sleep systems

Ultralight Makeover: Redux Pt. 4 - Change Your Bedding

PLEASE NOTE: Revised and regularly updated versions of these posts are accessible from the top menu bar under "Ultralight Makeover". What follows is the original post - to keep up-to-date with the latest developments in the Ultralight Backpacking world, check out the updated articles.

 

Part 4 of a 12-part series in which Backpacking North analyzes 

Backpacker

 magazine's recommendations to reduce your pack weight, and offers a more comprehensive selection of tips and gear recommendations from hiking blogs and experienced bloggers.

<< Part 3: Downsize your pack

4. Change your bedding.

Backpacker

 says "If you're going to spend big on one piece of gear, make it your bag." We should, they say, aim for a three season bag/pad combo weighing 3lb / 1.36kg or less. They recommend splurging on a premium down bag to save weight and bulk, and select the

Marmot Plasma 15

($469, 1lb 14oz / 906g) and a

Pacific Outdoors [Now Hyalite] Peak Elite AC

($80, 14oz.)

The first thing that strikes me about this is:

what about quilts?

I'm surprised that

Backpacker

 only lists one recommendation for a bag; it's not that it's a bad bag, in fact it looks pretty good (if a little expensive). It's just that there are so many bags out there, and for summer use a full mummy bag might just be a bit excessive (this depends on a lot of factors though, as we'll discuss). As for a pad, the POE Peak Elite is a great three season pad – providing you can find one: it's still vary hard to find in the US almost a year after it's release, and some people who have managed to get hold of one have had manufacturing quality issues. Not a good sign, and therefore a surprising recommendation.

Backpacking North says...

Choosing a bag and pad involves balancing a complex array of factors and considerations. There are so many opposing` choices to be made: Down or synthetic? Mummy or quilt? Three-season or four? Bag combos? The variety of bags with slightly different temperature ratings, materials, and weights is overwhelming. For pads, the options are equally numerous.

A veritable plethora of bags from Montbell, WM, Big Agnes, Marmot et al at Midwest Mountaineering

The apparently infinitely variable combination of sleep systems reveals a truth about our individual requirements to achieve good night's sleep in the outdoors: everyone is different. We all feel the cold in different ways because we all have different bodies (thankfully). When choosing a sleeping system (and it is important to consider the entire system: pad, bag, bivy, pillow, clothes) only you know what you need. You can read a hundred blogs espousing the latest, greatest, lightest pad to beat all pads with a warmth rating of 5.7, and

still

feel cold at night. Or, you can be one of those lucky warm sleepers who can get by with just a scrap of tyvek. Age, body type, sleep habits, gender -– all come into play (and, incidentally, many pad and bag makers offer specific models for women, with extra insulation or padding in the hips and feet).

So, let's take a look at some of the options available to us in the hope that we can make an informed decision about what we need in our sleep system.

Bags vs. Quilts

First, the big one: do you really want or need a mummy bag (a full sleeping bag with a hood)? Many ultralight hikers today choose quilts over bags for the weight benefits and general flexibility. Quilts differ from mummy bags in that they typically do not entirely surround your body, but instead can be tucked under your body, leaving your torso in direct contact with your sleeping pad. The argument for doing this is simple – in a down mummy bag, the compressed feathers under your body offer little or no insulation anyway, so why not eliminate it altogether? As for the hood – do you really need a hood in summer? And if you do, couldn't you just wear a hat? In the event of colder temperatures, a pull-on, down hood or balaclava (such as

this one from Katabatic

) offers the same insulating effect as a mummy hood, and doubles as camp wear should you need it.

For me, the choice between a mummy bag and a quilt is far simpler and has little to do with insualtion: I'm an active side-sleeper, and I hate getting twisted and caught up in a mummy bag as I thrash around at night. Under a quilt, my body moves, but the bag stays in place. The end result? I actually sleep instead of working up an unpleasant night sweat trying to reposition the bag around me for hours on end. A quilt eliminates my sleeping issues, and saves me weight, and keeps me warm. It's also easier to throw off part of the quilt if you get too warm.

