This month I attended a conference in New Orleans, or Nawlins, as mispronounced by tourists like me, pretending to be locals. Though I spent most of the week indoors, I did experience the urban wilderness, eating crawfish and frog legs and venturing forth to Bourbon Street after sundown. Also, since three of us cheap grad students shared a double hotel room, I got to try out my new Thermarest sleeping pad.
I’d only experienced two types of sleeping support that can be carried in/on a backpack. My first was an old piece of egg crate foam which eroded slowly with every use. It doubled as a human-sized sponge and was probably infested with ticks and various microbes, making it the worst backpacking pad ever, besides the mattress sitting behind our apartment dumpster.
Ever since the egg crate rotted away I’ve used the classic blue closed-cell foam pad, which can be found for under $7. It’s the cheapest and most durable, while still being reasonably warm and light. The main drawbacks are pack size (the smallest roll-up I’ve achieved is 20.5 × 6 inches) and comfort (they cover all manner of sticks and rocks but they about as soft as styrofoam).
There are two clear disadvantages to inflatable sleeping pads – they’re pricey, starting around $40, and delicate – they can puncture, tear, and lose their paddedness after prolonged smashing. But I decided to upgrade to an inflatable pad because of its packability. I went with the mid-range Thermarest Trail Scout, for the price of 7 orders of fried frog legs (i.e., $50). It fits nicely in my carry-on luggage (an REI Quick UL 45 pack) along with a week’s worth of clothes and Mardi Gras beads. The pad weighs 1 lb 12 oz and rolls down to 11 × 4 inches. More details to come, after some thorough field testing.
Turns out layering works with sleeping gear just as it does with t-shirts and jackets – the perfect warmth factor, maximum outdoor comfort, can be achieved by using different gradations of materials and thicknesses. The problem is, one good sleeping bag is hard enough and expensive enough to come by, let alone a variety of different lofts and temperature ratings. The solution – sleeping bag liners.
Liners quickly extend the season range of a sleeping bag, transforming summer bags into spring/fall bags, California 3-season bags into Minnesota ones. Add 2 liners to a 20° bag for warm cold-winter sleeping.
Sleeping bag liners range in price from about $20 to $80, in weight from 7 oz to 2 lbs, and some claim to add as much as 10° of warmth, depending on the material and thickness. Here are a few popular options:
3.5” × 7”
1 lb 9 oz
7” × 14”
Sea to Summit
3” × 5.5”
1 lb 1 oz
5” × 11”
Without insulation, i.e., with only a single layer of fabric, warmth depends mostly on weight – the heavier the fabric the warmer you’ll be. Higher prices come with the more comfortable or moisture-wicking fabrics.
The final option is to make your own liner, which is as easy as sewing two pieces of fabric together, since that’s all a liner is. The fleece liner above took 15 minutes, cost nothing (I reused an old blanket), fits well, and weighs 12 oz. I tested it out this weekend in the Sand Dunes State Forest.
A homemade liner is ideal for the youngsters, since cold-weather bags for kids are rare and kid-sized liners nonexistent.
With a big year of camping ahead of us we’re trying to gather up some of the essential personal gear for our kids. The mess kit has a simple purpose, to get food from point A (the cookware) to point B (the mouth). We’re keeping it simple and affordable: two pieces, no moving parts, under 2$.
When I say mess kit, I’m referring only to the personal pieces, not the skillet, kettle, or espresso machine. In the minimalist, recyclist motif, ours consists of old plastic-ware and the skeleton of an infant/toddler fork.
A sierra mug is my plate/cup/bowl of choice, followed closely by the iconic blue enameled mug, aka hobo cup. Both cost around 5$ and are nearly indestructible, but the metal will get too hot for kids to handle. Instead, durable plastic is best, e.g., old tupperware or plates with monkey faces on them.
The only downside to the fork is it’s not a spork, otherwise it includes multiple clipping/lashing points, it rivals the ultralight utensils in weight (0.7 oz), and it destroys them in price (plastic utensils cost around 3$, titanium 9$). The steps are simple. If you want a full metal handle, find a fork or spoon with two pieces of plastic on the handle, like in the picture above. Then, hack the plastic off with a sharp knife. For utensils with a single molded piece of plastic, as in the pic below, you can drill a hole in the end for cords and carabiners.
