As the proud owner of a really nice North Face down sleeping bag, I wondered if there were any recent developments that would convince me to upgrade for my Appalachian Trail thru-hike. After all, my current bag has kept me warm in sub-freezing temperatures and only weighs about 2.5 pounds. Well, there have been technological breakthroughs and changes in bag design over the years that allow an ultralight hiker to maintain the same warmth while reducing the weight of the bag to around 20 ounces. So if a new bag means cutting the weight of my current sleeping bag in half, I’m all in.
There is an age old debate over whether to choose a down or synthetic filled sleeping bag. Down is a far superior insulator that is highly compressible and long lasting. The Achilles heel of down is that if it gets wet, it loses its insulating properties and takes forever to dry. The down vs. synthetic debate is finally over, since technology has come to the rescue with the advent of hydrophobic down. That’s right! Down can now be treated to stay dry five to seven times longer, maintain 37% more loft when wet, and dry 33% faster than untreated down. And there doesn’t appear to be a weight penalty! To be sure, water resistant down is still down and needs to be protected from the elements, but this treatment should be of great benefit for down’s effectiveness on long thru-hikes due to daily perspiration and condensation.
A recent innovation in sleeping bag design has resulted in ultralight hikers shifting away from the traditional mummy sleeping bags and towards a backpacking quilt. The theory here is that when you sleep, the down underneath you is compressed and thereby provides no insulation. So this begs the question of why you would carry a material that provides no benefit. Quilts are designed to be open on the bottom so that you are laying directly on your sleeping pad (you are using a sleeping pad, right?) with the quilt tucked in at the edges to keep out drafts. Additional weight can be saved with the elimination of the zipper and the hood. On really cold nights, a balaclava or down hood provides head protection and pulls double duty as your camp headgear. As a rotisserie sleeper, I have never been completely comfortable sleeping while constricted in a traditional mummy sleeping bag, and the quilt design allows me to thrash around underneath instead of getting twisted up in it.
The current darling of the ultralight blogger aristocracy is a quilt made by Enlightened Equipment called the Revelation. This quilt is custom made with a variety of sizes, fabric options, and water repellent down fill weights. These must be pretty good because the current lead time is a whopping 5-7 weeks and I have seen the lead time climb to twice that amount. It features a zippered foot box that can be opened in warmer weather so that the quilt lies flat like a blanket. The ability to use this on a bed at home while not on the trail should be a great selling point with my Trail Coordinator.
The most popular upgrade to the Revelation is the Katabatic Flex 15. Katabatic Gear is known for impeccable fit and finish and high quality components. The Flex has a foot box that can be opened completely so that the quilt lies flat. Although the listed rating is 15 degrees, the Flex 15 actually has .25 inches more loft and 1.5 oz. more down fill than the 10 degree Revelation and there is anecdotal evidence that the temperature rating is very conservative.
Another very popular ultralight sleeping bag is the Solo bag made by ZPacks. This sleeping bag is a “hybrid” quilt with a 3/4 length zipper on the bottom for temperature control. However, you cannot open the foot box to allow a completely flat quilt like the quilts above. This sleeping bag is also custom made with a one week lead time and is available in a variety of sizes, fabric options, and down fill weights, but it does not include a water resistant down option.
It is difficult to make an apple-to-apple comparison of these sleeping systems due to the wide range of custom options that are available. The chart below outlines the specifications of these bags which are designed for someone from 6′ to 6′ 1″ tall with a shoulder girth of 56″ to 61″ using 900 fill power down:
|Vendor||Size||in Degrees||in Oz.||in Oz.||in Inches||Cost|
|Katabatic Flex||Regular Wide||15||27.4||17.9||3.25||$445|
|Katabatic Flex||Regular Wide||22||24.3||15.1||2.75||$405|
If you feel like you are not ready to make the transition from mummy sleeping bag to a quilt, there are two high quality mainstream sleeping bags that are very popular on the A.T. The Marmot Helium 15-degree bag features 800 water resistant down fill, costs $400.00, and weighs 36.5 oz. The Western Mountaineering Ultralight 20-degree bag features 850 fill down, costs $485, and weighs 29 oz. Both of these sleeping bags can be found for 20% off retail price at several times throughout the year.
So which sleeping bag did I choose? After months of deliberation, I finally pulled the trigger and ordered the Enlightened Equipment Revelation quilt. The value of these quilts, costing $100+ less than other quilts with comparable specifications, can’t be ignored. I ordered the 20 degree quilt in the regular length and wide width with the thought of allowing room to wear multiple layers of clothing inside the quilt during extremely cold weather. My quilt arrived earlier this week, and I can testify that the quality of workmanship is top notch, so it is no wonder that this quilt is so popular on the trail.