Lessons Learned: 3 Nights Without A Sleeping Bag

***We've all made mistakes in the outdoors. Sometimes those mistakes lead to an uncomfortable night, a little hunger pain and sometimes it puts us in actual danger. Chris shares the below story of 3 nights he's slept without a sleeping bag. Check back on Monday when other bloggers will share their outdoor mistakes. Hopefully we can all learn from each others mistakes and stay safe in the outdoors.***

Out of all the outdoor activities I participated in as a child, backpacking never came up. However, I was beyond excited when a few of my college buddies asked if I wanted to go on a 4 day backpacking trip, in the summer after my freshman year of college. I said "Yes!" of course.

I had no backpacking gear. I remember one of my friends tried to sell me an old 70-liter pack for $20 to get me started. At the time I thought he wanted to get rid of a crappy pack and get some cash, but now I realize he was actually trying to be helpful. I decided to save my money and use a Dakine daypack I already owned. It seemed like a good decision until I was making my final gear decisions in the hours before we'd embark on our journey. I managed to find a few generic gear lists and realized I wasn't going to be able to fit much of the recommended gear in my pack. I ditched my 0 degree synthetic sleeping bag, which saved a LOT of room. The decision made me uncomfortable, so I brought the bag to the trailhead with me (I could always tie it to the outside of my daypack right?). At the trailhead I asked if I should bring my bag. All of my friends responded with a shaky, "Yeah, that should be okay" after doing a quick scan of my pack.

Mistakes while backpacking

As the sun started to go down after our first day of hiking, I knew I was going to have to face the reality that I wasn't going to be comfortable sleeping. We had a tent, but everyone decided they wanted to sleep under the stars. Of course, I joined them. One of my friends offered up the tent footprint so that I could wrap it around myself for warmth and protection, I put on all my layers, rolled myself up in the footprint and tried to go to sleep. For the first 30 minutes or so, I was comfortable and enjoyed star gazing. It was a perfectly clear night at 12,000 feet. How cool! As the temperature dropped, the tent footprint started to gather condensation and the moisture started to affect my ability to stay warm. I could tell I was going to have to figure some things out to get through the night.

I went over to the recently extinguished fire and grabbed the rocks from the fire ring. I made a bed of warm rocks and even placed a few cooler ones on my stomach to keep me warm. My mood changed immediately. I went from being worried sick to being extremely comfortable. It's a trick I've always remembered. Minutes later I was out cold (well, not yet). Approximately two hours later I woke up shivering to find my glasses covered in frost. I did the one thing I knew would work and stumbled over to start the fire once again. I waited for the fire to heat all of the rocks I was using, rotating them so that they'd heat evenly. After that, I carried the rocks back to where I was bedding down and went to sleep. Two hours later........repeat......Wake up freezing, repeat........The next time I woke up, I was shivering. I had a hard time moving my fingers. I had to pee really bad and this time there was not a good supply of wood left. Knowing what I know now, I'm pretty sure I was hypothermic. I gathered wood as quickly as I could while my fingers still worked. Thankfully, I gathered enough wood to get a fire going. Once I was sure the fire wasn't going to die, I went to the bathroom standing on one of the rocks of the fire ring. I remember laughing the whole time. I was laughing because I knew I was lucky it didn't rain/snow/blow/etc. I was lucky I was going to be okay. It was the most scared I've ever been in the woods. Thankfully, I warmed up just fine and the sun was only about an hour from coming over the horizon. I wasn't going to sleep again.

Right before the sun was starting to light the sky I woke up one of my friends and told them I was going to put in the miles to get my sleeping bag and that I would come back and meet them at camp. A sleeping bag completely changed the trip. The rest of the trip was perfection.


Chris Martin Backpacking

The next story involves a night that started with a nice warm sleeping bag, but ended with a wet useless bag after my tent collapsed and let buckets of water in. It had rained VERY heavily all night long and the ground was completely saturated with water. At that point, the stakes on my tent pulled out of the ground and my trekking pole tent was unable to stand up with the lack of tension. Everything I had to stay warm was soaked. If I had been alone, it would have been a very rough situation. I wouldn't have had dry shelter to go to. It would have been hard to start a fire with the amount of wind and rain that night. The crazy part for me is that it wasn't even that cold. I imagine it was probably around 40 degrees, but with wet clothes and no sleeping bag, it could have been fairly serious.

drying out from a bad night Drying out from a terrible rainy night.


The last story I'll share is from a trip last April. http://youtu.be/vxpjMm8Us7M

I thought back to my first backpacking trip and wanted to put myself under the same constraints. I went without a sleeping bag and used the Dakine pack I used throughout college. I brought the 10 essentials with me, quite a bit of camera gear, and that was it. I used the foam back of my backpack as a sleeping pad and dressed in my down jacket to get ready for bed. I was very comfortable. However, the temperature dropped below 30 degrees at night and my feet got really cold. Had I brought just a little more for my feet, it would have been a great night.  It even snowed on me a little overnight. I was amazed that with a lighter pack than I had on my first trip, I was so much more comfortable. I still believe that for most climates during most of the year, a sleeping bag should be considered a necessity. One night without rest isn't a big deal, but sleep becomes very important for recovery on longer trips.

I hope this has helped you think of a few different scenarios and think of how you might deal with them. I've certainly made my fair share of backcountry blunders, and hope you can at least avoid these. What have been your biggest mistakes while outdoors?


  • Trust your gut. If something seems stupid, or you think a problem is likely to arise, you're probably right.

  • Don't ever sacrifice a good night's sleep for space savings or a few grams of weight out of your pack....It's never worth it.

  • You need the basics at the very least. I'd love to say you can do everything for free and that you can just improvise with what you have, but that would be a lie. The irony is that after backpacking for a while, you can get by comfortably with less. It takes experience to get the skills necess
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