"Surely, when one is going on a camping trip he does not desire to live just as he would at home, for in my opinion much of the pleasure of camping is derived from taking things just as we find them, of sleeping on a bed of boughs rather than on a cot, sitting on an old log rather than on a folding camp chair, and of eating off of the ground rather than from a table, in fact I think that most of the pleasure is in the novelty of the thing. And to the practical woodsman, this camp furniture is an abomination." Elmer Harry Kreps, 1910
Again, I know not everyone is interested in these trip reports, and I usually try to give you only one per month, but I’ve been writing more of them because I want to keep you updated on what I’m doing as I am trying to figure out this Classic Backpacking thing I’ve undertaken.
My drive behind this most recent trip was to figure out a better sleep system. After my last trip it became clear to me that camping out with just a blanket, even if it’s a very good one, is not doable when the temperature is much below 32F (0C). While you can stay alive with the use of a fire, sleep becomes almost impossible as you spend your nights trying to maintain the fire, as your warmth is directly and immediately connected to it.
After my last trip Steve Watts recommended that I try a down comforter. They were in fact used at the time, and a cotton shell comforter, filled with goose or duck down, with sewn threw baffles would be period correct. “There is no doubt that, for comfort, economy of space, lightness, and simplicity, the down quilt has it.” Thomas Hiram Holding, The Camper’s Handbook, 1908 p.163
References to down quilts, comforters, and even bag designs can be found in the writings of most authors at the time. By the 1920s most well funded expeditions relied on down sleeping bags. Between the 1880s and the 1930, sleep systems evolved very quickly and by the 1940s down sleeping bags like the A. H. Ellis & Co down filled “Nordenskiöld” bag with water-resistant cover was available.
I have been resisting the use of a down comforter for two reasons. One, I wanted to see what could be done just with the traditional one blanket. Two, even though it was available, none of the authors seem to recommend it as their primary form of insulation. They seemed to resort to wool sleeping bags, woven fur blankets, etc, but none of them appear to have abandoned their other systems for a down filled comforter or sleeping bag.
But, furs are not a realistic option for backpacking, and a woven fur blanket that might be light enough is cost prohibitive. Wool blankets clearly weren’t going to do it, and I’m just not excited about doing too many cold weather trips where I have to be up all night feeding a fire. I also figured, if it’s good enough for the guy teaching classes on Kephart, it’s good enough for me.
So, I went to a local department store, and bought a cotton shell down comforter. It’s the thickest, cheapest, and smallest one I could find: twin size. I went home, made a stuff sack for it from a pillow case, strapped it to my pack, and headed out.
Then came my next big problem. As bad as the weather was last week, this week in my area we have been having temperatures as high as 40F (4C) during the days. Not exactly a good test for the comforter. I decided to drive north for a few hours in the hope that the weather would be cooler there. It was slightly better. When I headed into the woods, it was 24F (-4C). What I didn’t anticipate was how little snow there had been further north from me. There were barely any patches on the ground. It was disappointing, and a bit strange considering I was further north. I decided that because of the nice weather I should add some more difficulty to the trip, and camp out in an area of the forest where I only had hard woods.
Shortly after starting out I had to cross a decent size stream. Water level was high because of the warm weather. I stopped there for lunch and then did a pretty stupid crossing. I should have looked for a better spot to cross.
Crossing done, I spent a few hours backpacking. The drive had taken up most of the morning, so I didn’t have much time. When I found a level patch of ground in a hardwood forest, I got to setting up my camp.
Since I was in an exposed location, and winds were going to be a problem, I opted for a more sheltered tarp set up. I kept it open while cooking in the evening by flipping one of the sides over.
I had my wool blanket with me. I folded it over and used it as a ground pad. At first I pulled some dead leafs together, but they were wet, and I decided to rely primarily on the blanket. Folded in two it’s almost as thick as a regular closed cell foam pad.
It quickly became apparent why authors during the Classic Backpacking period were reluctant to rely on down quilts. We all understand that down is problematic around moisture, but we, or at least I, forget how good modern shell materials really are. While not waterproof, modern down sleeping bags have shells that will resist a lot of moisture. The cotton shell on the down comforter does nothing of the sort. The moment it touches any moisture, it gets absorbed immediately. At first I thought of using different configurations with the blanket, but the blanket had to be on the ground to make sure the comforter doesn’t touch the damp ground. It’s a serious limitation that I have to work around.
Before going to sleep I staked down the second part of the shelter, and wrapped myself in the quilt as I would in a blanket.
During the night it got down to about 18F (-8C). Not cold, but cool enough to test the comforter. It performed very well. Obviously it’s much warmer than a wool blanket. I slept through the night without the use of a fire.
There were some issues though. The wool blanket was not perfect as a ground pad. It worked fine, but I still felt some cold from the ground. I suppose I still need to use some bedding even with the folded wool blanket. Also, even though I had pitched the shelter to cut into the wind, as it usually is, the wind was blowing from every direction. The down comforter, while warm, is not particularly resistant to wind, and the wind cuts right through it. As a result I got cold several times and had to adjust. Overall though, not a bad night.
In the morning I made my way out. I went a considerable distance off my previous path in order to cross the stream further up at an easier location.
The down comforter turned out to be a pretty big success. Together with the blanket, using the blanket as ground insulation and protection from the moisture, it once again opened up the possibility of doing actual cold weather backpacking with traditional gear. The comforter is bulky, weighs 4lb 3oz, and the stuff sack and four extra blanket pins weigh an additional 4oz. It is very susceptible to moisture and doesn’t stop the wind too well. That however is a small price to pay for being able to sleep through the night.
So, that’s it. I just wanted to give you an update on the changes I have been making to my sleep system.