If you are about to embark upon your first HistoriCorps project, the one thing that is very important is to be able to get a comfortable, warm night’s sleep.
If you are fortunate enough to have an RV, then this should not be a problem. If you are going to be tent camping like most volunteers, then you really need a high-quality sleeping bag and pad. So, if you have just signed up for your first project and are down in your basement to see what kind of condition your camping equipment is in, and you realize that you do not remember how old your sleeping bag is or its temperature rating, then you should probably think about getting a new sleeping bag. This is crucial if you are going to be working on higher elevation projects. It can frost at 10,000 feet just about any time during the summer, which is why I suggest that you get a sleeping bag that is rated to zero degrees. If you get warm you can always unzip it and cool down, but it is not that easy to get warmer if you do not have the proper equipment. Besides, a zero-degree sleeping bag does not mean that you will be warm and toasty at zero, it means that you will be alive in the morning at zero degrees. Since you are car camping and not a thru-hiker on the Continental Divide Trail, you do not need the lightweight and most expensive equipment on the market. What you need is a good quality brand that will allow you to sleep with some comfort. My sleeping bag was around 230 dollars and I am satisfied with it.
I was looking for sleeping bags online and found many that were too expensive, or sleeping bags that were cheap but did not have a specification sheet that gave me enough information to feel comfortable enough to buy one. I went to a local camping supply store and found a brand name that has served me well over the last two years. I have a zero-degree mummy sleeping bag that is a synthetic mixture with a water-repellent lining. I camped at the job in Bodie, California when it was 17 degrees in the morning and the sleeping bag was ok at that temperature. What you buy will depend on how much you want to spend, but you better make sure you have a brand name and know the actual temperature rating. If you are tall, make sure you get a "long" sleeping bag that will fit.
You will also need a sleeping bag pad if you are tent camping. The sleeping bag pad is designed to keep the ground from absorbing all the heat from your body. They cost around 20 to 30 dollars for the basic ones and up to 200 for the best ones. The more you spend, the better their R-value (an R-value refers to how well they insulate you from the ground), and the more comfortable they are. The basic sleeping pad is made of solid foam that folds up like an accordion. These run around 20 to 30 dollars. This type will keep you warmer when you are sleeping on the ground and will not leak air and leave you with a flat pad that is worthless. If you want to spend more than 50 to 100 dollars you can get more R-value and self-inflating pads that supply a little more comfort. Some of these are 2 to 3 inches thick and make the night's sleep a little softer. The one I bought for 80 dollars is about on R-value of 5 and is four inches thick when inflated. You can blow it up with your lungs or use a pump. It is not that difficult to blow up if you do not want to pack a pump. I have not had any problems with mine, i.e. no noise as I move around at night. I have plenty of room to stretch out on the pad and use my pillow. One thing I like is that when you are done with the sleeping bag pad and deflate it, it rolls up and takes up little space, especially when compared to the cheaper foam pad. One of the top-rated sleeping bag pads is the Thermarest, but it costs around 180 dollars. I have used my cheaper inflatable pad this summer and I am satisfied.
One other item that you may want to consider is a sleeping bag liner. This is basically a cotton bed sheet that is stitched up to form a bag. It can help keep your sleeping bag cleaner and could add about 5 degrees of warmth to your night's sleep. It is one more thing to have to get in to and out of, but they run around 30 dollars. It will pack up to just a little bigger than a soda can and it is easy to care for laundry wise.
Start early and search for quality equipment either online or at your local camping supply dealers. If you like HistoriCorps projects, you are probably going to use your gear 3 or 4 times a year. Good equipment is an investment in your enjoyment. Don't cut corners, you don't want to wake up at 3:30 in the morning due to freezing feet. A sleeping bag that is not good enough can make for a long night, and maybe a long week.
HistoriCorps is deeply grateful for Eric's submission, who is currently on our North Bloomfield project in California! If you have advice for new volunteers or would like to share your thoughts on the HistoriCorps blog, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.