Most trekkers won’t know this critical piece of equipment for a trek
This blog is a part of our Trekking 101 series, powered by ULTIMATE TREKKER – the Outdoor Leadership Programme for pro trekkers.
A sleeping system invariably is your best buddy when you are out trekking in the Himalayas and comprises of a sleeping bag, mattress and a liner. These are essential items for trekking and today you will get a good dope of information on what makes up a good sleeping system, the options available in the market and how to choose among them.
4Play aims to create awareness about the best practices, specific to the Indian outdoors. And enable you to step out with confidence. By making accessible an ocean of empirical knowledge gathered by the Indian Bear Grylls – Pranav Rawat himself.
Pranav Rawat is a seasoned mountaineer and an ice-climber, with a decade long experience as a summiteer. Pranav is also an UIAA certified Himalayan Mountain Guide and Wilderness First Responder, which makes him an unparalleled expert on climbing and trekking in the Indian Himalayas.
There are two broad categories of sleeping bags: Down and Artificial
and they both have their pros and cons.
Down Sleeping Bags
These are made up of the inner feathers of either geese or ducks, which are nature’s finest insulators. The down helps trap air molecules between them and prevent body heat from escaping. This is the basis of in fact every sleeping bag construction, and the sleeping bag mistakes every beginner makes usually revolve around not understanding this.
Sleeping bags made out of the down feathers of older, mature birds are warmer and also more expensive. The ones made out of geese down is much warmer than duck and most Siberian, Arctic and Alaskan residents utilize this type of feather.
Needless to say, these are more expensive and if you are trekking in higher altitudes of the Himalayas, geese down is what you should go for. There are plenty of options available in the market offering geese and duck mixed down sleeping bags in various proportions and offering numerous down fill power.
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What is fill power?
Down fill power is the insulating ability of the down and the higher it is, the warmer it will be for its weight, and consequently more expensive too.
For example a sleeping bag with 800-900 down fill power will be much warmer than one with 600-700 down fill power.
For very cold treks or when sleeping on glaciers or snow is unavoidable, choose sleeping bags with a down fill power of 800 or more. Also check for ISO or EN temperature ratings. These describe the lowest temperature at which an average sleeper will be comfortably warm in the sleeping bag.
“One of the beginner camping mistakes trekkers make is getting misled by manufacturer series numbers resembling these values,” warns Pranav.
For example North Face 900 series does not imply down fill power of 900, it is simply a model designation.
Another instance would be a popularly reoccurring 90%.
This does not imply a 90:10 geese is to duck down ratio. Be sure to check specifications on product literature to determine the actual down fill power and type, before plonking your money.
An important aspect when choosing sleeping bags for trekking in India is their compressibility and not comparing this aspect is a sleeping bag mistake every beginner makes. A more compressible sleeping bag would occupy less space while providing the same warmth. Down is typically very compressible and occupies way less space than the synthetic ones.
Buying Down Responsibly
“Within down too, there is something called RDS which stands for Responsible Down Standard,” says Pranav, “And those certified with RDS imply that the down used in the said sleeping bag was not extracted from animals with unnecessary harm.”
This does not indicate the quality of insulation but RDS products are more expensive than others and can be a consideration for several buyers. While buying down sleeping bags always check for their hydrophobic characteristics. Down is usually treated with wax for removal of moisture and waterproofing, and if the hydrophobic power is less, the moisture from your body will be trapped within the sleeping bag making you feel cold. Here too, the climatic conditions you are likely to encounter is a big determinant. If you are likely to face drier terrain then the hydrophobic characteristic might not be that important.
Artificial/Synthetic Sleeping Bags
An alternative to down, especially for those who are either on a budget or are fundamentally opposed to using animal products. These are made up either short staple fibres or long continuous filaments.
“The downside of using short staple is that their 3D structure compresses well but loses its insulating properties after repeated compressions, leaving them useless after a while. The downside of long filaments is that they are not very compressible and end up occupying a large bulk of the rucksack,” warns Pranav.
However these are way cheaper and are more water resistant than down. For under INR 3000, one can buy a decent synthetic sleeping bag. However synthetic sleeping bags are much heavier and begin from upwards of 1700 gms. If your treks don’t involve sleeping on snow or ice, if you are not sleeping in the open but in a tent, and if the temperatures are unlikely to dip below -5 degrees then the cooling effect of the wind is reduced and these synthetic sleeping bags will suffice. However when it comes to lighter weight with great insulation, nothing beats down.
When choosing brands and their particular models, it is best to check out reviews by actual trekkers who document their experiences on the sites of sellers. Some reviewers test them in extreme conditions and thoroughly check their quality against the claims of the manufacturers and can help serve as a trusted guide to choosing sleeping bags.