However, if you're a back sleeper and you don't move around much, a mummy bag can suit you perfectly fine. Some people simply prefer the coccoon-like coziness of a bag.

If the wasted, compressed insulation bothers you, there is a compromise between bags and quilts.

Big Agnes

, for example, make a range of

 mummy-like bags with pockets sewn underneath

for sleeping pads.

Down vs. Synthetic

It is often said that if you live in a wet climate, you choose synthetic, otherwise you choose down. To be honest, I don't think that's an entirely relevant argument any more. Water resistant materials make down bags perfectly viable in wet climates, and in any case, you should always keep your bag (down or synthetic) in some sort of waterproof stuffsack or pack liner. A wet down bag is not an option. A wet synthetic bag will still keep you warm in theory, but there's no need to test that theory just before bedtime. Your bag should be protected, whatever insulation it contains.

The second argument for down is also increasingly under challenge from new synthetic fabrics: compressibility. Although down is undoubtedly more compressible than synthetics, and re-lofts beautifullly after compression, newer synthetic fabrics approach down's compressibility – but you'll pay a premium for them. While it's possible to find a synthetic bag bargain, cheaper synthetic materials tend to be bulky and heavy.

Of course, the lighter you travel the less you'll need to compress your bag anyway. With all your new ultralight gear, and your

new pack

, you'll probably find it beneficial

not

 to compress the bag. Stuffing it loosely in a pack liner will bulk out the pack more, helping to make it a better fit and a more comfortable carry.

Next up in the down vs. synthetic war of attrition is longevity. Down bags have long been praised for still remaining fluffy and warm after 20 years use. Down bags can also be fairly easily restuffed if needed, prolonging their lifetime.

Synthetic, on the other hand, is generally considered to have a much shorter lifetime, with some materials only withstanding around 5 years of active use. It's impossible to assess the durability of newer synthetic fabrics; their longevity has not yet had time to be proven. But if you look after a down bag, your initial investment will definitely pay off, and you'll have a warm cuddly friend for a long long time. So remember – always store your sleeping bag uncompressed.

Nevertheless, synthetics have definitely improved, so don't disregard them altogether. When it comes down to it (ho ho ho), synthetic does have one benefit over down: cost. Synthetics are typically much cheaper than down bags. While cheap down bags are available, all down is not equal. Cheaper bags use lower quality feathers, rated around 550+, which means you need more of it to achieve the same amount of insulation as you would using higher rated 900+ down. The better quality the down, the more expensive the bag, and ultralight gear requires the use of the finest, warmest, loftiest down available. You can be sure that the duck that was plucked to make your ultralight quilt was from the highest European stock.

Synthetics, on the other hand, are manufactured in bulk, are cheaper to reproduce, and they don't need feeding, unlike those greedy ducks. Although hi-tech synthetic materials can get costly, they are still much cheaper than down.

Personally, I generally lean towards down with one exception: synthetic quilts make an excellent choice as a winter overbag. As this series of articles focuses mainly on summer/three-season use, I'll leave that topic for you to research for yourself (you can check out 

Fjäderlatt

, and 

Thunder in the Night

 for more info on this subject).

A constructive note for down

Another important thing to consider in choosing a down bag is the way that the chambers containing the down have been constructed. Ultralight summer bags are likely to be simply stitched through, trapping a single layer of down in one area. This is fine, but the stitching will have next to no insulating ability. Compare this to a colder rated bag, in which the down is contained in overlapping chambers (a baffled construction) - so there are no cold spots from  seams. You can

read a lot more about technical aspects of baffle construction here

 and

here

.

