Sunday 14 June 2020

Sleeping bags and mats I've used on long walks over the decades

In Death Valley National Park

Following on from my pieces on the packs, shelters and stoves I’ve used on long walks over the decades here’s a look at sleeping bags and mats and some of the thinking behind my choices and how they’ve changed. On all the walks I tried to pick items that would be warm enough in the coldest temperatures expected as well as comfortable and lightweight.

The Beginning: the Pennine Way  1976

On my first long walk, the Pennine Way, I borrowed a Blacks down sleeping bag called the Romsdal from a friend. I didn’t record the weight or temperature rating but as the walk was in April and there was frost some nights and snow on one it was obviously adequate. My mat was a yellow closed-cell foam Karrimat, just about standard for backpacking in the 1970s.

Land’s End to John O’Groats  1978

The Karrimat came on my next much longer walk from Land’s End to John O’Groats but I had my own sleeping bag and it was a mistake, the only one I’ve made with sleeping bags on such walks. Because I’d been warned that down bags wouldn’t last for many weeks of use I chose a synthetic bag filled with a new fibre called P3. Again, I didn’t record details, but the bag was exceptionally light and compact. I started the walk in mid-April, which was quite warm in South-West England, and finished in late June, which wasn’t that warm in North-East Scotland. The bag was fine at first but gradually lost its thickness as the walk went on. By the finish it was very thin and I was sleeping in my clothes every night, which was warm but uncomfortable. I’ve never taken a synthetic bag on a long walk since. Maybe modern synthetic fills last much longer but I’ve been happy with down ever since and never had a down bag lose much loft.
Pacific Crest Trail 1982

In the High Sierra, Pacific Crest Trail

Back with down I chose a Mountain Equipment Lightline, rated to -5°C, and weighing 1.03kg, for my 5 ½  month Pacific Crest Trail walk in 1982. The Karrimat was dropped for a Therm-A-Rest self-inflating mat, which had only been launched a few years earlier, due to the greater comfort and lower pack size. There was only one model back then, available in two lengths. I took the ¾ length one as I’m not that tall and it saved a bit of weight. 710 grams was still around twice the weight of the Karrimat though. Both bag and mat worked well and lasted the walk. Only on  a few nights with temperatures down to -10°C did I need to wear clothes. I slept on snow on many nights and the mat, with its solid foam core, proved warm. 
Continental Divide Trail  1985
In the New Mexico desert, Continental Divide Trail

Three years later I was on another 5 ½ month walk, the Continental Divide Trail. Expecting colder temperatures on this walk I took a warmer bag called the Golden Oriole that was made by Field & Trek, who made some good own-brand gear back then. The Golden Oriole was another zipless bag and had a rating of -10°c. It weighed 1.25kg. In fact, the temperatures were never as cold as on the PCT, the lowest being -2°C. I was never too hot though. The bag had a polycotton rather than nylon lining, which I thought would be more comfortable than straight nylon. It was, at first, but picked up sweat and dirt quickly. I sent it away for cleaning at the end of the walk and it came back with a note saying it couldn’t be done as the lining was rotten and would disintegrate. I wouldn’t use a bag with a polycotton inner again.

On the CDT I balanced the extra weight of the sleeping bag compared to the PCT one with a lighter weight Therm-A-Rest called the Ultra-Lite, which was a bit thinner than the original. It weighed 538 grams.

Canadian Rockies  1988

The Ultra-Lite proved excellent and I used it on every overnight trip for the next few years and then in 1988 on my walk the length of the Canadian Rockies. Towards the end of the walk it did spring a leak near the valve, which I successfully patched. In total it was used on 450 nights, including the two long walks, and travelled some 6,000 miles. 

A camp in the Canadian Rockies
On the Canadian Rockies walk I used two sleeping bags. I expected night temperatures to be above freezing for the first half of the walk but to drop rapidly from late August onwards. I started out with a Rab Micro 300 bag, the lightest available at the time at 624 grams. It was rated to +5°C. On the few nights below that I wore base layers and was warm enough. On the second half of the walk I used another F&T Golden Oriole bag called the Expedition. This didn’t have a temperature rating but was much thicker than the Micro, as it should have been at 1.2kg. It kept me warm at -10°C. It was also the first bag I’d used on a long walk that had a zip, which was a good thing, as I often needed to ventilate it.

