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greenland expedition tent sleeping bag

What is the Best Expedition Sleeping Bag?

 

Knowing how people love a good gear debate (the best camping stoves, one-man tents, expedition backpacks, sleeping mattresses and touring bikes have all proved popular), here’s one to get all you gear geeks hot under the collar (or leave you shivering like those long awful nights in a tent when you’re wearing every scrap of clothing you’ve got, you’re hunkered deep in your sleeping bag and you’re still bloody cold and torturing yourself through the long hours until dawn with thoughts of the big fluffy 4-seasons down bag you left at home to save a bit of weight…).

I have written about other expedition kit topics here. You can read about all my expedition experiences here.

Choosing a sleeping bag is one of the hardest expedition kit dilemmas.

In a dream gear world you would probably own:

  • A tiny 1-season down bag for mid-summer use
  • A 2-season down bag for summer use
  • A 2-season synthetic bag for damper summer use
  • A 3-season bag
  • A vastly expensive 4-season down bag for those very occasional, but truly cold nights

Clearly this is not practical for most people! So it all becomes about compromise.

My favourite summer sleeping system is a lightweight option of combining a down jacket and a silk sleeping bag liner. Year round I prefer to err on the side of a light bag combined with wearing more clothes. However out on the Arctic Ocean last year I used a pile liner with a massive four-season synthetic bag on top. Rowing the Atlantic Ocean I used a sleeping bag from Tescos.

Expedition Sleeping Bag - Tesco Value

If you are looking for a sleeping bag for a microadventure rather than a long expedition I would recommend just using whatever you already have and taking along as many supplementary clothes as necessary. There is no point spending loads of money for the sake of a bit of extra warmth or weight saving if you are not really going to use the bag very often. Seriously, any old sleeping bag, plus a wooly hat, plus a few jumpers will do you fine for your first few microadventures.

But, for the gear geeks out there: what is your favourite sleeping bag? I’m asking this question precisely because I know what a difficult one it is, dependent upon the season, the weather, the weight, bulk, price and so on. But go on, have a go.
For once I’m also encouraging gear-geek details such as weight, season rating and price…

Let us know in the comments below.

EDIT: a brilliant reply from all-round-hive-of-information Tomo. I have summarised it:

The deciding factors are many and varied but essentially boil down to Lightweight versus Durable. Count you (the user) in to this equation as well (does the bag, the purpose and the user need to be lightweight or does the user need to be guaranteed a good night’s sleep every night to facae the challenges / arctic tempratures etc the next day). Scribbling notes on a piece of paper under both headings will sort the issue.
There are enough web pages devoted to the synthetic versus down debate.
All the usual factors add or subtract from your decision on which bag is best –
Personal metabolism
What is over and under the sleeping bag
What are you wearing inside it
Will you be able to dry / air the bag regularly
Is there a limiting factor on transporting the bag – does it have to fit in / on a sack, a truck, an isocontainer, the side of a yak ??
If it proves to be inadequate for the “10 year storm” / worst case climate scenario – how easy is it to make yourself warmer with what you have (this leads back to the lightweight / durability question), and continues to the question of if your bag “fails” is your life at risk.

The layered sleeping system works and is favoured by most. Layering could be as simple as wearing (or not) a set of thermals inside the bag to add a “season” of warmth, or putting a 2 season synthetic (washable) inside a 3 season down bag (or vice versa depending on moisture levels) to amke a super-bag.

What does Andy think ? … http://www.andy-kirkpatrick.com/articles/view/maximising_your_bags_warmth

You can sleep in a bog filled culvert or trench for weeks on end in winter in a Buffalo 4 season inner and outer system. You cannot get anything other than said sleeping bag in an 80 litre sack. Decisions decisions.

A Canadian Army poncho liner (think techno synthetic thin duvet that can press stud together (to make a sleep bag) or apart (warm weather duvet luxury) is a good multi function warm weather option. Sleeping insideone of these and inside a tarp (see above Geographical article) adds weatherproofing to the set up.

For the middle of the road, normal usage enter in to the synthetic or down debate and exprience will educate. Ebay is always an option to buy a second hand bag – add £50 to get a down bag professionally cleaned.