Warm, backpack-worthy sleeping bags for young kids are hard to come by. They’re either designed for youth, much larger and heavier than necessary, or they’re designed for slumber parties, more to showcase the latest superhero or princess than to keep warm. The ideal solution would be to tailor a bag from scratch, but a simpler, cheaper option is to repurpose an adult bag.
Sleeping bag – The shape and type aren’t important, as long as you can hack it open and fit the layers back under the sewing machine needle. Winter bags may be too thick. A mummy bag is fine, but a rectangular one can be rearranged into two cozy kid bags.
Scissors – sharp ones, maybe kitchen shears, as you’ll be chopping through some thick insulation.
Sewing essentials – A sewing machine, regular thread, and familiarity with doing a basic stitch. I’m a novice and the hardest part for me was spooling the thread. From there you’ll only need three long seams to complete the first bag.
Embellishments – Drawstrings, velcro straps, and cinching straps are optional.
Measuring – I started with a double hand-me-down rectangular adult bag, measuring 72 × 32 inches, about 16 longer and 16 wider than necessary. My five-yr-old son is 42 inches tall and 12 wide at the shoulders. His new bag tapers from 23 inches at the head to 15 at the foot, with a length of 58 inches. These cuts left plenty of material for a bag for my three-yr-old daughter, who is 36 inches tall and 10 at the shoulders.
Cutting – The more loft the more difficult it will be to cut. Ours had only an inch and a half of loft per side, so the cutting went quickly. Once the shapes are cut, you may need to remove half an inch from the edges of the insulation all around so there’s enough fabric to sew the layers back together. If you’re only making a single bag it makes sense to reuse the original zipper and opening at the head, making your cut from the foot, zipper side, across and then up to the head.
Sewing – First, I sewed each layer back together, starting at the foot. Next, I sewed the two layers together, inside out.
Zipping – The first recycled bag is much easier than the second, since you get to reuse the original zipper. The only snag is creating a new zipper-stop, which will keep the slider from flying off at the bottom, and keep the zipped portion from unzipping itself. A few options are to get a zipper kit, reattach the original zipper-stop, or sew the zipper together at the bottom.
Making your own bag becomes less practical as kids get older. Synthetic 20° sleeping bags range in price from $70 to $100 (e.g., North Face – Tigger, Mountain Hardwear – Mountain Goat, ALPS – Desert Pine) and they typically fit up to 60 inches while still being as light or lighter than a homemade version. Plus, they have new, lofty fill, as opposed to matted, second-hand insulation. They’ll be warmer, they’ll last longer, and you won’t have to do any sewing.
But, for kids under, say, 45 inches, maybe 2 to 5 years old, a tailored sleeping bag is ideal. My son’s weighs 2.4 lbs, down from 5.5, and packs to 11 × 5 inches. My daughter’s weighs 1.5 lbs and packs to 9 × 5 inches. They’re small and light enough for the kids to carry themselves, and the snug size also means there’s less empty space taking away body heat on cool nights.
All you really need is a bike, preferably a beater, one you wouldn’t mind leaving in a ditch or launching off a bridge just to see if it explodes. For the past two winters I rode Frankencycle – a beast of a bike, scrapped together from numerous bike corpses abandoned around our apartment complex.
Somehow the front wheel escaped before I took the picture… It was actually a sturdy and reliable bike, and yet I never had to lock it up. I guess a bike thief is a poor judge of character.
Here are a few additional components that some people find handy:
Studded tires – helpful on ice, but pricey, slower, and still not crash proof. These come in all sizes, even for road bikes, though the fit might be snug.
Snowboarding helmet – full-face makes it warm and dry, but also bulky and heavy.
Lights – absolutely essential. Here in the north the sun throws in the towel around 4:30, and the bike lane turns into a slosh fest which forces you into the road, so the more candelas the better. Since both my light mountings have busted I’ve strapped the front to my helmet and the rear to my backpack, which is nice because I don’t have to detach them when I park.
Last year, completely cankered with rust, Frankencycle disappeared into the northern countries to live its final days in solitude. I’ve since assembled Bikenstien, a mountain bike that’s just as scrappy, though not as loyal.