The Yukon  1990

At Fort Selkirk, Yukon Territory

Swapping bags halfway through the Rockies walk had worked but I reckoned a bag somewhere between the two would have been fine, so I went back to the Mountain Equipment Lightline for my walk the length of the Yukon Territory. The weight had come down a little since my PCT walk eight years earlier and this model weighed 978 grams. The rating was the same, which was fine as the lowest temperature was -6°C. My mat was a new Therm-A-Rest Ultra-Lite.

Scandinavian Mountains  1992

Having performed well in the Yukon the Lightline and Utra-Lite came with me on my Scandinavian Mountains walk. The lowest temperature was -3.5°C and again the combination worked fine.

The Munros and Tops  1996

Not expecting sub-zero temperatures on this summer walk in the Scottish Highlands I went back to the Rab Micro 300. The coldest night was +2°C. Most were above freezing.  My mat was a new lighter version of one I’d used previously. The Therm-A-Rest Ultralite II weighed 454 grams and was just as comfortable as the original.

The Arizona Trail  2000

In the Superstition Mountains, Arizona Trail
From the generally damp weather of the Scottish Highlands I went to the heat and aridity of the desert from my next long walk, the Arizona Trail. Expecting mostly dry weather I planned on sleeping under the stars most nights. As the desert is full of spiky stuff a self-inflating mat seemed risky. I wanted a mat I could just chuck on the ground without fear of punctures so for the first time in twenty-two years I took a closed-cell foam mat, the 255-gram Therm-A-Rest Ridge Rest. Somewhat to my surprise I slept well on it. As I knew that night temperatures under clear desert skies could be below freezing I took a new Rab bag, the Micron 400, weighing 890 grams. It kept me warm in temperatures down to -6°C.

Changes on the Pacific Northwest Trail  2010

Airing the quilt, Pacific Northwest Trail

For twenty-eight years my sleeping bags were all similar mummy bags, the main difference between them being how much down they contained. My mats had mostly been Therm-A-Rest self-inflating ones. That all changed in 2010 when I walked the Pacific Northwest Trail. The ultralight gear revolution had seen the return of quilts and airbeds, both in modern materials and designs. I wasn’t totally convinced by quilts – I liked the feeling of security wrapped in a mummy bag and being able to sit up in the bag and use it as clothing – but decided I’d take one on a long walk to really find out what it was like. With mats I really liked the comfort and low weight and bulk of the new airbeds but was unsure about the durability. 

Throwing my doubts away on the PNT I took a GoLite Ultralite 3-Season quilt, rated to -7°C and weighing 708 grams, and a Pacific Outdoor Equipment Ether Elite 6 airbed weighing 312 grams. The quilt was comfortable and very warm. As overnight temperatures weren’t as cold as expected, with only a few nights dipping below freezing, I could have done with a lighter weight one. Despite the comfort I did miss being able to sit up with a bag wrapped around me and I haven’t returned to a quilt. The airbed was wonderfully comfortable. For forty-six nights. On the forty-seventh it sprang a leak on a stormy night. Finding the leak proved difficult and my arms were going numb with cold from dunking the mat in a cold lake when some air bubbles finally appeared. I sealed the pinhole and for a few nights it was fine but then it went down again and despite more patching kept deflating every three or four hours, leading to nights of disturbed sleep. Eventually I gave up and borrowed an old Therm-A-Rest Ultralite self-inflating mat from my cousin, who lived near Seattle. This wasn’t quite as comfortable as the airbed and was heavier and bulkier, but it didn’t deflate. I slept on it fine. A lesson learned. Well, it should have been. 

Because of my doubts about the airbed I also took a short piece of thin closed cell foam, the 135-gram OMM DuoMat. This was useful as a sitmat and provided a little protection from ground cold when the airbed deflated.

Scottish Watershed 2013 

NeoAir XLite, Scottish Watershed

For this summer walk in Scotland I wasn't expecting sub-zero temperatures or wide fluctuations so I went back to a single sleeping bag, the Rab Infinity 300, which weighed 650 grams and had a rating of +3C. The lowest temperature was +2 and the bag was fine. Knowing I could easily get a replacement if necessary I took an airbed again, the new Therm-A-Rest NeoAir XLite, which weighed just 230 grams. It was very comfortable and survived the walk.

