Now I Can Rest Easy!
My Search for the Ideal Sleeping Bag
By Tamia Nelson
February 28, 2012
No paddler's equipment list is static. As our interests change and new opportunities arise, we make adjustments. Which is why I spent a lot of time with my head in my gear closet last year, taking stock of my collection of sleeping bags. A word of explanation is in order here, I suppose. Sleeping bags are durable things. If you use a liner, keep your bag away from hot embers, store it properly, and avoid eating in bed, a bag can serve you well for several decades. And some of my bags are now 30 years old. Moreover, most of them were purchased with Big Trips in mind. But Big Trips, by their very nature, are rather rare beasts. They're costly, they're months in the planning, and — this is the killer — they take you away from your family and your work for long periods of time. The upshot? Even the keenest paddler probably can't do more than one or two Big Trips in a year, and many of us are lucky if we can manage one in every decade.
I like to spend as much time out of doors as I can. But I also need to earn a living. And that means that the great majority of my trips are impromptu getaways, of the sort that writer Richard Frisbie christened "miniature adventures": day trips and weekenders. This is why I'm such a fan of "amphibious" trekking. With many prepackaged outdoor holidays — though certainly by no means all — driving (to the put‑in, the adventure center, the airport) and waiting around (for the flight, the TSA pat‑down, the bus, the guide, the safety briefing) seem to take up most of your time. When you embark on an amphibious trek, however, the adventure begins right on your doorstep. In other words, amphibious trekking is experience‑dense. It's self‑powered and self‑directed from the start, with very little downtime. I like that.
Yet this freedom comes at a price. Not in dollars and cents, of course. Once you have the necessary equipment, amphibious treks can be dirt cheap. But they impose strict limits on the weight and bulk of your gear. Pack canoes, rucksacks, and bike trailers aren't in the same class as SUVs and freighters when it comes to load‑carrying, and amphibious trekkers have to haul all of their gear, all of the time. The bottom line? My gear list is evolving toward the go‑light end of the spectrum. And that means that many of my Big Trip items are destined for semi‑retirement. I've already acquired a new cooker, mattress, and tent. But I'd put off buying a new sleeping bag. Until now…
Is It in the Bag?
Don't get me wrong. My goose down North Face Unimog is a wonderful bag. It's served me well for many years, even doubling as a comforter on my bed on arctic nights at home. But it weighs about four and a half pounds, and — this is the real problem — it's so bulky that it fills my rucksack to the brim all by itself, even when stuffed in a compression sack. My old EMS fiberfill‑insulated mummy bag (I no longer remember the model name, and the tag is long gone) packs much smaller, however. That's good, to be sure, but the insulation is starting to show its age. Cold spots are appearing, and this makes for chilly nights during the shoulder seasons of spring and fall. First‑generation fiberfill bags just don't seem to have had the staying power of high‑quality down. In short, neither the Unimog nor the EMS bag is really suited to the demands of amphibious trekking.
So I figured it was time to go shopping. But first, I had to decide …
What I Wanted in a Sleeping Bag
Back in the day, shopping for a sleeping bag was pretty straightforward. Choices were limited and there were only a handful of outfitters with a national reach. All that has changed, of course. Nowadays every outfitter has a website, and there must be hundreds (or is it thousands?) of models of sleeping bag from which to choose. So I quickly abandoned any plans of making systematic comparisons. Instead, I just listed my needs:
- Low Cost. Until my novels make it to the top of the best‑seller list on Amazon — and they'll have to be published first! — I have to keep to a pretty strict budget. This time around, USD150 was my limit, and I was hoping I could do better than that.
- Tiny packed size. Small is beautiful. My new bag would have to slip into my getaway pack and bike panniers with room to spare.
- Minimal weight. While not as important as packed size, heft still weighs heavily in the balance. I have to haul every ounce on my back or bike, after all.
- Warmth. "Summer‑weight" bags were out. I need a bag that keeps me comfortably warm when temperatures fall below freezing.
- Room to roam. I'm not a fan of straitjackets. I like to spread out in bed. And a hood, while nice to have, isn't a necessity in a three‑season bag. At least I haven't needed one. In fact, I find hoods somewhat claustrophobic. I'd rather wear a hat or a headover when the mercury plummets.
- Insulation? As the question‑mark suggests, I was of two minds here. I like down's compressibility, and I'm impressed with its longevity. But synthetic fills require less attention on the trail. Down must be kept dry at all costs, and down‑filled bags need to be aired every day or two. This can be a pain. Still, nothing's perfect. I can cope with down's shortcomings.
Now it was time to winnow the contenders. It proved to be a bewildering task. There was just too much choice. But I had to start somewhere, didn't I?
What I Found
The proliferation of trade names alone was hopelessly confusing. I have no idea what to make of tag lines like "Flashback P‑220," "Omni N‑140WR," or "Network N‑130AC," for instance. And I can't begin to decipher the meaning of such delightfully orotund phrases as "Climashield Prism continuous filament, body‑mapped anti‑compression pads." It sounds wonderfully high‑tech, not to mention vaguely clinical, but what exactly does it mean? I haven't a clue. That said, the bag specifications I read did offer a few useful crumbs of information:
- EN Ratings. A relatively recent attempt to invest bag temperature ratings with a measure of scientific validity, the European Standard (EN) numbers might well be a useful guide — if more North American manufacturers adopted them. For what it's worth, however, the EN Comfort rating is apparently the temperature at which a "standard women" can "expect to sleep comfortably in a relaxed position," while the EN Lower Limit gives the temperature at which a "standard man" can "sleep for eight hours in a curled position without waking." (If you want to learn more, I can only suggest that you hunt up a copy of "EN 13537:2002 Requirements for Sleeping Bags." This will probably tell you more than you want to know, however, and at GBP20 it's not exactly a cheap read. But at least there's a brief Wikipedia entry by way of summary.)
