I love military gear. Some people hate it for various reasons, but to me, this gear has proven itself on the battlefield. It’s constantly evolving and being updated as technology changes, but it’s always being put to the test. Another good reason is that you can usually get it relatively cheap after it’s been used at Army/Nave stores or other discount stores.
by Bob, a.k.a. “Jarhead Survivor”
Today we’re going to talk about military sleeping bags. There are thousands of sleeping bags on the market and it can be a tough decision to try and figure out which one you should use if you have to bug-out. Sleeping bags tend to be expensive as well and who wants to spend $300 on a new sleeping bag that’s going to live in a bug-out bag and see the light of day once a year when you go in to check the gear? Leaving a newer sleeping bag compressed will eventually cause it to lose it’s loft ending the usefulness of the bag.
There are a couple of types of military sleeping bags I’d like to compare and contrast today.
Old School Sleeping Bags
First, let’s go back to the ’80s when I was in the Marine Corps as a fresh faced youth. The bags we used back then were much heavier than the ones used today. I usually rolled mine up and tied it to the outside of my ALICE pack and carried it around that way if we were going to be marching. I spent a lot of time in artillery, so luckily we could just throw our bags on the back of the 5 ton trucks when we were moving around.
The standard bag back then was the bag, sleeping, Intermediate Cold Weather (ICW) and its Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) cousin. I spent hundreds of nights in both of these bags and never got cold. The ICW bag weighed about 7 1/2 pounds and surprisingly, so did the Extreme Cold Weather. However, the ECW bag also came with a liner for really cold temps and that added some to the weight. I slept many nights at -40 degrees Fahrenheit and never felt unduly cold in the ECW bag. Most of my nights in the ICW bag never really fell below freezing and I never felt cold in it either.
These are mummy type bags with drawstrings that you can use to pull the hood of the sleeping bag tight around your head in cold weather. One of the things they told us to avoid was sleeping with your head down inside the bag. This puts a lot of moisture inside, which can cause you to get cold. However, I did this many times without getting cold, so I leave it up to you try it for yourself.
When the temperature is below zero, your natural tendency is curl into a ball and try and get your head as far from the biting cold as you can. Some people wore a balaclava and others, like me, wore the wool watch cap to bed. They also advise sleeping with the parka mits over your feet to help keep them warm. Although I never did this it makes sense if your feet get cold.
One night I was camping with my dad just off a frozen lake here in Maine. The wind was howling and the ambient air temp stood at -20. He couldn’t believe it when I stripped down to my undershorts, t-shirt, and wool socks and climbed into my ECW bag. I was shocked to see that he had brought a kids Charley Brown – type sleeping bag and froze his ass off all night. I gave him my field jacket and some other stuff, but I could still hear his teeth chattering all night long. It didn’t take him long to get himself a good warm bag after that night!
The New Sleeping Gear
Now let’s talk about the more modern military gear. The new Modular Sleep System (MSS) bags are made by Tennier Industries and come in four or five parts depending on the model you get and is rated between 50 and -50 degrees Fahrenheit. There’s a lightweight patrol bag rated for between 30 and 50 degrees. The Intermediate bag is rated for 30 degrees to -10. There’s a compression bag you can get that’s a good modern day addition that will compress the MSS down to one cubic foot. The one piece I really like is the bivy, which is basically a personal tent. It’s water resistant and has a cover over the face I found useful in cold weather.
Like I mentioned earlier, you can separate these bags and use them independently or together. I slept in the lightweight patrol bag in 40 degree weather and found I was a little cold though it’s rated between 30 and 50 degrees. I’ve slept in the intermediate bag in 30 degree weather and was reasonably warm in it, but I wouldn’t want to try it in -10 degree weather by itself.
If you combine all three components and you’re sleeping in your thermal underwear they say it’s good to about -50. The coldest I’ve slept in the combined sleep system was around -10 and I was comfortable, although I wouldn’t want to attempt -50 in one of them.
One thing I had to learn was how to ventilate properly. When I first got in the bag I zipped up all three components and was too warm. So I unzipped the inside sleeping bag down to my belly button and cooled off until I was comfortable. As it got colder, I zipped the inner bag up a couple of inches at a time until I was in full mummy mode with the bivy closed and covering my face. I liked this feature as it meant I could breathe outside the main bags without getting moisture down inside them.
Overall, this bag is much closer to the civilian bags on the market today. They are far lighter than the older bags and more versatile; however, they are a little more expensive. They also compress down nicely and can fit in your pack a little better, although I found that most quality civilian bags rated for the same temps will compress more and be a little lighter.
As mentioned earlier I like the bivy. One thing I’ve done is take the bivy from one of my Tennier sleeping bags and put it in my Get Home Bag (GHB.) By itself, it doesn’t offer much in the way of insulation for warmth, but during the non-winter months it would be ideal for get home purposes. Open it up, climb inside with your clothes on, and you basically have your own personal tent. Put it on top of some pine or fir boughs, or a pile of leaves, and you’d even be comfortable while you grabbed a couple hours of tactical shut-eye.
