Tuesday, 26 March 2013

A Suitably Snowy Test for a Super Sleeping Bag

Alpkit is a company I’ve been aware of for a good few years, initially through their fantastic lightweight drybag/daysack hybrids. Their well-designed products dovetail perfectly with my ethos of travelling as light as possible whilst also being as well equipped as I can be (an endless struggle of conflicting concepts, clashing horns to the extent where my kit is arranged and re-arranged to death umpteen times before I can leave the house). In the colder months of the year, a depressingly large amount of available packing space is occupied by my winter sleeping bag leaving me with very few options other than to load up the BIG rucksack. This old dinosaur, a battered Berghaus Vulcan from my days in the forces, weighs half a tonne even before I put anything in it but I absolutely refuse to buy a new, lightweight expedition sack as to do so feels like surrendering to the suppressed kit junky in me. Also, I like it’s worn appearance and hastily repaired straps, non-matching buckles and the elasticated lid that isn’t elasticated anymore, flapping about in the wind like the roof of a ram-shackle tin shed. Having spent many a cold, winters night outdoors without a sufficiently warm sleeping bag in days of yore, I never skimp on my sleeping gear nowadays. My sleeping system is a haven of tranquillity, a cosy, dry place that I can look forward to however grim the weather during the day. So, the big warm sleeping bag takes prime position, above the spare clothing but below the inflatable sleep mat and waterproof tarp. Despite the cavernous size of my Berghaus Vulcan rucksack, this seems to leave me with just enough room for a single Rizla paper and a waffer thin mint. In my minds eye, I imagine the highly unprofessional image of me stooping under the bulk of a massive rucksack festooned with all manner of camping gear, pots and pans clanking about on the outside as I trudge through the wilderness.

This seasonal dilemma has been a familiar one for so long that I’ve come to accept it, however I have made some progress. My first winter sleeping bag was an old 58 pattern army bag with a heavy pvc built in base and a filling of down. I haven’t a clue what grade of down was used but I’m sure I could feel a few feet and beaks in there! Not only that but no matter how well you looked after the old army down bags they still exuded a dank odour of cabbage. With all this and the fact that it weighed quite a bit when damp I think I must’ve made up my mind to avoid down bags fairly early on in my outdoor career. The many sleeping bags that followed in subsequent years were all synthetic fill ranging from fairly small and lightweight right up to the size of a small bungalow. I thought I’d cracked it last winter with a nice, small synthetic bag boasting a decent comfort rating in the minus’s….but (fanfare) then came the Skyehigh 800  four season bag from Alpkit!
The Skyehigh range of sleeping bags compressed
It started like this…in recent years, spending increasingly longer periods living outdoors I decided to invest in a good quality down jacket. The antics I get up to outdoors require reasonably bomb proof work clothes combined with effective weather resistance properties. More often than not these tend to be thick heavy wool, tough weatherproof cotton outers (yes, I know cotton’s a killer but it’s hard wearing and won’t melt next to a campfire...) and a spattering of modern, technical fibres. While they perform well when worn in the woods these clothes don’t suit the role of being carried around as a spare or emergency warm layer. Basically they fill a daysack and weigh as much as a small pony. My new down jacket was a revelation, squishing down to almost nothing in my pack but keeping me as toasty warm as two or three heavy wool shirts. Admittedly, it was slightly less robust but this was a garment reserved for evenings, early frosty mornings or really, awfully cold weather when I’d be unlikely to be doing too much manual labour. If I absolutely needed to start man-handling logs or rolling around in the mud then my bomb proof cotton outer layer could give a degree of protection when worn over the top (my cotton smock is single layer Ventile; a high performance, weatherproof fabric…he said smugly). My down jacket gave me peace of mind. It’s pack ability meant that I could always take it along without getting in a flap about an unnecessarily warm layer taking up too much room. If the temperature dropped – BOOM, the jacket exploded into action from it’s tiny stuff sack and warmth and happiness prevailed. The ultimate security blanket!

