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Sleeping Easy

October 8, 2010

When they decide those temperature ratings for sleeping bags, what is their criteria? Is a bag rated to twenty-five degrees promising you nothing more than good odds that you will survive until morning? As long as it doesn’t hit twenty-four you will probably see all your friends and family again? What sort of scientific implement has been developed to so perfectly estimate the severity of chill that you can endure while in a particular bag? Is there some proprietary secret shared by all the gear companies as to exactly how much Quallofil or Thermolite or Polargaurd is needed, per degree, to insulate properly?

What if you were to say to yourself, “I’m the kind of camper who likes to sleep naked”? That’s fine, our constitution supports your need to be nude; however, do not expect your ten degree rated bag to keep your bare skin anywhere close to warm through a cold night. It’s been my experience that in order to get a cozy night’s sleep in the cold outdoors, you should probably plan on wearing a scarf and knit cap to bed.

It seems interesting that whether or not these ratings are completely arbitrary; as a consumer, I am completely titillated by their exactness. When I bought my current bag, I stood in the shadow of a wall of sleeping bags at Canfields. They all had their selling points, (“lightweight”, “padded mummy hood”, “ergonomic toe-box”) but the only part that really piqued my imagination was that temperature rating. Holding a forty degree bag I pictured myself spending summers in Patagonia. I picked up a seventy degree beauty and suddenly I’m tan and sleepy in the Moroccan countryside. When I glanced down at the hulking “bellow zero” bag, I imagined disappearing in the Yellowstone back-country for all of February.

The people that make these bags understand this reaction. They have a very good reason for not selling bags marked “warm”, “kinda warm”, “cold”, and “really cold.” The concrete numbers sugest a story that hasn’t been written yet; and there you are, credit card in hand, thinking that story could be about you.

My wife and I camped on the Niobrara last weekend. Friday night was the first frost of the year in Valentine. My bag is rated to thirty and I most certainly woke up cold more than once that night. In the light of day though, who cares. All my vital organs managed to pump and pulse their way through the night and halfway through breakfast I could already feel my toes again. We’re not supposed to be comfortable all the time. Sometimes you just have to pay $59.99 to remember that.

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