The Big 3, err 4…

The big three are the :

  1. Backpack
  2. Shelter
  3. Sleeping Bag

and the fourth is the:

4.  Sleeping Pad

1. The Backpack.

This should be the last thing to be bought, however, I did not know this when I began purchasing my backpacking gear, and this turned out to be my first investment. I hated when I would go on the forums and bring this up and everyone would tell me that I should have not done so, but it was for the best. The rationale behind this strange theory is that you need to be sure that everything that you plan on carrying will fit inside the backpack. Obviously, you can’t know what size pack you need until you have all your stuff. Of course an argument to this is that “I will just get a big bag so I will be sure to have enough room.” Keep in mind that you have to carry that backpack with all that stuff inside it on our back. And you may even be a tough guy and can do it, but in the end it is wearing you down which makes it harder to enjoy the hike. One wise saying on getting bags big enough to fit everything, is that it will, and if you have room you will fill it with more stuff.

On the other end of that is the SULer’s (super ultra lighters). Some of these guys have a very minimal base weight (5 lbs or less). There are many different “weights” also. Base weights, dry weights, skin out weights, and total weights to name a few. While I don’t know all the different weights, this is what I go by:

  1. Base weight: Pack, shelter, and sleep system.
  2. Dry weight: Base weight + all other necessities minus food & water.
  3. Total weight: Exactly what it says.

So, back to the backpack. There are many types of backpacks with a lot of different names on them. Backpacks are measured by space, typically either by “xx” Liters or “xx” Cubic Inches. Here is a general guideline on sizes:

  1. Less than 3000 cubic inches: Ultra Light or Super Ultra Light
  2. 3000 – 4000 cubic inches: Light-weight
  3. 4000 – 5000 cubic inches: Mid-weight
  4. 5000 + cubic inches: Heavy-weight & Expedition weight

These are not definitive, and more so the way I would size them up. Also, there are different types of suspension systems to consider. Most of the larger packs use stays in the frame to provide even support, but not all. Some use hard plastic frame sheets, while others use none at all and rely on the users sleeping pad to provide the support (these are in the smaller packs). Some even use special suspensions such as carbon fiber hoops. The amount of suspension needed also depends on weight that will be carried.

Also, some packs allow parts such as the hip belt and the shoulder straps to be changed out for different sizes so that the packs will accommodate a large variety of users. Others use adjustable suspension systems that are able to be adjusted by moving the shoulder straps up and down on the pack to fit a variety of people.

Other than size of pack, the other important part of choosing a pack is fitting. First you need to measure our torso. You can have your torso measured at most outfitters, but if not able to do so you can do it yourself. You need to be able to do so correctly so that you get the right size pack. Here is how to do so according to ULA:

To accurately measure your torso length for a correct pack fit, grab a buddy and follow the steps below…

1- Standing upright, tilt your chin to your chest. Locate the largest lump on the back of your neck. This is your #7 vertebrae. It should be located close to the base of your neck proper.

2- From the #7 vertebrae, measure (with the flexible tape) down the length and natural curvature of your spine to the crest of your hipbones (iliac crest). This measurement in inches is your torso length.

There is a lot to learn about a pack. The best way to do so is by going and actually putting your hands on one and trying it on, with weight in it. Don’t be afraid to take all your stuff to a store and unload it inside a backpack and then walk around for 20 or 30 minutes. It’s best to find out how a pack fits before taking it out on the trail, and even more so before you buy it.

Number 2. The Shelter.

There are many types of shelters to choose from. There are ponchos that double as tarps, plain ole tarps, bivy sacks, hammocks, single wall shelters, and double wall shelters. (There are probably others that I have forgotten to mention too.) Then there is 3-season and 4-season, free-standing and non free-standing, and then all the different materials they are made of. It can be a lot to take in, and try to figure out. So, I will try to briefly describe the ones I have listed, but please don’t rely on my word as I am still trying to sort them out!

