Skip’s Guide to Buying
Disclaimer: The following are not intended to be recommendations, but rather as informative guides to help you reach your own decision when purchasing kit. While I shall at all times endeavour to provide unbiased guides, they are based on my own experience and opinions. I must also stress that the guides represent my own opinions which do not necessarily represent the view of other leaders, our group or the scouting movement. Most of all, I hope you find them useful. If you have questions or would like to know more about an item discussed, please do not hesitate to ask.
A guide on what to buy:
The difference between a good or a bad night’s sleep can often be attributed to your sleeping bags ability to keep you at a comfortable temperature while you sleep. Sleeping bag composition and features can vary enormously and this is often reflected in the price. Sleeping bags, like clothing, work by allowing your body to heat the air trapped inside.
However before you drill down too much into these features, first as yourself where is it most likely to be used, when and how often. These questions can be very helpful in determining how much you wish to spend.
The two main types you will come across are envelope and mummy. Envelope bags are flat and rectangular in nature and are perfect for younger children’s indoor sleepovers and the like (think indoor Beaver camps). They do not need to have all the bells and whistles of more sophisticated bags and are therefore very affordable. Cubs and Scouts however would be advised to look towards mummy style sleeping bags which are designed for colder conditions and are often more hardwearing.
Most sleeping bags (usually just mummy style bags) have a “Season Rating” on them which corresponds to thickness of sleeping bag required for the time of year. Roughly these translate as:
1 Season: Lightweight, can be very compact, suitable for very hot summer months (July-August)
2 Season: A slightly thicker bag suitable for Spring or Autumn, or perhaps a mild Summer
3 Season: Generally an all rounder bag. Suitable from Early Spring to Late Autumn. Can be uncomfortable in very warm weather, but if this is the case the bag can be unzipped and used as a duvet instead.
4 Season: A very thick bag, suitable for cold Winter months. Can be synthetic or down filled.
5 Season: Extreme Temperatures, often in mountainous regions where you are expecting to be stranded for significant periods of time. These bags are usually filled with duck down, as opposed to synthetic insulation (more on this later).
The Season Ratings often have a corresponding Comfort/Extreme Temperature rating, which is intended as a guide to how well each sleeping bag would keep you at a comfortable core body temperature should the external temperature drop or rise. It will usually also display an extreme temperature rating which is a measure of how low the external temperature could drop to, before the occupant of the bag would start to suffer. These ratings are however largely arbitrary, as temperature comfort varies from one person to the next. As such I would suggest you pay more attention to the season rating rather than the comfort rating when deciding which is the right bag for you.
One of the main features missing from sleeping bags in my opinion is waterproofing. Those that are waterproof are almost all marketed at specialist outdoor pursuit enthusiasts and therefore waterproof sleeping bags are often very expensive. There is a cost effective way round this however (please see the survival bag section below).
The interior of the sleeping bag can also be a factor when deciding on a bag. The vast majority of sleeping bags whether they are 1 season or 5 season, contain synthetic insulation, the other type being duck down insulation. Unlike down, synthetic insulation is not necessarily adversely affected by damp, and often retains its insulative qualities in these conditions. Down bags on the other hand are more suited to providing a higher degree of warmth and are therefore almost exclusively found in season 5 (or sometime season 4 bags). The addition of down can increase the price of a bag dramatically, however they are very effective in extreme temperatures. This being said, in Scouting you will probably never need a bag capable of keeping you warm in extreme temperatures, unless you are particularly susceptible to cold, and so a synthetic filled bag should be more than sufficient; provided you choose the right season rating for the activity.
Weight and packed size can be an issue if you intend on carrying your bag on an expedition for example. While a cub or a scout may not envisage participating in an expedition while in their particular section; if the bag is intended to last a few years, it may be worth bearing in mind that as an Explorer, this may come into play as you train for your Duke of Edinburgh Awards for example.
In conclusion, of all your scouting equipment, a sleeping bag will probably be one of your most treasured and also most expensive pieces of kit. While my main piece of advice would be to go for the best you can reasonable afford, there is no need to go overboard with the fanciest bag with a list of features as long as your arm. Personally, I use a 3 season sleeping bag which I open up in warm weather and use as a duvet. In cold weather, or when bivouacking, I used the same bag but add a sleeping bag liner, which for all intents and purposes converts the bag into a 4 season, without the expense of buying a new bag. At the end of the day though, the decision is yours. Go for what you will feel comfortable in and your wallet/purse will be comfortable purchasing.
Sleeping Bag Liners – As mentioned above, liners are great at making your existing bag more versatile in different weather conditions. They also protect the bag as they can be removed for washing, and take the stress out of washing and drying the entire sleeping bag, which can be an absolute nightmare. Many high street shops and online retailers stock these and good liners can be acquired for very reasonable costs.
Survival Bags – These look like very large bright orange bin bags. Most are very robust to the touch and have the consistency of a very large, thick high street carrier bag; whereas the next generation are based on the space programme and are more like foil in looks and touch. While primarily designed for use in emergencies, they can be very useful for camping as they turn your existing sleeping bag into a waterproof sleeping bag. Both types are equally as good for this purpose, and can be found at low cost from most outdoor retails.
Finding a suitable sleeping bag is only half the story to having a good nights kip. The other half is choosing what to lie on, whether that be a roll mat, a self inflating mat, an air bed, or a camp bed. Without one of these you end up squashing the sleeping bag insulation between you and the floor which allows the cold to bypass the insulating qualities of the bag, rendering it a waste of time.
Camp beds are usually akin to flat fishing chairs and lift you off the group by means of a metal frame. For this reason they are impractical for youth usage. Likewise the added difficulties of carrying a pump, repair kits and the heavy bed itself makes air beds impractical for youth use also (not to mention the high likely-hood of punctures. You will however be hard pushed to find a camp where at least one leader/parent has got round the difficulties to enjoy the luxury of having one).
Self inflating mats vary massively price wise, and for use on a camp, a cheap self inflating mat will be just as useable as the more expensive versions. These often pack to quite a small size for carrying in a rucksack which makes them feasible for camp.
Roll mats, as the name suggests are mats which can be rolled for carrying. When laid flat they provide enough insulation between the ground and the sleeping bag for a comfortable night. While good roll mats are very cheap to get hold of, beware of the very cheap versions which are very thin and are more like yoga mats than camping mats. Thin mats will not provide much insulation and have the habit of allowing sharp rocks to poke through. Most good roll mats come with one side “laminated” to provide some protection from a damp ground. While the majority of people will be happy with a roll mat, ie. a mat that rolls (which can be stored on the outside or underneath of a rucksack for transport), they are also flat “roll” mats that fold rather than roll, allowing them to be placed inside the rucksack. Whatever your personal preference, there are many alternatives out there and you can’t really go wrong with a decent roll mat for most scouting overnight events.