One winter night I was at Walnut Bottoms campsite in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. My friend John Cox and I were on the first night of a three-night trip. The next two nights we were heading to trail shelters, so we didn’t bring a tent for this first night of backpacking.
While lying in the open, under star-filled clear skies, snug in my bag, the wind began to blow, increasing so fiercely I could feel the cold air push into my sleeping bag.
I began to chill, then get colder and colder, until by dawn it seemed as if I was sleeping in the open without a bag. What a long night.
Having the proper sleeping bag can mean the difference between a good night’s rest and a miserable night followed by an exhausted next day. The primary concerns for campers when choosing a sleeping bag are warmth, space and weight. Match your sleeping bag to the season and situation.
For example, use a fairly warm sleeping bag on a spring backpacking trip in West Virginia’s Cranberry Backcountry, or a summertime Western destination such as Wyoming’s Cloud Peak Wilderness. If you are traveling a blackwater stream of the Deep South in the summer time, choose the lightest bag possible.
For all but the warmest times I recommend a sleeping bag comfort rated to around 40 degrees. These can handle local cold fronts in spring and chilly Rocky Mountain nights, without weighing too much. If the temperature dips, just put on more clothes and you’ll be fine.
In warm summertime conditions use a simple zippered fleece blanket — one item you can get cheaply. Don’t pay too much by purchasing a name brand fleece bag that performs no better than inexpensive ones.
Canoe campers can worry less much about weight of the sleeping bag but kayakers need to worry about space. However, many modern sleeping bags, especially those with down fill, can compress to the size of a water bottle. Note: For additional comfort consider carrying a small camp pillow or bundle your clothes up under your head. Don’t underestimate the importance of a pillow.
Sleeping pads are every bit as critical to a good night’s rest as is a sleeping bag. For good sleeping, I combine a simple closed cell foam pad, 6 feet in length, with a light weight threequarter length, 48-inch, selfinflating air mattress on top of it. The lighter model air mattresses come in under a pound each. Full length air mattresses don’t weigh much more and are more comfortable.
A closed cell foam pad cannot only be used under you while sleeping but can also be used around the campsite and will keep you from popping a hole in your air mattress should you use it lying around camp or by the fire.
Canoeists can get extravagant and bring some of the larger sized air mattresses, such as those that are blown up with an electric pump.
Those large mattresses are quite bulky and take up significant room in the boat, but counter complaints of having to sleep “on the ground.” It seems the older you are the more elaborate your air mattress gets while camping.
Whether you camp by car, foot or canoe, proper sleeping arrangements can enhance or diminish your outdoor experience.