Ponchos / Tarps: While i don’t know much about these, from what I do know, this is pretty much what it sounds like. It is an oversized poncho with specifically placed zippers or tie outs to be used as a tarp. The poncho is worn like a typical  poncho, but then at the end of the day it is used in conjunction with trekking poles, a few stakes and some tie out lines to become a shelter. While this doesn’t usually allow much wiggle room as a shelter, it does provide enough room to stay out of the elements. But the big plus with using these types of shelters is the weight savings. This is a wise way of thinking though, based on the fact that the poncho is pulling double duty.

Tarps: These are offered in a variety of sizes as well as shapes. Square and rectangular, and any size imaginable can be ordered. Also, there is the catenary cut which flaps less in the wind and then the regular flat cut tarps. They are also offered in a wide variety of materials. Everything from the blue tarps at Wal-Mart to super ultra light (and expensive) cuben fiber is used for these. One of the more common materials for tarps is silnylon, which is impregnated nylon ripstop that offers waterproof protection on both sides of the material. There is also the urethane coated materials which are waterproof on one side. An example of this would be the spray on waterproofing that you can buy and do yourself. Tarps are also big with the hammock users as they pitch the tarp over their hammock, so some tarps are not exactly square per se, but rather longer along the ridgeline so that there is more coverage at the head and foot of the hammock and taper to almost a point on the sides. By cutting the edges off of the tarp this  allows for a lighter over-all weight.

Bivy Sack: This is basically an extremely small, lightweight, waterproof shelter that fits over your sleeping bag. To use one of these just simply roll the bivy sack out, open it up and put your pad and sleeping bag inside, and this is your shelter. For the most part you will want a bivy that is waterproof on the bottom, as well as on the top if not using a tarp or anything over the top. The big thing with using one of these is that you want to be able to let the material on the top breath so that condensation does not build up inside the bag and wet out you and your sleeping bag. Believe it or not, you will sweat out about a liter of fluid a night. If the material on your bivy sack does not allow that moisture to escape, it will be inside with you, and you will be wet. Another type of bivy is the bug bivy. This is basically a waterproof bottom, and a mesh netting on top that keeps the hungry little bugs out. These will need a roof over them, such as a tarp since they are obviously not waterproof on top.

Hammocks: There are a few different options to consider with hammocks. Some are just opened up while others have bug netting attached. Some allow two to fit in the hammock while others allow only one. You can buy bug nets that fit over the hammocks and usually rest on a ridgeline. There are also the different ways to attach the hammocks, ropes or straps. (Although you need straps called tree huggers that go around the trees to protect the trees from damage from the rope.) Then you have to decide how you will secure the suspension, whether with knots (which equals less weight) or with tensioners or such on webbing straps. Some of the hammocks you get in from the bottom where others you get in from the side. Also, for using the hammock in the winter you have to take into consideration how you will stay warm. Some of the hammocks can use some of the pads for warmth underneath where as most use an underquilt that attaches to the underside of the hammock.

Single Wall Shelters: These are tents with only one wall. These do not have a fly that goes over the actual tent since the actual tent is also the fly. This is what fills the gap between the traditional tents and the tarp. These are also called tarptents. The big deal with these is weight. Since there is not two “walls” to carry, a big portion of weight is dropped. These are essentially tarps with bug netting and a floor sewn in. Some of the biggest things to watch for with these types of shelters is condensation. Ventilation is a must when using these shelters. Typically there needs to be a vent down low to allow cool air to enter into the shelter, and a vent near the top so that the warm air (with the moisture) can be pushed out by the cool air coming from the bottom. If condensation begins to collect in these shelter they will form on the inside of the walls, and then will eventually roll down the side or drip from the top and you will end up with wet stuff inside your tent. Also, some of the single wall shelters do not have vestibules, so take this into consideration as you will either have to take everything inside with you (which can be a pain if everything is soaked) or you will have to leave it out in the open. Also, since these shelters take to heart light weights, some of them also rely on trekking poles for their support instead of tent poles, so keep this in mind when looking at these tents.

