Appalachian Trail Section Hike Gear Test: Sleep System

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This past Thursday I did some camping to test out my sleep system.  Sleeping comfort is extremely subjective and can be affected by the insulating ability of your sleeping pad, the wind, the baffle construction of your bag, your metabolism, how long its been since you ate/what you ate, your body fat content, if you are sleeping on the ground, the insulating value of your tent, the humidity, the altitude, etc.  It is a very personal thing for sure.  My bag’s EN lower limit is 31 degrees F and my pad has an R value of 3.  Together these should be adequate for 3 season use along the Appalachian Train.  My sleep system is built on the idea that if I am expecting cold weather I can add layers to stretch my sleeping bag down to a colder comfort rating than it was designed for.  I plan to wear my long-sleeved quarter zip merino base layer top and Under Armor Base 2.0 leggings along with fleece socks and my lightweight merino beanie to bed most nights.  I will carry a lightweight down jacket, light fleece pants in my pack as camp clothes anyways so they are easy items to throw on if it gets extra cold and I need to stretch my bag’s rating and extra 10-15 degrees.  I also have a merino wool buff which can be turned into a balaclava, extra warm hat, eye mask, or neck gator.  Lastly, I will bring hand warmers and an HDPE Nalgene bottle that I can fill with hot water and throw in my bag to add some extra warmth if needed.

You may have noticed that I referenced my sleeping bag’s “EN lower limit.”  This refers to the EN rating system which is the industry standard for rating sleeping bags.  It is based on what would keep an average man or woman wearing a long sleeve base layer top and bottom comfortable enough to sleep through the night.  Testing is done with a mannequin loaded with sensors to provide a baseline for comparison.  There are four different ratings given ranging from upper to extreme but in my opinion the two middle are the most relevant to 3 season backpacking.  The “EN comfort” rating represents the lowest temperature the average woman can sleep comfortably in a relaxed position for 8 hours.  Next on the scale is the “EN lower limit” which is the lowest temperature the average man can sleep comfortably in a curled position for 8 hours.  This is the rating that I chose to focus on when choosing my bag.  While the EN rating is a significant improvement over relying on the manufacturers internal testing it is not perfect because it cannot take into account personal preferences or limitations and it does not include the effect a sleeping pad can have on heat retention.  A sleeping bag’s insulation works by trapping air but how can it do this effectively underneath you where all the insulation is compressed and the air has all been squeezed out?  If you were to sleep with your bag in contact with the ground you would quickly lose any warmth that your sleeping bag was supposed to help you retain.  This is where an insulated sleeping pad makes all the difference and this is why I said I am testing my sleep system. My pad’s R value of 3.0 is perfect for 3 season use.  The combination of pad, sleeping bag, pillow and clothes makeup my sleeping system and I was very excited to test it!

The weather was ideal with an expected low of 31 degrees F before I had to wake up at 7am and with little to no wind and no precipitation.  I have done some camping to this point but I have not done very much camping around water’s freezing point and I have not done any camping since our last section hike in October.  I have done extensive research since then while adapting my tactics and purchasing new gear to deal with what I could potentially encounter on the trail.  Research is great but it is no substitute for field experience and since I can’t just go disappear down a trail for a week to give my gear a shakedown I got permission from our property manager and prepared to camp behind the pool at our apartment complex.  I also decided that I would go out and setup after dark to get some experience pitching my tent after dark which is yet another thing I have never done.

Pitching the tent took longer than I thought it would but once I had it setup I went inside and inflated my insulated sleeping pad.  It has a built-in pump which I like because it means I don’t have to introduce moisture from my breath into the inside of the pad.  It works well enough but requires a lot of pumps to fully inflate.  This may seem like a hassle but in the cold weather (it was down to 40 at this point) it was good to generate some body heat to warm up the inside of the tent a bit and keep me warm.  I then took out my sleeping bag from its stuff sack and laid it out.  I was in a hurry to get in but the bag hadn’t started to loft so I tried shaking it out a bit to get some air in the down.  This helped a bit so I decided to inflate my pillow.  It’s a clever design with a soft side and a nylon side around the inflatable bladder with a bit of synthetic fill for extra cushion.  The pillow is also curved on one side to fit into a mummy bag’s hood so it won’t slip away.  My bag still wasn’t fully lofted so I broke out my thermos of hot tea and sipped down a cup.  Drinking a hot beverage before bed helps warm your core up before you climb into your bag and can be the difference between a good night’s sleep and a cold miserable one.  I took off my merino beanie and doubled over my merino buff to wear as a warmer beanie.  I also changed into my base layer leggings and a short sleeve merino t-shirt.  My thinking was that it would be better to have a baseline that I thought would produce a cold wake up at some point because I would have an exact cold weather wake up temperature number to go by in the future.

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I had my watch with its thermometer and light up face ready along with a journal and pencil to record the temperature when I woke up.  I read a bit and wrote in my journal before going to sleep.  I woke up at 3am to 36 degree F temperatures and a full bladder so I tossed on my long-sleeved merino base shirt and relieved myself before getting back in my bag and going back to sleep.  My alarm woke me up at 7am to 32 degrees F and frost everywhere.  All the condensation on both sides of the fly had frozen and wiping it off was nearly impossible.  I packed everything up as quickly as I could and walked back over to our apartment.  I dried everything off on our porch and attempted to pack everything away before the boys got their hands on any of it.  Here are a few things I learned from this experience.

  • Pounding back a liter of water before bed is a lot easier to do when you don’t have to piss in the woods in the middle of the woods while you shiver
  • Make sure to use a dedicated stake on the upper side guy line to get more head room inside the tent.
  • Get your sleeping bag laid out asap so it can fully loft before you get inside.
  • Always bring hand warmers to tuck in your sleeping bag’s toebox
  • Have something ready to set your pack down on if the ground is wet.
  • Buy earplugs before hitting the trail because if you thought that garbage truck was annoying just wait until you have to listen to a drunken townie trying to catch the sunrise before he passes out.
  • Bring a regular sized Shamwow instead of a mini for wiping condensation off the rain fly in the morning
  • If you know it’s going to get down to freezing wear your long-sleeved base layer top and bottom
  • Put your fleece socks on before your feet get cold
  • Line your pack every time you put anything with down in it to keep the down dry.
  • A merino buff doubled over can keep your head warm down to at least freezing.
  • Always bring your neoprene gloves.
  • Always have a backup flashlight, preferably one your awesome wife brought back from Chicago
  • Double check the inside of the tent before you collapse it to avoid frantic hat searching later.
  • Walking down the path to the pool at 10pm with a fully loaded pack feels really sketchy and probably looks even more so.

That’s a lot of knowledge gained from one night of camping.  Getting all of this stuff figured out should mean that I can put my focus on hiking the Appalachian Trail with Mike instead of troubleshooting gear issues or trying to cope after a miserable night’s sleep.

 

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