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Improving your backcountry sleeping game - Part 2

Improving your sleeping system in the backcountry

Photo credit: Dave Barnett

Don’t rush to buy a warmer sleeping bag—you probably don’t need it. Instead, rush to buy a full set of high-end puffy/down layers.

There’s an important reason for this experienced advice and it can be summarized in a single word: Integration. My mantra is that integration is what differentiates gear from being a heavy pile of lightweight stuff into being an ultralight mountain hunting system. As the hunting season extends into late season hunts and you dedicated hunters stay in the field, you will require an integrative (and cost-effective) system to keep you warm and keep you in the game.

First of all, when you make the decision to purchase excellent puffy layers, you’ll find that you rarely leave them behind. You’ll love how much of your money’s worth you’ll get from these. They’ll accompany you on every step of every hunt and also join your skiing, ice fishing, at Holiday Parades, playing outside with your kids and, really, anytime, “it might get cold.” Your sleeping bag cannot provide the same service. Puffy layers—that you can quickly zip-on/off—will allow you to glass longer, stay later, and also sleep better. Instead of adding another sleeping bag to your fleet, consider this strategy to stretch your current sleeping bag into colder temperatures and stretch your dollar into better value.

Dying out some clothes in the backcountry

Photo credit: Steve Opat

Here is my formula for getting a full night’s sleep from a 15 to 20-degree mummy bag that you already own.

Notice how I wrote “full night’s sleep.” I’m setting myself up for a warm, cozy, restorative sleep. I do not like to shiver my way through the night and/or wake up exhausted. If I’m going to recover from the effort I put into pursuing game, I need optimal sleep as much as - or more that—I need optimal nutrition.

I carried around thermometers for a couple seasons to collect this data, but my findings are far from scientific Also, the temperature ranges listed below are approximate and individual results will vary. Lastly, keep in mind that sleeping bag temperature ratings are a loosely regulated system. Not all bags are created equal and not all companies advertise with integrity or the consideration of your total comfort.

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Temperature ranges from 60 to 70 degrees F

  • Lay in your sleeping bag liner out beneath the stars. These are the nights we dream about; the Lone Ranger nights by the fire.

Temperatures between 50 to 60 degrees

  • Still consider sleeping under the stars, but maybe slide your liner inside your bag and leave it unzipped.

Temperature ranges from 45 to 50 degrees

  • Crawl in and zip up your tent and your sleeping bag as comfort demands.

Temperature ranges from 34 to 45 degrees

Hunting in low temps

  • Dress in your merino wool base layers, add a stocking cap, zip up your bag and tent. These crisp nights are cold when you step out to pee, but that also makes for cozy sleeping.

Temperature ranges 28 to 33 degrees F: batten down the hatches

  • Seal your tent up tight.
  • Add your puffy layers as needed for a full night’s sleep. This is why you bought these before you bought a warmer sleeping bag!
    • I like to sleep in cozy loose clothing (i.e pajamas) and I don’t find wearing these to be too heavy, restrictive or cumbersome.
    • The puffy layers are much more functional to your system than additional sleeping bag insulation will be.
    • You will remain warm in the middle of the night when you have to answer nature’s call.
    • You can use the superdown jacket and pants throughout the day rather than just leaving it behind in the tent like you do your sleeping bag.
    • It’s equivocal to splitting your sleeping bag into three different pieces. This makes it easier to stuff into the open spaces inside your pack.
    • You’ll use the puffy jacket and pants more throughout the year than you will your fleet of sleeping bags.

Temperature ranges below 25 degrees

KUIU super down sleeping bag

This is my go-to sleeping bag, the KUIU Super Down sleeping bag

This is downright cold. If you are not accustomed to these temps, they will bite you.

  • Drape your rain gear over the head and feet of your sleeping bag.
    • This will both trap heat and prevent your bag from losing heat secondary to conductive heat loss with the frost condensation on the tent wall.
  • Apply extra items you already bring with you on every hunt.
    • Put on those thick wool socks you reserve for sleeping, your stocking cap, your neck gaiter and your gloves.
    • Wear any extra dry clothing you’ve been carrying around.
    • Drape any wet items over the top of your bag. Don’t let moisture inside your bag. It will get into your insulation and impair its ability to trap heat.
    • If anything, all your gear will be pre-warmed and dry in the morning—just like you.
  • Make hot chow right before bed so you go to bed warm and are fueled for a cold night.
    • As you’re waiting for the dehydrated food to warm and rehydrate, hold the food pouch up against your abdomen to warm your kidneys/liver.
  • The heat will warm your food and your blood.
  • Fill a canteen with hot water and then cuddle with it all night.
  • Scheme about everything you can do to maximize your tent’s ability to protect you.
    • Seal the cracks where the wind is drafting in.
    • Make sure you have insulation beneath you and the ground.
    • Maybe, in the morning, it’s time to relocate to a place more advantageous to your sustained comfort.
  • You’re really dealing with real estate here…Location, location, location.
  • Find a microclimate that is drier, less windy and, optimally, sunny.

In closing 

Improving your backcountry sleeping system

Restorative sleep is imperative to the success and enjoyment of any trip. Your ability to tackle the mountain every day is directly proportional to your ability to recover at the end of each day. This recovery requires us to be vigilant in providing our bodies with nourishment and rest. Just as your nutritional recovery system requires a system of water, fats, proteins and carbs; your rest recovery also depends on a systematic and holistic method. Approach your rest with the same scrutiny you do in planning your attack on those bucks and bulls and you’ll be in a great state of mind to go after them in the morning. 

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