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Cold Comfort!

The Art of Sleeping Warm in a Summer‑Weight Bag Lofty Prospect

By Tamia Nelson

October 8, 2013

We have it on good authority that "summer's lease hath all too short a date." But what about autumn? It could be the best of times for paddlers, at least for those lucky souls whose schedule permits them to take holidays when much of the rest of the world is getting back to work. Consider the advantages: The biting flies no longer mount attacks in battalion strength. Campsites are less crowded. The hills are ablaze with fall colors. And days are pleasantly cool. Yet there's something missing from the glowing portrait that I've just painted. Fall is over almost before it's begun. In some years, it seems that the interval between summer and winter amounts to no more than a long weekend. Clearly, the Bard of Avon got it wrong. If any season's lease hath too short a date, it's not summer. It's fall.

And there's one more downside to this most ephemeral of seasons. I noted that fall days were pleasantly cool. So far, so good. But nights follow days as, well, night follows day, and autumnal nights are often unpleasantly chill. Once the sun forsakes the northern hemisphere for his annual southern sojourn, he spends less than half of each day shining down on Canoe Country. Temperatures fall fast after the sun drops below the horizon.

All of which means that your summer sleeping bag may not keep you warm through the long, cold autumn nights. You can always buy a warmer bag, of course. But if you're not a winter camping enthusiast, and if the demands of work and other responsibilities limit you to one or two short outings between Labor Day and Halloween, you may decide that the return on investment simply doesn't justify the expense.

Must you then resign yourself to shivering through the night? Not at all. Even if your bag is definitely a summer lightweight, there are many ways to sleep warm. With that goal in mind, let's begin by …

Thinking Outside the Bag

After all, there's more to sleeping comfortably than owning a lofty three‑ or four‑season bag. You can do a lot to keep the autumn chill at bay if you just …

Stay Dry.  This is easier said than done, of course. Autumn is, as Keats famously observed, the "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness," and those mists can quickly dampen a paddler's internal fires. Not to mention the rain that frequently accompanies equinoctial storms. After months of comparatively stable weather, fall brings fast‑moving fronts to much of Canoe Country, and each frontal passage is heralded by rain. Sometimes it's a lingering drizzle. And sometimes it's a short‑lived deluge. But either way, you can count on getting wet, and on a sunless day, you'll soon find that your teeth are chattering. That won't help you sleep warm.

The answer to this problem is obvious: Wear bombproof raingear. The logic is unassailable. Stay dry during the day and you'll stay warm. Stay warm during the day, and you'll sleep warmer at night. But this happy outcome is contingent on your keeping a change of clothing in a dry bag solely for camp use. Even if your raingear is simultaneously waterproof and breathable — many fabrics make this claim, but few deliver — your paddling clothing will be damp with sweat. Having dry things to slip into at day's end can make the difference between comfort and misery.

Location also plays a role in getting a good night's sleep. So …

Choose Your Campsite Carefully.  You'll have more choice than you do in summer. Make the most of it. Pick a site that offers shelter from the prevailing wind. Southern exposure is a plus, too. Once the autumnal equinox has passed, the sun hugs the southern horizon. If your site opens to the north, you'll lose valuable minutes of light and warmth. (Not to mention having nothing between you and the next icy nor'easter.)

Consider the campsite's other amenities, as well. The ideal site boasts a rock outcrop or sandy beach. Both serve as heat sinks, continuing to radiate warmth long after the sun has gone down. And if at all possible, avoid camping in a sag or draw. Cold air collects in low‑lying areas, and draws — also known as re‑entrants — serve as channels for frigid downslope drafts during the night.

Then, once you've chosen your camp and made yourself at home, it's time to …

Eat a Hearty Meal.  For paddlers who watch every calorie during their workaday lives, this will be a pleasant injunction to follow. Hot food and plenty of it is the recipe for a warm night. Possible meals include macaroni and cheese, a hearty soup served with generous hunks of bread, and chicken with dumplings. A mug of hot cocoa before bed can help, too, though the same thing can't be said of another traditional Canoe Country drink. I'm afraid that you'll want to …

Say No to That Hot Toddy.   Spiced, sugared rum drinks, made with boiling water or (in well‑appointed camps) heated with a poker, were once frequent resorts of cold‑country travelers. And some modern‑day canoeists are loath to break with the tradition, thinking that a hot toddy is a usefully ally against the evening chill. Yet science has a way of throwing cold water on many long‑held beliefs, and this one is no exception. Alcohol in any form will give you a pleasantly warm glow at first, but the warmth soon departs, leaving you feeling colder than you did before you brought your cup to your lips. The explanation can be found in alcohol's ability to dilate peripheral blood vessels. At first, this warms your extremities. That accounts for the pleasant glow. But it also accelerates heat loss from your body's core, with shivering the almost inevitable result.