Temperature ratings

Just how low will your bag or quilt go? Manufacturers' temprarture ratings have been notoriously unreliable – especially the more mainstream, cheaper options. Recently, manufacturers have been adopting the European rating system, the catchily named EN 13537, which gives a clearer indication of a bag's warmth by giving separate ratings for different extremes of temperature use.

  • Upper Limit — the temperature at which a standard man can sleep without excessive perspiration. 
  • Comfort — the temperature at which a standard woman can expect to sleep comfortably in a relaxed position.
  • Lower Limit — the temperature at which a standard man can sleep for eight hours in a curled position without waking.
  • Extreme — the minimum temperature at which a standard woman can remain for six hours without risk of death from hypothermia (though frostbite is still possible).

It's a useful system, if still a little confusing (hey, this

is

 the EU) as the upper and lower limits describe men, while comfort and extreme describe women. And what is a standard man? Apparently he is 25 years old, 1.73 meters high, and weighs 73kg. Maybe that explains why I sleep cold – I just don't live up to standards. A standard woman, incidentally, is also 25, but only 1.6m tall, and a mere slip of a lass at 60kg. Everyone else is considered non-standard and a failure. At least you now know where you stand.

If only life were that simple. You should treat sleeping bag ratings as indicators. Generally it's wise to get a bag rated a little lower than the typical temps you expect. My summer quilt, for example, is rated fairly accurately to -7ºC. While that might seem a little extreme for summer, I know I sleep cold, and I know that Lapland nights can easily drop close to zero C, so it's a suitable bag.

While it's wise to err on the side of caution when buying a bag or quilt, there is another way to travel with a lighter, higher rated bag, and improvise your way to warmth...

Clothing as part of a sleep system

There was a time when I would strip down to my undies, ready for a good night's sleep in the wild. It was a habit that was hard to kick, but a very impractical one. Temperatures would drop at night, I'd inevitably have to pee after drinking all the whiskey, and I'd end up shivering in the dark cursing the day I decided to go hiking.

The solution: wear your clothes to bed. It's a much more flexible and modular approach that can extend the warmth rating of your bag. If you wake up in the middle of the night to answer the call of nature, you're not going to freeze in the process. In the morning, it's up and away – you no longer have to curl up in your bag in denial of the fact that at some point you'll have to brave that unseasonably chilly air. You're already dressed.

Wear a light down jacket to bed, and a hat, and you have no need for the confining space of a mummy bag. Clothed, under a quilt, you can add or remove layers to increase or decrease warmth. If it gets really cold, put everything on. Your 10ºC bag just became part of a -2ºC sleep system. By taking this modular approach you save weight, and possibly money (although you'll probably end up spending a fortune on cool, hi-tech clothing).

I wouldn't recommend leaping straight into wearing your clothes as part of a sleep system without first being certain of your body temperature at night and having a pretty good idea of how warm you need to be. Better to start with a warmer bag or quilt and find your comfort levels first. you can always sell it later and get a lighter one (

see part 1 for used gear sites

).

A caveat: don't wear clothes you've been cooking in if you're in evil bear country. You know that right?And be aware that oils and dirt from clothes (and skin) will over time reduce the breathability of your bag – so keep it clean with some Nikwax or other down/synthetic cleaning product.

Wearable Quilts

For the ultimate in multi-use, ultralight quiltery, how about one you can wear?

Jacks'R'Better

 (warning: painfully bad web design) make a range of quilts that you can adapt into down outerwear. It's a neat and radical idea, although don't expect to win any awards on the catwalk (duckboards?).

The rest of the system: Pads, Pillows, and Bivy Bags

In most climates, even in summer you will want some form of barrier between you and the ground. Fortunately, the warmer months allow us to pick from a selection of super lightweight air mattresses. Many now feature innovative forms of reflective insulation allowing them to be pushed into colder weather, and even into winter when combined with a decent, thick closed cell foam pad. The pad can also be used to give structure to your pack.

