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Motorcycle Camping – Sleep System

By Ryan William Cantrell, Originally Published in the IAMC Newsletter, June 2010

Overlooking your sleeping bag and sleeping mat is a common mistake to new motorcycle campers. However, it’s an essential component to a successful and comfortable weekend. Your sleeping bag should keep you warm, while your sleeping mat keeps you comfortable. They work in conjunction with each another, and each component is equally important.

Let me start off by saying this – sleeping bag manufactures don’t always tell the truth. If you see a synthetic sleeping bag that has a rating of 20degrees, but packs down to the size of a basketball and costs $30… don’t even think about trusting that bag down to 20-degrees. The 20-degree rating means you won’t catch hypothermia and die at 20degrees – it does not mean you’ll sleep warm and sound on a 20-degree night. Know your facts when you’re shopping for a sleeping bag, and DO NOT trust the manufactures rating system when you’re determining what bag to buy – use it only as a reference point.

In general, there are two types of sleeping bags – those filled with synthetic materials (Polarguard 3D, Primaloft Sport, Thermolite Extreme, Quallofil, and Lite Loft, Dacron 88, Holofil II, DuPont Fiberfill II, Permaloft, Microloft, Acryloft and DN500, etc, etc) and those filled with down. We’ll briefly look at each type, but if you want more comprehensive information, simply do a Google search and you’ll find a wealth of information at your finger tips. A quick trip to your local knowledgeable outfitter will also do the trick.

The key to staying warm is loft. Loft is the buffer that your sleeping bag creates from the cold air around you by lofting up off your body. The greater the loft, the greater the zone on insulation surrounding you and the warmer you stay. Down lofts far better than synthetic. However, if your bag were to get wet (don’t let your bag get wet, dummy – use a waterproof bag), a down bag loses most of its lofting ability (only retains 20% of its lofting properties) while a synthetic will retain about 65% of its lofting ability.

Synthetic sleeping bags are generally less expensive for the same temperature rating as a down bag. As noted earlier, they retain some of lofting characteristics when wet, but they also dry faster. Synthetic bags withstand abuse far better than down bags and require less maintenance. Due to their inexpensive nature and the fact that they require less attention, they’re often the bag of choice for amateur campers and those new to the sport.

Down bags pack smaller, weight less, have a higher warmth to weight ratio and are generally more expensive for these reasons. When a down bag is properly cared for however, it can last 3 times longer than a well cared-for synthetic bag. The cost and quality of a down bag is related to its fill – 600 fill means that one ounce of down occupies 600 cubic inches. A good down bag will be around 500 to 600 fill. A fill of 600 to 700 is considered very good. An 800 fill is superior and generally quite expensive. Fill also represents how much downy feather and quill is present in the bag. The higher the fill number, the more downy feather and less quill there is. The key to owning a down sleeping bag is keeping it clean, and knowing how to care for it. A visit to your local knowledgeable outfitter will give you an idea of what products to use to care for your bag, and how to go about it.

When you go to buy your next bag, and while you’re still in the store, get into the bag (yeah, people might think you’re a little nuts). If it feels too tight or short, don’t buy it! If you’re not comfortable in the store, you’re not going to be comfortable in it for 8 hours a night somewhere in the woods.

You’re better off buying a bag that’s too warm than too cold – you can always unzip the bag a bit if you’re hot… but you can’t do much to make it warmer in the middle of the night. Personally, I have multiple sleeping bags because I’m a camping nerd. Amongst others, I’ve got a negative 20-degree synthetic that I use for early season (when I don’t mind packing heavy), and a 20-degree down bag for the summer season when I’m trying to pack light.

Sleeping pads are the second key piece of equipment to a good night’s sleep. There are a lot of mats out there, but we’ll break them down into self-inflating, manual-inflating and foam pads. Your sleeping pad is not to be overlooked! Do your research, and don’t skimp on your sleeping pad – it supports your weight for 8 hours while you sleep. The purpose of your mat is two fold: 1) to keep your body of the ground, and 2) to provide you some insulation from the heat-sucking earth beneath you.

One of the most common self-inflating pads is the ThermaRest. The upside to them is their lifetime warranty (according to their website) and the fact that you don’t have to manually blow them up. They also insulate well (therefore keeping you warmer in your sleeping bag). The downside is their pack size (they’re quite bulky), and they will eventually leak (as all inflatable pads do, at some point) and have to be repaired. They cost approximately $75.

The Z-Lite foam pads are used my some (myself included, on occasion) because they never leak, leaving you on the ground in the middle of the night. They tolerate an exceptional amount of abuse and last a very long time. They’re very light to carry, weighing in at only ½ pound. The downside is that they do not keep your body off the ground nearly as well as an inflatable pad – therefore they’re not as comfortable. Their pack size is comparable to the ThermaRest self-inflating mattress (20 in. x 4 in. x 5.5 in.) and cost is around $30.

My personal choice for 90% of my nights on the ground is a manually-inflatable (you must blow it up) mat, such as the Big Agnus. A 230 lb man can comfortably sleep on his side, and never have his hip touch the group with this mat. The Clearview mat packs down to the size of your two fists stacked on top of each other, and it weighs less than a pound. Cons include the fact that they’re bound to get a hole in them someday (a more durable model may be purchased that packs larger, weighs more, and costs more), you have to blow it up each evening (mine inflates in less than two minutes), and they’re the least insulating of the three choices (though a Big Angus with down insulation built into it may be purchased for this reason). Cost is around $30 for a Clearview, all the way up to $110 for a down insulated Air Core.

This concludes sleeping bags and sleeping mats. Next time we’ll take a look at cooking systems. Remember, that no matter what gear you have, you need to get out and use it. What you’re using isn’t nearly as important as the fact that you’re out there using it! So get out and ride! There are already a dozen rides posted on for this summer – many of them overnighters. Sign up for one, and get out there! See you on the trail…. RWC

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