The boundaries of winter alpinism and the advent of arctic adventure racing (YAU, Iditarod etc) are both pushing back the boundaries of warmth against weight. There remain however few circumstances where humans require exceptionally warm bags for very prolonged periods of time. This end of the so called super bag market leads one, by a decision of life versus freezing, to specialist manufacturers. if you are operating at that end of the scale then you ought to be laid on the floor of Mountain Equipment, Rab, PHD, Western Mountaineering or similar, in your merino underwear, being measured, weighed and smothered in the finest down money can buy.

Pete Hutchinson Designs (Google PHD) offer a service across there range where you can change fill quality / quantity, outer fabrics, zip sides, hood sizes etc etc, as good as it gets (at a price) without personally ringing Mr Hutchinson himself.

A sumary ?
As with everything in the fashion / media / sponsor drive kit market, you very rarely get what you pay for in the bottom and middle of the market. Will a £20 medium tesco bag inside a £20 large tesco bag actually suffice (and save you £100 on your exped budget ???).
Alternatively, if you need a PHD Xero 1300 sack to stay alive, then buy one.

Read Comments

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Comments

  1. As you said you have done, layering sleeping bags as well as clothing is the way ive gone when on a long bike tour that will last through the seasons.

    temps are at night:

    Hot Weather 25C and up; bag liner, either in it, or on top, depending on whos watching.

    Warm weather 15 – 25 C ; an old square end bag that someone gave me – very light, breathable, packs up as small as a rain coat and you dont care about it being packed down so small either.

    Cool 10 – 15C: Liner and old sqaure end bag, maybe put softshell bag outer on to cut down any breeze blowing through.

    Cooler 5 – 10 C : same as above but more clothing, hat etc. Id put a, inflatable sleeping pas out at this temperature

    Cold. < 0 C: Pull out the down bag. Start with just that, then old square end bag over, liner inside, softshell outer, progressivly more clothing.

    Currently have an ME Phantom 15F down bag. pretty warm i reckon.
    used a thermarest pro lite plus pad womans version, because it has a better U rating.honest.
    also, a really cheap thin foam pad for whens its hot and to project inflatable pad.

    Using this system you have a bag for most conditions anywhere, anytime of year, and it fits in a single dry bag. Total weight, less than 2kg.
    If you are entering an area where it will get really cold you can buy some kind of blanket/quilt locally and have a nice souvenir too.

    At least you can if its a regular bike tour passing through populated areas now and again.

    how does that sound to you Alastair?

    Reply
  2. Matt Pycroft Posted

    Well, having been a student for the last six years, and coming to the end of my course at the end of this academic year, I haven’t exactly ever been loaded with cash. About three years ago I was at a university gear sale, and bought a Mountain Equipment Everest Expedition down bag that I reckon dates back to early 80’s for a whopping £50! I’ve used it countless times, and when coupled with a silk liner serves me extremely well, (particularly in -10 degree temperatures in the Cairngorms over New year 2009/10.)

    It’s faded so much that I’m not sure what colour it was originally, it’s covered in duct tape, and wherever I sleep I end up leaving a few feathers behind, but I will be sad to see it go when the time comes to replace it. I’m sure if it could speak it would have some brilliant stories to tell!

    There isn’t much point to my post. This isn’t a useful, technical opinion on current cutting edge technology, but I can safely say my experiences with second hand kit have been nothing but positive, and I’ll continue to endeavour to grab the bargains in the future!

    Reply
  3. I like to use a ME Xero 350, all sleeping bags serve a purpose and liners are great for adding extra warmth but am I the only one who ends up getting in a tangle in a liner? I guess I move a lot in my sleep.

    The reason I like this bag is because it packs down incredibly small and also offers the heat of a down bag. This combined with a silk liner is usually enough for most conditions however when it is really cold. I tend to only find this at altitude a down jacket is also a must. I think this combination is great for those who want to travel fast and light with minimum pack size.

    I also must mention my rab down slippers. These are a little gem, just some solid down boots which do a great job of keeping the toes toasty after a long day! This is my ideal combination.

    Reply
    • Alpkit’s SkyeHigh 800. Down sleeping bag 3/4 season. Keeps you toasty down to -10c (lower if you start throwing all your clothes on), weighs less than 1.5kg and best of all – it’s really good value compared to its Rab or Mountain Equipment counterparts.

      As it happens I have just packed this bag along with a Rab Bivvy, roll mat and a Poncho (tres-chic) / Tarp. I’m off to the Lake District for a long wintry weekend.

