What’s the worst that could happen?
On an adventure ride, apparently it’s going to bed.
If a daily sprint between small-town motels isn’t your style – or isn’t your MasterCard’s style – you’re going to be bedding down in a tent.
And, honestly, that keeps a lot of riders at home.
I’ve heard the lament about sore backs and kinked necks since my first memories of family camping trips. Back then, my Dad was lamenting; since then, I’ve done some lamenting myself. And you likely have too.
So how can you get a comfortable sleep in the backcountry? Instead of sleeping like a grumpy, whining baby?
Big bike, big bags, happy baby.
One common strategy for getting a cozy night’s sleep might be behind the proliferation of big bikes with bigger bags: thick, wide inflatable mattresses paired with half-scale pillows and plush, voluminous sleeping bags. It’s a good solution, no doubt, if you don’t mind the beefy and bulky thing. And, if you do, more power to you. Stop reading and go get a great night’s sleep.
Compact little babies can sleep like a champ!
Thing is, a lot of us hanker after a solution that packs up small and light. No fold-up camp cots for us; no cotton-lined sleeping duvets.
But there are excellent solutions for the fast and light crowd. Just know that your MasterCard is still going to take a hit on this – although not as much as it would subsidizing a decked-out R1200GS with 130 litres of hard luggage capacity….
Before we jump in, you should know that I don’t receive any money for endorsing camping or motorcycling products.
Your friend, Paddy o’ Mattress.
First, the foundation. Sleeping pads have come a long way since the days of racking out on a limp scrap of blue foam that did little more than blunt the edges of the sharpest rocks under your spine.
Therm-a-Rest is the original manufacturer of self-inflating foam mattresses, but now shares the market with numerous others. There are endless variations in size, shape, R-value, colour, Zodiac sign….
These camping mattresses have evolved and improved, keeping pace with innovations in technology and materials. I use the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite. It’s thick and cushy enough to keep my shoulders and hips off the ground, a vast improvement over blue foam, and double the thickness of the more recent self-inflating mattress options, like the familiar burnt-orange Therm-a-Rest.
I use the short length, since there’s really no need to carry extra bulk to cushion and insulate my legs in the moderate temperatures experienced by typical three-season campers and adventure motorcyclists.
To add some cush for my legs, I fold my riding pants and place them below the pad, which ends at about mid-thigh. Then there’s stuff sacks, jackets, towels, even backpacks and soft luggage – whatever you’ve got – to supplement the cushioning and insulation of your lower extremities.
With this system, you’re packing only 230 grams into a bag a little bigger than a pop can. About $130.00 USD.
One economy I beg you not to engage: don’t toss the tiny patch kit included when you buy your XLite, as this type of mattress provides exactly as much support and insulation as a wet paper towel when you puncture it. That said, I haven’t punctured mine yet.
Roll your own.
I also use clothing, rolled up or formed into wedges, under the sleeping pad to level uneven surfaces. Even on the flattest desert playa (like Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, up there at the top of this post), I place clothing under both sides of my pad to form the mattress into a bit of a U-shaped cradle. Sleep like a baby, I do.
If I have any damp clothing like gloves, socks or insulating layers, I spread them on the top of the sleeping pad before laying out my sleeping bag. They’ll be warm and dry by morning, and the moisture isn’t noticeable inside my bag, nor does it compromise the down insulation. Of course, I’m not doing this with sodden, dripping gear – but since I use almost exclusively synthetics, I can wring out wet items and hang them outside for the evening if it’s dry, or in the tent if not, before using this technique.
If you dislike the clammy feeling you get swaddled inside your synthetic-lined sleeping bag in damp conditions, try wearing a full-length set of lightweight silk underwear as pyjamas. Or get a silk or cotton sleeping bag liner; they reduce the humid embrace – although they can get a bit twisted up. And, if you carry one, you have less room in your panniers for single-malt Scotch, so there’s that….
Inflating pillows are fairly new on the scene, and I give them my qualified support — just as they give me theirs. I don’t think they’re perfected yet.
Since they’re basically a balloon for your noggin, you could be rightly concerned about settling back on one. I find they work well if they have some internal baffling, rather than simply being a bag of air; in addition, I like an external surface treatment that feels like cotton or fleece against my downy cheeks. I use the Coccoon Air Core Hood/Camp Pillow, 108 grams. $27 USD at REI.
Most important, however, is knowing how to deploy an inflating pillow. If you blow it up tight like a belly stretched after Thanksgiving dinner, it’s admirably stable and unmoving under your head.
And it’s also about as comfortable as a frozen turkey.
On the other hand, if you partially inflate your pillow, it’s nicely squishy but still supportive….
And every time you move the air sloshes around like water in a water balloon, and your face slides off the flattened edge, while a bulging tumescence pushes up behind your head. (Okay: now that I read that, it’s proper disgusting. Sorry.)
Here’s my secret to a satisfying pillow situation. I start by laying my riding jacket down, just above the top of my Therm-a-Rest. Then I moderately inflate the pillow and place it inside the hood of my sleeping bag, in a hollow formed by encircling it in the sleeves of my riding jacket. The elbow pads create a ring that holds things in place even when I turn and thrash in my sleep, dreaming that I’m riding a disintegrating Chinese knockoff motorcycle across a simmering Sahara Desert.
Somebody call the UN: this could get ugly.
Sleeping bags are obviously a topic worthy of protracted states of siege between nations. You probably think I’m kidding. I am not. They’re that contentious.
Here’s my take on the central debate: down. Or, alternatively, down. If you wish, change it up and try, oh, I don’t know…maybe down?
Yes: synthetic bags are far better insulators when wet. That’s why you stuff your down bag into a waterproof stuff sack or compression sack.
Synthetic bags are cheaper. That’s why manufacturers load them up with bells and whistles and doodads to increase their profit margins. And their bags’ weight.
I’m trying to be unbiased here. But, truth is, I’m not. I’ve used down bags in temperatures as low as – 47 C in northern Canada and as high as 40 C in deserts around the world; in dry conditions, wet conditions — in conditions entirely lacking conditions. And I haven’t found a synthetic bag that compresses smaller, breathes better, or more thoroughly warms the cockles of my heart.
The only disadvantages of down are that you must keep it dry, and that you must pay your MasterCard bill when it arrives – although many quality synthetic bags are equally expensive.
If you’re sleeping in a decent tent — rather than in your indecent tent, on the forest floor, or in a bivy sack — you don’t need water resistant or water proof coatings or fabric layers in your down bag, so skip them and keep the cost down. (Pun thing there, I know.)
I’ve used numerous long-forgotten models, as well as enjoying a long term relationship with the North Face Blue Kazoo.
But then this happened to it.
I switched to an MEC Talon, which isn’t as warm as the Blue Kazoo, but smaller and lighter.
There are a million down bags out there. Get one that’s made by a reputable manufacturer, is stuffed with at least 650 fill down (and not feathers!), and fits tightly around your uniquely massive or dainty frame, as the case may be.
Published temperature ratings are pretty subjective; your best guarantee of performance is staying with a reputable brand or retailer such as REI or MEC. Most riders in most riding seasons will be happy with a three-season bag, rated to around -5 C.
Expect to spend from $250 USD upwards for a bag fitting these criteria and weighing around 1 kg.
Don’t get too caught up in comparing specs: that’s time better spent on the road, sleeping like a contented baby – and avoiding the arrival of your monthly credit card bill.