If you’ve read our Grand Teton trail report (part 1 and part 2) you’ll have read that my much beloved Thermarest Neoair sleeping pad is sitting somewhere in the shade by the trail near the Alaska Basin Lakes. For me, this was the middle of a multi-day trip in the middle of the back country, so I couldn’t just pack out or sleep in the car. This was one of many camping mishaps that can and do happen. Mine was left behind, yours might be damaged, but what do you do next?
My NeoAir is somewhere around here
Sleeping pads are a key element to sleeping in the woods. The ground is cold and if you sleep directly on it, it will suck the heat out of you during the night leaving you cold (sometimes very cold), which leads to a poor night sleep (if any). In fact, the temperature rating on your sleeping bag assumes you are sleeping on an insulated sleeping pad, and without a pad, you will find your sleeping bag cold and ineffective. A good sleeping pad is as important to keeping you warm as a good sleeping bag. Plus, modern society is soft and sleeping on the ground can be hard, lumpy and uncomfortable, so a sleeping pad adds a little insulation and padding.
The first time I went backcountry camping (way back when) I didn’t have a sleeping pad (being young and naive). I went to bed in my underwear, sleeping in my bag directly on the ground. I ended up wearing everything I owned (jackets and shoes included), shivering in the fetal position with my sleeping bag cocooned around me, all that because I didn’t have a sleeping pad. During the night the earth was drawing all the heat out of me leaving me very cold. I geared up before I went out again.
In the Tetons I had a very nice sleeping pad but for some reason it didn’t make it back into my pack one morning. Knowing I didn’t want to relive the incident for my youth, I knew I needed some kind of insulation between me and the ground. It also didn’t help that it was really windy. I decided that I was going to sleep in my clothes (with my merino wool long underwear underneath) on top of my sleeping bag to get double insulation. Unfortunately, down compacts very well so it wasn’t particularly comfortable.
After some tossing and turning I started using the Dwarf’s jacket as a blanket to help deal with the wind and the dust blowing through the tent, but that didn’t cut it either. Luckily I always carry an emergency blanket in my gear (a thin silvered mylar sheet) which I wrapped around me like a burrito. While noisy, it was so effective that I started to overheat and I actually had to hang parts of me out to cool off. I was now warm, but not entirely comfortable.
In the end my final solution was: a bottom layer of my (and the dwarf’s) extra clothes and jacket to create some softness and insulation, followed by the bottom side of my emergency blanket (sliver side in), followed by my sleeping bag, followed by me in my merino underwear and hiking clothes (wearing a toque and shoes), followed by the top side of my emergency blanket. My final solution worked reasonably well and was comfortable and warm enough that I minorly started to debate if I should even carry a sleeping bag in the future (I still will).
Another option that I considered but did not try was to sleep on my backpack instead of my clothes. This is a trick used by some ultra-light backpackers (but usually for their legs). While perhaps lumpy, an empty backpack usually has cushioning in the back, which would provide some comfort and insulation. In a survival situation (and outside of a National Park) piles of pine boughs, leaves, grass, etc have been used as insulation.
So next time if you are in a similar predicament, perhaps you can learn from our mistakes.