The melancholy conclusion? Save the rum for your fireside at home. Stick to cocoa in camp. You can take some comfort from the fact that you're not alone in your misery. Even the fabled St. Bernards have had to surrender their brandy casks — if indeed they ever carried them. (The historical record on this point is inconclusive, though I suspect that some retrospective burnishing has been done.)

So much for the inner paddler. It's time to look at his (or her) external affairs. In particular, let's consider the benefits of …

Snuggling Up.  One way to extend the range of a summer‑weight bag is to pair it with another bag and share the resulting space with a like‑minded companion. Or if this level of intimacy makes you uncomfortable, at least place your bag close to those of your buddies. Rugged independence is all well and good on sultry summer nights, but togetherness is de rigueur when the thermometer drops below your comfort zone. A hint: Cramming a lot of bodies into a small tent will raise the temperature, but you may also find that condensation builds up on the tent walls and drips down on you in the night. Opening a window or vent will help, but you'll need to experiment to find the happy medium between drafty and drizzling.

OK. We've looked outside the bag. Now let's peek beneath the covers. Think of your camp bed as a cocoon, …

Your Defense in Depth Against the Cold, Cruel World

And at its heart is the sleeping bag. It's a simple idea, dating back to the 19th century. Robert Louis Stevenson used one during his Travels With a Donkey. He described it as "a sort of long roll or sausage, green water‑proof cart‑cloth without and blue sheep's fur within." While lacking blue sheep's fur linings, modern bags incorporate a wide variety of improvements unknown to 19th‑century wanderers, and many of these actually make the bags warmer.

But good as they are, lightweight bags aren't always warm enough. Luckily, your sleeping bag doesn't have to stand alone. It's best thought of as one part of a larger edifice, and the foundation of that edifice is …

What You Place Beneath You.  When you sleep on the cold ground, a mattress does more than cradle your aching bones. It stops the rising damps and nighttime chill from infiltrating your snug little womb. I've discussed sleeping pads at some length already — see the links below for these earlier articles — so there's no need for me to repeat myself here. But I will touch briefly on three salient points. First, longer is better. A full‑length sleeping pad is warmer than a three‑quarter‑length one. If you simply must make do with a short pad, however, at least get your lower extremities off the ground somehow. A partially emptied stuff sack or pack is better than nothing.

Second, unless an air mattress incorporates some sort of insulation, it offers cold comfort indeed — ideal for summer nights, but a frigid companion in the fall. Either get an insulated air mattress or choose some other underlayer.

And lastly, if you really feel the cold, nothing says that you can't use two sleeping pads, stacking one atop the other. (Lash them together to keep them from drifting apart in the night.) This is an inexpensive way to "winterize" an air mattress. Just place a cheap closed‑cell foam pad on top.

Are you worried that your summer bag isn't up to the demands of shoulder‑season camping, even with an insulating underlayer? Then why not …

Borrow a Warmer Bag?  You're not likely to approach a stranger with this request, of course — "Buddy, can you spare a bag?" isn't the greatest way to break the ice — but there's probably a friend or family member who'd be happy to help you out. Just be sure you return the bag undamaged and unsoiled: Use a liner and promise yourself not to eat in bed. And don't worry if your buddy's bag is no warmer than yours. You can still …

Nest Two Bags Together.  Simply put the smaller bag inside the larger one. The result will be one toasty‑warm bag. This was what I did on my first winter climbs. It worked fine.

Back to liners for a minute, now. Why, you ask? Because …

A Liner Is a Great Way to Warm Up a Bag.  Liners range from simple sheets to insulated inner bags, but even a gossamer silk sheet will add warmth to a light bag, while the insulated inner bags can transform a summer bag into a winter bag in one go. Synthetic sheet liners are both inexpensive and lightweight, and you can always make your own from a cheap fleece stadium blanket.

The modular approach to extending a bag's capabilities can also work from the outside in, as well as the inside out. Instead of adding a liner, simply …

Cover Up.  Slip your bag into a bivy sack. It's not much different than tossing an additional blanket on your bed at home. Still cold? Then use both liner and bivy bag. That should do the trick. In a pinch, you can even wrap your bag in a folded tarp or reflective space blanket, though if you do too good a job of wrapping up, condensation will be problem, and this is not good. A wet bag is a cold bag.

Now that we've extended the range of your bag, let's turn to other things you can do to ensure a comfortable night, beginning with a little …

Pillow Talk.  I'm not sure what the connection is, to be honest, but I sleep warmer when I can cradle my head on a down‑filled pillow. Perhaps it simply blocks cold drafts from chilling my neck. It doesn't have to be a big pillow. Mine is about one‑fourth the size of the one on my bed at home, and it takes up no more space in my pack than a water bottle. On the (rare) occasions when I forget to bring it, I've had pretty good luck substituting a filled stuff sack that I wrapped in my fleece jacket. But the real thing is better.

