The only thing I really, truly dislike about camping is being cold. Thus, a sleeping bag rant. My hands-down, all time favorite piece of gear right now is also the most expensive thing I’ve ever bought for camping: my down sleeping bag. I spent years searching for the right bag. I did a lot of research. I tried bags and drove salespeople in REI crazy. I visited stores that sell high-end bags and hemmed and hawed at the prices. I spent many, many cold and miserable nights awake in my tent. There were hot water bottles, warm packs, my dear husband allowing me to warm my cold feet on him, changes of clothes, socks, hats, and even tears. There was the night at Henry Coe when my dear camping buddy slept with an old down comforter and snored while I tried everything to warm up. In the morning we packed up and headed home early because I was miserable.
Why, dear reader, did I have all of this trouble? It comes down to one small detail. Well, ok, not so small: my butt. “But sleeping bags come in all shapes and sizes!” you say. One size, in this case, always fits someone else. I’m five foot nothing, and I weigh 246 pounds. My hip measurement is slightly shy of my height. I’d tell you what it is exactly (I’m not shy that way), but I don’t know.
In order for a sleeping bag to be effective, it needs to fit well. If it’s too roomy, there’s all of that extra air that your body needs to warm up. There’s also room for air to flow down between you and the bag. This is the problem I have with rectangular bags. I get cold around the shoulders.
If a bag is too small, it’s even worse. In researching bags, I tried the Big Agnes bags and the North Face Cat’s Meow. The sizing on the Big Agnes bags was good, but they have a pocket for their pad to fit in. The bag isn’t really a bag all the way around. Two problems with this: 1. I own three Therm-A-Rest pads, and I’m not about to buy another from Big Agnes and 2. When I got in the bag and rolled over, the pad ended up on top. Um, no. So, on to the Cat’s Meow.
Biggest width REI carries, other than Big Agnes. Made for someone taller than me, but oh, well. It went on sale back in 2008 for $100-, so I bought it. First time using it was a relatively mild night at Bothe-Napa in Calistoga. My campmates and husband were warm and slept soundly. I was shivering so badly that I ended up in the car with the heater on. Same thing on night two. After several similar experiences, including the trip to Henry Coe, I realized that having the bag stretched tightly around my middle was keeping it from lofting properly and keeping me cold. That night at Coe it got down to 41 degrees, and despite a hot water bottle and an Ambien I was awake and so cold I cried.
In the morning at Coe I realized I would have to buckle down and go with a more expensive solution. Sunrise Mountain Sports in Livermore is one of my favorite gear shops. The people are super helpful and friendly, and they never give me the stink eye when I say I camp and backpack. They just sell me the good stuff. I explained the bag predicament to them, and they brought out a Western Mountaineering Ponderosa for me to try. It was too long (of course), but the fit around my hips was perfect. $500-? Ouch! I had to think about it.
I thought about it from May to November, then bought the bag for my birthday. Best money I’ve ever spent on a piece of gear. I’ve been comfortably warm every night out since. Even in chilly conditions it sometimes gets too warm, so I often use it open as a blanket. Last year I got a silk liner for it to protect it a bit. I’ll go into liners elsewhere.
If you’re looking for a great bag, check out: http://www.westernmountaineering.com/index.cfm?section=Products&page=Sleeping%20Bags&cat=Microfiber%20Series&ContentId=36