A Good Night’s Sleep. Part one
Sleeping Bags for Family Camping.
Once you are sheltered and fed the single most important thing to do to actually enjoy any camping trip is to get a good night’s sleep. To make this happen you need a system that gives you the best surface to lie on as well as the sleeping bag you lie in. The start point is Sleeping bags for family camping. These are going to be used mainly on campsites, in the warmer part of the year and don’t need to be incredibly complicated to achieve their purpose.
Standards and temperature ratings.
Until 2005 there were no standards for sleeping bags. Companies were free to put any temperature, season or TOG rating on their bags and many were complete fiction. It was possible to buy a 5 season, winter expedition bag with a minus 20-degree Celsius rating, for less than forty euro in Dublin. Using it at that temperature though would probably have been fatal. TOG ratings are unused beyond the UK and Ireland and are massively variable. There are umpteen tests of TOG ratings and different industries have different ways of testing which then produce different results. The season ratings system is even less reliable. A four season bag for Wexford would be very different to a four season bag for Northern Scotland.
It was because of such problems that the EU introduced the EN13537 standard which made the temperature ratings more realistic and easier to compare. The EN rating has four temperatures; one is the maximum temperature at which a bag will be comfortable when completely unzipped. Ignore this because in real life you can always kick the bag away to make it cooler. At the other end is the extreme temperature which should also be ignored. When used at the extreme temperature a ‘Standard’ woman will probably stay alive for six hours although is still at risk of frostbite and certainly won’t be sleeping much. The two ratings in the middle are the important ones for most of us. The comfort limit is that at which the EuroNorm defined woman can sleep comfortably for eight hours. The lower limit (sometimes called the transition) is a few degrees cooler and is the temperature at which the EuroNorm standard man can likewise, sleep comfortably for eight hours. These are averages so if you, like me feel the cold then choose on the basis of the more conservative number. If you are one of those strange people who always sleep warm then you may well get away with a less bulky, lighter bag. No test is perfect but this has become the standard that the best companies use even if they are not represented in the European market.
The most thermally effective sleeping bags are the Mummy shaped ones that hug the body closely with the minimum amount of dead space inside the bag. Mummy bags are the standard for expedition and backpacking but less common for family camping trips because they can feel quite restrictive. Most people don’t require a bag with amazing thermal efficiency for a summer weekend away to Nore Valley or Redcross anyway so pick what works for you. A huge chunk of the sleeping bags we sell are rectangular, ‘Envelope’ style. This allows a greater range of movement and feels more like being in a normal bed. There really isn’t any right or wrong here it just boils down to personal preference.
There are really only two choices here; Down or polyester. Down is mainly used for expeditions, adventure racing and extended backpacking trips where low weight, minimal bulk and superior loft are highly valued features. It comes in various grades; grey goose down is a better insulator than duck down and white goose down is better again. The dearer and higher spec the bag then the better the down quality will be. 100% down doesn’t really exist, anything over 95% down can legally be marked as 100%. Some ‘down’ bags are a mix of down and feather. Feather is cheaper, feels less soft, and is a less effective insulator than down. Most of the people who want a down bag need it for a specific purpose and the cost is secondary to performance, so a slightly cheaper but less functional bag isn’t particularly attractive. Down is a sod to dry out well if it gets wet so care must be taken in its use. If I’m on a winter camping trip or spending time in a very wet environment I will often put my down bag inside my Gore-Tex bivvy bag for extra protection and reassurance. By and large if you want a down bag you already know why and it won’t be your first sleeping bag. At this price and performance level they are all good. Nerds like me may quibble over the details of bag A. compared to bag B. but no manufacturer deliberately makes one that leads to their customers dying of hypothermia in the Andes or the Alps. In summary down is low bulk, gives great warmth for the weight of insulation used but costs more and you don’t want to get it wet as it loses loft quickly.
Synthetic insulation is almost always polyester, some may be lighter or give better warmth for the weight. There are hundreds of brand names and different methods of manufacturing but at heart they are all the same basic stuff. Polyester dries out quickly and once dry, retains its original insulation. Compared to down it is bulkier and heavier but with every passing year, lighter and more compressible options hit the market. The highest end synthetics though cost almost as much as down bags. For family camping, synthetic is generally a better option. Low maintenance, loads of choice and easier on the pocket.