When choosing a pad, consider your sleeping style, and try out a few in a store if you can. I started out with a NeoAir, but found the horizontal baffles led me to roll off the pad all the time. After switching to a vertical baffle pad I had much sweeter dreams.

You can save some weight by choosing a short pad, or even 2/3 or 1/2 length pad, and using your empty pack under your legs. It's a nice idea, but I find it makes me feel like my legs are hanging off a ledge, and reduces my blood circulation. A lot of this depends on how thick your pad is – it might work better with thinner CCF pads.

Pillows are a contentious item. Some swear by them, others insist you should use your spare clothes in a stuff sack. But what if you're wearing your clothes as part of a sleep system? No excuses! Use your shoes! I gave in and started to take a pillow with me.

We dealt with Byvy Bags in briefly in

part 3

, and they too form an essential part of your sleep system, especially if you are in an open tarp. Many bags come in breathable waterproof/repellant materials these days (Pertex Quantum and eVent being favourites), but for more serious protection, a Bivy will keep your sleeping bag dry.

One tip: when you put all these slippery fabrics together – bags/quilts, pads, pillows, bivvies – you'll find things tend to slip around a lot. Dabs of SilNet silicone sealant applied to the base of your pad and perhaps pillow help to reduce this annoying slippage. Avoiding slopes also helps. Some bivy bags feature stake out points which, if stitched well, will help to hold everything in place.

What does Backpacking North use?

First, I wouldn't say that my sleep system is perfect. Finding the right combination of gear for your needs – one that is flexible enough to cope with all conditions, environments, and seasons – is a long proces of trial an error. All I can talk about is what I currently use, and what other gear I am considering to add to the system.

Sleep system action shot

My main summer quilt is the

GoLite Ultralight 3-Season

, a great starter quilt available at a reasonable price ($275). At 837g (long) it's not the lightest, but I like that it has a tougher, waterproof, foot box and shoulder sections. These are great for use under a tarp or DuoMid. It's rated to -7ºC, which I find to be fairly accurate, and is filled with 800+ down. The previous version of this quilt – the Ultralight 20 – was lighter. GoLite has an odd tendency recently of increasing their weights with each release, but at $275 the current medel is at least reasonably priced (that is, compared to some other manufacturers).

My other bag is a

Western Mountaineering Antelope MF

, rated to -15ºC, and weighing 1160g. Western Mountaineering are the standard bearers for high quality down mummy bags. The Antelope is a little wider in the shoulder, which makes it more suited to side-sleepers, thrashers, and the broad shouldered. In winter, I prefer to be fully enclosed against draughts, and for Lapland temps I need a decent bag (alhtough the Antelope is classified as a three-season, I rarely go out in extreme temps (say, -30ºC). If I did, or expected significantly lower temperatures I could always take the GoLite quilt as an overbag, and wear all my clothes. For the two or three nights a year I'm likely to be out in extremely cold weather, I simply can't justify spending a fortune on a -40ºC bag. I'd rather stay at home and eat cakes.

I'd love to go lighter with both bags, but where I'd really like to improve is in developing a complete and flexible system. The GoLite is fine, but for summer, I could probably manage with a synthetic quilt, which could then double as a winter overbag (as per the

Johannson/Newton method

). Without going into too much detail, a synthetic overbag in winter is a wiser choice than a down because escaping moisture  gets trapped in the synthetic material, which, unlike wet down, will still keep you warm.

So, my ideal would be a light, compressible summer bag rated to a few degrees below 0ºC, combined with the Antelope. The new

MLD Spirit 28

would be a prime contender.

I'm not totally ruling out a down quilt for winter (Katabatic have some very nice ones, as we'll see) but right now I prefer being nicely tuckedin in extreme cold. As I've mentioned a couple of times, finding the right gear is all about knowing what you require, and what is appropriate for the environment. I'd be willing to try a winter quilt, but the cost of purchasing one only to find I don't like it puts me off.

