A few weeks back I got talking about my experiences of youth hostelling when younger. I didn’t get into this until I was in my early twenties so was often the “old man” of a dorm. That said, I often struck up enjoyable liaisons with some of my fellow travellers. Some of these only lasted a couple of days until our paths parted, others were friendships that remained active for many years.
I was asked to write a little on the blog about my experiences and conclusions. One of the first topics I was asked about was sleeping bags for hostelling.
Do you really need a sleeping bag for hostelling I was asked? My answer would be yes. While many hostels provide some bedding there are many that do not. It depends where you are in the world and whether it is an official IYH hostel or not. I will note that some of my most memorable experiences have been at “unofficals”, although by no means should you avoid the official places. There have been some fun times in those too. Another reason for having your own bedding is that there will be times when you want to travel overnight by train or bus, saving yourself the price of a room for the night.
This is not going to be a generic article on selecting sleeping bags. I will save that for another day if there is interest.
The most common mistake when buying your first bag is magnum-itis!
A common mistake when buying a bag is to buy one that is too warm. Look around any hostel and you'll see several roommates with legs draped out of too hot five-season expedition bags. I did exactly the same when I brought my first bag. I still have that bag but now reserve it for outdoor use or buildings that I know will be insufficiently heated. In truth, I have seldom used it. Use your hard saved money for a more practical purchase.
I soon invested in a one-season sleeping bag that folds up to the size of a rugby ball without the need for compression straps. My bag of choice was a Merlin Softie, which I am happy to say are still in production. There are several variants available now. There are lengthened versions for the very tall. A tactical version has a reinforced lower for users that might need to sleep in their boots. (Put sandbags over them first!). Looks like the modern versions do have compression straps, probably because users expect them. My original stuffsac neither had or needed them.
My Merlin Softie has been all around the world with me and is still good to go. I have used it for both hostelling and camping.
I prefer bags with two-way zips for hostelling and similar travels. They provide better ventilation and are easier to get into in a dark dorm room. Some designs can also be zipped together, if your bag has a right hand zip and your loved one's a left.
The compact size allows me to carry a very small pack, with plenty of room for everything else. The larger bags often take up most of your rucksac volume or become large unwieldy lumps lashed to the outside.
Should conditions be colder than expected, I can always add more insulation in the form of clothing or blankets. Taking insulation out of a heavier bag would not be possible. Conceivably I could use my lower performance bag inside another bag. I suppose if I had my time again I'd buy a one or two season bag and a two or three season and have a really versatile system for all conditions. I have a lightweight down bag that might work well with the Merlin but I cannot recall any instances where I was cold in that bag. Bear in mind that many of your travels will be to warm places in summer and you will see that such a bag is more than adequate. You’ll spend a third of your time on holiday sleeping so a good bag is a good investment.
Many hostels will provide blankets but expect the guest to provide a sleeping bag liner. A sleeping bag liner is basically a sheet sewn into a bag-shape to keep the bedclothes clean. Some hostels may also have sheets or bags for hire.
For a long time I carried a simple, easily washable cotton sheet bag, both for hostel bedding and to protect my own sleeping bags. One morning in a German hostel it disappeared from my bed! The maid had mistaken it for one of the hostel’s sheets and sent it on to the laundry. This was my last morning before moving on to Holland so there was no way my bag would be returned to me in time. The hostel owner was most embarrassed by this and gave me a set of sheets as a replacement. Once I'd returned home I set about sewing these sheets into a replacement liner, with two modifications:
- One was to sew the sheets into a mummy shape to match the shape of my sleeping bag.
- The other was to sew round the opening several pieces of brightly coloured material. This was partially to make my bag instantly recognisable to prevent the same happening again, and also so that I could locate the opening of the bag by touch, saving me from using a light and disturbing my roommates.
Although quite reasonably priced, liners can be very easily made, and there's no reason why they have to be white. Make them from something you can recognise in an instant and line the neck with something that feels different and identifies it further. Some of you may consider a piece of lace. I’m still using my homemade liner. Nowadays you can find pile liners to make your bag warmer. There are also silk liners and pertex ones, which have tempted me but I have yet to try.
If you are a restless sleeper who often gets tangled up in their bed clothes you can make or modify your liner so it has separate legs.