Change your bedding

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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). 

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.

Sleeping bags & quilts
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 in the Night). 

Joe Newton enjoying a break in his MLD Spirit 30 (photo courtesy Joe Newton / Thunder in the 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 theMicrofiber 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 Z30 2-Season down quilt.
Recently rebranded, the Z30 is the classic ultralight quilt from GoLite (the same one I use). Available at a reasonable price (compared to others, at least), if you can get one, it's a great introductory quilt and a place to start a love affair with quilts.

As Tucas Sestrals Quilts
As Tucas is a relative newcomer, but the hand-made products come from a true ultralight aficionado. The Sestrals quilts are light, very competitively priced, and nicely proportioned so that you can pull them up over your head if it gets cold. Definitely worth a look!

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) was released. It's now been redesigned and is almost impossible to find. 

One of the most popular recent additions to, erm, slip under the mat, is the Nemo Zor. It's a self-inflating, insulation filled mat, and it's popular mainly because it doesn't suffer so dramatically from punctures or poor manufacturing of seams. Robin likes his.

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 reading

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)
 

Manufacturers

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