Looking at the diminutive little package in the bottom of my daysack, knowing how the jacket within harboured such mystical and heroic qualities, I started to consider the benefits of a down filled sleeping bag. I knew the potential problems with down in the wet but it had been a long time since I had to worry about being unable to effectively dry a sleeping bag due to the tactical restrictions of not building an enormous campfire and breaking out the marshmallows. After all, knowing just how brilliant my down jacket was, I always looked after it well and had never got it wet to the point where it became ineffective. Life is a compromise and the small size and tiny weight penalty of a modern down bag seemed to outweigh any of the old problems I had experienced years before. With outdoor kit technology constantly moving forward I was sure a modern down bag would have a lightweight, weatherproof outer, special compartments for the filling, a waterproof coating perhaps? I still couldn’t help wondering if it would smell of old cabbages.
Showing excellent 'loft' even when pulled straight out of the bag

And so, a short while later a suspiciously sleeping bag shaped parcel with a pleasant little note from Alpkit arrived at Wilderness Survival Skills HQ. The Skyehigh 800 is a four season sleeping bag from a range that also includes the three season 600 model and a five season beast, the 1000. Somewhat confused by the weight to size ratio (the bag was at it’s biggest and loftiest in the long term storage bag supplied but felt as though someone had slipped a helium filled balloon in there for a joke) I pulled out the bag and gave it a shake to ‘puff it up’ to the max. Within seconds I was in it, zip pulled up to the neck baffle, prostrate on the living room floor watching CBeebies upside down. Even with a three year old jumping up and down on the huge blue worm that had appeared in the middle of the room, I felt immediately warm, comfortable and ever so sleeeeppppyyy…..
Micro ripstop DWR nylon outer
After an unexpected micro snooze I blearily clambered back out for a better look at the bag. As I’d come to expect from Alpkit, my first impressions of the bag were of a subtle, no nonsense, fine standard of quality workmanship. The outer material (micro ripstop DWR nylon) looked as though it would easily shrug off any tent condensation or wind-blown rain coming in under a tarp. The next and most obvious thing that stood out was the bag’s ‘lofting’ properties. Those down filled chambers plumped up immediately and stayed plump, trapping oodles of insulating air among the soft feathers to keep me warm at night, (incidentally the filling in this bag is super warm 90/10 goose down, 650+ fill power EU, whereas the next batch are due to use premium duck down making it one of the best value, high performance down bags on the market). The cowl hood looked more than capable of holding enough spare clothing to make a comfy pillow but still had enough depth to ensure my head would be surrounded by cosiness when scooped up into a cowl shape using the draw strings and snow locks. A good sized neck baffle would easily stop my valuable body heat from leaking out of the bag through the neck. Likewise the substantial zip baffle would prevent heat loss through the zip too. Fine touches around this area included the use of a reassuringly heavy duty YKK zip for a bag that squashes down so small and a length of heavier duty fabric sewn in place along the zip side of the baffle to reduce the chance of getting the zipper all snarled up when you desperately need to get out for a pee in the night.
Tactel nylon lining with good cowl hood and neck baffle

Positioned around the upper chest area was a handy little internal zip up pocket, ideal for keeping mobile phones warm and safe at night. The 300l Tactel nylon lining looked invitingly soft and the fit suited me just fine (regular length suits folks up to 6ft 1” but there are longer and shorter versions available). I’m what many might consider to be a chunky monkey but there was just enough room around the shoulders so as not to induce a ‘being buried alive’ panic attack in the early hours. I’ve slept in bags before that should have really included a butler or at least a trained mammal of some kind to assist in undoing the zip because the fit has been too slim to allow enough arm movement to operate the zip on your own. Not without dislocating a shoulder anyway. The foot section was also well sculpted and felt in no way restrictive.

