Your sleeping bag is a very important piece of equipment on a trail crew. It can mean the difference between a good night’s sleep, and adding to the exhaustion that you are already going to experience working harder than you ever have before. It might even mean the difference between frostbite or not.
I had a North Face Bigfoot. When I was buying gear for my summer in Yosemite, the Bigfoot was all the rage. Not everybody had one, but it seemed like everybody raved over how awesome they were. I bought mine at The North Face Outlet in Berkeley. It was a ‘second’, which meant that it had some sort of cosmetic factory defect that prevented North Face from selling it at full value. I received a good discount on the price, and it was a fully functional bag. It was rated to -5°F, which meant that it was ‘guaranteed’ to preserve your body heat at temperatures down to five degrees below zero Fahrenheit. This was a limited ‘guarantee’ (in quotes) because everybody sleeps differently. What might keep one person warm at zero degrees might not keep a ‘cold sleeper’ warm at thirty degrees.
My bag was also a ‘long’. It was designed longer for tall people. I’m not tall, so according to conventional sleeping bag wisdom, the extra length would be extra space for my body heat to keep warm and therefore not very efficient. I figured the extra foot space would be helpful for stuffing clothes down into to keep them warm for the next day. It worked. I really loved my sleeping bag.
My Bigfoot’s design limits were not tested in Yosemite. Apart from that one Arctic front that came through at the end of July, we had pretty mild weather all summer in Yosemite. My bag got tested the next year, 1988, on a regular CCC trails spike on Orleans Mountain in the Klamath Mountains. Our spike was the first week of June, and one morning we woke to find ourselves buried under about eighteen inches of snow. We were snowed in for four days before the four wheel drive vehicles could get in to bring us out. I stayed snug in my two-person backpacking tent and my Bigfoot. It worked like a champ.
My bag’s biggest test came the next year, 1989, in Kings Canyon National Park. We had a spike camp on Glenn Pass late in September. Now that was cold. We didn’t have a thermometer, so I have no idea how cold it actually got. I do know that water was frozen solid every morning. I also know that my trusty, dependable -5° bag did not keep me warm. In fairness to the Bigfoot, it was two years old and likely had lost some loft…the ‘fluffiness’ of the insulation that helps retain heat…but I have never been so cold as on those nights at Glenn Pass sleeping in the cook tent, trying to pile boxes and produce around my bag to improve the insulation.
These lessons learned handed down to another generation of trail workers. When I was a C-1 at Delta Center in Stockton, I took the Corpsmembers who had been selected for the Backcountry program on a supply buying trip to Berkeley. The salespeople kept trying to push ‘summer’ bags on the Corpies. Summer bags are only rated to about 40°. They are not even close to being adequate for serious trail crew equipment. A couple of the Corpsmembers seemed on the verge of the summer bags because of cost and weight. I asked them, “Do you know where you’re going to be in September?”
Their only possible reply was, “No.”
“It gets pretty cold at ten thousand feet in September. If you buy the summer bag, you are gambling on where you are going to be when it turns cold.”
They all bought the better bags. After the season, I heard back from some of them “Thank you for pushing the better bag!”
I still have my Bigfoot, twenty-seven years later. It doesn’t go on the trail anymore. The zipper blew out about ten years ago. The outer shell is torn in a couple of places. It mainly gets rolled out when the kids have friends sleeping over, or if I am going somewhere overnight and I’m not sure of the lodging accommodations. One thing is for sure…it’s not being tossed out into the trash.
Trail dust is thicker than blood.