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A wise person once wrote, “Winter is a harsh mattress.” Or was it a “harsh mistress?” Either way, a frigid landscape is no place to slumber without a proper outfit, an insulated shelter, and a reliable heat source. But you don't have to climb K2 or get ambushed by a Wampa for poop to go sideways during the colder months.
So if you can't find shelter, bring shelter with you. And we don't mean that in a “Hugh Glass, slice open your horse and slither inside” sort of way.
Hobos, ultralight backpackers, and survivalists know a quality sleeping bag can serve as a life-saving shelter by itself. With snow pummeling many parts of North America, it's time we crawled feet first into the topic of cold-weather sleeping bags.
The No. 1 most important factor when considering a winter sleeping bag is its temperature rating. For example, a 0-degree bag means the end-user should snooze comfortably if the air temperature drops to 0 degrees F. However, these numbers can be a tad inaccurate, as manufacturers can assign ratings based on their own testing methods.
Enter the EN standard. This European criterion labels a sleeping bag's rating based on a standardized test using a thermal mannequin in a controlled lab. Though the standard measures four ratings, you should focus on two:
Comfort: The temp at which an average woman can sleep comfortably in the bag.
Lower Limit: The temp at which an average man can sleep comfortably in the bag.
Why not call them the “Women's Lower Limit” and the “Men's Lower Limit?” We don't know. That's European scientists for ya. Nomenclature aside, the EN standard is optional, but many companies have adopted it as a means to add legitimacy to their marketing claims.
For the purposes of our buyer's guide, we'll focus on the EN Lower Limit. Keep in mind, the EN rating assumes the occupant sleeps wearing a top and bottom base layer and a hat. Au naturel sleepers may wish to look for a bag rated for a little lower temp (and that's also machine washable).
To prevent turning into a human Popsicle overnight, pick a bag that has a rating at least 15 degrees colder than the conditions you expect. Keep in mind these ratings are aimed at the average sleeper. You should also ponder what type of snoozer you are:
Hot Sleepers: These human furnaces turn beds into foam-and-spring saunas, shrugging off the sheets in the middle of the night — much to the chagrin of their spouses.
Cold Sleepers: These icy folks produce little body heat as they count sheep, so they pile on the blankets. (Marrying someone of the opposite type will ensure a lifetime of nightly bed jiu-jitsu — and not the enjoyable kind, if you know what we mean.)
Goldilocks Sleepers: Of course, there are those whose body temps are “just right.”
Generally, sleeping bags have two main types of insulation (or fill): down and synthetic. Which one should you get? That's like asking, “What's better, 9mm or .45?” You'll find true believers on both sides.
Also, thanks to advancing technology, there's now a third type of fill: hybrid.
Down: We're not talking about a duck's contour feathers that provide wind and water protection, nor are we talking about flight feathers that allow for lift and propulsion. We're talking about the down feathers, the fluffy stuff underneath that traps warm air against their skin — the birds' base layer. The fluffier the down, the more heat it traps.
Duck and goose down is desired for its softness, light weight, durability, breathability, compressibility, and heat-retaining attributes. It's hard to beat Mother Nature.
There's a flip side, though. Down is expensive — especially goose down. And it turns into a spitball-like lump when wet, diminishing heat retention and possibly leading to mildew growth if a bag is put away damp. It can be treated with a water-resistant coating (marketers call this “hydrophobic down”), but that's not the same thing as waterproof. Also, some might raise ethical questions about how the waterfowls are farmed and whether they're live-plucked.
Synthetic: Usually made from polyester, this manufactured fill offers plenty of benefits. It insulates even when wet, dries faster than down, is non-allergenic, and can be just as soft and compressible as natural fill. Plus, it's easier on the pocketbooks and requires less maintenance than its ducky competitor.
However, synthetic has a lower warmth-to-weight ratio than down, and its insulating abilities diminish over time and after repeated use because it's not as durable.
Hybrid: Combining the best of both types, this third type might lay the down atop the synthetic or blend both throughout the bag.
You might have heard the term “fill power” when it comes to sleeping bags. It refers to the loft (or fluffiness) and, indirectly, the insulating value of a down product. The higher the number, the more loft and heat retention — and the less material needed to keep you toasty.
Usually, fill power ranges from 300 to 900. Anything below 400 should be avoided like Ford Pintos, while anything above 750 is Maserati territory.
Slumber-sack forerunners date back hundreds of years, but many consider the world's first commercially successful sleeping bag to be the Euklisia Rug, patented in 1876 by mail-order king Pryce Pryce-Jones. It was a wool blanket that could be folded over and fastened; it even had an integrated pillow pocket.
Much has changed in sleeping bag designs since then.
Mummy: This form-fitting sack will have you wrapped up like its Egyptian namesake. The design not only reduces weight, but also the space between you and the bag, allowing your body to heat up that air quickly and stay warm longer. There's also a hood to prevent you from suffering eternal brain freeze.
The drawback? You're basically wearing a full-body condom; unless you sleep like Dracula, you'll find it restrictive at best and claustrophobic at worst.
Rectangular: It's a square blanket that folds in half (forming a rectangle) and seals shut with a zipper. This shape offers the most comfort for restless sleepers. Also, if you buy two compatible bags, you can zip them together to create an improvised double-wide bag. (Or you can just buy an actual double-wide designed for couples.)
Unfortunately, the roomy design means there's more air to heat up, so it's not as efficient as the mummy shape. Plus, they take up more space and add weight to your kit.
Semi-Rectangular: Sometimes called barrel-shaped, this design tapers toward the bottom to give a bit more freedom for broad-shouldered users while providing more heat retention than a rectangular sack.
Also consider a bag's bugoutability quotient. How compact, lightweight, and portable is it? Can it be quickly deployed and stowed? And can you use it in pitch darkness?
To help us determine these and other important factors for our buyer's guide, we enlisted the help of RECOIL OFFGRID's intrepid network manager, John Schwartze. He's slender at 6-foot-5, whereas this author is a stocky 5-foot-8. The dichotomy provides a balanced approach to our reviews of the latest mobile sleep stations for cold weather.
Read on to find out which one you'd want to share with your mistress this harsh winter … er, we mean, which one you'd want to use as your winter's harsh mattress. Or something like that.
To fight off any possible winter nightmares and ensure a solid night's rest, it's ideal to supplement your sleeping bag with other key pieces of gear:
Cold-Weather Apparel: People sometimes forget that your clothes are actually your first layer of shelter in a survival situation. Be sure to bundle up before you head out. And if you didn't, hopefully you've packed backup apparel in your emergency kit.
Sleeping Pad: It's important to get off the ground if you're spending the night outdoors. That means putting a layer between you and the snow or frozen dirt — a sleeping bag alone won't cut it. Consider a foam pad or an air mattress that doesn't require an air compressor, such as the Therm-a-Rest Neoair Camper SV. You can also create a ground barrier using scavenged items (foliage if you're in the backcountry, cardboard and newspapers if you're in an urban setting).
Cot or Hammock: Both a cot or a hammock can also get you off the ground, though they might require a bit more setup time than a pad, depending on the model. (See our survival hammock buyer's guide in Issue 11.)
Tent: An enclosed shelter like a tent combined with a quality bag and pad is the ideal slumber situation. It'll block out wind and snow while retaining any body heat that the sleeping bag doesn't trap.