As for a bivy bag, I use  

Katabatic Bristlecone

, which I find

just about perfect

.

Katabatic Bristlecone detail

I tried a TiGoat Ptarmigan, and had a catastrophic mosquito netting failure with it. The Katabatic replaces this and I'm extremely happy with it.

For a pillow, after trying the clothes-in-a-stuffsack approach, the spare water canteen approach, and a KookaBay inflatable, I settled on a nice

ExPed Air Pillow

– it's cheap, it's light (78g) it's soft, it's shapely, and with a little bit of shock cord it can be easily attached to a sleeping pad. Most importantly, it seems ideal for a side sleeper, and I sleep very well on it. I love the plush, subtly soft feel of the material – so much nicer than plain nylon.

Exped Air Pillow

Lastly, the sleeping pad. I'm currently using a POE Ether Elite 6, which is no longer available (and wasn't available for long anyway). The replacement, the Peak Elite AC, is also hard to find (virtually impossible outside the UK), and seems to suffer from leaking issues – which is a shame as it's a great pad: light, warm, with verticle baffles to keep you nicely centered.

What do others use?

Normally, when looking at other blogger's favorite pieces of gear, it's quite easy to recognize popular trends and identify clear winners. Not so with sleeping systems. Each person has developed their own preferences. However, there are a few items which have managed to raise their heads above the crowds, and find their way into the kit of more than one individual.

MLD Spirit 28-38-48º Sybthetic Quilt

 (formerly Spirit 30)

MLD's synthetic Spirit quilt is a favorite of several bloggers.

Martin Rye

uses one, and

Joe Newton

's forms part of his four-season go anywhere system. Now coming in three versions for different temperatures, it's one of two quilts I'm seriously considering.

Joe Newton enjoying a break in his MLD Spirit 30 (photo courtesy Joe Newton / Thunder int he Night). 

Western Mountaineering

Megalite

/

Ultralight

 (and other) down bags

Reoger over at

Nielsen Brown Outdoors

uses a Megalite, and Joe's Ultralight forms the other half of his bag/quilt system. Western Mountaineering make fantastic bags, with plenty of variation in temperature ranges, materials, and girth. They are very well made, and expensive – and sadly sales are very rare online. Check out the whole range of bags in the

ExtremeLite

series, but don't ignore the rest of the range – many of the

Microfiber series

are close in weight to the ExtremeLite range.

MontBell U.L. Super Spiral Down Huggers

bags

Fraser McAlister

reminded me about these. They are an interesting mummy design: the stitching is elasticated a little, making them another potential good choice if you like to thrash around at night, or have a hump.

BPL reviewed one

a while back (membership required)

Katabatic Gear down quilts

New on the scene, but rapidly gaining popularity, are Katabatic's range of quilts, the Chisos (40ºF), Palisade (30ºF), Aslek (22ºF), Sawatch (15ºF), and Blackwelder (0ºF). Combined with one of their down hoods, they make an excellent choice for quiltily inclined. The

Sawatch got the coveted Backpacking Light Highly Recommended rating

 (membership required).

GoLite Ultralite 3 Season down quilt.

A great and popular starter quilt, available at a reasonable price (compared to others, at least).

Currently on sale at a real bargain price

, if you can get one, it's s a great place to start a love affair with quilts.

Jacks'R'Better down quilts

Jacks'R'Better have a very good reputation among the cognoscenti.

Phil Turner

(a Stealth) loves them, ultralight lovebirds 

Helen Fisher

(a Rocky Mountain) and

Thomas Gauperaa

(a Sierra) both have one, and the Backpacking Light forums are full of people singing their praises. The all-time classic is the No Sniveller  (

BPL review)

- a wearable quilt which offers great flexibility and will surely make you the talking point around camp. I think it is now called the

Sierra Sniveler

, but it's hard to tell with such a terribly designed website.