The compression sack provided looked lightweight, well made…and possibly a little too small at first glance. All the same, the sleeping bag disappeared inside easily, no problems at all. The top closure consists of a simple drawstring and then the whole caboodle can be cinched down by what seems to be another 50% using the strong webbing straps and tensioning buckles. This gives you a neat little bundle only slightly bigger than a football. All that warmth in such a tiny package! I literally couldn’t wait to pack my kit for the weekend. With all the usual suspects lined up and ready to go (spare clothing, thermal mat, hunka bivi bag, rig 7 tarp, warm top, water, cooking kit, waterproofs and other assorted dry bags containing various useful bits and bobs) I dropped my new, fully compressed sleeping bag into the cavernous depths of my big rucksack. There was a barely audible and muffled ‘thud’ as it hit the bottom about twenty seconds later (ok, a bit of an exaggeration but it was certainly rattling around in the bottom somewhere). All the other essentials followed after and for the first time in a long time I was able to cinch the hood straps right down; virtually unheard of when packing kit for a couple of days winter camping.
Surprisingly heavy duty zip and crafty low snag zip baffle

The real test was yet to come, a dramatic drop in temperature over the weekend and snow forecast for the Saturday night and throughout Sunday. My weekend away in the woods was destined to be a cold and busy one; pre-season training for the keen team of Wilderness Survival Skills instructors and assistants. I’d definitely be in need of a good nights kip. Luckily, our base camp in the woods is reachable by 4x4 and as we had a fair bit to unload, we drove right on in. This came with the added bonus of being able to carry my US army cot bed the short distance to my usual tarp spot, not really an option when hiking but a very welcome addition when vehicle mounted. As the sleet was already hanging in the air I slung the Rig 7 tarp up first, between two trees in an open fronted lean to plus porch configuration to provide a dry working space underneath. This little spot is my leafy bedsit for at least a couple of nights every week from spring through until autumn and occasionally much longer when courses run back to back. Having a proper bed is essential for remaining on top form when teaching day after day but I do sometimes miss the simplicity of rolling out my thermal mat straight on the deck and bedding down amongst the leaves. This chilly weekend was definitely not one of those times! As part of my tarp based sleeping system, I usually carry an extra large ‘hunka’ breathable bivi bag to protect my sleeping bag when sleeping on the forest floor or if the weather is particularly cold and wet. This extra protection from the wind chill and additional layer to trap warm air normally increases the comfort temperature rating of any sleeping bag so to give the Skyehigh a proper test, I decided not to use it. As always, I prepared my sleeping kit but left it packed in it’s stuff sack until bedtime to avoid it absorbing any moisture from the damp evening air.
It was a very cold night, but not for me!!
Weirdly I was really getting quite excited about hitting the sack that night. As the rest of the team gradually started to flake, I banked the fire up for the night, switched out the lantern and slunk away through the frosty leaves by the light of my head torch until the beam picked up my reflective guy lines through the trees. The Skyehigh bag lofted up nicely with a few wafts, just as it had done at home. I took a deep breath and stripped down to thermals; my mid layers making a warm pillow, trousers tucked away in the sleeping bag compression sack and boots arranged one inside the other, to keep out the creepy crawlies. Despite it being bloomin’ freezing I warmed up extremely quick once zipped up inside the bag, much quicker than my other synthetic fill bags. I just about had time to switch off my head torch before dropping off to sleep, cosier than I’d been for a long time.

So how did the Skyehigh 800 four season bag perform on it’s first winter trip out to the woods? The proof is most definitely in the pudding as they say and I think the fact that I slept right through until morning (and nearly missed a cooked breakfast) despite the temperature dropping further in the night and snow arriving with a vengeance in the early hours, goes to show that this is an extremely warm and comfortable sleeping bag. In fact, without a shadow of doubt, I would say that for it’s size and weight when packed, this is easily the warmest, most comfortable sleeping bag I’ve had so far. I would imagine, the Skyehigh 600, being a three season bag would cope with the majority of weather conditions encountered by the average outdoors person camping from spring through to late autumn and with the addition of a hunka bivi bag would make a very small, lightweight but warm sleeping system for all but the coldest UK weather if you like travelling light. Also, not mentioned yet but definitely of importance to most people looking to buy a good sleeping bag, the price is outstanding for a bag of this quality. But best of all…not a single hint of cabbage!

For more details of the superb range of Skyehigh sleeping bags and all other Alpkit products just click on this link

1 comment:

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