24th March 2017
SLEEPING IN THE MOUNTAINS: 6 TIPS
By Tom Richardson
Some might describe me as obsessed, but I consider myself to be somewhere between very enthusiastic and dedicated when it comes to climbing and exploring what could be generally called the Greater Mountain Ranges of the World. For over 40 years I’ve been enjoying trips with clients, friends or locals – I’m lucky enough to be just about to set off on my 110th expedition (I’ve just added them all up).
The next trip is to the greatest range of them all – The Karakoram in Pakistan. We’re trekking up the Baltoro Glacier to Concordia near K2 and then crossing the high and increasingly technical pass the Gondogoro La into the beautiful Hushe Valley. I can hardly wait.
During the last four decades I have spent a lot of nights in a range of sleeping bags. It’s not always gone well. Shivering the night away in an open bivvy testing a heavy fibre pile bag in a snow hollow on a Karakoram Peak whilst Joe Simpson and another friend snored next to me in their cosy down bags was a night to remember. Another that I am somewhat embarrassed about is over filling my pee bottle whilst using it inside my expedition bag on the North Ridge of Everest, but I’ll spare you the details.
Resting and sleeping whilst on a trip is essential for recovery and mental and physical health too. So here are six tips for getting a good night’s sleep in the mountains:
1. Choose the right sleeping bag. Andy Kirkpatrick put it correctly but unhelpfully when he said that the ideal sleeping bag is one that is not so cold that you die and yet not so warm that you don’t want to get out of bed in the morning. The warmer the bag, the heavier it is to carry too. Personally I find that about 700 gms of high quality down is a reasonable compromise for many situations. Don’t go for a big roomy bag unless you intend to sleep in a down suit in it. There will be so much internal space containing cold air inside it will be disappointing colder than you expect.
Always buy the best you can in terms of insulation, fabrics and design. Look after it by airing it regularly both on the trip and whilst in storage at home. Only use the stuff bag when you are carrying it, never for storage. Keep it dry and separate in your pack. Eventually it might need cleaning which should only ever be done by a specialist cleaner. Down works better when it is clean. Don’t do it yourself it will almost certainly be an expensive disaster – trust me. (For Mountain Equipment guidelines on sleeping bag care please see this page).
2. Get Insulated from the ground. I’ve spent quite a few nights sleeping high in the mountains without a sleeping bag. It can be pretty grim but would definitely be a whole lot worse without some insulation underneath separating you from the snow and rock beneath. Inflatable mattresses are comfy but can puncture and need blowing up somehow. If that involves your own breath or a pump that can be very demanding when you are exhausted or at altitude. Closed cell foam is the answer, a ubiquitous yellow mat (formerly known as a Karrimat but now called a Multimat) is cheap and can be chopped into sections and then using gaffer tape made to fold into a zig zag to slide inside your pack rather than rolled up. Alternatively, one of the egg box style rests work OK too. If you can manage it take an extra section of foam for hips and shoulders if you are on snow or a glacier.
3. Rest when you can. Grabbing a sleep in the afternoon when you arrive at camp and the sun is still on your tent is excellent and medically proven to be restorative. In the evening pre warming your bag helps and is a good use of a (leak-proof) water bottle full of hot water that can also be drunk in the night. Avoid having to get out of your tent at night it can be dangerous and you will lose a huge amount of heat.
4. Get your clothing right. It is tempting to wear the inner boots of double boots inside your sleeping bag. This doesn’t work well because although your feet are warm, they are also getting damp and will chill very quickly when you get out. Better is to put on fresh dry socks and keep your inner boots and damp socks inside the bag but loose to dry. Wear your clothes inside the bag including something on your head.
5. Mind the Gap. If you have ever thought that it would be a good idea to zip two sleeping bags together to share warmth with your partner, don’t, they are colder than a single because of the uncloseable gap between your shoulders. American super alpinist Steve House suggested unzipping one bag and sharing it between two quilt style as it can be tucked in around youmore easily. This may create a bit of tension if night falls whilst you are a rope length apart or unable to find a two-person ledge. This is advanced bivvying techniques and best done only between consenting adults anyway! Much better is to have a sleeping bag, mat and small super lightweight shelter each, just in case.
6. Ventilate. It is tempting when you get into a tent when the weather is cold and blowy outside to zip up all doors and baton down the hatches. Try to resist this as much as possible and instead go for the counter intuitive option of opening vents to create a flow through of air in your tent. This not only will help you to sleep, give you maximum oxygen and reduce the chances of an altitude headache, but it will also reduce the level of condensation that inevitably occurs especially, but not exclusively, in single skin tents.