Having got something to shelter you from the weather and insulate you from the cold, hard ground, now you need something to cuddle and cosset you all night long. You can’t rely on another person to do this, sadly, as they may still larging it at the Hidden Disco or be crashed out on the floor of the 24-hour café .
A good sleeping bag will never say “Of course I looked for you at the main stage. Where were you”.
Once again, in my dismissive way, let’s make it clear what I’m not talking about:
While this sort of sleeping bag might be suitable for a visiting niece or nephew dossing for the night on the sofa, they don’t really cut it for camping purposes. Why? Not warm enough (wrong shape, poor filling material, leaky zips) and too bulky for carrying easily into the site.
Already feeling cosy, aren’t you? Actually, this is the sort of mummy we’re talking about:
A practical sleeping bag shares a similar shape:
- a hood that can go all round your head (for very cold nights),
- broadest in the shoulders
- tapering to the narrowest point at the feet.
- There’ll be a zip up the side, to make it easier to get in and out, and to adjust the degree of insulation.
- The zip should have a baffle the whole length to stop warm air from escaping – don’t buy one that doesn’t.
- Sometimes they’re sold with a left or right zip. The theory is that if you buy one of each you can zip them together to make a sort of double bag.The added opportunities for, er, togetherness probably make it worthwhile for a couple, but when you split up you’ll have to make sure your new partner is compatible (“…NS, GSOH, left-handed zip…”)
- There should be a drawcord, so that you can pull the neck of the bag tightly around your shoulders, or head.
- On higher specification bags, you might also find shoulder baffles with a separate drawcord. These enable you to pull the bag more snugly around your shoulders, than with a hood drawcord alone. This may seem a bit over the top, but you’d be surprised how cold it can get at night, even in Britain in summer, given a northerly wind and clear skies.
- The sleeping bag should pack away into a stuffsack. That name indicates the way the bag should be stowed – literally by stuffing fistfuls at a time firmly into the bag, and then tightening it with a drawstring. (Only while in transit, though. When not in use the bag should be taken out of its stuffsack and ideally hung up, or put flat under a bed)
- Look for a robust stuffsack, with good strong stitching around the drawstring, because you’ll be putting a lot of strain on it.
- The stuffsack should have compression straps. Once the bag is packed away, these help squeeze a lot of the air out, reducing the size you have to pack by about a third. It’s this sort of thing that can make the difference between getting all your gear into the site in one go or having to go back again and missing that up-and-coming act on the BBC Introducing stage.
- If the stuffsack doesn’t have its own straps, you can buy compression harnesses, which go around the sack, but they’re fiddly.
Top flight bags are filled with goose down, or a mixture of feather and down. This gives maximum warmth for weight, and maximum compressibility so that they pack away small. But down is expensive, useless if it gets wet and needs specialist cleaning.
You’ll find a lot of synthetic fillings on the market, and these are a good compromise if you’re not planning on bivouacking on the Matterhorn in February.
How many seasons?
Most sleeping bags as classed as one, two, three or four season, and often have a temperature range that the manufacturer reckons they’ll be useable in. Like tent sizes, these are often optimistic (I’m being charitable here). At the lower ends of the range they seem to assume you’ll be sleeping fully clothed, including thermal underwear.
One-season bags (the season is summer, by the way) are really only suitable for mild nights and indoor sleeping.
Four season bags are designed for hardy types who own ice axes and crampons.
So for use in the ever-expanding British festival season – effectively May to September – you have the choice of a two- or three-season bag.
For many years I’ve used a three-season bag – an Ajungilak Kompact, and there have been times when I’ve been grateful for every degree of comfort that it’s offered me.
But on milder nights – or when sleeping into the morning when the sun is up, when a tent can be doing a passable imitation of a bread oven – my three-season bag is often too hot. You can undo the zip to stick various limbs out, or to use the bag just as a cover. And I also pack a very light cotton sarong. Not for doing my celebrated David Beckham impression, but as an alternative covering for the hottest times.
My recommendation – bag and liner
Learning from this, if I were buying today for Spring to Autumn use – including festivals – I’d get a good two-season bag and a silk liner:
Silk is a superb material; light and warm – and of course it feels lovely next to the skin. With this combination, you’d be prepared for all conditions, from sub-tropical (liner only) through average (bag only, in various states of zipped up-ness) to freeze-your-nuts-off-if-you’ve-got-them (both together).
What’s on the market
In the budget department, a Karrimor Global 900 07 two-season bag is about £35,
If you’re after real quality, an Ajungilak Kompact Spring two-season model can be had for about £85.
A silk liner (various makes) is about £25.
If you feel the cold, like to sleep naked, or plan to camp well into the autumn, then consider a three-season bag. You can get cheaper, but a Snugpak Softie Chrysalis Kilo looks like a good bet at £70-ish. Or the modern version of the one I’ve got, the Ajungilak Kompact three-season bag, is about £95.
Carry that weight
The next article in this series will be about getting all this shiny new gear from the car park to the camp site.