Choosing a Sleeping Bag & Pad

A warm sleeping bag and a comfy sleeping pad can make you go from counting sheep to deep asleep.  If you don’t already have a lightweight sleeping bag, invest in one that will keep you warm.  Almost every year, light snow is reported somewhere on the Wonderland Trail in summer.  Mornings can be frosty and icy in places.  Be prepared for the weather that this trail can throw at you and stay comfy.  After long trail days, you will need to get some very good rest to wake up and do it all over again.

Unlike coats or hats, sleeping bags have temperature ratings to help you determine how warm the bag will sleep.  The temperature rating is the lowest temperature at which you will likely get a comfortable nights sleep.  The number assumes you are sleeping in long underwear and using a sleep pad.  Other things play into this number, such as the fact that women tend to sleep colder than men.  Some folks are ‘hot’ sleepers who wake up every morning with the bed covers in a pile next to them.  While other folks love heat and shiver at a passing breeze on a 90 degree day.  Depending on what type of ‘sleeper’ you are you’ll want to take the temperature rating on a sleeping bag lightly and realize that each person will have a different opinion of ‘warm’.  I personally fall into the ‘lizard’ category, where I can’t get enough warmth.  My sleeping bag is a very lightweight 0 degree bag and I sleep very comfortably.  My husband would be miserable and sweaty if he were to use the same bag.  A three-season bag (all seasons except winter) ratings are generally anywhere from 10 degrees to 35 degrees.  Cold weather bags are -10 degrees to 10 degrees and anything colder is considered a winter/extreme bag.  Summer-only bags are rated 35 degrees and higher.  In addition to temperature rating, keep in mind that nothing in and of itself, is warm.  Your body is what is heating the bag.  If you choose a bag that is too roomy you body will have a big job heating that bag and despite it’s temperature rating, you may be cold.  Mummy bags are classic trail bag shapes as they fit your body’s profile with only inches to spare.  The contours help eliminate air space and keep the air your body has heated, nice and warm.  They are, however, a bit claustrophobic and require some getting used to.  Manufacturers have come up with all sorts of interesting ways to help address this issue including making the girth wider (shoulder to shoulder) and adding a little extra room in the foot box.

Women bags are also available, but keep in mind, just because you might be a woman, doesn’t mean a woman’s bag is the right fit.  Women’s bags tend be in feminine colors, narrower at the shoulders, wider at the hips and shorter in length.  If your shape varies from average, you may be better off in a unisex bag.  If you are having a gender crisis in your sleeping bag selection, I highly recommend sliding into a few at your local retailer and determining what you feel is the best fit.

Sleeping bags will often come in regular length or long length.  Be sure your bag length is long enough, by double checking the height suggestions.  If your toes are pushing the fabric at the end of the bag or your head is not fitting well inside the mummy hood, you are likely compressing the filling and compromising the bags warmth.

Once you’ve determined your temperature rating, you’ll have to decide whether you prefer natural or synthetic insulation.  Natural insulation is usually made of goose down which provides the most comfort in the widest variety of temperatures.  It is lighter in weight and more compressible than synthetic.  It does, however come with a few big drawbacks.  For starters, it is more costly than synthetic and can run in the neighborhood of $300.00 or more.  Additionally, some folks have allergies to goose down.  Lastly, when goose down gets wet, it stays wet for days, so it requires a little extra safeguarding in wet weather.  Synthetic insulations have come a long way from the days of polyester batting.  Insulations such as Primaloft®, Thermic Micro™, PolarGuard 3D, Climashield™ and others are less bulky, and have great insulating qualities.  Most of these synthetic bags retain their insulating properties, even when wet, which can be great if you get stuck in a few days of unpleasant weather.  They tend to be less expensive and more durable and for this reason a favorite pick for kids.  Whichever bag you choose, I would recommend purchasing an ultralight, waterproof stuff sack for your trail use.  Keeping your bag dry, especially in case of emergencies can be key to your survival.

Lastly, look for features such as hoods with drawstrings which keep your noggin’ warm on chilly nights.  Check for draft tubes which are insulation filled tubes that run down the zipper so that cold air cannot leak into the bag.  Some bags have pad loops, which serve as attachment points for your sleeping pad.  The idea is that you toss-n-turn with your bag secured down instead of having the bag roll with you.  Some sleeping bag manufacturers will designate sleeping bags with zipper options of either right-hand or left-hand zippers, which may help you get in an out more comfortably.


Sleeping Pads

Regardless of which sleeping bag you rock at night, you’ll want to make sure you get a great sleeping pad as a companion.  The ground will suck out heat faster a big hug to a large snowman.  Insulating you from the ground is nearly as important as comfort and a good sleeping pad will do both.

There are basically three types of backpacking sleeping pads on the market:  foam pads, self-inflating pads, and air pads.  Foam pads are made of closed cell foam, which does not take on water when they get wet.  They are lightweight, rather inexpensive, durable, quick to breakdown and can be decent insulators.  However, they tend to be a little bulky, cooler and not as comfortable as the other options.

Self-inflating pads are airtight open cell foam wrapped up in nylon, waterproof shells.  They have a valve at the top which opens to allow air to permeate the foam, without having to manually inflate them.  They provide great insulation and comfort as well as adjustable firmness.  Some models roll up very small, while others are long and lean.  While still quite lightweight, self-inflating pads tend to be one of the heaviest options.

In the last several years, air pads have made a comeback using modern materials to provide warmth and comfort. They pack up very small, are very lightweight and provide a nice cushion for those sore backpacking hips.  Some are insulated or have reflective materials to help retain warmth.  The drawback is that, on most models, you have to inflate them manually.  You’ll feel like you’ve taken a fast spin on a merry-go-round if you don’t take your time doing this task. Both air pads and self-inflating pads can puncture, but field repairs are fairly easy.

When shopping for a mattress, pay attention to shapes and sizes.  Many manufacturers offer a short version of the pads to save weight.  Short pads provide cushion and insulation to your hips and torso and do not offer protection for either your head or feet.  Some have specific shapes, such as mummy, rectangular or women’s fit.  Be sure you get one that will be best suited for you and for chilly trail nights.

Also pay attention to the pads “R” value, or resistance value to heat flow.  Most manufacturers will list a pads “R” value along with weight and specs to help you understand how well the pad insulates.  If the “R” value is high, you can expect the pad to insulate well.  A low “R” value may be a bit drafty in chilly weather.

Is the melatonin kicking in yet?  Just writing about sleep makes me want to go take a snooze. Happy zzzz’s!

–Written by Tami Asars