Sleeping Bag Revival

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Old gear may not be the best gear. Times, materials and engineering change. But sometimes it’s just the only gear you’ve got  and you simply cannot justify buying anything new, sometimes it’s just got so many memories attached to it you can’t bring yourself to get rid of it. AND sometimes it was just plain great gear when you got it and still is today.

Gerry was one of the early developers in “cutting edge” outdoor gear… the first zippered backpack… one of the first lightweight down jackets [1960] … the first nylon “teardrop” shaped pack… and they supported early expeditions to climb Mount Everest and were long time supporters of the US Olympic efforts. Today it seems that they are best known for kiddie-carriers and car seats. But back when I was starting out buying decent gear, their sleeping bags were some of the highest rated.

This GERRY bag dates to 1971 to the best of my knowledge. That was the period of time that my friend Philip and I were starting to backpack on a regular basis, so it was when we each started accumulating gear. I know for certain that I had been using it for two or three years by the summer of 1974,  and I know for certain that the first time I’ve used it was on a climbing expedition over to Seneca Rocks in West Virginia.

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I remember that trip so clearly because, not only was it my first rock climbing trip, but we woke up under an unexpected early-October snowfall. My new bag had left me completely oblivious to the fact that it was snowing until the next morning. Shook off the powder, and I was good to go. [as soon as the sun came out, the powdering of snow melted right away and we were still able to go climbing safely].

The bag was good down to about 15°F, had a wide-tooth YKK nylon zipper that was snag-resistant, a drawstring neck and a lightweight, ripstop nylon construction. Additionally it was one of the first bags to feature interior baffles to add loft and to prevent the down from shifting… also those baffles were slanted at 45° so that each down channel overlapped those adjoining it… no sewn-thru through cold spots anymore. And the down fill was probably about 600… 100% Goose Down, too! Hi tech, cutting edge, high price!

I have no idea of what I paid for the bag at that point,  but I do know that compared to today’s dollar it is about 4 to 1… $1.00 then = $4.00 today. If I figure that it was about 150 bucks, then a comparable replacement bag would cost about $600 to buy these days. What I do know was that back then it cost an-arm-and-a-leg on a college kid’s income. However, all it took was waking up under the snow just that one time for me to figure out that it was money well spent.

Today they make bags out of much lighter weight materials than that old ripstop. There is sil-nylon and 900+ fill Dri-Down.  BUT… I don’t have the money to drop $600 on a new sleeping bag or quilt. I’m lucky I got that decent ultralightweight bag over at Walmart so cheap last summer. [funny… I just checked the blog tags and realized I never posted about buying the bag. You can look for a post on that one pretty soon].

 

Last spring, when I started reevaluating the camping stuff that I still had, I pulled the old Gerry bag out of a trunk.  It was in remarkably good shape despite having been in a stuff sack for most of its existence. A little while out in the fresh sunlight, and both it and a 35-year-old Eddie Bauer down bag fluffed right up. The Bauer was in pretty good shape [and is made of a much softer, silkier, more comfortable, nylon material], however the Gerry probably had not even been washed since around 1980. There was a greenish ring around the neck, and a greasy “Brycream” spot inside the hood where the back of your head rested. It was kind of stiff feeling, had a couple of spark holes leaking down through the nylon on the foot, and I was really afraid that the ripstop material had gotten too fragile over the years.

However that bag was an old friend. It had been on dozens of trips up and down the length of the East Coast. Up in the mountains, down on the beach, out along the rivers, lakes, and swamps. Hiking, canoeing, kayaking, car camping… It’d been along on all of them.  It even been on two grand tours across the country to the Rocky Mountains and beyond. I sort of felt I “owed” it to it to give it a second chance on life, but all summer I never got around to doing anything other than hanging it up by it’s foot so the down wouldn’t be crushed anymore.

