I love camping, particularly fall camping. Temps are cooler, leaves are beautiful, and the air is usually pretty dry. It’s possibly the perfect camping season. However, my last few fall trips have left me a bit cold, largely because I chose poorly when packing my bag – my sleeping bag, that is.
Like most campers, I have an assortment (ok, way too many) of sleeping bags that I have accumulated along the way. Two Boy Scout sons hasn’t helped. I have everything from an ultralight +50F Lafuma to a -10F no-name bag from CampMor. Don’t ask about my tent collection! My bag collection is heavy on the standard +30F bags, which I’ve always found to be a poor tradeoff between the temperature range they are effective for and the space they take up. With my last few trips in mind, I took some time to try to sort out what I was doing wrong bag-wise.
Lots of camping (car, bike, and backpacking) has taught me that those utilitarian +30F bags seem to just never be warm enough to justify the space they take up, so I often end up bringing my tiny +50F bag and a blanket on moto trips when I really should be going for a properly warmer bag. Being female doesn’t help in that department – for years I’ve wondered who exactly can deal with 30F in a +30F bag, and recently I learned that it is guys, who are naturally warmer than ladies. No wonder I’ve never been happy with my +30F bags – it turns out that they are really +40F for me. So the ol’ +50F bag and a blanket aren’t any different in function, and are probably actually warmer. It’s time to break down what I actually need in a bag.
Packing for a motorcycle camping trip is an exercise in not just weight saving, but space saving. Every gram counts and every litre, too. I’m clearly biased toward space-saving, based my past behaviour, so that is going to take priority. Thankfully, most websites selling sleeping bags include information about both packed weight and size.
Making the decision to go small requires you to accept the limitations of materials. Modern synthetics are pretty awesome, but they are also puffy. A +30F synthetic bag will be roughly 1.5 times the size of a similar downbag, even in a compression sack. It will also weigh more. The tradeoff for this extra space and weight is better warmth when wet. Down is admittedly useless when it gets wet. However, it is very lightweight and can be compression packed to tiny proportions for travel. If you know ahead of time that you are likely to get wet, down is not a good choice. But if the humidity is low and flooded tents not likely, down will save you space and weight like nothing else. It’s also very very warm.
My first down bag was a +30F affair that I sold because I rarely used it. I loved the warmth, but lived in fear of the dampness that would kill it. Today’s down is a different story as it is treated to resist moisture and stay fluffy. It won’t change the flood response, but will resist humidity and condensation that would have done in an older, untreated bag. Some newer bags incorporate durable water resistant coatings to reduce the infiltration of water, too. Down has come a long way, baby.
Synthetics have, also. Newer synthetic bags incorporate linings that improve the temperature rating by carrying part of the thermal load. A fleece lining can add ten degrees to a bag’s rating. Fills have gone beyond the traditional Hollofil fibres to incorporating Polartech-based materials that can bear a ton of water without compromising insulation. Some newer PolarGuard bags will dry simply from your body heat. When you have room, these are an excellent choice.
I’m me, though, and after my last few cold excursions, I decided (sufficiently in advance of my next trip) to go bag shopping, and to open up my mind to down.
Research on various websites led me to the Marmot Angel Fire +25F 650 fill women’s down bag. Marmot rates their bags differently for men and for women, with women generally rated at about ten degrees Fahrenheit warmer for comfort. The +25F Marmot bag is actually a +21F for women and rated at +9F for men. That is a big range, and it fully explains why my +30F bags have never been enough – they are effectively +40F bags, and in the fall, that’s a very real number. Facing the limit of your comfort range at night is not fun, I can tell you!
I took the Angel Fire bag camping recently and found it to be pretty great. It measured up lighter and smaller by about 10% than my favored +30F bag, which made it easier to pack on my bike. It was definitely warmer – I did not wake up cold at any point during my night of lows in the mid 40s, and also did not wear any extra clothes to bed. That is a new one for me, as a +30F bag has always meant a least a fleece jacket and leggings in the sack. This bag kept me warm in a tshirt and shorts. That meant for a cold change of clothes in the morning, but nothing that was too difficult. Like most newer womens’ bags, the Angel Fire is cut wide at the hips, making for a very spacious sleeping comparment. I was able to move very freely inside of the bag and even get my knees up quite a bit without folding up the bag. My one warmer night in the 50s found me opening up the zipper and airing out a bit. Again, a welcome change. Two nights of rain did not dampen the down or my experience with the bag – it did not contact water directly, thank goodness, and any condensation from my tent did not have a negative impact.
I am pretty excited about future trips with this new bag. Now that I’m reacquainted with the wonders of down, I will be less stressed about bag selection in advance of trips. I still feel there is a place for synthetic bags – my adored +50F bag is proof of that – but for anything colder, I am going to be living it up in my new small warm down bag.