More on sleeping bags

I thought it was worth doing a follow-up to my post on my sleeping bag collection, just to give you a quick assessment of them in the hope that it helps you if you’re looking for a new sleeping bag (I’m out of the market now!).

Synthetic sleeping bags: don’t bother if you’re a backpacker, they’re too bulky. While both ME synthetic bags are fine for base camping, I don’t use them for backpacking. Of the two, I prefer the Firewalker, as I find the elasticated section of the Sleepwalker a bit uncomfortable.

Down has to be the only sensible choice for backpacking, now that Alpkit are selling down bags for the price of synthetics, there’s no excuse. They’re lighter, warmer, compact better and last longer. What more could you want? The only time I can see a synthetic bag being an advantage is in a situation of constant high humidity, where it is impossible to air and dry a bag (Tropics?). If you’re worried about damp from the outside, carry a bivvy bag or get a bag with a water resistant cover.

On to my down bags, I won’t bother with my ME Annapurna bag as it’s ancient, but it’s still in good condition, showing the longevity of down and superb workmanship.

Western Mountaineering HighLite: weighs 465g (on my digital scales) and has about 230g of high grade down (probably the best I’ve encountered). It claims to be comfortable to 2c, but for me it’s more like 5c. It is a part stitch through, part box wall design. The fabric is very light but reasonably robust. The cut is quite generous. As I mentioned before, it’s only really a summer bag. It does have some drawbacks. It only has a half length zip. I would never get a bag without a full length zip again (the reason I didn’t get the original Alpkit Pipedream 400), as it is annoying if you’re feet get too hot. The other irritations are that the hood design is not very snug and there is no zip baffle. The latter is annoying both because it makes the bag colder than it should be and because you get a face full of cold zip when you lie on your side (I had to get my mother to sew a short face guard). Verdict: could be better, but I carry it if minimising weight is a priority.

Cumulus Ultralite 350: weighs 747g, with 350g of down. The down is definitely not as high quality as the WM HighLite or the Alpkit bags. It doesn’t have quite the “spring” of the best quality down. The outer and inner are Pertex, which is wonderfully silky. The top is a trapezoidal box design, which is superb for avoiding cold spots. It’s quite a slim design with a smallish foot plug (the reason for mentioning this is that I have size 8 feet and I think if you had much larger feet the Ultralite might feel a bit constricting). Overall, it’s a very comfortable bag and warm to around 0c (not the -3c claimed, but I sleep cold). The hood is good and I like the elasticated cords. It could do with a neck baffle. Overall, this is a good bag and been very comfortable to sleep in. It has been my “default” bag.

Alpkit Pipedream 600 and 400: weights 970g and 740g respectively. The 600 is the previous version with red piping. The Pertex material is lovely and silky and the loft is excellent, reflecting the good down quality, almost up to WM standards. I’ve not had the opportunity to test it to its temperature limit, but it is very warm and would more than cope with anything other than extreme winter conditions. My only criticism is the hood, which is a bit skimpy. I bought the 400 because it has 50g more filling than the Ultralite 350 and higher quality down for the same weight, so I would expect it to be comfortable to below freezing, but have had no opportunity to test it yet. The material is not quite as silky as Pertex but still nice to the touch, but feels slightly more robust. The big improvement over the previous Pipedream is the hood, which is more generous and has a better shape. The cut is slightly more wider than the Ultralite and the foot plug is slightly larger. Both bags highly recommended.

In summary, I expect that my Alpkit bags will get the most use over the next few years (mainly the Pipedream 400) and that I will only occasionally use my WM HighLite. I won’t be disposing of the others as they may be useful for my daughter when I can drag her off camping. If you’re in the market for a bag, I think you would be mad not to look at Alpkit first; I’m very impressed with the quality. The re-design of the hood has made it almost perfect (perfection would be elasticated draw cords as well!).


Hi-Tec Ion Mask

I spotted a reference to this on an OM forum thread. Sounds very interesting: “Ion-mask technology is a breakthrough in surface enhancement. It works at a molecular level, binding invisibly to the surfaces of products, giving them an extraordinary ability to repel most liquids.” I have had two pairs of Hi-Tec boots over the years and found them very comfortable. My biggest criticism was the sole rubbers weren’t very grippy. Let’s hope they pay attention to that as well. Trail are also featuring the Ion-mask on their blog.

Alan and the O.S.