There are several ways to make sleeping bags and I will look at some of the more complex ones when I get to the article on sleeping bags for backpackers but most family camping happens out of the car (or out of the living room at the time of writing) so there is less need for bags that are super light and compact. Consequently, we are going to look at the two most common ways of making sleeping bags.
Stitch through. This is the simplest and cheapest method and it very simply consists of a layer of insulation sandwiched between two layers of fabric. To stop the insulation from sliding around inside, all three layers are stitched together at the edges and around the surfaces of the sleeping bag. Chilly sleepers such as myself will tend to find that because there is little insulation at the stitching these can be a bit cool. Those odd humans who always feel warm at night would probably prefer this style of bag as they would be less likely to overheat.
Offset Baffle. Sounds a bit high tech but really, it’s just a double layer version of the stitch through construction described above. The insulation is sewn as above but then two layers are joined, one on top of the other in such a way that areas of stitching are always covered by insulation. This reduces the effect of cold spots drastically and is preferred by anyone who feels the cold or who has trouble sleeping all the way through a cold night.
Other constructions. There are several other ways to make sleeping bags but they are all designed to create bags which are lighter to carry or take up less space in a rucksack. These bags will feature in the backpacking version of this article.
It is possible to make bags warmer by using more efficient fillings or by using greater quantities of a filling. The first option allows bags to be warmer, smaller and lighter but they will then become quite a bit more expensive. These are usually of more interest to backpackers, cyclists and kayakers. The latter option is very common and allows for very warm bags that don’t cost too much although they can get considerably bulkier and heavier. For the sake of simplicity, I am going to illustrate this using two models of sleeping bag from the Vango range as their nomenclature makes identifying the models easy.
Vango Kanto range.
These are a good quality single layer ‘Stitch through’ bag. They replace the Wilderness and are essentially the same in all but name. There are standard, short and junior models available.
Kanto 250. Comfort rating 5 degrees. Transition rating 1 degree. Weight 1.8 kg.
Kanto 350. Comfort rating 3 degrees. Transition rating -1 degree. Weight 2 kg.
The lighter bag contains insulation that weighs approximately 250 grammes per square metre. For extra warmth that gets upped to 350 grammes per square metre in the cosier model. Bear in mind the approximately part of that sentence. The numbers are a guide which is relevant to this range and it is difficult to compare these to other bags just on the basis of the given weight of insulation.
Vango Nitestar range.
One of my favourite bags. Suitable for all sorts of people and in a range of options. A double layer ‘Offset baffle’ bag with quality filling. Virtually unchanged in years and I mean that as a good thing.
Nitestar Alpha 250. Comfort rating 2 degrees. Transition rating -4 degrees. Weight 1.65 kg.
Nitestar Alpha 350. Comfort rating -1 degree. Transition rating -7 degrees. Weight 2kg.
Nitestar Alpha 450. Comfort rating -4 degrees. Transition rating -11 degrees. Weight 2.3 kg.
As with the Kanto range, the bigger the number, the warmer the bag. Because the construction and fillings are slightly different there is a considerable difference between a Nitestar Alpha 350 and a Kanto 350.
Not all companies use filling weights in their model names and some that do are more approximate than accurate so this is really just a handy extra way of comparing like with like. For the best performance info use the EN ratings first.
New this year comes a bag that may be of interest to the permanently frozen amongst us. The Radiate sleeping bag has a graphene pad in the upper part of the bag which has variable heat settings and is powered from a rechargeable power bank. If you have trouble getting warmed up in the first place then this may well be a helpful bit of gear. For those who want to upgrade an existing bag the pad is available separately and can be used with whatever you are currently using. Neither the Radiate bag or pad come with a power bank, but they are widely available and even the very good ones cost under thirty euro.
Using a liner inside your bag is like using a sheet on your bed. Thermal versions can add a fair bit of warmth. Coolmax ones maximise moisture dispersion and there are cotton, fleece and polycotton options also. The differing fabrics have wildly varying prices and properties. What they all do though is make it simpler to keep your bag clean and fresh. It is much easier to wash the sheets than it is to wash the duvet and liners are a worthwhile investment from the point of view of hygiene if nothing else.
As always I can be contacted through the store or by email email@example.com
Thanks for reading.