More changes: Yosemite Valley to Death Valley  2016

Sleep System, High Sierra, Yosemite to Death Valley
Whilst I’ve never used a quilt since the PNT I did start thinking about sleeping arrangements. Maybe one bag that should be okay for the coldest temperatures wasn’t the best approach. I had tried two bags one after the other in the Canadian Rockies, but walks didn’t usually divide into two convenient halves. The next walk I was planning was one from Yosemite Valley to Death Valley. To avoid the hottest temperatures in the latter I was going in the autumn. I would also be camping at altitudes ranging from around sea level  to well over 3,000 metres. Overnight temperatures were likely to vary wildly. A sleeping bag for the coldest would probably boil me on the warmest.

Before the walk I’d tried a new down Sleep System from PHD, consisting of a 328 gram Ultra K sleeping bag rated to +8°C, a 240 gram K Filler bag rated to 15°C to go inside when needed, and Wafer K jacket, trousers, and socks, weighing a combined 447 grams. Impressed, I took this on the walk. Most nights were colder than 8 degrees, so I usually slept in either the Filler bag or the clothing inside the Ultra K. The combinations worked well. Even at -7.5° I didn’t need the Filler and the clothing, just the latter was adequate, so I could have left the former behind. Sleeping in down clothing was also useful during the High Sierra section of the walk as the presence of bears that might raid my campsite meant I wasn’t cooking and eating where I slept. On freezing mornings it was good to be already dressed in warm clothing when I went to my kitchen area for breakfast. In the past I’d avoided sleeping in clothes other than base layers unless it was extremely cold because I’d found it uncomfortable due to fabrics that stuck to the sleeping bag, zips with hard pullers, belt loops and more. However, the PHD clothing was designed for sleeping with soft fabrics, thin zips and a minimum of features. Excellent! 

Not wanting to forego the comfort I took the NeoAir XLite again, plus the OMM DuoMat, which I used as a seat in the kitchen area. I had intended to buy a closed cell foam mat in the town of Lone Pine, between the mountain and desert sections of the walk, to protect the airbed in the latter. As it was, I found a cheap, thick, full-length one before then. It weighed around 400 grams. And my airbed did survive the desert.

GR5 Through the Alps  2018

On the GR5
I liked the PHD Sleep System so much that I took it on my next two walks. On the first, the GR5 Through the Alps, I also took the XLite and the DuoMat. The temperatures were warmer than on the previous walk for the first two weeks, so I just slept in the Ultra K bag. During the second half of the walk the temperatures were mostly below 7° occasionally falling to -2° and I slept in the clothing. Again I could have left the Filler bag at home.

The XLite was fine until three days before the end of the walk when some internal walls split and one end began to swell up. It was still usable but  less comfortable and if more walls had failed it wouldn’t have been.

Continental Divide Trail in Southern Colorado   2019

NeoAir Uberlite, Colorado Rockies
On my last long walk, along the Continental Divide Trail in Southern Colorado I swapped the Ultra K for the even lighter PHD M.Degree 100K bag. This weighs just 245 grams and is rated to 10°C. I also swapped the Wafer K jacket for the Wafer Ultima K Down Pullover, which is warmer and lighter weight at 200 grams. To complete the Sleep System I took the same Filler bag, trousers and socks as on the previous two walks. Again, the system worked well and for the third time I could have done without the Filler bag as the coldest overnight temperature was -1.2°C, which the clothing and M.Degree bag easily handled.

Therm-A-Rest Ultralite, Colorado Rockies
For a mat I took the new Therm-A-Rest UberLite. It was so light I took the full-length version, which weighed 245 grams. It was comfortable for thirteen days. Then it deflated due to a split in the upper surface. By luck this was the one night when Andrew Terrill joined me on the walk and I was able to borrow his old Therm-A-Rest Ultralite for the rest of the walk. That’s the second time an airbed has failed completely on a long walk. Maybe I’ll learn the lesson this time.

The Sleep System, or some version of it, is just about a certainty for my next long walk. As to a mat? I’ll see. Airbeds are comfortable!

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