      Stuart, I empathise. When using a liner, bag & bivy (bag in a bag in a bag) rolling over is a sin. The punishment for which is discomfort and annoyance in equal measures.

      Reply
    • Even tough men may eulogise about down booties!

      Reply
  4. The deciding factors are many and varied but essentially boil down to Lightweight versus Durable. Count you (the user) in to this equation as well (does the bag, the purpose and the user need to be lightweight or does the user need to be guaranteed a good nights sleep every night to facae the challenges / arctic tempratures etc the next day). Scribbling notes on a piece of paper under both headings will sort the issue.
    There are enough web pages devoted to the synthetic versus down debate. There is also some geezer in Geographical (March 11) using a cheap and …. good enough Tesco sleeping bag for a week in the coldest conditions the UK endured for decades. Joe Tasker (mountaineer extraordinaire) prepared for his Himalaya expeds by kipping in the walk in freezer in an abbatoir in very very cold conditions …. one way to assess and therefore gain confidence in your sleep system before the “real thing”.
    All the usual factors add or subtract from your decision on which bag is best –
    Personal metabolism
    What is over and under the sleeping bag
    What are you wearing inside it
    Will you be able to dry / air the bag regularly
    Is there a limiting factor on transporting the bag – does it have to fit in / on a sack, a truck, an isocontainer, the side of a yak ??
    If it proves to be inadequate for the “10 year storm” / worst case climate scenario – how easy is it to make yourself warmer with what you have (this leads back to the lightweight / durability question), and continues to the question of if your bag “fails” is your life at risk.

    The layered sleeping system works and is favoured by most. Layering could be as simple as wearing (or not) a set of thermals inside the bag to add a “season” of warmth, or putting a 2 season synthetic (washable) inside a 3 season down bag (or vice versa depending on moisture levels) to amke a super-bag.

    What does Andy think ? … http://www.andy-kirkpatrick.com/articles/view/maximising_your_bags_warmth

    You can sleep in a bog filled culvert or trench for weeks on end in winter in a Buffalo 4 season inner and outer system. You cannot get anything other than said sleeping bag in an 80 litre sack. Decisions decisions.

    A Canadian Army poncho liner (think techno synthetic thin duvet that can press stud together (to make a sleep bag) or apart (warm weather duvet luxury) is a good multi function warm weather option. Sleeping insideone of these and inside a tarp (see above Geographical article) adds weatherproofing to the set up.

    For the middle of the road, normal usage enter in to the synthetic or down debate and exprience will educate. Ebay is always an option to buy a second hand bag – add £50 to get a down bag professionally cleaned.

    The boundaries of winter alpinism and the advent of arctic adventure racing (YAU, Iditarod etc) are both pushing back the boundaries of warmth against weight. There remain however few circumstances where humans require exceptionally warm bags for very prolonged periods of time. This end of the so called super bag market leads one, by a decision of life versus freezing, to specialist manufacturers. if you are operating at that end of the scale then you ought to be laid on the floor of Mountain Equipment, Rab, PHD, Western Mountaineering or similar, in your merino underwear, being measured, weighed and smothered in the finest down money can buy.

    Pete Hutchinson Designs (googel PHD) offer a service across there range where you can change fill quality / quantity, outer fabrics, zip sides, hood sizes etc etc, as good as it gets (at a price) without personally ringing Mr Hutchinson himself.

    A sumary ?
    As with everything in the fashion / media / sponsor drive kit market, you very rarely get what you pay for in the bottom and middle of the market. Will a £20 medium tesco bag inside a £20 large tesco bag actually suffice (and save you £100 on your exped budget ???).
    Alternatively, if you need a PHD Xero 1300 sack to stay alive, then buy one.

    Reply
    • wow – not for the first time with this blog I realise how little I know and how much other people know! Thanks for this great review.
      I love the idea of the PHD Xero – £600 for a bag! And yet when it’s -50 you would quite happily pay up…

      Reply
    • Yeah, nice post Tomo, thanks for teaching!

      Reply
    • Brilliant stuff. Wish I had known about down/condensation issues in arctic conditions before this ridiculous trip I’m on right now.

