Thoughts on Sleep Systems

This week I'm going on a gear shakedown. I won't have time to go on any longer trips for a while, so instead I'm going to do a couple of overnights in nearby state parks to get used to some of the new kit I've been accumulating and try out some new techniques. It's quite refreshing to do this - to not have to think about how far I'm hiking. Just get out and enjoy some time outside.

It's also funny to look at weather forecasts to deliberately choose days when it will be wet.

One thing I've been trying to do recently is lighten up my sleeping system. In the past I've been stuck with some old, heavy-ish gear, and I wanted to shift to a more UL but flexible approach.

I think there is little point in getting obsessed with having the lightest gear unless you are still able to retain flexibility with that gear. Whatever kit you have, you should be able to adapt it to different conditions, circumstances and environments.

For me, my sleep system is probably the most important combination of gear. I want to be kept warm (but not too warm), dry, free from bugs, and, ideally cushioned like a baby. Above all, I want a good night's sleep.  I know I tend to roll and toss around at night, which makes achieving that more complicated.

With that in mind, let's look at my current sleeping gear, looking at the pros and cons of each element: bivy, pad and quilt.

As I now use either a SpinnTwinn or Duomid, I have a TiGoat Ptarmigan Bivy to protect me from any over-zealous rain or snow. It adds a couple of degrees warmth to the quilt or bag by protecting from wind, and the full-netting hood gives me secondary protection in the DuoMid, and will save my life from the blood-sucking bastards under the SpinnTwinn.

One problem, concerning compatibility with the rest of the gear, is that the large NeoAir doesn't fit inside. I originally bought the large version because, well, I'm large, and as I mentioned I roll around a lot, especially when I'm hot. Putting the bivy on the NeoAir seems like a bad idea to me - it would either slip off or get stuck on the sticky surface while I twist and turn.

So, I ordered a NeoAir short, which I know will fit inside, but a lot of tall people have pointed out recently that your knees hang off the 2.5 inch edge, which can lead to back ache.

The point of a short pad is obviously to cut down on weight. The idea is to place other things -- i.e.  a backpack -- under your legs to provide insulation. However, one problem with this and UL backpacking: the lighter you go, the more insubstantial your backpack becomes, and so the less insulation and support it provides. This applies also to your pillow - the less additional clothing you have, the smaller your pillow, which then increases the need for an inflatable pillow. So in getting lighter, you might in fact need to take more, which seems to me a little contradictory (at least until you start weighing everything).

There has been a lot of anti NeoAir sentiment recently, especially since the arrival of a new contender to the inflatable throne - the POE Ether Elite 6 (which Chris Townsend is testing, and both Robin and Martin have recently acquired). I've always found my large NeoAir very comfortable, but it is a little heavy (540g), especially compared to the short (260g). The Ether Elite 6 seems to have found a nice spot in the middle, at 390g. I tried out a similar pad, and the vertical baffles center you on the pad. On the Neo Air I tend to find my way off it. I'm wondering if it might be better for a side sleeper, such as myself. Laying on your back, your arms tend to fall off the sides, but for a side sleeper (such as myself) I'm wondering if it might be a better choice. The tapered ends would also fit nicely into my bivy.

This is a clear example of the importance of finding the right piece of gear for your personal needs. Sometimes the lightest isn't necessarily the best. I'm going to give the NeoAir Short a try this week, but if it doesn't suit me, I might sell it - maybe both of them - and get an Ether.

Regarding the bag itself, I'd been trying to choose between a Western Mountaineering Summerlite or Megalite for a while, having jumped off the quilt bandwagon. It seemed to me that there was no point in getting a lightweight quilt that weighed more than a full sleeping bag. You can use the sleeping bag as a quilt anyway, just unzip it.

After trying a Summerlite and Megalite and thrashing around in the shop, I decided that the Megalite's wider girth was more suitable for my night-time acrobatics. I was all set to splash out the $370 needed. And then the July 4th sales started, and I found a GoLite Ultralite 3-Season (the new version of the Ultra 20) for $215. It weighs 1 ounce more than the Megalite. Much as I love WM bags, I couldn't justify the price difference.

I hope that a quilt will suit me more than a bag - at least for spring-summer-autumn use. We shall see this week when I try it for the first time - although with 30C temps, and 89% humidity, I doubt I'll need it much.

I'll report on how everything goes later in the week!