When to Use These Sleeping Bags
So when is the best time to use these bags? The older bags would be good:
- When you’re on a budget
- When you don’t expect to be carrying your bag anywhere
- When you want to be sure you’ll be very warm
- If you are dragging it on a sled
The newer sleep systems would be good:
- When you expect to be hiking and need a lighter bag
- If you have a little more money to throw at them
- When compression is important to you (pack space)
- When you need a bag you can split up for different purposes and climates
Overall, they are all pretty good sleeping bags. I bought a pile of the newer ones at once and still have a few kicking around. You can pick up individual gear there as opposed to bidding at Government Liquidation.
One thing you might try: if you have a few like-minded friends looking for pretty good sleeping bags or other military gear pool your funds and bid on a lot of sleeping bags. Split the shipping costs and you might be able to pick up twelve to twenty sleeping bags for a few hundred bucks like I did. I sold some of them, but kept four or five for family and friends and have loaned them out to friends several times when we went camping and our friends didn’t have any gear during a bug-out. You might also need to loan to family during a bug-out. Ya never know, folks.
If you have questions about bidding at Government Liquidation let me know and I’ll do my best to answer them. I spent a good deal of time on this site a couple of years ago and got a pretty good feel for it.
Questions? Comments? Sound off below!
While I ve got a lot of hours in these military bags, and share your review about quality and warmth, I’ve moved on for obvious reasons.
For the money their are some fantastic civilian bags on the market, that are lighter, and warmer. For the record, many of the sleeping bags are not the big 5 bags being marketed these days.
However if your looking for a sleeping System, for every season, the military set up is truly hard to beat.
Nicely done article.
Great info Jarhead. Good point on the lack of use of true bug out bag. No point in stashing a high dollar bag in a pack that will hopefully never be used. I have a different take on that dynamic, but I’ll save it for later. Soon, but later.
A couple other things to toss into the mix is that the ability to remain comfortable, even warm when sleeping in a bag under low temps is five fold:
1: the insulate capacity of the sleeping bag
2: the convective (wind, air movement) that one is sleeping in
3: the sleeping pad and compression of the insulation on the underside of the bag.
4: the quantity, recency, and composition of your last meal before sleeping
5: your personal level of health and exhaustion.
Play the science right and you can be comfortable at 40 below. I routinely camp in sub zero and you just have to know the rules. Most folks either don’t know the rules of engagement or think they can skip some of them. Then they never do it again because it was an awful experience. But do it right and there is a whole beautiful but crisp world out there during the off-season.
Great article. If you thing the four part system is good, you should check out the new issue! The bag is longer/wider and is designed to trap more body heat – what you wear becomes part of the system. What blew my mind was the bivi sack, it’s basically a one man tent, complete with a bug net and moldable aluminum rod!
Really like the woodland bivies and patrol bags. I have a few and recreational offering’s. I’m sticking with the surplus items for long term survival, tough as nails, affordable, and only slightly heavier.
Let me add, if one adds a poncho liner (woobie) to their sleep gear, it can add a level of comfort control just not available. It weigh next to nothing and takes up little room in a stuff sack.
Let me add, if one adds a poncho liner (woobie) to their sleep gear, it can add a level of comfort control just not available. It weighs next to nothing and takes up little room in a stuff sack.
I managed to get 5 Swiss gear 0 degree rated mummy bags for less than 20 bucks each. I added insulated and waterproof euro mil surplus bivy bags for less than 8 dollars each. I then bought compression bags in O.D. green for each one for about 5 bucks each. Last but not least was the black, heavy density, work out, foam mats that are pretty comfortable and only about 18 bucks each. I tested out the set up by setting up a lean to shelter in the backyard and sleeping out on a 10 degree night with about 2 feet of snow. I slept just fine, and had no problems staying warm and cozy. The bivy has a huge hood that I used with some small poles to make a tent like structure around my head. I actually got a little overheated and had to vent the sleeping bag a bit to avoid sweating. All total each sleep system was only about 50 bucks each and performed quite well. I now have enough for myself, my girlfriend and each of our kids, and managed it on a budget. We have used them about a dozen times for camping and they perform well.
With some luck, watching the store ads, checking the Internet, and some creative combinations, you can outfit the entire family for less than the cost of one super bag from a specialty store. The trade off is the leg work needed to accomplish your goal. The bags and mats were purchased in a KMart, the compression bags and bivy sacks were purchased online from two different places, Amazon, and Major Supply. Keep your eyes open for bargains, and get what you need when you have the cash.
I bought a extreme cold weather military surplus mummy bag the type I had in the Marines in the late 80’s bought it for $20 with the said broken zipper. Used it in my semi truck with only a blanket on the bottom and had the mummy bag on top and kept very warm in the -30 outside truck temps. WHERE CAN I GET AN OFFICIAL USGI ISSUED USMC SLEEP SYSTEM AT?
Ebay, sometimes Craigslist. Amazon maybe too. If there is a surplus store on your route check it out, my experience is that they can be pricey, but one stop shopping.
Picked up a couple of the extreme ECW bags with the goretex outer for 20.00 each. Same bags we used at Arctic survival school and out in the field for exercises. Slept in them at -40 in polypros and was almost too warm. Great bags for extreme cold weather.