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Slumber hearty: Sleeping on the ground doesn't have to suck

May. 29, 2013 - 03:26PM   |  

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Therm-a-Rest NeoAir All Season ()

Gear glossary

The basics on sleeping bags and pads:
Ground pad optionsClosed-cell foam: Resilient and light but usually quite thin. Bulky storage.
Self-inflating air/foam: More comfortable, warmer, heavy, easy to set up, slow to pack up, takes up lots of room.
Air mattress: Smallest storage footprint, light, can be fragile, lung-powered inflation, air support alone is very firm, limited insulating qualities. Can be loud; the lighter the material, the more crinkly-sounding it will be.
Insulated air mattress: Have added down and synthetic insulation to increase insulation from the ground.
Air/foam: Air mattresses with foam toppers, sewn on or detachable, that combine the ground-conforming qualities of air mattresses with the support and comfort of a foam pad. Brings the bedroom sleeping experience to the field. Heavy and large.
Current concepts in sleeping bagsDown insulation: Warm and light. One of nature’s best insulators. But you must keep it dry. Wet down has no insulating qualities. Even dampness from overnight condensation or dew can present performance issues.
Synthetic insulation: Resilient, easy to care for, and provides thermal insulation even when wet. But it doesn’t match down’s thermal efficiency. To have the same temperature rating, a sleeping bag filled with synthetic insulation will be much heavier and take up more space than one filled with down.
Hydrophilic down: There are products hitting the market featuring waterproof down. This new technology is most commonly a coating that’s sprayed on the down plumes that prevent them from absorbing water. This is potentially huge in that it removes down’s biggest weakness, but be aware that some of these products lose their efficacy after a few washes.
Partially insulated: Lying on insulation compresses it, rendering its thermal properties moot. So why put insulation under a sleeper who’s likely to be on a ground pad anyway? Big Agnes pioneered this sleep system concept by producing bags with a sleeve for a thermally efficient ground pad in the bottom instead of insulation. Others have followed.
Sleeping bag shapesMummy bags: Sarcophagus-looking bags associated with extreme alpine pursuits. They are as thermally efficient as they are confining. Active sleepers sometimes wake up feeling like they are tied in a knot. Few people find mummy bags comfortable, but the design endures because mummy bags are very warm and usually pack up quite small.
Rectangles: Old school, versatile. For instance, they can be left partially open for venting or opened up completely and used as a blanket. Sleepers don’t get wrapped up in rectangular bags, which allow you to spread out arms and legs for a more natural body position.
Hybrid bags: Many variations of semirectangular bags are on the market. Companies such as Mont Bell sew elastic sections into mummy bags to make them more forgiving, while others have experimented with different shapes. Nemo Equipment’s “spoon shape” combines a wider, more comfortable knee and hip area with tapered top and bottom, retaining some of the thermal efficiency of a mummy-shaped bag.

Sleeping outside sucks far less than it did in the '90s.

Sleeping outside sucks far less than it did in the '90s.

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Sleeping outside sucks far less than it did in the ’90s. Bedrolls and 20-pound rubber air mattresses are a relic of the days of big hair, knee socks and Jefferson Starship, yet their memory still haunts us. Scarred by 1980s and 1990s Cub Scout campouts, semi-active outdoorsy types are in no hurry to subject themselves to the agony of a restless night spent on the cold ground.

Thankfully, fresh ideas and new technology have given us a way to sleep outside without sore hips, aching backs and cold toes.

Cam Brensinger started his camping gear company, Nemo Equipment, 11 years ago. He’s seen a lot of changes in sleeping gear since then — and even effected a few. Get him talking about it, and one of the first things he mentions is a shift away from the self-inflating air pad.

“I would never sleep more than a couple hours and would always wake up with a shoulder hurting or my neck stiff,” he says. “I remember talking to my friends before going out on a trip and saying things like, ‘Well, we’re not going to sleep, but that’s no big deal. We’ll catch up on sleep when we get back.’ Now that we have baffled, insulated air pads, I can actually camp and sleep through the night.”

He knew there was a better experience to be had when sleeping out, and to prove it, he designed a line of tents, ground pads and sleeping bags that addressed the market’s shortcomings by taking advantage of lighter but more resilient fabrics to create more comfortably shaped sleeping bags and ground pads.

Other companies have taken traditional outdoor sleeping gear in new directions as well. Here’s an overview of how the latest sleeping gear may make your outdoor adventures a bit more comfortable.

In the field

The hard way: Trying to find the balance point where your Kevlar cradles your head perfectly in the space between the vehicle seat and the door frame.

