Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Happy New Year's......A Night in the Cold

So, what did you do for New Years? Myself, I decided to sleep outside. I had planned on making a short trek to utilize the rare time away from work, but instead a doctor’s appointment for my 9-month pregnant wife ensured I needed to stay home to watch our other young son. Although I would have rather been exploring, this opportunity gave me time to test out some gear in my backyard.

The weather was a relatively calm and clear 15 degrees with only a light breeze here and there. Being that my backyard of nearly 6 acres backs up to a small lake, I can assume the air also had more humidity.

Generally speaking, before I do anything in sub-20 degree weather my first thought is to check my sanity. I mean seriously, isn’t there something intrinsically inhuman about being outside when the earth literally freezes? Course, as a backpacker who chooses to seek entertainment in these temperatures, I figured I had no choice but to test my gear to ensure it works as the last thing I need is to freeze off my generously over-proportioned fanny due to my own ignorance. To me, backpacking in the winter is great as it usually means I can see further into the tree line and the sounds of the forest are generally quite silent as most bears and their friends are at home watching the NFL playoffs on their plasmas. There are also fewer people, virtually no bugs, snakes are long gone, and a whole new world of beauty is revealed in the crisp air.

To most planning on a night outdoors in the cold, they likely would immediately attempt to find the warmest sleeping bag they own. For me, that would be a zero degree custom-made bag from Feathered Friends which includes the specialty waterproof and highly breathable fabric eVENT. Because my wife reads this blog, I’m omitting the price, but suffice to stay this was one of the most stupid and expensive purchases I ever made. The bag is beautiful and terribly warm. Each time I look at it I think how great it looks and admire its crisp lines. It is also very impracticable and totally useless for my needs and lately I’ve been wondering what to do with it other than perhaps frame it.

The reason my custom bag doesn’t make a lot of sense is because it is a bag instead of a quilt. Switching from a bag to a quilt and losing the mindset engrained in all backpackers is something I admit was hard to do. After all, I too was raised with sleeping bags, sleeping bags were all that is available in stores, and when it got cold, all I wanted to do was bundle up. As I’ve said before, the insulation on the bottom of a sleeping bag is worthless because once it is compressed it loses its loft (i.e. heat is trapped in the air of whatever fill is being used, and when the loft is gone, so is the heat), and thereby it becomes worthless weight. The quality of the sleeping pad serves as the bottom insulation and even a modest 1/8” – 3/4" closed cell foam pad does the job plenty well. Quilts also drape over the user, much like a blanket does at home, and allows greater mobility and air circulation when necessary. Without the bottom and without a zipper, it then saves you weight and saving weight should be a top priority to any backpacker. It took me to actually trying a quilt to understand that this theory isn’t just an overzealous lightweight backpackers myth – it’s wonderfully load lightening truth!

Many people post gear lists and I actually haven’t because I can’t figure out how to use all the various components of this blog site adequately enough. With that said, I figured I’d give a brief run-down on what I did to stay warm in 15 degree temperatures by posting what I used:

· SHELTER 8.4 oz - Gossamer Gear SpinnTwinn ( does not include titanium stakes
· QUILT 19 oz – Western Mountaineering Caribou Long MF ( used as a quilt
· BIVY 7.2 oz – BPL Vapr Quantum Bivy Sack Long
· SLEEP PAD #1 7.8oz – Gossamer Gear Nightlight 3/4" (
· SLEEP PAD #2 7.3 oz – Gossamer Gear Thinlight 1/4" (
· INSULATING JACKET 11.3 oz – XXL BPL Cocoon UL 60 Hoody (
· INSULATING PANTS 8.4oz – XXL BPL Cocoon UL 60 Pants (
· SKIN LAYER TOP 11.04 oz – XXL SmartWool Midweight Zip T-Shirt (
· SKIN LAYER BOTTOM 8.11 oz – XXL SmartWool NTS Midweight Bottom (
· UNDERWEAR 3.80 oz – SmartWool NTS Midweight Brief (
· SOCKS 3.20 oz – XL Darn Tough Ultralight Merino Wool Socks (
· HEADWEAR 3.49 oz – Fleece Balaclava (

Now keep in mind, this includes my shelter, sleep system and all clothing worn. The clothing is also what I would use for lingering around camp and otherwise staying warm when not sleeping. It makes a lot of sense to integrate clothing carried into your sleep system to increase the effective useful temperature of your system as otherwise why carry dead weight if you aren’t going to utilize it throughout your adventure? Using this method, I could use a very lightweight 35 degree bag and still make it down into the teens without being cold in the slightest. Quite honestly, this system, on this night, where the sky was clear and there was very little wind, I was actually a little too warm most of the time and I could probably have actually gotten by just fine with one pad or without some of my clothing. In the same breath, I have used this system in the thirties on an unprotected 5,000 ft summit and my feet were slightly chilled which had a lot to do with wind, hydration, my socks, and the fact that I only had one pad. My point, each situation is different and little “tweaks” can make all the difference. I should point out that I used a sleeping bag as a quilt because I don’t otherwise own an actual quilt due to their expensive nature. As a big person (6’6” and roughly 270) most quilts are nearly dimensionally the same as this bag anyway as it is a pretty small bag which otherwise wouldn’t fit me if I tried to use it as a bag. I have my eye on a couple quilts by Nunatak USA, but they are a little too costly for me right now and my smaller and just as light Western Mountaineering bag was easy enough to modify (remove zipper and hood, install straps to go around pads, etc.) to serve as a quilt for nearly half the price. I should also mention that I tinker with most of my gear by removing things here and there that I don’t need which also brings down the weight (straps, tags, loops, zippers, hoods, laces, etc.). If I can’t purchase one of the Nunatak quilts, or if Jacks R Better’s offerings don’t float my boat, I’d sure like to find a seamstress who could tinker with my high dollar and quite useless Feathered Friends bag to make it suitable for use as a quilt.

By testing this system, I now know it works in these conditions and I have high hopes that it will be a solid option down the road. Testing gear is as important as planning food, distance, and picking equipment.


Philip Werner said...

Great post. I like your sense of humor. Do you think the bivy is a must-have component for sub-20 winter quilting or that you could do without it?

Jolly Green Giant said...

This is a great question, one which I've grappled with frequently. Because I use a down quilt/bag, I'm always concerned about compression due to weight or environment. To be quite honest, I think I bring the bivy as a safeguard most of the time. Because I do a lot of tarp camping, ventilation is usually good, but morning dew and rain spatter are reality of the environment which is generally unpredictable. The weather conditions indicated on the blog, which were essentially clear but cold, likely didn't require the bivy. Psychologically speaking, however, when it is that cold, I think mentally I still prefer to be somewhat bundled on the top and sides. So my answer is a conditional "maybe".