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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Smoothing It

Sweet Repose — It's in the Bag

By Tamia Nelson

April 11, 2006

Sleepless nights make for miserable days, and a sleep-starved paddler is an accident waiting to happen. Fatigue kills concentration, saps strength, and impairs judgment. Even expert boaters become fumble-fingered, and capsizes are sure to follow. But getting a good night's sleep in the backcountry isn't always easy, particularly at the start of a trip. Some paddlers, accustomed to the constant hum of distant traffic in their bedrooms at home, find the quiet of a lakeshore camp disconcerting. Others just can't get comfortable, a problem made worse by aching muscles and stiff joints. Changes in diet don't help, either. And none of us can sleep well when we're wet, cold, or cramped. But no recreational paddler really needs to rough it these days. What's the secret of a good night's sleep? To begin with, it's…

In the Bag

A good sleeping bag keeps you comfortably warm without making you hot and sweaty, and without taking up all the space in your pack during the day. It also gives you enough elbowroom (not to mention kneeroom and headroom) to avoid that straitjacket feeling — but only just enough and no more. Too much empty space invites cold drafts. It also has to be heated, and no one wants to shiver through the night to heat space she doesn't need. Is this Mission Impossible? Can one bag satisfy all these conflicting requirements? Luckily, for most paddlers the answer is yes, though if your plans embrace expeditions to, say, Labrador or the northeast coast of Moloka'i, as well as frequent weekend adventures, along with an occasional midwinter break to the Florida Everglades, you may well find that a second bag is a worthwhile investment.

What should you look for when shopping? Ignoring such imponderables as color (just deciphering the names can be an adventure in itself nowadays) and "hand" (the feel of a fabric against your skin), we're left with the Big Three: Fill, Form, and Finance. Or insulation, cut, and cost, if you prefer. And of these three, the most critical is arguably…

What's in the Bag

Fill determines loft. All other things being equal, loft determines warmth. And warmth is what you want in a bag. But despite the many millions of words written on the subject in the years since Colin Fletcher devoted a chapter in The Complete Walker to the bedroom in the house on his back, science can only take us so far, and no further. Like it or not, we soon find ourselves on our own. Our choices are pretty much what they were in 1968: waterfowl down or synthetic, the latter being some sort of engineered polyester fiber. Down remains — more or less — what it was back when Fletcher's classic first appeared. Synthetic fills, on the other hand, have both proliferated and improved. Down still has an edge, however. The best down lofts to at least 650 cubic inches per ounce, and it offers unequalled warmth for weight and packed volume. Call it the "gold standard" in fill, if you like, though synthetics are closing the gap. Yet down has a downside. It certainly isn't cheap, and it also has an Achilles heel. Damp down has all the insulating power of sodden bumwad. Even if you never dunk your bag in the drink, humidity and sweat take their toll. A down bag that isn't dried after each night loses a little loft and warmth every day. Sooner or later it begins to smell musty, too, as airborne fungal spores make themselves at home. In short, it doesn't take down long to go from gold to mold. This is a real problem for paddlers. We spend a lot of time on and around water. We also have to endure week-long rains occasionally. Spreading our sleeping bags out to dry in the sun every day, or even every other day, isn't always an option.

This is where synthetics come into their own. Whenever the sun disappears behind rain clouds for days at a time, polyester shines. And even if a polyester bag is soaked in a capsize — dry bags have been known to fail — the insulating fibers don't mat into a soppy felt. A wet polyester bag certainly isn't the acme of comfort, but it's a lot warmer than a wet down bag. It will dry out a lot faster, too. Not that polyester bags are without fault, of course. They don't pack as small as their down-filled counterparts, and weight for weight they're just not as warm as dry down. They also lack the cozy featherbed feel of a good down bag. But they are significantly cheaper, and if you're going to spend days on end in the wet, the choice is clear. I'm not going to attempt to handicap the many competing polyester fills, however. I only buy a new sleeping bag every ten years or so, and "new, improved" fibers appear with dizzying frequency. Still, while it may be hard to pick the best of the current pack with any degree of confidence, it's equally hard to buy a truly bad synthetic-fill bag.

