Sleeping bags and bushcraft camps obviously to go together, since essentially bushcraft is a master class in the art of camping without a modern shelter, where there is less room for error and getting it wrong could lead to a very uncomfortable night in your handmade bushcraft shelter.
To tell the truth there is no real right or wrong answer to this question, since both answers are a question of personal taste. Most sleeping bags sold today are based around the ‘mummy style’ of sleeping bag, which tapers down towards the feet. This has two benefits; firstly it molds to you body and therefore is more efficient in retaining body heat as you lie in you bushcraft shelter on your bed made from brush; secondly, it means the bag can pack down smaller and weighs less, which in our weight obsessed society means better.
However, there are downsides to mummy shaped bags; firstly, most sleeping bags are usually designed on a standard male human form that is somewhere around 5ft 10 to 6ft for men, (5ft 6 for women). However it would seem some manufacturers can’t use a tape measure, since there can be a significant difference in the length of regular sleeping bag between manufacturers. (The cynic in me might point out that a shorter bag makes for a smaller and lighter bag, which is a big selling point in the outdoor equipment world).
‘Long’ sleeping bags are also sold by most manufacturers and are usually designed for men of 6 foot one or more, but I have found them difficult to get hold of since usually manufacturers make limited numbers of them and again, even though they are marketed as ‘long’ bags, the actual length of the bag again differs between manufacturers. I once spent a couple of days with a rather obsessed customer as we trawled through the various sleeping bag options only to find him disappointed that the size of the bag did not quite match the specifications.
The size issue leads to a second point, which is that not everyone enjoys being cocooned in a tight fitting sleeping bag that moves with you as you move in your sleep. I am a fairly active sleeper and have found myself, many times corkscrewed into my sleeping bag and struggling to find the zip in the mornings, which has morphed into some form of physical restraint device. Similarly, Nick, who is also a bushcraft guide for Farafoot bushcraft, is over 6 ft 2 and struggles to find any bag that will fit him that does not require a shoehorn to get him in and out of.
So, what are the alternatives? Good question and not straight forward to answer. Obviously you can invest in a central zip sleeping bag such as the Snugpak Special Forces Complete System, the Ray Mears Osprey Sleeping Bag or a favourite of mine, the Corinthia range of military sleeping bags. However perhaps the most famous central zip sleeping system, is the Buffalo range of sleeping systems such as the Buffalo SuperBag.
Why central zips? Well central zip sleeping bags tend to be easier to get in and out of and have become a firm favourite of British bushcraft camps because of one additional benefit which is that some of them come with ‘arms’, which means that you can keep your arms outside of the bag which feels less constrictive which for bushcraft camps, means that you can carry on working whilst nice and snug. A great example of this is the Corintha Survival Down 1000 that is rated for an extreme comfort range of -45 degrees. That should be about right for a British bushcraft camp on a summer’s night in
Since we are on the topic of how warm should my bag be? I’ve always been of the opinion that you buy the warmest bag that your pocket can afford and that is practical for you. If I had the means, I would buy a Teton Sports Elk Hunter, since it’s rated to -35 degrees, its rectangular rather than mummy shaped, and here is the best bit for bushcraft camps, its longer than a twin mattress and only one inch shorter! Now there’s luxury that could only come for the States. The down side about this sleeping bag however is that it’s almost three feet across when packed down and weighs a massive 9 kilograms. I can’t imagine carrying that on my back to a bushcraft camp, but then it is designed for USA style camping that usually comes with four-wheel drive carrying systems.
Since we are now straying to the weirder world of sleeping bag design, then I should mention the MusucBag, which any high altitude mountaineer would recognise as a pared down version of a high Altitude full down suit. It is basically a sleeping bag with arms and legs and also resembles a toddler’s grow-bag. This type of bushcraft ‘sleeping bag’ should be looked at alongside some of those sleeping bags that have been designed to be multifunctional or what is called in the outdoor industry, “Sleeping Systems”. What this usual refers to is a sleeping bag that comes in bits, or has more than it fair share of zips and its quite likely that you will be able to pop your feet out of the bottom of the sleeping bag and walk around in it like some kind of badly designed and ill-fitting down jacket. However, before I get complaints, these types of sleeping bags have their place and for instance, are marketed to mountain marathon runners who were perhaps the most weight obsessed gear freaks around, until they were replaced by the recent emergence of the ultra-light and ultra-obsessed ultra-runner.
Talking about ‘Ultra-Light’ now meet the Sleeping Quilt, which is basically a sleeping bag without zips….and a ‘beneath’. That’s probably not fair, since when I sleep out most of the year in our Farafoot bushcraft camps, I mostly sleep with the sleeping bag opened out above me like a duvet. This is exactly the same idea as the sleeping quilt but with a ‘technical’ design that pairs it up with a decent sleeping mat that acts as a replacement for the missing ‘beneath’ of your sleeping bag. The idea of the Sleeping Quilt is that as soon as you lie in your sleeping bag, you compress the down or synthetic fill beneath you and therefore you loose the benefit of the insulation and therefore it becomes superfluous and can be discarded. This makes for a very light sleeping bag (is it still a bag now? Oh well, I’ll carry on) and in a bushcraft camp, where there is huge concentration on building a decent bed this kind of system might come into it’s own, along with a sleeping mat.
Lastly, let’s go Australian and visit the ‘Swag Bag’. Recently this type of sleeping system has come to our shores in the UK although it is a re-invention of a sleeping bag that was used throughout Australian and also the United States, where is tends to be called the “bed roll”. Simply put, it is a heavy-duty 12oz canvass bag into which you can place whatever sleeping bag or sleep system you like and it is carried as a single unit and rolled and un-rolled as needed. Again it is not for your normal bipedal “carry it all on my back” British Bushcraft camp since Swag Bags or Bed Rolls tend to be bulky and fairly heavy. However, if you are moving from site-to-site by vehicle or pack animal, then they are a useful way of keeping you sleeping kit safe and dry and quick means of setting camp.
Very lastly and this is not one for the bushcraft novice, you could try the old-fashioned favourite of the woolen blanket – 36 million UK sheep can’t be wrong – which was used extensively up until the 1960’s and before the great revolution in sleeping bag design and general outdoor kit availability. The woolen blanket emphasizes the major difficulty with the British climate, which is that its fairly damp, windy and pretty cool at night. Everything struggles with the dampness, emphasized by the wind and low air temperature, a fact that makes the British Army treat cold and damp with the same seriousness as real Arctic cold and shoe-melting desert heat and probably explains why, when the first sleeping bags were introduced in the late 19th century, they were pounced upon with great gusto, by the British Army. However, if you do a bit or research, you will find a few bushcraft-minded folk who have gone back to woolen blankets, sometimes in conjunction with the bed roll idea mentioned above. Weight-for-weight, they cannot match the lightness and insulation properties of the modern sleeping bag, however in a bushcraft camp where a campfire is usually close at hand, modern flammable materials can be a hindrance and therefore a woolen and canvass alternative makes sense
Finally, what do I use? Well in 1994 I drove passed a small outdoor equipment show in a field just outside Horsham in West Sussex. Being a curious type I went in a purchased two Campus Polar sleeping bags for £30 and today they are still just perfect for bushcraft, even if they are showing signs of old-age and things sagging in places that they shouldn’t. When I die, you can just wrap me up in them and bung me on the pyre, it would solve two problems in one.