That said, if cramming a pillow into your pack is too much trouble — or if it seems too effete — you can always take a leaf from your grandparents' book of household hints and …

Slip a Hot Water Bottle Between the Sheets.  Hot water bottles were once handed out to every guest in English country houses, and they're still being sold today. I'm not sure I'd trust one of these in a sleeping bag — if it sprang a leak in the night, the results would be disastrous — but there's no reason why you couldn't wrap a regular water bottle in a sweater and fill it with hot water just before bed. I must try it sometime. (Of course, the best bed warmer is a congenial companion, but that's outside the scope of this article.)

Anyway, whatever source of heat you employ, you'll sleep better if you have …

A Roof Over Your Head.  Tarps and tarp‑tents are simple and light, but when the temperature drops close to the freezing point (or plummets even further), nothing equals a proper three‑season tent. There is one exception, however: A canvas lean‑to like the venerable Whelen tent can offer a very snug retreat in cold weather, but only if you build a fire in front of it and then keep the fire going all night. Few paddlers have the patience for this, and even fewer campsites provide enough dead, down wood to sustain such profligacy. For many of us, therefore, the Whelen and its canvas cousins belong to paddlesport's past.


Let's see, now. We've spent a little time thinking outside the bag, and we've made an inventory of all of the ways to extend the capabilities of the bag you already own. What's left? Just a few thoughts about …


Clothes may not make the man, but they do a lot to keep him warm on cold nights. Back in the day, when central heating was still a rare and costly amenity, folks dressed for bed with the same care that they dressed for dinner. Flannel nightshirts, pajamas, and long gowns were the norm. Nowadays, of course, many of us sleep naked, or nearly so. But not in camp. After all, the proper clothing can make all the difference between sleeping warm and shivering through the long fall nights.

What should you wear? Well, I'd suggest beginning at the bottom, with …

Long Johns.  I always pack a pair of wool drawers with my camp clothing, along with a light wool, long‑sleeved, crew‑neck shirt. (A long‑sleeved mock turtleneck would be even warmer.) Can't stand wool? No problem. The better‑living‑through‑chemistry boys and girls have your back. Take your pick of any of dozens of synthetic alternatives, each of them bearing a reassuringly torrid trade name. (I'm waiting for HellFire™ insulation to hit the shelves.) But steer clear of cotton and cotton blends at all costs — even wool‑cotton blends. Cotton is quick to soak up moisture and slow to dry. These are not good qualities in cold‑season wear. And if the often stratospheric price tags of the name‑brand synthetics make your temperature rise, check the offerings of the surplus outlets. There are real bargains to be found among the castoffs of the world's armies. Don't be discouraged by the fact that most surplus clothing is tailored for men. The backcountry isn't the catwalk, and a canoe trip isn't a night on the town. Function trumps fashion every time.

And while you're suiting up for sleep, don't forget your extremities. In particular, …

Wear a Hat.  A wool watch cap will go a long way toward keeping you warm at night. Climbers and winter mountaineers have been known to wear balaclavas to bed, but a watch cap serves most paddlers well enough in fall's merely chilly temperatures. Some warm‑blooded types — including men who still have a full head of hair — even get by with headbands.

Anything else? Yes. Cold feet will keep anyone awake, so before you call it a day, …

Slip Into Socks.  These should be clean, dry socks, of course. The pair you soaked wading through that beaver‑flooded portage trail won't help. Wool or synthetic? That's your call. And if you're one of those folks for whom cold feet are a constant torment, down‑filled booties might be just what you're looking for. They weigh almost nothing and take up little room in your pack. Since feet sweat even at night, however, it's best to wear them over a pair of socks.

Hands up, all of you with cold hands! Yes, cold hands can contribute to a sleepless night, too. But the remedy is simple:

Wear Gloves.  Most paddlers won't need them, but if your peripheral circulation isn't what it was — and thanks to years of swinging a heavy hammer, mine isn't — you may find that you're not dressed for bed until you put something on your hands. A lightweight pair of silk glove‑liners may be enough. Or a pair of fingerless gloves (aka Millar mitts). Or even mittens. Use what you need to stay warm and sleep well.

Come to think of it, that pretty much sums up this column, doesn't it? You don't have to spend a fortune to get a good night's sleep when the thermometer plummets. You just have to make the best use of the gear you already have. So don't hang back because fall is here and you own only a summer‑weight bag. The woods and waters are waiting. There's still time to put some miles under your keel before the snow flies. But there's not a moment to be lost!

In the Bag

The Canoe Country paddling season doesn't end when the sun dips below the equator. Making the most of the short autumn interlude takes a little planning, however. Nights are probably the hardest time. They're usually chilly, and they're sometimes downright cold. But have no fear. You can still sleep sound in your summer‑weight bag. And now you know how.



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