Nunatak down quilts and mummy bags

The choice for the eilte ultralighter, Nunatak are to quilts what Western Mountaineering are to mummy bags. Their

Arc Alpinist

is their most popular model, rated to 20ºF.

Trailblaze reviewed it

.

Ray Jardine Ray-Way Quilt Kit

The quilt that started it all - now available in kit form.

Sleeping Mats.

A couple of years ago, the Therm-a-Rest Neo Air was the discerning ultralight backpackers air mat of choice. One of the first in a range of new mats featuring an internal heat-reflective layer, the NeoAir was both light and warm, Unfortunately it was also a bit noisy and a little uncomfortable. It's recently been replaced by a heavier, but warmer version, the

NeoAir All Season

, (560g) 

which Phil reviewed

 earlier this year.

Shortly after the original NeoAir was introduced, Pacific Outdoor Equipment released the Ether Elite 6, featuring localized insulation, a lighter weight, and a lighter price. Sadly, it was hard to get hold of outside the US, and was replaced, after one year, by the Peak Elite AC, which soon also became hard to find. Recently POE was bought out by Hyalite, and the

Peak Elite AC 

(396g) now lives on under their brand. The AC ups the ante over the Elite 6 by including a reflective layer

and

localised insulation. Unfortunately this is hard to find in the US, but Phil in the UK got hold of one and made a

video review

. A few people have had problems with air leaks (e.g.,

Ken / I'm going for a scuttle

, and Mark at 

Mark's Walking Blog

) so hopefully POE's next ultralight air mattress will be even better and more universally available.

Exped make a range of lightweight synthetically insulated mats, and the

SynMat UL7

(480g) gets positive reviews  from 

Dondo

 and 

Mark's Walking Blog

.  I like Exped's inflation/deflation system (one valve for each) and the fact that they have eye-holes for attaching their lovely air pillows.

A new pad with an unusual design has been doing the rounds, the

Klymit Inertia

 series, skimpy pads  which shave off weight by including free holes.

It's a radical design, and I've not heard of many people using one. In fact, until I saw a photo today of one used

inside

 a sleeping bag, the whole idea seemed a bit daft, but in theory, an in-bag pad with holes 

might

 make allow some of down under your body to fluff up and provide some insulation. The

Klymit Inertia X-Frame

pictured above weighs 258g.

Hardcore UL'ers like to use half or 2/3 pads to save even more weight, using their packs and other items under their legs as simple insulation from the ground. It saves some weight, but I value what little luxury I can get from my sleep system, and a full pad gives me a better night's sleep.

You can save weight by just carrying a closed cell foam pad, although your comfort might be compromised. When I was younger I'd happily sleep on just a rolled up CCF mat, but those days are long gone. If you're still supple and flexible, you could do worse than looking into

Multimat's

collection of foam mats (and even if you're not supple, they are worth looking at for additional Winter insulation). the Multimat Adventure weighs in at 190g, for example.

For a more thorough examination and comparison of current (2011) air mats, see

Backpacking Light's state of the market report

(membership required).

Bivy Bags, briefly

The

Katabatic Bristlecone

has received plaudits from

Joe

, Roger (

Nielsen Brown

),

myself

, and others.

MLD

made a very popular range of bivies. Checking their (recently hacked) site I only see the

Superlight

now, so I'm not sure if they have scaled back the models of if the site is still in recovery.