A couple of months ago I happened to notice a post from the good folks at Nik-Wax. They make a line of down care products specially suited for cleaning and renovating outdoor gear. While they informed me that they have now discontinued the offer, at that time, you could send in one piece of gear for an in-house “Nik-Wax Rehab”. If I would pay the outward bound shipping, they would even send the bag back at their own expense. What was there to lose? …I stitched up the little burn holes where the down was leaking, and sent them the Gerry bag.

THEY DID AN ASTOUNDING JOB! 

Based on my experience with what they achieved their products must be first rate. What came back to me it was a bag that was in nearly new condition. The ripstop material is no longer brittle feeling, but rather, soft and supple. It is glossy again and it smells clean!  If you just toss the bag out across the floor, the lofting goes right up to 6 inches.  You can feel with your fingers that the down is completely separated and evenly distributed. If it weren’t for the fact that the logo tag was a bit faded, you would never know that it was 40+ years old. Even with quality products like theirs, I am not sure I would’ve been able to do as good a job.

Thank you Nik-Wax. You guys saved my old bag from old age and  decrepitude. I’m deeply grateful.

I just looked over an old Sierra Designs down vest down cellar that also dates back to the 1970s. Just like with the Gerry line, the old SD stuff back then was made rock solid. [I have already successfully re-waterproofed one of their 40 year old 60/40 Parkas because there was not another thing wrong with it, it just wasn’t as repellent as it had been.] However, I seem to have been a pretty greasy guy when I went camping. The back-neck on the vest is pretty filthy and the pits are… well… pretty pitty…  Dirt-wise, the whole vest is pretty “repellent”, but there’s not another thing wrong with it either. Good gear is good gear. It just gets dirty when you never wash it.

Looks like I’ll be sending off some “thank you” money to Nik-Wax to find out if I can do as good a job at home.

 

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4 thoughts on “Sleeping Bag Revival

  1. I have a similar story with an REI down bag that I bought while I was in school around 1972. I have used it on and off since then and it spent most of the rest of the time in its stuff sack. In the past, I hand washed it every few years with Ivory Snow in the bathtub. I wanted to clean it last fall and decided to take it to the laundromat. I picked one that had the large front loading machines and washed my old bag, down parka and some other synthetic bags while I was there. I liked the way that the washing machine worked. It spun fast, but otherwise seemed to be fairy gentle while washing. I used a down wash, but not Nik-Wax. I’ve used their products and had no complaints, but I wanted to try another. I used two of the large commercial dryers on low temperature and made sure that low was low. Some of the commercial dryers don’t really have a low temperature setting. I think that I left them in the dryer for over two hours, but that wasn’t quite long enough to fluff all of the down, so I took them home and spread them out to finish drying. If I do this again, I’ll plan on leaving the down in the dryer until it is all dry and fluffy. I think that the air and motion helps to loosen the matted down. I’ve never had a cold night in this old down bag and I expect to use it for a while yet.

    • Thanks for your comment. One of my greatest concerns with the DIY bag cleaning was exactly what to do to get the down fluffy again. That was probably the greatest thing that held me back from doing it myself. The bag might’ve been a little dirty, but at least the down was fully lofted.
      My other concern was in stripping the natural waterproofing off the down. NikWax claims to be “down-safe”.
      When I get around to trying to clean the vest, I’ll post an update.

  2. I just picked up this exact Gerry blue mummy bag at a thrift store in Bismarck, ND today for $18! I worked in outdoor retail for 5 years, and I am an avid backpacker and camper so I like to think I can spot a quality product. I thought I would take it home and do some online research on the company. This sleeping bag is older than I am, but it looks like it was well taken care of and I can’t wait to try it out!! (after I wash it with good old Nikwax down wash of course). I have a vintage 70’s Kelty external frame pack I picked up at an estate sale a few years ago. I hope to take a trip using both these items sometime soon.

    Thank you for writing this blog I love your story, and look forward to reading more of your entries!

    P.S.- the secret to getting down items fluffy again after washing is 2 tennis balls in the dryer!!

    • The tennis ball trick is great for fluffing, however I like to let stuff air dry for a while after the extraction/rinse cycle to minimize the chance of stressing or tearing the baffles between the channels.

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