Double Wall Shelter: These are the traditional tents. There is a tent body that is not usually waterproof, which then requires the second wall, or the tent fly, which makes the tent waterproof. The benefit of these tents is that the tent body can actually be nearly entirely made of mesh so that on nice cool days the fly can be left off and you can enjoy a nice breeze while enjoying the view. Then if it looks like rain, just throw the fly on and you have instant protection from the elements. (**A trick to this is to go ahead and have the fly attached to the back of the tent and be ready to jump out and throw it over the top at a moments notice if needed.) The biggest downfall to this design is that these tents are usually a heavier weight than the other options (however there is currently a 2 man double walled tents that weighs 2 pounds 2 ounces!) The condensation issues are still present in these tents so care must still be taken when guying out the fly to allow proper ventilation throughout the tent, however one plus with these tents are that the condensation does not form on the inside of the tent body, but rather on the underside of the fly. The condensation can still drip down into the inside of the tent, but the top of the tent can help to block out some of it.

Some other things to keep in mind with shelters:

Rocks or other heavy objects can help keep the stakes weighted down. This is especially helpful when the stakes won’t hardly drive down into the ground, or the ground is soft, or loose like in sand. Another alternative to this is to actually tie the guy lines to trees or large rocks.

The stakes that come with most tents are fine, but should probably be replaced. Try them out and see how well they work, and if needed, don’t be afraid to invest in some better stakes (and yes they will cost a little $$.)

With tents, think about whether you want a front entry or a side entry. Also, if more than one person is inside the tent and you get a side entry, if there is only one door someone will be climbing over somebody.

Also, think about vestibule area. This is the space you have to leave some of the gear you don’t want to have to take inside your tent, such as muddy, wet, soaking boots. Also if more than one person will be using the tent, will you have enough room for two?

As for sizing the tent up, sometimes you may not be able to make it to an outfitter to check out each one. So grab you an open area and some tape, and tape out the dimensions. Then lay out your sleeping pads and bags inside the area; how well does it work out for you? Also, keep in mind the slope of the walls. Some tents have unusable space at the ends because of the extreme angle of the wall. Be sure to really check into these things.

Also, find out about the materials the shelter is made of, and do some research on it. Realize that silnylon stretches substantially when wet.

Again, ask questions. Get on forums and look for reviews. I like to find the negative reviews since the website will tell me all about the positive reviews. And nothing speaks louder than people with experience with the product. Ask around.

Number 3. Sleeping Bag

There are lots of different types of sleeping bags out there, with lots of different name brands stitched to them. Until I got into backpacking, my idea of a sleeping bag was the rectangular sleeping bags we used to go car camping, and that was it. I didn’t think about temperature ratings, or cuts, or draft collars, or any of this stuff. But I found out quick, there’s a lot to think about. So, I will try to break it down and hopefully make it a little easier to you. (But again, you go research, don’t rely on my word alone. Sleeping bags are a very personal matter.)

All sleeping bags do the same thing, they trap body heat in the insulation fibers that are between the top and bottom liners. It is the insulation between these liners that is what makes the difference. So I will start with fill. Basically, you have two types. Down and synthetic.

I’ll start with down. Down is mainly from geese but is sometimes collected from ducks. Down is graded by fill power. You may see some sleeping bags with things like this: 550 Down Fill, 650 Down Fill, 800 Down Fill, 850+ Down Fill, etc. These are down fills. Basically the higher the fill, the better, both in terms of weight as well in the down’s ability to retain heat. However, the higher the number, the higher the $$$.

So, what do the numbers mean? Well basically the numbers represent how many cubic inches 1 oz of down will occupy when the down is lofted. So, it is obvious that 900 cubic inches (900 down fill) is more than 550 cubic inches (550 cubic inches), so it now makes sense that the higher the down fill rating, the more space is occupied. This means that less of the higher grade down is needed to fill a space, so the overall weight is less with higher down fills.