Further Info:

Hiking in Finland has a

great post on quilts

Joe's post on a

flexible 4-season sleeping system

Mummy bag state of the market report

@ Backpacking Light (membership required)

Lightweight inflatable air mats report 2011

 @ Backpacking Light (membership required)

Unconventional Sleep Systerms Review and Gear Guide

@ Backpacking Light (membership required)

Unconventional Sleep Stsyems Manifesto

 @ Backpacking Light (membership required)

Links to manufactures

Big Agnes

Feathered Friends

GoLite

Jacks'R'Better

Katabatic Gear

Klymit

Montbell

Mountain Laurel Designs (MLD)

Multimat

Nunatek

PHD

RAB

Ray Jardine

Western Mountaineering

Yeti

Check out the rest of Ultralight Makeover Redux:

Part 1: Admit you have a problem

Part 2: Downsize your pack

Part 3: Ditch your dome

Part 4: Change your bedding

Part 5: Start cooking light

Part 6: Pay attention to the menu

Part 7: Carry less water

Part 8: Dress down

Part 9: Stay fresh with less

Part 10: Pack knowledge

Part 11: Go smart-tech

Part 12: Give your feet a break

Katabatic Bristlecone update

Owing to popular demand (well, Roger), here's a photo of the revised zip-stop on Katabatic's Bristlecone bivy.

As you can hopefully see, the material at the end of the zip has now been folded over a couple of times, and sewn under the rest of the pertex for reinforcement.

It's a subtle change, but hopefully an effective one.

And if a photo of a zip stop isn't geeky enough for you, here are a couple more of the tie-out loop and the stake-out loop. May the nerdgasms commence.

All I need now is an opportunity to try it out again...

Katabatic Gear Bristlecone Bivy [updated]

Sleeping in a bivy has always seemed a little too claustrophobic to me; a little like those pod hotels they have in Japan. So it was with a little trepidation that I ordered my first bivy a few months ago, having made the transition to using tarps and single-wall shelters. How would I cope with what I felt was a constricting form of protection?

Katabatic Bristlecone (image from Katabatic Gear)

Bivy bags come in different forms - for stand-alone use, for use under a tarp, or for protection while sleeping precariously halfway up the side of a mountain face. I have no interest in the latter; my bivy bag needs to protect me from condensation on the inner wall of my DuoMid, or from blown rain or spindrift finding its way under my SpinnTwinn.

Stand-alone bivy bags are more like mini tents; they offer full protection from the weather, be it wind, rain or snow, while offering breathability to allow perspiration to escape without forming condensation inside the bivy. This requires a lot of work from the material, the current favourite being eVent.

Katabatic Gear's Brislecone bivy

falls clearly in the category of bivy's designed to be used under a tarp. The upper material is Pertex Quantum, a lightweight, water resistant material with exceptional breathability. According to the manufacturer it is "ideal for situations where high water resistance isn't as important as breathability or weight savings."

Somewhere in there is a Brislecone...

For this reason, the Bristlecone is best used under a tarp or in a single-wall shelter unless you can be absolutely certain that it won't rain. The design Katabatic have employed for the bivy reiterates this. Rather than making the hood section completely from Pertex Quantum, it features a generous no-see-um mesh which offers an almost 180 degree window around your face once safely zipped up inside. This window, for me, goes a long way to alleviate feelings of claustrophobia. I find it very enjoyable to be able to see what is going on around me during the frequent interruptions to my sleep that I usually experience out in the wilds.

There is an art to making bug netting windows, however, and Katabatic exceeded my expectations in this design. Usually, manufactures offer either very tiny mesh windows, or full mesh hoods, neither of which appeal to me.

My previous bivy, the TiGoat Ptarmigan, has a neat convertible hood, but the tie-out loop on the mesh was attached directly to the netting - one of the weakest points in the bivy. Bug mesh is fragile and easily snagged or torn at the best of times. On the first night I used the Ptarmigan, the tie out loop ripped a big hole in the bug netting, and I became very, very upset.

The Bristlecone addresses this issue with an elasticated tie-out loop attached above the zipper in the hood. It is sewn into the far stronger zipper material, and is thus able to handle much more stress from the inevitable rolling around, zipping, unzipping and general tugging undergone while adjusting it during the night.

Bristlecone hood (image from Katabatic Gear)

Tying up the hood lifts the bug netting off your face, and simultaneously raises the Pertex Qualtum area of the hood to create a barrier against blown rain. The water resistant area faces the weather at a steep angle, so water rolls easily off. The netting side angles down towards the rest of the bag, increasing ventilation by allowing warmer air to rise up the inside of the bag and escape. Perfect.

