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Thursday, June 23, 2016

Sleep Systems

Earlier this month, one of our Facebook readers asked "Sleeping bag and accompanying stuff/compression sack, or simple bedroll?" and it kicked off a series of thoughts that I wanted to get down in writing.

Bedrolls
A bedroll is a pair of blankets, or canvas pieces sewn together at various points, that will keep you off of the ground and provide some warmth against the early morning cold. That roll of cloth behind a cowboy's saddle? That's his bedroll. The round bundle that Confederate soldiers carried slung over one shoulder and tied at the opposite hip? Bedroll. Bikers often carry theirs on their handlebars.

The canvas versions are usually waterproofed to protect you from morning dew and wet ground, and are roomy enough to let you line it with a blanket if you need to. Adding a couple of bear skins or buffalo hides would make sense for winter use in areas that get snow. Lightweight, fair weather gear for the most part, bedrolls are easy to make and carry.

Sleeping Bags
Sleeping bags are more modern and more complex. Unlike the bedroll, they can be closed to trap your body heat inside, hence the “bag” part of the name. They come in two general forms:

Rectangular
These resemble a bedroll in that there is a top layer and a bottom layer. The bottom is sometimes treated to be water resistant/proof, but the top isn't so that moisture from your body can get through. Most are sewn together along one long side and one short side (the toe), with a zipper along the other long side; the other short side (the head) is left open.

Many of them have a zipper that runs along the long side and the toe, which allows a user to open the bag and lay it out flat. A second bag of the same brand and model can then be opened and laid on top of it, the zippers matching up to create a double-sized sleeping bag. Handy for sharing body heat, couples, larger people, and people who have claustrophobia.

Mummy Bags
These are built to wrap around a sleeper, with the zipper running down the top of the bag from the head to the toe (not all have full-length zippers). There is a distinct resemblance to an Egyptian mummy when you crawl into one, leaving only your face exposed. Since the bag is body-shaped and is only open at the face, they are much better at conserving body heat than a rectangular bag.

They aren't a good choice for claustrophobia sufferers, since they (mostly) move with you as you roll, toss and turn. It's very easy to wake up facing the bottom of your bag with a “turtle headache” from breathing your own exhalations all night. For this reason they are also not a good choice if you suffer from excessive flatulence (although the other members of your crew will get a giggle out of it).

Which One Do I Get?
Choosing a sleeping bag is like choosing a pair of boots. You'll need to consider the temperature, precipitation, and ground condition of where you're likely to sleep. Inside a cabin on an air mattress, a light rectangular bag would work fine; sleeping in a snow cave, I'd want a waterproof mummy bag with a temperature rating at least 20° below the worst night of the season. 

Temperature Ratings
These are like fuel-economy claims for new cars: take them with a grain of salt. Your mileage may vary and probably will, just like a bag rated at -20°F may be worthless below freezing.

Fills
The actual insulation of the sleeping bag is important, too.

Down
It's a good insulator by weight, but a pain to clean. and loses its insulating properties when wet. It also migrates inside the bag, leaving cold spots and lumps. Made from the secondary layer of feathers from a variety of birds, down has been used for centuries as an insulator. I used down-filled bags for years (surplus military bags rated at -15°F), but they finally wore out. Lining material breaks down, and I was waking up looking like a duck due to the feathers leaking.

Wool
If all you need is a light bag for warm weather, a couple of wool blankets can make a suitable bedroll. Heavy, but it will still insulate even when wet, and is fairly easy to clean. Don't use heat to dry it or it will shrink.

Synthetics
Too numerous to list all of the various types on the market, synthetics have the advantage of being lighter and less prone to migration than down, but they lose “loft” or volume if stored improperly. Do your research on the fibers that you're interested in: look for something easy to clean, that won't hold water, and holds its loft (doesn't compress and stay compressed).
    Improvised
    • Easy to find almost anywhere in the US where there is water, and easy to replace as needed, the“down” from cattails makes a fair insulator. If all you have is a couple of sheets or blankets, sewing them together with baffles (to reduce fill migration) or quilted pockets, which are then filled with the fluff of a cattail head will make an expedient sleeping bag.
    • Foam rubber, like that found in car seats, can insulate quite well but doesn't allow any air flow unless it is broken up into small pieces. Sleeping mats and other cushions are the same way; great for holding in heat, but also trapping moisture. Shred it and put it between two layers of fabric. 
    • Avoid fiberglass. Unless you're making a sleeping bag out of plastic or Mylar, you won't be able to keep fiberglass away from your skin. It's not conducive to sleep, trust me... I've installed plenty of fiberglass insulation in houses and the itching is not pleasant.
      What I Use
      My most recent bargain was found at a local gun show. An older gentleman had a table full of odds and ends with a plastic tub at the end of the table. I recognized the sleeping bag in the tub as an Army Extreme Cold Weather System (ECWS) modular sleeping bag and asked him what he wanted for it.“Make me an offer” was the reply.

      Now, I know what these are worth; even used, they sell for $200 on Amazon, and I let him know that I didn't have enough on me to make a good offer -- I'm not out to screw anybody, that's not my role in life). He was tired of dragging it around to shows, so he took the $100 I had and I got a new, with tags, three-piece (should be four-piece, but the stuff sack was missing; no great challenge to replace) sleeping bag system.

      http://amzn.to/291WjFB

      It's called a modular system because it is actually two separate bags and a Gore-Tex shell.
      • The lightweight green “patrol” bag is good for summer weather;
      • the black, medium-weight bag is designed for spring and fall weather when it gets a bit cooler; 
      • and you slip the green bag inside the black bag to get a heavy-weight bag for winter. 
      • The GoreTex “bivvy” (short for bivouac, a military term for camping) sack is basically a waterproof cover that will let moisture out but not in. Think of it as a one-man tent that fits around the sleeping bag. 
      There are commercial versions of the same type of system available; we bought our son one years ago when he was in Boy Scouts, and it served him well through a couple of Iowa winter camp-outs. For where I live and the weather that I face throughout a year, this is a good match for me. Were I to be living in Florida or most of Texas, I wouldn't need more than the green bag and the bivvy sack.

      Next Week
      I'll cover use and care of sleeping bags next Thursday. A little TLC can make a sleeping bag last a long time, and once you start looking at good bags that cost as much as a car payment or more, you'll want to take care of them. As always, any questions or requests for topics to be covered can be left here in the comments section or on our Facebook page.

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