How to Keep Your Sleeping Bag Dry on the West Coast Trail
The West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island, British Columbia is a challenging backpacking hike in conditions that are changeable from step to step and day to day. The hiking terrain is very diverse, and very often near the water. The campsites are all at beaches; and the weather can be wet even without rain. With all of these conditions, it is important to be comfortable in camp and to get good rest to help prevent fatigue on the trail, and possible injury. One of the key elements of maintaining comfort to get good rest is knowing how to manage your sleeping system.
Sleeping Bag Types
Four common types of sleeping bags are readily available. The types relate to the fill material used for insulation. Each has its place and proper care.
The first is the old style barrel bag lined with cotton, filled with synthetic fibers,
Second, is the bag filled with down in a synthetic shell,
Third is the synthetic fill bag in a synthetic shell, and
Fourth, is the hybrid bag with a combination of down and synthetic fill in a synthetic shell.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Part of the planning and creation of a sleeping system is knowing where you are going to use the system, what the hazards are in the climate, and how to adapt the strengths and weaknesses of your sleeping system to the environment. On the West Coast Trail, the main problems are water and weight, so we will look at how the relative weights of the bags and how they handle the wet. These are all based on a -12ºC bag.
Cotton/wool bags: These bags are quite heavy, around 2 to 2.5 kg, available many places, particularly Canadian Tire, Wal-Mart, and other general stores, $70+. These bags start heavy and as they soak up water, they get heavier. Even though they are filled with synthetic fibers, they lose some insulating capacity due to the cotton soaking up water.
Down bags: These bags are available in outdoor stores; they are light at about 1.4 kg and less. These bags range from generally good to highly technical, and ate quite expensive at $300 – $1,000. Down bags are very warm for their weight, but they lose their insulating capacity when wet.
Synthetic fill bags: These bags are widely available, can be fairly heavy at about 2.4 kg, very reasonably prices at around $120+, and retain their insulating capacity even when wet.
Hybrid bags: These bags have a combination of down and synthetic fill. The synthetic fill is on the bottom, at the feet, and around the neck, as well as a thin layer over the down top. They are light, coming in around 1.6 kg, and are available at Mountain Equipment Coop for about $150+. The down portion loses insulating capacity when wet.
One the West Coast Trail, hiking around surge channels, on rock shelf with pools and standing water, and on beaches is common. Any slip and fall and gear can get wet by falling into the water, even if in the pack. This is a real and significant hazard. Another other main hazard is rain. Everything can get wet when it is raining on the west coast. Even the air is a hazard. The air there holds a huge amount of water and sleeping bags are notorious for absorbing it directly from the air. The next consideration is how to manage these hazards.
Managing Your System
The two main considerations for a sleeping system on the West Coast Trail are the wet and the weight. Managing the weight is important for all the sleeping bag types, but absolutely critical for some. The main ideas of keeping the bag dry are:
Keep it in a dry container, such as a dry bag or a stuff sack with a large garbage bag inside.
Leave it in the container when you are not sleeping in it-take it out only when going to bed and re-stuff it when you get up.
Take off any wet things in the tent before getting your bag out, and put them away in their own garbage bag. Keep a “sacred dry set” of clothes for inside the tent, and keep them in a separate, dedicated dry bag or stuff sack/garbage liner combination.
Wipe down the tent floor if any water gets in before taking out the bag.
Making sure the tent is rain proof with a good fly and set it up to avoid splash up under the fly into the tent.
Many people, and especially tour companies, advise you to not take a down sleeping bag. They are managing risks externally for themselves. If you know how to manage it, a down bag is fine. Down bags are light, so they are the ideal for carrying on the West Coast Trail. Following the management suggestions above should make it possible for you to have a down bag no matter what the conditions. Hybrid bags are a good compromise because you do not lose all your insulating value if the bag gets wet. Generally, you would want to avoid the cotton lined bags altogether because of the coldness and the weight, and the synthetic inner/synthetic shell bags are heavy as well, but keep you warm no matter what. If do not have any or much back-country camping experience, go with the heavier, but bomb-proof synthetic/synthetic option. Practice your sleeping system management and get yourself a down or hybrid bag after you are totally secure in keeping your bag dry in all conditions.