead space. Normally you can still fully unzip to create a blanket, but the shape is a good half way measure in terms of comfort and thermal efficiency.
Mummy - like a mummy in a coffin (sarcophagus) it’s a snug fit and will keep dead air to a minimum, it is the most effective shape but for some not the most comfortable because of the lack of leg room. Typically comes with a half zip and a hood.
rectangle - for comfort, not hugely effective in terms of warmth but a lot more leg room to spread out and easily turned into a blanket with the full zip around. You can get rectangle bags of really good quality as many prefer the comfort of the shape however they are the ones you see at the warehouse with Batman and Spiderman on them!
TYPES OF inSuLATiOn
Insulating has come on in leaps and bounds over the last ten years – geese gave their all for many years to keep the adventurer warm and dry but technology has caught up (I am guessing the geese would be happy about that). There seems to be a huge range of insulation options, mixtures and new ideas, too many to outline here but these are the main basic types.
Synthetic insulation (versus down insulation) has a solid overall performance and is often a lost less expensive. Characteristically made of polyester, synthetic key advantages are: it is not as expensive as other products and is quick-drying and insulates even if it gets wet. But, synthetic insulation doesn't pack down as small as down, which can be a disadvantage if travelling.
It is seen a little more old school but provides a more durable and compressible alternative to synthetic fill but what you lose in weight you gain in price.
Water-resistant Down insulation
Down is measured by fill power; it is a little complicated but basically fill power is a measure of the loft or "fluffiness" of a down product
that is loosely related to the insulating value of the down. The higher the fill power the more air, a measure of the down, can trap, and therefore the more insulating ability an ounce of the down will have. The downside of down is that it loses its insulating power when it gets wet. To help alleviate the problem, some sleeping bags feature down that has been treated to protect the feathers from moisture. Others have tried a combination of Synthetic and down so once again we come back to the same questions and answer – what will it be used for? – will it be getting wet?
TYPES OF COnSTruCTiOn AnD FEATurES
When you start to look at the array of construction types, how sleeping bags are put together it is mind boggling, there are baffles that run vertically, baffles that run horizontally to hold down in place, there are foot boxes and neck warmers there are pockets and hoods and cuffs and bed styles, the list is endless. But when making the choice of what sleeping bag is right for you simply be sensible, costs does not always mean it’s the best and don’t believe everything you read on the ticket or what the sales person tells you. Make sensible thoughtful decisions keeping the end use in mind. Most outer layer of sleeping bags are made of the same type of light weight fabric, cheaper bags might use a heavier material. Some more extreme bags will have a water resistant cover and some and a tear proof bottom layer. But whatever you choose make sure you choose it is for the right conditions.
TiPS AnD TriCKS
Always keep you sleeping bag as dry as possible – if you have a hard or soft shell jacket that is dry, keep your sleeping bag wrapped in that while it is in the tent to keep it from absorbing the condensation. Use your jacket and a plastic sealed wrap. If it is really cold fluff your bag in advance of using it, roll it out and puff it up – give yourself plenty of ‘in bag time’ before trying to sleep. Get a larger bag so you can use it as a warmer draw for your essentials while you are sleeping – placing clothes etc around your feet will keep them warm for the morning. Get a sleeping mat, cold ground or circulating air withdraws body heat no matter how good the quality of your sleeping bag is. Reduce this conductive heat loss by using a good insulating mat. Create a pillow by putting clothes in a pillow case or stuff bag. Air your bag every morning where possible, it is important to air the sleeping bag for at least 10 minutes. If you have sunshine, this is perfect. It will dry out any perspiration, condensation or dew that may be on the bag Consider a bag liner – there is a range on the market or get your mum to make you one out of a sheet. Silkbody do a great range (this is not a paid promotion!)
CArE OF THE SLEEPinG BAG
Don’t just throw it in the washing machine or send it to the dry cleaners, read the label first. Dry cleaning solution is petroleumbased and will ultimately destroy your sleeping bag. All sleeping bags come with washing instructions. The best washing method we have come across is outlined below – and do not throw in a dryer afterwards it can dramatically affect the bags performance.
The cleaning Process:
1. Zip up sleeping bag completely. 2. Fill tub with cold water and add about 1/4 cup of laundry soap, stirring until soap is dissolved. It is not recommended that you use regular detergent or anything containing bleach as it may damage the sleeping bag and leave an irritating residue. 3. Place sleeping bag in the tub laying it as flat as possible. 4. Step into the tub with your bare feet and march up and down on the sleeping bag until it is thoroughly submerged and the soapy water has worked its way through all of the filling. 5. Empty the soapy water from the tub and with the sleeping bag still lying flat, refill will cold water. 6. Step back in and march up and down on top of the sleeping bag to squeeze out the soap residue. 7. Repeat steps 5 and 6 until no soap residue remains. 8. Drain the water from the tub and roll sleeping bag into a cylinder, pressing down as you go to squeeze out as much excess water as possible. (NEVER twist or wring the sleeping bag as this may cause damage) 9. Dry in the sun as open as possible.
Always stuff your bag rather than rolling it. Stuffing is easier on the fabric and the fill.
Image by Alex Gendron