Gear Corner – Get a Good Sleeping Bag or Freeze

If you’re going to do a winter bugout one of the most important pieces of survival gear you can own is a GOOD sleeping bag.

Back in the 80’s I was sent to Norway for a month and we slept in ten man tents using extreme cold weather sleeping bags.  They were comprised of an outer shell and an inner bag and I slept in -40 F temperatures in it with no problems, but it was the heaviest sleeping bag I’ve ever seen.  At least twelve pounds and it was bulky!


Today’s sleeping bags are marvels of technology.  Lightweight, but warm, they can compress down to a very small size using a compression bag.  They shouldn’t be stored this way as it will destroy the loft of the bag, but when you’re out hiking the more room you can squeeze out of your pack the better.

There are a couple of types of bag to consider:  synthetic and down.  They also come in mummy or rectangular configuration.  Synthetic bags tend to run a tad heavier than the down, but they’ll still still keep you somewhat warm even when they get wet.  A down bag will not.

My personal choice is a synthetic mummy bag.  I have a Mountain Hardwear Lamina cold weather bag good to about minus 15 degrees and a lighter bag that keeps me warm down to 15 degrees.  I’ve experimented with different types of “sleep systems,” like a poncho liner inside a rectangular fleece bag, and finally concluded that a sleeping bag is the warmest and lightest way to stay warm.  One other thing to look for in the cold weather bags is a neck baffle, which will help keep the heat in at night when you move around.  If it’s cold enough you may want to sleep with a wool hat as well.

Ranger Man and I were discussing sleeping bags awhile back and he believes that the rating system is totally arbitrary.  I agreed with him, but then I thought about it some more and figured that it would have to be because of the difference in people’s abilities to generate heat.  Men, you know what I’m talking about.  In the summer when you go to bed your wife won’t get close to you because you’re like a furnace, but in the winter she’s on you like a heat-seeking missle.  If I got into a sleeping bag and was just barely comfortable my wife would be freezing because our ability to generate heat is different.  They can give a rough temperature range, but it would up to the person in the bag to decide if they are warm or not.

Do your homework before buying a sleeping bag and if possible get inside it first.  If you’ve never tried a mummy bag they’re not quite as roomy as one of the rectangular bags, but if you’re camping out in winter you’ll be happier with a mummy type bag.  Some of them have baffles around the neck that help keep the warmth inside where it belongs.  My sleeping bag (pictured on the right) has the baffle.

Sleeping Pads

One other important piece of gear to consider for coldweather sleeping is the sleeping pad or mat.  A sleeping pad is not to make sure you have a nice soft place to sleep at night, it’s to insulate you from the ground.  They do provide some cushioning, but if you were to take your super-warm mummy bag out and sleep directly on the frozen ground you’d be frozen too.

There are many different types of sleeping mats, but when I’m out camping I try to live by the KISS rule.  I have a plain old foam pad that I use.  They have air pads that you might think would be great, but if you put a hole in it you’re in trouble.  I’ve also tried the 3/4 pads that are about 3/4 the length of your body.  I didn’t care for this type of pad either.  Experts advise that if you’re going to be sleeping out in cold weather to use two pads, but I’ve slept on frozen lakes and cold mountain tops before with just one pad and it was enough to keep me nice and warm. Experiment with your gear before you have to rely on it!

If things work out I’ll be camping out this weekend – January 15, 2010 – and I’ll report back about the gear I used and how it held up against the cold.

-Jarhead Survivor

BTW: Here’s a tip for keeping warm when you first get in your bag at night when the temps are below zero.  Take your water bottle(s) and fill them full of hot water, then slip one down by your feet and hold the other one near your abdomen.  This will start you out nice and toasty warm.  Make sure the bottles aren’t leaking though!