The Mountain Hut
Cold Weather Camping Gear
Ahh, the wonderful wonderful sleeping bag. This brings us to a big topic. The sleeping bag is THE single most effective lifeline-piece of gear.
I frequently think of my bag when on the trail, and it looks like some sort of gift from God floating above. I can picture it over my head floating amidst the flying ice particles and falling snow flakes, lofty and warm, puffy, naturally overlapped onto itself, with its huge zipper baffle lofting, and that comfortable mummy hood with its drawstring that tightens down to a breathing hole, presenting that first cushion that feels so good to plop down onto, where which we finally get a chance to retire for a good nights warm rest. Really now, it's just the picture of the sleeping bag. So warm it is, so heavenly it is.
The sleeping bag is the emergency shelter, bar none. Without this, we have nothing. If you have a sleeping bag, you have all you need to keep yourself warm at night. Do NOT EVER leave home without this item. This can only be understood after numerous multi-night long-hauls on steep trails, and cold slopes. Once you enter the bag, alas, home has been found! Treat yourself right, get the best bag possible, 'fork out' the bucks. plan on spending atleast $75 to $200, depending on your needs, for a good mountaineering bag.
The sleeping bag is a good starting point for your temperature calculations. I like to choose your sleeping bag rating, down jacket rating, and clothing weights,. according to outdoor temperature, then select the rest of the body-gear ratings from there accordingly to expected temperature, wind and precipitation type. Each trip dictates a different system, and the need to recalculate EVERYTHING.
Synthetic bags are mandatory in warm snow! A synthetic bag will keep you warm in a full soak, practically lying in a creek, as long as its zipped. Its perfect for winter mountaineering, unless you plan to be in subzero conditions. The problem here is the synthetic becomes too bulky when its ratings are below 0F, such as a -20F bag. If its going to be near 0 degrees, then you would want to bring down anyway, because you don't have to worry about the down getting wet which is problem number 1 with down feathers.
If your going to hike in the snow and expect temperatures near 30-38 or more, then you had better be bringing a synthetic bag. All you would need here is a good 15Deg bag, which is a autumn/spring/summer bag basically. IF it were going to be about 20-30 degrees then a 0 deg synth bag is great for this, because the wind chill can bring the 20deg right down to below 0. Down bags are mandatory in severely cold conditions and take precedence over the above synthetic rules. UNLESS you expect temperatures NO warmer than 25F, or have a gore-tex shell cover built into your down bag, then don't bring down. An excellent down bag has this gore-tex bivouac sack stitched into the outer of the down bag to create a water proof subzero bag. A good place to bring down would be winter climbs at least lofting the 10,500+ foot altitude in warmer climates such as here in Southern California. Anywhere else, and you can probably get away with using down at slightly lower altitudes. How about a trip to one of the Arctic's, just over sea level, but plenty cold enough. Down would be a necessity here, and synthetic a liability.
I forgot most of the technical names of the vast array of synthetic(man made poly/mono-fibers) fills. The fill I use is called Quallofil, it's known to be bulky, but has more of a feeling like goose-down. This is why I love my bag so much. Quallofil is a hollow fiber strand, trapping dead air inside the fiber, making it bulky. Another fiber is called Hollofil, but this fill is barely cut out for serious winter usage, as its not as effective for serious cold, but is really light and un-bulky on bags with ratings near 20DegF. But a 20Deg bag is absolutely not for Serious winter usage. You may suffer a night of frozen feet should you hit a storm in a 20DegF. bag. There are other synthetic fibers, most of which aren't hollow fibers, but are intertwined in various ways to create a quality loft head to toe, which gives the brands their uniqueness.
One thing good to know is the mummy bag is usually filled with more material on the upper half. When sleeping facing down, sometimes its wise to put as much of the bag in its upright flat position as possible, and let just the hood twist for breathing if you have the drawstring tight.
A good technique to ensure the fill stays in place is called baffling. The bag should have 'a lot' of baffles in it holding your fill in place so it doesn't clump up at all. Treat your bag with care, leave it "UNSTUFFED' whenever possible to maintain its loftiness, which is the most important aspect of the sleeping bag. The ability to "LOFT" creates this dead air space, we wouldn't want to mess this up. Synthetics loft still when wet, down does NOT loft when wet at all. Always fluff up and toss a sleeping bag into place a half hour before use so it can reach its full loft, this is standard practice.
A couple other mandatory aspects to the mummy bag that you need to inspect is the zipper functionality, loftiness of the zipper baffle tube, and the existence and sizable hood/neck baffle. The zipper baffle runs along the zipper and keeps drafts completely out along its length assuming the loft is at least a good few inches. If i remember correctly, good ones are near 6 inches when fully lofted. The hood baffle should be a few inches as well, and go around the whole hood in which is slips around your neck to seal out the elements. It looks kind of like a life jacket front, or a shoulder bib. If these items are in tact and look good, then check one more thing. The quality of the zipper needs to be A#1. Test that out vigorously by zipping repeatedly and fast to make sure the baffle isn't a zipper snagger, or the teeth or handle aren't inferior. Once this is checked, be sure to give it the final test. Zip the bag up, then carefully try to pull the zipper connection apart from the middle of its length on the outside the bag, once zipped up. Give it a good 'careful' yank. IF the zipper separates, throw it back on the shelf as is. This is one thing you DONT want to be dealing with on the sub-zero mountain every time you turn over in your sleep.