What I thought was a sea lion, escaped from the Minnesota zoo, was actually a close relative, a river otter, cruising down the Mississippi River in Red Wing, MN. Apparently, river otter are common in northern MN, but have only recently ventured south beyond the frothy Minneapolis waters of the Mississippi.
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.
H. leucocephalus fun facts: biggest bird, next to the condor, and that monstrous eagle on Rescuers Down Under; nearly extirpated by DDT, which was ingested by fish, which were ingested by the eagle; mates for life, monogamously, so they say; not really bald.