- Shape Notes. The old labels — mummy, semi‑rectangular, and rectangular — are still being used, and while the boundaries seem to be blurring, the distinctions are still helpful. Mummy bags are form‑fitting bags with hoods. Rectangular bags are folded comforters. And semi‑rectangular bags occupy the shifting middle ground between these two extremes. All things being equal, mummy bags are the warmest for a given weight, while rectangular bags are the most like your bed at home. But you knew that already, didn't you?
- Zip It! Back in the day, full‑length, wrap‑around separating zippers were the norm, even on bags intended for high‑altitude winter mountaineering. This made pairing up easier — if your zips were compatible, that is — and it facilitated drying a soaked (or washed) bag. It also allowed you to open a bag up on warm nights. But it added cost and complexity, too, while at the same time increasing stuffed size and reducing insulating efficiency. Now some light bags have only three‑quarter zips. Which is more important — efficiency or versatility? Only you can decide.
- Gender Labels. What do women want? That question has been asked many times, but no two answers have ever been the same. Some sleeping‑bag manufacturers have apparently concluded that we want more warmth around our middles, and they've designed gender‑specific bags to meet the demand. Is this a worry for most women? I'm damned if I know. I do know that I wouldn't reject a bag just because it wasn't labeled "For Ladies Only," however.
- Bells and Whistles. A zipper without a draft tube is cold comfort indeed. And a draft collar might stop chilly breezes from blowing down your back, particularly in bags that lack a hood. (A scarf or sweater will do the same thing, of course.) Contoured foot boxes give your feet room to kick out. And many bags are now sold with both stuff sacks and storage sacks included in the price. All of these things are worth taking into consideration, but with the exception of draft tubes for zippers, none is — to my mind at any rate — a deal‑maker. Nor is their absence a deal‑breaker, come to that.
OK. I'm not sure how much that helped. But it gives you some idea what was going through my mind as I clicked and paged my way through the outfitters' catalogs. In the end, though, my choice came down to serendipity: the right bag, at the right price, discovered more or less by chance.
It's My Bag, Man!
And it's a Kelty Coromell 25:
That's it in the middle. The shell is polyester — "50D polyester micro pongee," to be exact. Whatever that might be. Still, polyester is good, at least in theory. It resists sunrot better than nylon, and it makes a lot of sense for tent flies. I doubt that I'll spend too many days sleeping till noon with nothing but my bag between me and old Sol, however. I'm an early riser. That said, and despite the cabalistic fabric labeling, the Coromell ticks all the right boxes:
- It was (comparatively) cheap. I paid just under USD100 for it at Campmor. (But it costs more now, I'm sorry to say.)
- It packs small. With the help of a compression stuff sack (included in the price) the Coromell 25 can be squeezed into a 7‑inch by 14‑inch cylinder. That fits easily under the flap of my getaway pack, and it also leaves room in a bike pannier for other things.
- It's reasonably light. At under three pounds — 2 pounds 13 ounces on my kitchen scale, to be exact — the Coromell 25 isn't a crushing burden to carry.
- It's warm. As the name suggests, Kelty claims the Coromell will keep a sleeper — I'm not sure if this refers to a "standard man" or "standard woman" or someone else altogether — tolerably warm down to 25 degrees Fahrenheit. I haven't tested the bag's limits yet, but I've used it in temps around freezing and found it perfectly comfortable. That's encouraging.
- It's roomy. It's not like my bed at home, but it's not a straitjacket, either. I can turn in wearing a bulky fleece top and pants and not feel the squeeze.
- It's down‑right comfortable. The bag's insulated with down, and while I'll have to take care to keep it dry, on past form it should see me through to the end of my days. I like that.
There are some other pluses, as well. The Coromell has loops to tether a liner, and a liner is a very good idea in any bag you plan to use for many years. (The orange tab in Photo 1 below is one of these loops.)
The same photo shows the generous, snag‑resistant draft tube. It's nothing special, but it's competently done. The full‑length zipper wraps around the foot of the bag, making drying (and pairing) easy. It's handy on sultry summer nights, too. Photo 2 shows one of the reinforced webbing loops sewn at intervals down the sides of the Coromell. These are for attaching sleeping‑pad straps, and while I don't see the need, others may. A differential drawstring (Photo 3) makes coping with sudden drafts easier when you're fumbling around in a half stupor at zero dark thirty. It also has a tethered cord lock, so it won't be swallowed up by the fabric channel. And as I've already noted, the bag came with a compression stuff sack. Photo 4 gives you some idea just how compact the stuffed bag is. A pint thermos, my stuffed Big Agnes Insulated Air Core mattress, and a Mini Trangia cooker provide the scale. Not shown in the photos are the Coromell's zippered chest pocket, the hanging loops at the foot, and the large breathable storage sack (no bag will last long if it's left in a stuff sack between trips).
What's not to like? I bought the Coromell late last year, so it's yet to have a really testing field test, but on the strength of a couple of overnights in teeth‑chattering temperatures, I'm satisfied that I won't regret my purchase. Hurry on, spring!
Gear lists evolve over time, and when I found myself doing more frequent amphibious treks, I realized I needed to downsize my camping kit. My sleeping bag was the final item to get a makeover, and the process of winnowing the field proved more difficult than when I last went shopping for a bag. But I persevered, and in the Kelty Coromell 25 I ended up with a winner. Now I can rest easy!
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