Feet First

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A classic G. George Ostrom column from October, 1989.

One of my old college professors said everything written for the public should either entertain, inform or educate. I plan to do all those things this week. You are about to learn “HOW TO USE A SLEEPING BAG.” First I am reprinting the instruction printed at the opening of a United States Government Military bag. That is where I was first inspired to attempt this difficult challenge. I will add some of my own sleeping bag adventures at the end along with the usual constructive commentary. Perhaps when you have finished reading this, you may never again have to ask any embarrassing sleeping bag questions.

OFFICIAL M-1 U.S. ARMY SLEEPING BAG, W/HOOD

1. Keep the bag dry -

(a) SELECT the driest ground around and keep the bag out of the rain.

(b) Breathe through face opening to prevent moisture from wetting the bag. If face is cold, reduce face opening by pulling drawstrings. DO NOT TIE THE DRAWSTRINGS.

(c) DO NOT wear wet clothing and AVOID SWEATING. If too hot, open side slide fastener for ventilation.

2. To keep warm –

(a) Bag is insulated on only one side so use only with inflated tube on top side.

(b) Wear clean dry winter underwear and socks in bag. Additional clean dry clothing may be worn for additional warmth.

3. KEEP BAG CLEAN-

(a) ALWAYS wear sleeping hood in bag.

(b) Brush and clean clothing before entering.

4. Slide fastener closure –

(a) To close bag keep both sides of slide fastener close together BEFORE pulling loop on slider.

For EMERGENCY EXIT, grasp each side of the opening above the slider and spread apart quickly, forcing the slider downward.

5. Snap fastener closure –

(a) Use the snap fastener flap closure ONLY when the slide fastener fails.

6. DO NOT smoke in the sleeping bag.

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First off, it bothers me that the U.S. Army sent me on week-long maneuvers in the swamps of America then to Germany without anyone telling me how to use a sleeping bag; however, it is heartening to know the younger generation will not have to learn that sort of thing the hard way like thousands of us older fellas did.

How about that instruction to keep the bag dry and out of the rain? I wished I’d have thought of that a few years back when our pack horse fell down crossing the Belly River. Son Clark’s and my bags were on the bottom of the pack. Thank goodness when it began snowing that night it was too cold for the stuff to melt. We shivered the bags dry.

Wonder why the Army calls the zipper a “side slide fastener?” Maybe a lot of the officers studying the alphabet at O.C.S. graduated before they got to z.

We had a guy in my fraternity who could have learned something from that instruction on keeping the bag clean. Near as I recall, after our sophomore year he was afraid to have it cleaned because he figured the grease and grime was all that held it together. Most of the other guys had theirs cleaned every six months or so whether they smelled bad or not.

The Forest Service decided about 1951 to experiment with paper sleeping bags because the expensive down bags they issued to the Smokejumpers seemed to be getting lost or burned up. Out of about 150 bags they started with in the spring, only 35 were still around in the fall. The first paper bags were of the same texture and resembled a big slick brown paper grocery bag. They even folded up the same way. The top was rimmed with a foot wide fringe of flannel cloth to pull around your head and neck. There was no “side slide fastener.”

My crew jumped on a forest fire in the Selway River country and we had to make camp on a steep side hill. I told all the guys to dig out a nice wide shelf to lie on. After we bedded down it was tough getting to sleep. Every time anybody rolled over, the crackling of the paper sounded like the fire had crowned out, but sheer fatigue eventually did the job.

About 3 a.m. were awakened by screams of terror. Charlie’s bag had slipped off his shelf and was headed for the river a mile below. You talk about your wild toboggan rides. There was quite a bit of downed timber in there so he finally slid under an old snag with a lot of limbs on it. We got flashlights and climbed down to where the cussing was coming from. Took about a half hour to chop him out of that tangle. Charlie was a bloody mess and his bag wasn’t in all that good a shape either. For all I know, even as you read this, Charlie may still be searching for the guy who invented the paper sleeping bag.

When I was a young man, nice girls didn’t go camping with boys, let alone share the portable bedroom, and there certainly weren’t any of those “zip together” bags. I’d like to be able to round out this dissertation by relating some informative and entertaining stories about that sort of thing; but I’d have to rely on hearsay and that’s not my bag. In spite of this valuable info from the Army and my own experiences…there are still a few things about sleeping bags you’ll just have to pick up on your own.

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