Many of you will have followed Alan Sloman’s epic pub crawl walk from Land’s End to John O’Groats this year in aid of Sue Ryder Care. It was great fun to follow his exploits and read his observations on life, the universe and everything. If you’ve not visited his blog recently, you may be unaware that he has been trying to persuade the Ordnance Survey to allow him to reproduce maps of his trek, but to no avail. Why not pop over to his blog and read about it and give him a bit of encouragement. One of the things I’ve learnt so far in this blogging game is that a few encouraging comments really lift your spirits.

How did it start?

How did I get into backpacking? Well, I started camping when I went to Crusader camps and loved sleeping outdoors. When I was fifteen, I did a backpacking trip with a friend around North Devon, from Barnstaple to Lynton and then inland to Exford. This was hardly hard core stuff, along the coast and down country lanes, no real plan or route finding. I don’t think we had any rain at all and the weather was warm.

My kit was variable. An old pair of Dr. Martens boots from a jumble sale, a Skypack frame rucksack fron Milletts with no hipbelt and the water resistance of a tissue (lucky it didn’t rain!), a Vango Force Ten Mk2 tent (bomb proof but weighed a ton), a thin square cut sleeping bag, no foam mat, a Primus Petrol stove (superb and sounded like a jet aircraft taking off). Apart from a PU Cagoule, I had no specialist clothing, just jeans, jumper, cotton shirt etc. It must have been great fun as I’m still doing it!

The Imelda Marcos of sleeping bags

Just as Imelda Marcos had way too many shoes, I’ve got way too many sleeping bags: seven of them. I can’t fully explain how I got into this position. In mitigation, one bag is 20 years old (an ME Annapurna) and really ought to be given to a charity shop. However, the others fall into the usual pattern of dissatisfaction and bargain hunting. I have two synthetic bags (ME Sleepwalker UL, ME Firewalker 2), which I used as base camp sleeping bags before I started backpacking again in earnest. The Firewalker was a half price bargain I couldn’t resist.

My next purchase was the unbelievably expensive Western Mountaineering Highlite, one of the lightest bags on the market, but really only a summer bag. Having found it a bit “lacking” on a wild camp in Snowdonia, I bought a warmer bag, the Cumulus Ultralight 350. This is a very good bag with a sophisticated trapezoidal baffle system and has served me well. However, I sleep cold and it doesn’t have shoulder baffles. I’ve never been too cold in it, but it’s not been below freezing yet.

After listening to Bob’s 2006 TGO Challenge podcasts, I decided that an Alpkit Pipedream 600 would be a “good idea”, so I got the second iteration with the posh red piping. Originally, this year, I was going to go to Scotland in early May, but instead I went in late May, so I took the Cumulus instead. It was fine, but had it been much colder (it got down to 2c), it might have been chilly (no neck baffle!). When Alpkit launched their latest Pipedream 400, I couldn’t resist it; the same weight as the Cumulus, but an extra 50g of down and a neck baffle. They’ve also improved the hood. So there you have it, the man with seven sleeping bags; more money than sense!

Adapta strap-a-map

OK, after yesterday’s philosophising clap-trap, here’s a bit of down to earth practicality. In Podcast Bob’s “End of the Year Show“, he shared with us his “Strap a map to me” idea. For those that haven’t listened to the podcast, it was a delightfully simple idea. Having a map case hanging around your neck is a bit of a pain, particularly in windy conditions. On the other hand folding the map case and putting it in a rucksack pocket is not exactly convenient either. Bob’s answer was to attach two rings to the lower part of one the rucksack shoulder straps. Then attach two bungee cords with cord grips. Roll up the map case and put it through the bungee loops and tighten. The second picture on this page of Peewiglet’s 2006 Challenge shows you what he meant.

This was such a brilliant idea that I used it this year (with some minor modifications), see picture below. As Blackadder would say to Baldrick…there’s only one thing wrong with that plan. When I was walking through the Rothiemurchus Forest, the map case, being a bit slippery fell out of the loops. Fortunately, I hadn’t walked very far before I noticed. It got me thinking as to how I could avoid this potential catastrophe again.

Strap a map

Ta Dah! The answer is to use an extending ski pass holder, attaching one end to the rucksack harness and the other to the hole on the map case where the neck cord normally goes. The advantage of this over just using a bit of cord is that there is no loose string to flap around. What a stroke of genius!

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