Originally published April 2018 on Adventure Journal.
When picking out a place to stay in Seattle, Washington, some would say a hip little bungalow in the Beacon Hill neighborhood is the way to go. Others suggest a cozy home in Capitol Hill or a studio in the heart of downtown. But the best overnight locale is the shipping container turned freezer in Therm-a-Rest’s warehouse. It’s like a comfy human-sized ice cube tray.
The Seattle-based camping brand has been researching cozy outdoor sleeping since 1972. In 1995, that examination led to the purchase of an industrial shipping container that Therm-a-Rest transformed into an extra large freezer in which to test their gear, complete with nifty temperature and climate controls.
The longtime resident of this icy abode is a $200,000 high-tech mannequin named Hugh. Thermetrics, a Seattle-based company that creates instruments for measuring and evaluating the thermal comfort of textiles, garments, protective apparel, and dynamic thermal environments, built Hugh. Here’s how he works: The dummy is set to 98 degrees, our average temperature. He is then laid upon a 1.5-inch-thick solid foam pad used as a standard for testing. The temperature inside the chamber is then set, and the energy Hugh needs to maintain his temperature is measured and examined, and refinements are made to sleep systems accordingly.
Therm-a-Rest is the only mattress and sleeping bag company that owns a cold chamber and testing mannequin. Every other brand sends gear to Kansas State University to be tested by its Thermetrics mannequin inside a similar cold chamber environment.
In addition to its own tests, Therm-a-Rest uses KSU as the third-party verification of temperature ratings, so why have an onsite chamber and mannequin? Because it allows faster research and development, just two hours instead of a two-week process with KSU. Day-of data is analyzed and multiple sleep system iterations are created in order to refine the gear—sleeping bags, quilts, blankets, and mattresses—regarding fill, construction, and materials.
As both a skeptic and an idiot, I decided a nocturnal nuzzle with Hugh would be a grand way to spend an evening last month. The cold chamber was set to a frosty 11 because, well, Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel told me so. I used a cold weather Therm-a-Rest sleep system: the Oberon [discontinued] zero degree sleeping bag laid atop the NeoAir XLite camp mattress with the Z Lite Sol pad laid underneath. Plus, a compressible pillow. Just before 10:30 p.m., I suited up in Helly Hansen’s ultra warm Lifa Merino base layers and wondered if I should start my arctic buddy slumber with So, Hugh, ya sleep here often?
With equal parts excitement and apprehension, I crawled inside of the Oberon with giant safety earmuffs on (compressors had to run all night in order to keep my glacial Airbnb at 11 degrees…and compressors are loud). I zipped up and cinched the hood of the bag tight as thoughts of freezer-burned vegetables danced in my head. To my surprise and delight, the Oberon warmed within a few minutes and I quickly drifted off to dreamland. I assume Hugh did, too.
Even though I run hotter than a raccoon in a Turkish bathhouse, I figured a night in a freezer would give me a better chance at becoming a popsicle than getting any actual sleep. I’ve camped in the cold before and it ain’t that great. But after an hour or so of sleep and a midnight bathroom break, I shed the Helly base layers and returned to my icy snooze in a tee shirt and skivvies. Shockingly, I was too warm. The sleep system not only heated up quickly, it also sustained that warmth throughout the night. I eventually ended up sleeping with the Oberon half unzipped and my head outside of the bag entirely.
I slept from midnight to nearly 6 a.m. in warmth and comfort. That is to say, being too cold was of no concern. But the compressors droned and kept my REM cycle hostage all night. I wasn’t exactly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed come sun-up, but I was comfy and snug as a bug. As for Hugh, well, he’s not much of a talker—but he’s a great listener and one hell of a cuddler.