“We promote self-sufficiency in the mountains, so lightweight sleeping bags are the way to go. But there has always been a trade-off between weight and cost and that can be a deterrent to self-sufficient treks because, the lighter the sleeping bag the more expensive it will be.”
Pranav recommends brands like Katabatic, Big Agnes and Colombia for impeccable insulation and light weight.
He in fact used Big Agnes for his 950 km long Western Himalayan Trail and never felt cold. However these are expensive, being imported, but do last much longer if you take care of them well.
Amongst brands available in India, he recommends picking a RAB model for treks under 5000 metres. They are reasonably priced and decently warm too. For the casual, non frequent trekker and for those with a budget of under INR 3000, he recommends skipping Decathlon’s Quechua models which are synthetic. Instead picking up first copies of Colombia available at almost every adventure gear shop, which have a mixed down filling of geese and duck and are reasonably warm for the asking price.
“But remember, the best sleeping bags are the ones manufactured by companies which specialize only in down jackets and sleeping bags,” he adds.
Extremely underrated and possibly the most value for money buy in the camping and trekking universe, sleeping bag liners are lightweight and portable. Liners function similar to how a quilt would, adding a layer of insulation between you and your sleeping bag. Further increasing the temperature rating of your sleeping bag by -7 degrees.
But liners serve another important purpose: Maintenance of hygiene.
“Sleeping bags can become colonies of bacteria through repeated usage, perspiration, spilt drinks and insects,” says Pranav.
A sleeping bag liner acts as a bedsheet or a duvet cover, essentially a layer between you and your sleeping bag. They are easily removable and more importantly far more easily washable as compared to the sleeping bag and therefore not just helps in proving a layer of hygiene but also increases the life of your sleeping bag, not to mention the extra warmth.
Did you know that a great sleeping bag with a down power of a billion, paired with an ineffective mattress can sound a death knell for your trek? Sleeping bag mistakes every beginner makes often include undervaluing the importance of mattresses.
When you sleep in your sleeping bag, the lower portion of it gets compressed under your weight, depleting its ability to keep you insulated from below. A mattress is an essential item for trekking and functions by keeping a layer of trapped air between you and the ground and preventing heat to escape.
“The criticality of a mattress cannot be undermined,” says Pranav.
Three kinds of mattress are typically available:
-Open cell foam
and each have their pros and cons.
Closed foam mattresses are the ones also used in the construction of yoga mats. These have fixed cells where air remains permanently trapped and aren’t found above R value of 3.
Open cell type mattresses are light and highly compressible thereby occupying very less space in your rucksack. Once decompressed, they trap air and provide insulation.
Air mattresses are the most sophisticated ones and provide the best insulation. Air has to be blown in them and that gets into its cell, thereby providing insulation. They are very light, extremely comfortable, boast great insulation, but are also more expensive (upwards of INR 7000). Manufacturers often offer lifetime warranties and puncture repair kits with them, and are a preferred choice for professional trekkers.
When trekking in the Indian Himalayas, choosing the right mattress is a must. One must look for R rating, which is an indicator of resistance to conductivity. A higher R indicates better insulation.
On normal medium altitude treks, when camping on bugyals or meadows, an R of 2.5 would suffice. On snow treks, an R value >3 is necessary to keep your body from losing heat to the ground. And on treks like Chadar or sleeping on glaciers, an R value greater than 4 is recommended.
Sleeping System Hacks
- If you aren’t venturing too far and beyond, where the temperatures won’t be frigid and you are camping in a tent with friends, two or three of you can use a quilt and ditch sleeping bags. This is a great way to cut costs. The body heat gets transferred from one person to another, retaining warmth, making sleeping bags unnecessary.
- A wonderfully cheap alternative to mattress is the black coloured foam, used as floor mats and easily available at upholstery sellers in India. It is very light and doesn’t costs more than INR 150. It can easily replace specialized mattresses and offer decent insulation.
- A great way to increase insulation from the ground is to put your emptied rucksack below the mattress. This acts as another layer and effectively increases the distance between your sleeping bag and the ground.
- Aluminium foil is very light weight, cheap and is a great insulator. Using an aluminium foil wrapped around the mattress greatly increases its insulating abilities.
Have a query on trekking?
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Summing up, sleeping bags come in all shapes and sizes and of various hues and kinds. The adventure gear market in India is flooded with a baffling number of options. However some very common sleeping bag mistakes people make, is not understanding how they work and which one suits their needs best. We hope this blog clears up the air, and infuses fresh perspective in the art of choosing the right sleeping system.
Let us know if you’d want us to take up another subject in a similar fashion.
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Author: Pranav Manocha
Pranav is a Nepal earthquake survivor with a flair for marketing. Beginning with a Quote T-Shirt business with a school friend after grade 12, he did his graduation in Literature from the University of Delhi. In his free time he loves reading Camus, trail riding and skinny dipping in rivulets around Manali.