Now, this explains the weight savings, but how about the ability to retain warmth better? The higher fill power down is collected from the more matured geese. This means bigger down clusters and more of them. These bigger, more abundant clusters equals more insulating air pockets, which equals more retained warmth. 900 fill power is about the most that will be had with down and this is pretty expensive to have.

One thing to take into consideration with down is that when down is wet (completely) it offers no thermal insulation, and it weighs a lot more than it did to begin with. The difference between down and synthetic when wet is that the actual down is saturated and needs to be dried out, whereas with synthetic, the insulation is not saturated, but rather the spaces (air pockets) in between is filled with water. With this in mind, synthetic can still offer some thermal insulation when wet (theoretically), whereas with down there are no pockets to trap heat in. So, if you go for down, get a good waterproof stuff sack to keep it in, and keep it dry as your life could depend on it. (However, why wouldn’t you do the same with your synthetic bag? From what I’ve heard they are both miserable to be in when that wet.)

As for synthetic, I am not real familiar with all the different types. All I really know about synthetics is that there are a few different types. Some is heavier than others, and some will compress better than others (although none is as light as down, compresses as well as down, or insulates as well as down). My suggestion is to really look into the type of synthetic fill when buying a synthetic bag. Research it.

Another thing to consider with sleeping bags is the cut. Basically there are three cuts:

  1. Rectangular
  2. Semi-Rectangular
  3. Mummy

Traditionally, the rectangular are reserved for car-camping and the mummy cut are for backpacking. Why? Because of weight, and even insulating factors. Basically, the less air space inside the sleeping bag to heat the better, however, if there is none, then there is no space to heat. This is why it is not recommended to wear too much clothing while inside the sleeping bag. If the clothing actually compresses the insulation provided by the sleeping bag, the clothing is actually counter-productive and you will be colder. What keeps you warm is air pockets, this is why a few layers inside a well lofted sleeping bag will work wonders.

The rectangular sleeping bag offers a large air pocket because of all the room inside, however this is not the main reason backpackers don’t (typically) pack these bags for their trips. Weight is the biggest reason. These bags can weigh a lot, It is nothing for a 0* F sleeping bag to weigh nearly 10 pounds. However, you can get a mummy cut 0* F sleeping bag for around 3 pounds or less.

Some companies offer semi-rectangular cut bags. These bags are good for people with a larger build, or simply for people who don’t like the tight fit of a mummy bag. These are obviously slightly heavier than mummy cut bags, and depending on the size of the person inside the bag, could provide less warmth than a smaller cut bag. Again, this all comes down to the amount of air space inside the bag.

There are other things to take into consideration on sleeping bags, such as hoods. Pretty much all mummy cut sleeping bags have these, and they can be a great thing to have in the colder weather for its added warmth, and can be bundled underneath your head during the summer for more “pillow.” Other things such as zipper length can be an issue. Some bags are made with zippers that only go half way down, which does allow for a lighter weight sleeping bag. while others go all the way down and allows the bag to be opened up and used more like a blanket or a quilt. Using the bag opened up allows the bag to be used in a wider range of temperatures, because of the ability to vent.

There are still other features to consider to, such as a draft tube, which is a tube that runs the length of the zipper to keep cold air from seeping in, or warm air from seeping out. A draft collar, which is a collar of fill that runs over your chest or neck and keeps air from exchanging when moving around inside your bag. Also, consider the way that the bag is sewn; is it sewn through or is it comprised of baffles. A sewn through bag is fine for temps above thirty, however, in temps less than this you will feel the cold air seep through where the bag is sewn due to a lack of insulation. This is where the baffles come in. A baffle is a solid chamber of fill that completely covers you, leaving no areas for cold air to seep in.

There are other little things to look into such as pockets on the sleeping bag, usually at chest level, zippered foot boxes for venting options, and the ability for sleeping bags to be zipped together so that you can share a sleeping bag with that special someone. Also, does the bag come with both a stuff sack and a cotton storage sack? No matter if the bag is synthetic or down filled, the sleeping bag should not be in the stuff sack unless it needs to be, such as when you are hiking. For storage, the bag should be stored either loosely inside a cotton storage bag, opened up and laid out somewhere flat, or even hanging from the hang loops on the bag.

