Letter Re: Advice on Sleeping Bags

CPT Rawles:
I have read with interest all the good advice on sleeping bags and how to stay warm in very cold weather.  Most of the writers speak about a specific area they lived in, or traveled in, as a basis for the post.  There is a lot of good, sound advice out there by these writers.  I thought I might contribute my own personal opinion as well, since my own experience ranges pretty much across all weather extremes, and was under conditions far harsher than hiking, camping or hunting – at least for the most part.  I spent 29+ years in the US Army (mainly airborne and air assault infantry and a short time in the ALARNG SF).  My duties took me to many countries and I have slept out in the weather of countries like Honduras, southern USA, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Italy and Norway to name just a few.  I have experienced quite a range of temperatures and environmental conditions over the years.  In all these areas, I had to sleep with what I could carry on my back using a large Army issue ALICE pack and my time out in these conditions varied from a couple of days to over a month at a time.  I also didn’t have the option of going in if the weather was bad, the Army tends to frown on that for the most part.  My sleeping varied from leaning up against my ALICE pack with a poncho thrown over me to setting up for good sleep around an airfield waiting for a ride home (which, if you know about redeployment then you know that the Army gets you there in a hurry, but can be slow to get you an aircraft to get home). In some of these places I had the use of a HMMWV, but that was the rare exception, rather than the rule.  I want to focus on sleeping out in harsh conditions with only what you carry on your back – that is a far different proposition for most folks.  Even if you have a vehicle, if it breaks down or you have to dismount and leave the vehicle, you then only have what you can carry on your back.
My personal ideal sleeping setup consists of a hot weather and cold weather system, with both using a common sleeping bag as the base system.  While I know some people don’t care for them, I have never found a better base sleeping bag system than the current military issue system (you can buy these used from Coleman’ surplus).  It consists of a Gore-Tex bivy sack, heavy sleeping bag, light sleeping bag, and a compression sack.  I have three of these I bought as I PCS’d from various units.  The old down military sleeping bag was just too heavy and was not suited for wide ranging weather conditions, and I for one applaud the Army for replacing it with the current issue system.  Also for my base system I add an old heavy duty Army poncho (pre-dates the current rip stop nylon type of poncho),  a dozen bungee cords and tent stakes, and a cut up foam pad for insulation from the ground.  The bungee cords wrap around the frame of my ALICE pack against my back and the foam pad fits under it, so no space is wasted on these extras and the weight is negligible.  Yes, my old ALICE pack is still my go to pack for my use.  Old habits die hard.  The bungee cords, tent stakes and poncho make a great lightweight shelter and windbreak for one person and you can put you head on the kidney pad of the ALICE for a pillow so that your pack stays dry under the poncho as well.  Many configurations are possible with this setup and you need to experiment on what works best for you.  My favorite go-to setup is my poncho strung between two trees in an A configuration.  Don’t forget to tie off the poncho hood so that water doesn’t drip in from that opening.  The bungee cord allows for quick set up and tear down, even in the dark with no lights and under noise discipline conditions.  Yes, the Gore-Tex bivy sack is waterproof and I have just rolled it out and slept in it in the rain, but if you have the time, putting a poncho over your bag keeps it dry so when you stow it the rest of your gear doesn’t get wet (the poncho can go under the straps on the outside even if wet), and it gives you a dry spot to get your boots on and eat chow, etc.