Better: Whether you’re out on an extended patrol or enjoying a few nights out on a field problem, there’s no reason you can’t get decent shuteye. Need to set up and move out fast? The Therm-a-Rest Z Lite ($40) is a grunt favorite because it folds up fast and is nearly indestructible. Unlike inflatable pads, the Z Lite is always ready to go; just grab an end and fold it up like an accordion and you’re on your way — no rolling needed. The closed-cell foam can’t pop, and if you tear off a chunk, no biggie. It won’t provide nearly as much warmth or padding as an inflatable pad, but something is better than nothing. And nothing sucks more than being the last guy to stow gear while the rest of the unit waits (or doesn’t) on you.

Stick with a synthetic insulation and layer up for versatility. You’re likely familiar with the standard-issue green and black sleep system, which works but is huge. For a smaller, lighter option, check the gossamerish poncho liner alternative, the Kifaru Woobie ($137) — or the Doobie ($175/not shown), same idea, twice the insulation, twice as warm) — and a 30-degree bag with a strong foot box and center zip for quick egress such as the Wiggy’s Military Sleeping Bag ($225). This combo will set you up for a night under an air conditioning vent as well as a night outside the wire in freezing temps.

Fast and light

The hard way: Hardcore ounce counter? Rather sleep on the hard ground after cutting the tags off your gear and plucking every other bristle out of your toothbrush to save some weight?

Better way: If you can live with the guilt of just a few extra ounces, look at the Klymit Inertia X-Lite ($90). It’s a 34-length air-filled ground pad that features cutouts in the areas where your body doesn’t need support. It blows up with just a few breaths and stows in less space than a beer can. Just be advised, this is no bed of roses — ¾-length pads are fine when it’s warm, but you may want that last ¼ when you start feeling the cold ground sucking the warm out of your legs.

For a bag, you can go with the latest zipperless, one-trick-pony offerings in the uberlight category such as the one pound Vireo ($289) from Feathered Friends, or you can get something much more versatile in the form of a Big Agnes Bellyache Mountain SL ($300) that gives you the mummy shape and light weight of down but uses Downtek, treated down insulation that mitigates the problems normally associated with down insulation in the field.

Den leader Dan

hard way: Dig through the back of the garage and pull out the 5-pound air mattress you ordered in 1988 after reading about it in the back of Boys’ Life magazine. Keep looking ... your mildew-scented 10-pound sleeping bag is right around there, too.

Better way: Relegate your old bag to use as a dog bed and make sure you wake up well rested and in high spirits after your charges try to keep you up with an all-night farting contest. Unless you’re pushing the boys up into the Mount Everest death zone sans supplemental oxygen, pack for comfort on your next hike with Therm-a-Rest’s 2-pound, 12-ounce NeoAir All Season ($150). You’ll be a couple of inches off the ground with a little insulation to keep the ground from sapping your warmth overnight. Pair the NeoAir with a bag such as the spoon-shaped Nemo Equipment Rhythm 25 ($260), which has performance chops but roomy dimensions, and you’ll have one up on the sandman.

Car camping king

The hard way: The reclining seats in your El Camino do not make a mattress, no matter how hypnotic those fuzzy dice may be.

Better way: Car camping means you’ve got room and weight isn’t an issue. Use what you’ve got to stretch out and camp in style. Get off the ground with a cot. No, not some huge military cot, but one such as the new Therm-a-Rest Luxury Lite Cot ($230) that takes up as much space as a half-gallon of milk, leaving room in the trunk for the rest of the groceries, games and gear. Even off the ground, you can improve your sleep cycle with the most ridiculously comfortable ground pad ever, Nemo’s Cosmo Air with Pillowtop 1P ($220). The Bentley of ground pads has a memory foam-ish top, 4 inches of loft and a built-in foot pump.

And don’t struggle with a straight jacket of a sleeping bag. Get something roomy, such as Nemo Equipment’s rectangular Strato Loft 25 ($370). It’s roomy enough to keep the bag burrito at bay and filled with Downtek-treated water-esistant down that’ll keep you warm as part of a well-balanced diet of dreams. If you haven’t cubed out, go all in with Nemo’s Fillo ($45). It’s an air pillow with a layer of foam on top and a set of bungees on the bottom that you stuff with clothes for more height. It’s great for side sleepers.

Treat your houseguests right

The hard way: Ever wonder why your visiting in-laws are awake before you? It’s tough for a grown couple to share a couch.

Better way: If you like your houseguests, have a look at the latest in pull-out technology: aerobeds. A queen-sized Sleep Basics Dual Zone ($120) air mattress won’t break the bank, and it might save your marriage from attacks by cranky in-laws. It comes with an electric pump and stores in its own sack, about the size of a kid’s book bag.

Throw down some sheets and a pillow along with a Mountain Hardwear MegaLamina ($230) sleeping bag that has room for a couple. Heck, this setup will even work in the back of a pickup truck for an overnight at the beach. Just make sure you’ve got power.

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