One other thing to take into consideration when choosing a sleeping bag is the material it is made of. This is more of a personal thing as well, since the type of material depends on the person using the bag, and the conditions in which it will be used. Some materials are more waterproof while others are more breathable. Some are more durable than others where as some need more special attention because they may sacrifice some of the durability for the purpose of a ultra-light weight bag. Again, these all depend on the conditions in which you intend on using your sleeping bag.

And then there are temperature ratings. These can be a bit, well, overrated. Most sleeping bag companies have their own idea of how to determine the temperature ratings, which makes it hard to compare bags, sometimes even by the same company, let alone two different companies. There are a couple of manufactures that are pretty spot on for what they claim their bags to be. (Two of them are Feathered Friends and Western Mountaineering. In my opinion – and many others, but maybe not necessarily to you.)

However, there is a rating system that is slowly starting to draw in more manufacturers so that there can be a more realistic way to compare sleeping bags. The system is called the European Norm, or the EN ratings. This system comes up with four readings, three of which are typically listed:

  1. EN Comfort Rating. This number represents to what temperature a “standard” woman can sleep comfortably in a relaxed position in the bag.
  2. EN Lower Limit Rating. This number represents to what temperature a “standard” man can sleep in a curled position for 8 hours without waking in the bag.
  3. EN Extreme Rating. This number represents the minimum temperature a “standard” woman can survive for 6 hours without the risk of dying in the bag, however frostbite is a possibility at this point.

Some of the manufacturers have gone to the EN rating system (The North Face, REI, and Marmot to name a few). These ratings are usually listed on the hang tags on the bag, or on the manufacturers website. It’s also never a bad idea to ask a sales rep. There are also CLO values that can also help determine a more accurate temperature rating of a bag, but I am not familiar with it, so I won’t try to act like it!However, these are great things to study up on for your own personal knowledge (and then you can let me know!)

There is a way to get a pretty good estimate of temperature rating for down bags just by letting the sleeping bag lie out and loft up. Just measure the thickness of it (keeping in mind that half the thickness is from the bottom half of the bag and will be compressed underneath you, however to keep confusion down these estimates are based on total loft of top and bottom together.)

  • 3 inches equals 40* F
  • 4 inches equals 30* F
  • 5 inches equals 20* F
  • 6 inches equals 10* F
  • 7 inches equals 0* F
  • 8 inches equals -10* F
  • 9 inches equals -25* F
  • 10 inches equals -40* F

Again, these are just rough estimates. There are a few things to take into consideration when doing this, such as size of bag and the size of the person going in it. Also, the construction and quality of materials of the bag must be taken into consideration.

On another note, another general rule of thumb is to buy a bag 10 degrees lower than what you are expecting to need it for. (If you are expecting to use the bag in 20* weather, look at some 10* bags.) This will help to take into consideration the possibility of an overrated bag. But also try and know what kind of sleeper you are: Do you sleep cold? Do you sleep hot? Just by knowing these things can also help you in making a wise choice in which sleeping bag to buy. And it is never a bad idea to test the bag at home, outside in the back yard or even on the porch one night before relying on the bag, especially in extreme situations, or even just for comfort purposes is never a bad idea.

So, these are just a few things on backpacks, shelters, and sleeping bags. Again, do not take my word on any of these things. Go out and do the research for yourself. Things change every day and I don’t claim to know that much about any of it. I have had a very limited experience with all of this, and most of this information has been given to me second-hand or is my interpretations from the research I have done. I am only trying to help out by making things aware, so that you can dig a little too. Besides this is part of the fun. Good luck, and I hope that I have at least helped you to get started.

Number 4. Sleeping Pad

In all actuality, the big three, could – and maybe should – be the big four, to include the sleeping pad. The sleeping bag provides warmth, but it’s main concern is keeping the cold air from attacking at the top. Since the sleeping bag is crushed beneath you, it is actually useless, and leaving your back side open to the elements. Now this may not be a problem during the warm months, but without any insulation beneath you, you may be surprised at the warm months.