Lying on my POE Ether Elite and Kooka Bay air pillow, I found that the bug netting just touched my nose while on my back. However, I do have a large nose(!) The feel of the netting was not unpleasant, however.

Another design consideration I appreciated was the zipper, which extends across and half way down the side of the bag, making it much easier to climb inside. I did have one problem with the zip. Somehow, when I unzipped it, I managed to tear the small piece of fabric acting as a stopper. This then came completely unstitched, and the zip fell off.

This wasn't such a big problem but I was surprised as in all other aspects this is an almost perfect piece of gear. I don't recall unzipping particularly hard, so in all likelihood it was probably already weakened. I was able to re-attach the zip quite easily. At Katabatic's request I've sent the bivy back for repair or replacement. It was the only problem I had, but I can see it happening quite easily. Katabatic might want to use a stronger piece of material as a zipper stop in the future.

-- UPDATE --

Aaron at Katabatic emailed me today to say that they will be adding a reinforcement to the zipper stop on all bivys made from this point on.  It's so great when a manufacturer responds to feedback and makes amendments to the design.

-- END UPDATE --

The base of the bag is waterproof silnylon, and all I can say is that it did its job very well. I found that my Ether Elite slid around like crazy on the silnylon. I ordered a long version of the bivy (198cm) and I hoped that the Ether Elite, also 198cm, would just fit nicely inside it. However the Bristlecone was still longer than the sleeping pad by some 20-30cm, which isn't a bad thing: it provides room to stuff extra clothes if needed. I like to stuff my down jacket above my head for example, so I can grab it if the temperatures drop too far at night.

So, with this extra length, the pad still had room to move around. I tried attaching dabs of SilNet to the underside of the pad, hoping that they would stop it slipping, but they didn't adhere to the pad's material very well, and have now all peeled off. Another solution was quickly improvised. Katabatic have added attachment points inside the Bristlecone for their quilts. I use a GoLite Ultralite quilt, which also comes with attachment points and some webbing. I took the webbing, slipped it through the clips on the Bristlecone, and secured the Ether Elite that way. This worked pretty well. The mat no longer slid around.

Another problem I faced with the Ptarmigan bivy was that there wasn't much girth  to allow for my thrashing around at night. I'd get it all twisted up around me. The Bristlecone, although advertised as having the same girth, was in fact much more roomy.

The Bristlecone also has stake-out loops on each corner. They are not attached particularly securely - there is no reinforcement - so they won't cope with a lot of stress or tension, but I tried them with great success. I staked out the two corners in the hood to stop the bivy from sliding around on the polycryo ground sheet and it worked a treat. I could side-sleep and turn without that annoying feeling that you are going to wake up somewhere else.

The most important question still needs answering: did it keep my quilt free from condensation? The simplest answer: yes. Each morning the interior was dry. On one particularly cold and dewy morning I felt what might have been a very slight patina of moisture on the inside. This was probably because I snuggled up in my quilt, pulling it over my mouth, which would have increased the moisture at the top of the bivy. My quilt felt dry, so it was probably my imagination.

As for the exterior, it easily shed any condensation picked up from the shelter walls. Water beaded up and rolled off instantly. I'm confident that even with sustained contact it will keep everything dry inside. The stake-out loops can also be used to hang and dry the bivy if necessary, but I found it dried in the shelter while I ate breakfast.

The 198cm (6'6") Bristlecone costs $149 from Katabatic Gear, and weighs in at 200g. One nice thing is that the price is the same for the regular and long version - I wish more manufacturers would spread their costs this way.

To summarise, the Bristlecone is a high-quality piece of kit, and I look forward to using it again.

-- Updated to include info on zipper stop design modification by Katabatic --

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!