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Illustration of a man in a sleeping bag"Right now an industry-wide standard for bag ratings doesn't exist," says Michael Wallenfels, Mountain Hardwear's vice president of sales and marketing. "It's completely up to the manufacturer." In the absence of a benchmark, companies rate their bags using a methodology of their choosing. For the most part, this means some combination of the following: anecdotal information from field tests, measuring a bag's loft (or thickness) and weight, comparisons to similar bags, and, occasionally, tests in a big refrigerator at Kansas State University involving a copper dummy and a scientist who would rather see a standard enacted. "Manufacturers have been bad boys," says Elizabeth McCullough, co-director of Kansas State's Institute for Environmental Research. "In general, the current ratings are often too low."

Meanwhile, in Europe, a testing method spearheaded by the Swiss company Mammut (again, big fridge, big dummy) has gained wide acceptance. Soon, American bag manufacturers that sell overseas—such as North Face, Mountain Hardwear, and Marmot—will be required to have their sacks tested and rated at one of three European freezers ($725 a test). "The European model will become the American standard by default," says Wallenfels, who expects bags with a European rating to hit U.S. shelves as early as spring '05. "No one will want to pay to have their bags rated twice [once in Europe and again in the U.S.]."

Unable to account for every variable that comes into play during a night in the wild—including moisture, tossing and turning, and diet—the European model keys on two of the most universal: gender and fitness level. When the rating system hits U.S. racks, tags on tested bags will display three temperatures: a comfort rating (based on a comfortable night's sleep for a "standard" woman), a lower limit (the lowest temperature at which a fit man can have a comfortable night's sleep), and an extreme value (the lowest temperature at which an average woman can survive overnight in the bag). However, points out Adventure gear guru Steve Casimiro, "at some point this is no longer about science—it's about how you're sleeping. A bad night's sleep can lead to poor decision making and maybe even accidents the next day."
Casimiro recommends that shoppers try out a bag for fit and comfort at their local outdoors store and consider three basic concerns: where you'll use the bag (synthetics are usually preferred in wetter, more humid climes), what kind of sleeper you are (cold sleepers should consider bags with a colder rating), and how big a bag you are willing to carry (down sacks typically pack smaller). "In many ways," says Casimiro, "a sleeping bag is the most important piece of equipment you'll buy."

So what do you want to know? Ask Adventure >>

Ask Pelton: Do you have a burning travel question that only the world's most dangerous writer, Robert Young Pelton, can answer? E-mail your question to us at adventure@ngs.org, subject line: Ask Pelton. The answer could appear in an upcoming column.

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From the print edition, December 2004/January 2005

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Ask Pelton
Do you have a burning travel question that only the world's most dangerous writer, Robert Young Pelton, can answer? E-mail your question to adventure@ngs.org, subject line: Ask Pelton. It could be answered in an upcoming column

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