How the fill is held in place has also come in for a great deal of comment by outdoor hacks and advertising copywriters over the years. This makes sense. If a bag's fill isn't more or less uniformly distributed, it will have chinks in its thermal armor, and every thin spot is a cold spot. Down, in particular, has to be kept closely confined in channels or compartments. This need has spawned dozens (or is it hundreds?) of ingenious containment schemes, most of which work, after a fashion. Even the much reviled sewn-through construction is adequate in mild temperatures. A case in point: Farwell and I have slept warm under a sewn-through down comforter for almost thirty years now, and it's not unusual for us to find frost on our bedroom walls on cold winter mornings. The upshot? Most paddlers will be content with most bags, much of the time, whatever system the manufacturer uses to keep the insulation in place. High-altitude climbers and winter campers will want to give the matter more careful consideration, of course, as will folks heading into the Arctic. But relatively few paddlers venture that high or that far, and it's hard to paddle in the dead of winter in canoe country. So most of us will be happy with any bag that's reasonably well put together. What's "well put together" mean? Look for a draft flap over the zipper and a minimum of sewn-through seams. (Test the zipper with a few good tugs, while you're at it; a broken zip is no fun on a cold night!) Any bag that has enough fill and that passes these simple tests is adequate for most summer trips.

And just how much fill is enough? Good question. Some paddlers sleep warm. Some sleep cold. The temperature range suggested by a bag's manufacturer is a good starting point, but your own experience is your best guide. If you've spent years sleeping under the stars, you already know what you need. If you haven't, ask a more experienced friend to help you shop. In any event, getting it right isn't really rocket science. After all, if you're too warm you can always unzip, and if you're cold, you can wear a sweater to bed or add a fleece bag liner before your next trip. In fact, since washing a sleeping bag isn't much easier than washing an elephant, a liner is always a good idea. Moreover, fleece liners make pretty fair summer bags in their own right, especially when paired with a poncho or bivy bag. You can even buy purpose-built "poncho liners." Think of the poncho-plus-liner combination as a contemporary version of the old-fashioned bedroll and you won't be far wrong. It's not elegant, but over the years many folks have found that it works for them.

There's more to choosing a bag than weighing the merits of competing fills and shells, of course. This is one area where…

Size Matters

But bigger isn't always better. You don't want a bag to fit like a straitjacket, obviously, but too big a bag is almost as bad. Some extra space is a good thing — it's nice to have someplace to put that sweater you didn't need, for instance — but too much is, well, just too much. All that empty space has to be heated. And guess what? You're the heater. This can make for a mighty chilly night. Big bags also make bigger packages when stuffed. Kayakers, in particular, need to limit the volume of their dunnage. There's only so much room belowdecks, after all, and you can't afford to leave your sleeping bag at home. In the end, however, the decision is yours. If your bag squeezes into your boat and keeps you warm enough through a cold night, the fit of the bag is up to you. Some paddlers like body-hugging mummies. Others like to stretch out under a near approximation of the comforter on their bed at home. And couples like bags that mate. If you opt for a big bag, you'll sweat more on the portages, to be sure, but if you also sleep better at night, the trade-off is probably a good one. In any case, it's your choice.

Oh, yes. What happens if a favorite bag seems to have grown smaller over the years? (Let's call this the Falstaff syndrome, shall we?) Well, you can always buy a bigger bag, I suppose, but most of us become quite attached to our bags. We part with them only under duress. What's the answer, then? An "extender" — an insulated strip that zips between the tracks of a sleeping bag's zipper, effectively increasing the bag's girth. So your bag can grow with you.

Have I left anything out? Yes. Everything has a price, and a good night's sleep is no exception. When the time comes to buy a bag, you have to ask yourself if…

The Price is Right

Once again, though, this is a question only you can answer. You can buy a perfectly serviceable synthetic-fill summer bag for less than US$50. Or you can spend ten times that much for a "modular sleep system" of the type issued to both the Royal Marines and US Naval Coastal Warfare Group 1 (NCWG 1). You pays your money and you takes your choice. Do you get what you pay for? That depends. Adequate insulation and good fit are the most important considerations, and these needn't cost three-season travelers very much at all. Everything else is mostly bling. But bling can be important, too. For that matter, not all paddlers want to hibernate in winter. If you're a go-anywhere, all-season outdoorswoman (or outdoorsman), you might decide that a "modular sleep system" is just what you need.

OK. That's clear enough, I guess. What's the…

Bottom Line?

As important as a good sleeping bag is, there's more to being comfy in the sack. Without some sort of mattress (aka "sleeping pad") you'll still be cold. Worse yet, every pebble and tree root under you will grow in size as the night wears on. Soon sleep will be impossible, and you'll greet the dawn bleary-eyed and exhausted from tossing and turning. The bottom line? A good sleeping pad is a necessity for all but the most stoic paddlers. But that's a subject for another time.

You can't have a good day if you've had a bad night, and that's as true on the water as it is during the workweek. Fortunately, there's no reason for any recreational paddler to rough it after the sun goes down. The secret to getting a good night's sleep begins with choosing the right bedding. You might even say it's in the bag.

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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