A few years ago, our family went on a three-night camping trip to Balsam Lake Provincial Park, in the middle of May. The weather was unseasonably cold and wet for the entire trip. The temperatures dipped to 3ºC at night and there was constant rainfall. What I remember the most about the trip is that I was constantly shivering and unable to sleep more than one hour per night due to the cold and dampness. In fact, I got my best sleep by napping for an hour in the car in the afternoon.
I checked the temperature rating on my sleeping bag and found that it was rated to 5ºC. I thought that it was odd that I was so cold because the temperature fell only slightly below the rating on my sleeping bag, and I had an extra blanket to compensate for this. What’s more, my children Jacob and Aaron slept effortlessly throughout the nights without shivering, and their sleeping bags were rated only marginally warmer than mine. Jacob and Aaron’s sleeping bags were placed on top of foam sleeping pads in the tent. Foam pads insulate from the cold ground below, so this partially explained why they slept better than me. Thinking the nights wouldn’t be very cold, I had packed an air mattress for use under my sleeping bag, for added comfort. This was a bad mistake because air mattresses do not insulate you from the cold ground.
I prefer to sleep on an air mattress because they are more comfortable than foam or self-inflating pads. The problem with air mattresses is that once inflated, there is virtually no insulation in them, just a thin layer of fabric and air. Even though Jacob and Aaron had sleeping bags that were rated only slightly better than mine, they were much warmer because they each had a foam pad under them, which helped to retain their body heat. Air mattresses only work well for summer camping when the nighttime temperature is warm. Air mattresses are not thick enough to provide insulation against a cold ground.
When I returned from the camping trip, I went to a few camping stores and did some research on sleeping bags to see if I could find out more about why I was cold in my sleeping bag. I wanted to see if my shivering in the cold and dampness was a by-product of my age or if there was some reason for the bag not keeping me warm. What I found was that sleeping bags can deteriorate over time, which diminishes their ability to keep you warm. This is due to normal wear and tear as well as excessive washing of the sleeping bag in washing machines. I also discovered that the temperature rating on the bag is subjective because everyone’s tolerance to cold weather is different. The sleeping bags can be temperature rated by testing them with younger people who are more resilient and able to handle colder temperatures than me.
What I concluded from my cold camping experience was that I desperately needed a new sleeping bag and will only use an air mattress when the temperature does not get too cold at night. Seeing as I had been using my sleeping bag for about twenty-three years, I assumed that it had come to the end of its useful life. After using the bag for three additional weeks the following July in Europe, my wife promptly donated it to less fortunate people at a campground in Frankfurt, Germany. More on selecting sleeping bags and sleeping pads in my next posts…