For warm/hot weather (I consider this to be 35 degrees and up) you have to consider humidity in most places, and rain is almost a certainty, as are bugs, no-seeums, snakes, scorpions, etc.  When most folks think of sleeping out in hot weather, they think of warm weather, sleeping on the ground, and stars in the sky – life is good.  Well, those nights do exist, but are far more rare than you think.  What will make you miserable in hot weather is not the same as what will make you miserable in cold weather, and you have to plan for it.  Wind is not that bad in warm weather, but it can be, especially if temperatures are below 50 yet still above 35 degrees.  Then hypothermia is a consideration as well.  For warm/hot weather, in addition to my base system, I like to add a hammock or what the Army calls “Netting, General Purpose” tied off on the ends with rope and a mosquito net.  Both are light weight and very collapsible in your pack, so they pack well.  If you have the money, you might want to explore purchasing a Clark’s Jungle Hammock.  I have never owned one, but I personally know several old timers that do and they swear by them, rather than at them, which speaks volumes when discussing a hammock.  The hammock and Mosquito net are invaluable for keeping bugs and critters from getting at the buffet line that awaits them once you go to sleep and you can still use the poncho to keep rain off or as a wind break if necessary.  In a hammock, when the weather drops below about 65 degrees, remember you lost heat from the bottom, so you still need that foam pad under you.  Until I learned this lesson, I slept badly in a hammock in 70 degree weather.  You may think you are warm when you go to bed, but you will wake up soon from the cold.  As I understand it, the Clarks hammock has pockets under it you can stuff with stuff for insulation against this.  Also, if you have never slept in a hammock, you should sleep out in your backyard in one a few times before you try it under less desirable conditions.  Some folks cannot sleep in a hammock without falling out and others have to learn to sleep differently than they normally do.  Another method of a quick sleeping set-up in hot weather is to just put a poncho liner in the Gore-Tex bivy sack and sleep in that, however, I find as I have gotten older a little padding under it doesn’t hurt either.

For cold weather (I consider this to be below 35 degrees), wind is your primary enemy, as is moisture of any kind whether it is rain, sleet, snow, hail, etc.  Humidity, bugs and reptiles are not generally a problem at this temperature, however in some places in the world, things that crawl and slither have been known to seek out your personal warmth.  I well remember a cold night in Ranger school in Florida phase when my Ranger buddy woke up, stood up and started gathering his gear only to find out that a little old Pygmy Rattlesnake had burrowed under his poncho liner and was curled up asleep in a small hollow in the ground.  They had slept together all night with neither one the worse for wear, but to say my friend was a bit startled is to put it mildly – however, I digress.  Cold weather injuries like frost nip, frost bite, hypothermia, etc. are very real possibilities and you must plan for how to mitigate these.  In cold weather, I have to agree with the other authors that said sleeping in polypro with socks and a knit cap is the best way to go.  Now, I admit I wasn’t able to try the buck naked approach, since jumping out of my fart sack in the middle of the night buck naked just wasn’t done in most of the areas I was in – generally, hot or cold weather I stayed in my uniform taking off only my boots and my shirt.  Sometimes, depending on where I was and the conditions under which I was there, I slept in my boots and shirt as well along with my rifle.  Like I said, my experiences were a bit different from normal camping.   So for cold weather, I would always recommend 2-3 knit caps and a balaclava made of stretch material, polypro or silk underwear, heavy socks, etc.  I also carried an old hot water bladder that I could fill with water I heated over a heat tab and put in my bag with me if it was extremely bad/cold conditions.  I think the worst conditions I ever slept out in was during a NATO exercise in Norway, when after jumping in (ever been a living, breathing yard dart?) we had to live in snow caves for a week.  The snow caves made sleeping great since it was out of the wind, but if you were above ground the wind dropped the temperature down to almost inhabitable levels.

I never used a pillow other than my ALICE kidney pad or my rolled up shirt, so you can decide if you want that extra bit of kit or not.  I always put my clothes in my sleeping bag with me, in cold weather so they would be warm and for extra insulation, and in hot weather to keep scorpions and other critters out of them.  Always shake your boots out before putting them on – develop this habit early so you don’t get an unwelcome surprise from a scorpion or snake some morning when you haven’t even had your coffee yet.  If you decide to sleep with your boots on in cold weather or hot, unlace the boots so your feet don’t swell and change your socks in the morning religiously.  Also, when sleeping in cold weather, if you are eating MREs, put your breakfast rations in the fart sack with you so they aren’t frozen in the morning.  Same with your canteens.  I know it sounds like a lot of stuff in the bag with you, but it can be done and still allow comfortable sleeping – just don’t wait until you have to do it, to figure out how to do it – practice under good conditions first.  Also, be very cautious about sleeping in cold weather completely in your sleeping bag – if you breath into your bag you will create condensation that will form moisture on the inside of your sleeping bag and chill you to the bone.  You should arrange yourself so that your breath is going outside rather than inside your bag.

I am sure I have forgotten something, but the bottom line is to practice, practice, practice under decent conditions first, where if you aren’t comfortable it isn’t life threatening – survival gear is pricey, but knowledge is priceless. – J.K.R.