So, there are two many reasons for a sleeping pad, and while comfort comes to mind, I would say insulation is a more serious concern. However, if you are going to lug one around, may as well make it comfortable to use!

So, insulation. The insulation is measured in sleeping pads with R-Values. An R-Value is defined as the measure of a given objects thermal resistance. Basically, how well will the given material block heat from being transferred across the given object to the other side. The R-Value is affected by two things, the actual material and the amount of that material. Naturally, the lower the R-Value, the less amount of heat it will resist, so more heat will be lost and you will end up getting colder easier, so obviously, the higher the R-Value the more heat resisted and the warmer you stay. (Just as an example, according to Wikipedia, a brick has an R-Value of 0.2 and snow has an R-Value of 1. And from other random sources, typical insulation in the attics of most US homes are around R 25 – 30, and the insulation in the walls are typically R 15. There is lots to be studied on R-Values, so check it out, it’s rather interesting.)

So, for some bases:

  1. Therm-A-Rest Z Lite: R 2.2
  2. Therm-A-Rest Ridge Rest: R 2.6
  3. REI Lite-Core 1.5 / Therm-A-Rest ProLite: R 3.2
  4. Big Agnes Insulated Air Core: R 4.1
  5. Exped Synmat 7: R 4.9
  6. Exped Downmat 7: R 5.9
  7. Exped Downmat 9: R 8

These are just a few examples. And while some of these pads are similar, a lot of them are different thicknesses, use different types of insulation, and provide different levels of comfort.

Another thing to look into is the cut. Again, just like sleeping bags, the ones that are smaller and / or cut at the corners (mummy-cut) will weigh less. Typically the pads are offered at 48, 60, and 72 inches. There are other lengths available, depending on the pads. Also, there are typically two widths, 20 and 25 inches. The 20 inch wide pads are probably more common, just because they weigh less than the 25 inch pads. I have found that my arms typically fall off the edges of a 20 inch pad while laying on my back. Sometimes I have found myself wishing I had a 25 inch for this reason, however most of my sleeping is done on my side, so this doesn’t always affect me. This is something that you should think about when deciding on a pad. Also, some pads are simply rectangular in shape. My Exped Synmat that I recently purchased is this shape, and just from the little extra room at the foot of the pad makes a world of difference to me. I feel like I have tons more room than with the narrower mummy cut pads. Don’t be afraid top throw one down in the floor at the outfitter and lay around.

As for comfort, it may have been covered already, but thicknesses are the big thing to look at when comfort is in mind. Some pads are less than an inch thick, while others are around 3 inches thick. Again, you never know how they do until you lay on them. I noticed that with my Synmat, when I move around and sit up I am much more likely to bottom out than I am with my 1.5 inch Lite-Core or ProLite. I am not really sure why, but it’s the way it is.

Also, what’s inside the pads can affect comfort as well. Inside my 1.5 inch Lite-Core and ProLite, it is actually a layer of foam, whereas inside my Synmat, there is some synthetic insulation, but a large part is air. Imagine laying on a air mattress pool toy and you can get the idea (however, there is slightly more comfort to these). While my nearly 3 inch Synmat is ideally, and realistically more comfortable, I have found myself at times wanting my other pads. The Lite-Core and the ProLite has a very nice mixture of air and foam that provides a surprisingly amount of comfort that should not be looked over (in my opinion). The 2 pads just sleep different, and that’s it. The same goes for the CCF pads. The blue ones from Wal-Mart are horribly uncomfortable, while the Z Lite is actually quite comfortable.

Pads can vary as much as sleeping bags. And on that note some sleeping bags are even made to fit certain sleeping pads (check out the Big Agnes sleeping bags). The best thing is to check them out for yourself. If you can rent from somewhere, do it. If you can borrow, do it.

One Response to The Big 3, err 4…

  1. Pingback: Sleeping Pads | Stick's Blog

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