      Reply
      • Ashley Hold Posted

        A vapour barrier liner, or clothing system is what you need. The idea of this is pretty counter-intuitive – you have a completely waterproof and mom-breathable layer between yourself and the s/bag, to trap all the warm, moist air. Not only does this keep your bag dry but it minimises heat-loss thus actually making you even warmer. I have been experimenting with a Western Mountaineering vapour barrier liner for a couple of years now. Trapping your moisture in the VB liner means it will feel clammy, but nowhere near as badly as you imagine, your body seems to reduce sweating when humidity reaches a certain point. I would recommend wearing a full set of thermals inside the VB liner, including light gloves and socks to prevent contact with the liner material and minimise the clammy feeling.

        Reply
  5. Macpac
    Sanctuary 800 XP… they have a 1000 fill too but that’s a bit much for me.

    Reply
    • You’d probably be more interested in the Macpac Express 600 STD. I’m bias though as I used to work for them years ago, making the bags and in the down-room. I still like to think they’re the best.

      Reply
  6. Sophie Posted

    I am planning a short journey around the UK in a couple of weeks time, so I won’t be enduring the temperatures mentioned above. I am hoping the weather will stay quite mild as I do want a sleeping bag as lightweight and compact as possible!

    I have read many good reviews for Highlander sleeping bags and came across a Challenger Lite 100 review which really caught my eye.
    It was a 1-2 season sleeping bag with a comfort temperature range of -2ºC to 15ºC which I found rather good for a 1-2 season. It also stated it packed down to 26cm x 15cm with a tiny weight of 1000g for a synthetic sleeping bag.

    I have found that specifications stated online have not always been 100% accurate and so I did have my doubts. Although, for the price, I might as well take a gamble.
    I found one at a competitive price of £34.99 on Sleeping Bags Outlet http://www.sleepingbagsoutlet.co.uk/highlander-challenger-lite-100.html a completely new site to me, has anyone else tried it out? There is a customer review on this page for the sleeping bag, which I do like when shopping online, but I’d like to know if there are any other models to check out before I take the plunge?!

    Thanks in advance.

    Reply
    • Alastair Posted

      Hi Sophie,
      I’m afraid I can’t really help with this specific model.
      I’ll just reassure you by saying that in the summer you should be fine with almost any bag – you can always wear all your clothes if you get chilly!
      Good luck!
      Al

      Reply
  7. I suppose it depends on the duration of the trip as well as the mode of transport. On a short trip in the UK, in summer, anything will do. Norway in the middle of winter needs something totally different.
    A few years ago I bought a lightweight down sleeping bag in Estonia for about £20. I think the make is called PureLand. It was cheap, packs down small and weights and 1kg. Great for three seasons( excluding summer). I have used it on loads of occasions and it has served me well. I reckon it still has many years left in it as well.
    Bargins can be had if you have the time and in the right country.

    Reply
  8. Ashley Hold Posted

    For years I opted for a 3 season down bag for all eventualities, which worked well most of the time. As I started venturing into seriously cold trips I layered with a light summer down bag inside the 3 season, which works pretty well but is not the lightest option, not good as such trips are usually when you have more gear to carry, so weight-saving becomes rather more critical. Money has been less of an issue in the last few years so I have now several specialist bags – Western Mountaineering down bags which are very simple, light, and warm without being as expensive as some other options. Even with a -18C bag condensation is a problem so I have been using a vapour barrier bag (also WM) which is a great way to keep the down in prime condition on a multi-day trip, I have also used the VB in milder weather to keep the down dry. I have recently invested in a Thermarest double sleep system (down coupler & Vela double down blanket) so my girlfriend can join me without foregoing intimacy – this is really luxurious, without being very heavy.

    Reply
  9. Alastairs microadventures book has given me exactly kick up the *** I needed to get out there. I brought a bivvy and, with my old Blacks 2 season synthetic bag and thermalite, I excitedly attempted my first tester night down the bottom of the garden. As temps were around 0 degrees C I layered up with as many clothes as I would feasibly be able to take for a normal outing: trousers, thermals, long sleeved top, jumpa, down gillet, gloves, scarf, extra socks and hat. Basically I slept in everything. It felt brilliant to doze off with the breeze on my face under the light of the full moon and at first I didn’t feel too cold, but perhaps that was the beer. Anyway, I am hooked.

    Waking up at 4am with numb toes however has led me to conclude that I could do with a warmer bag for winter bivvying in the UK. There is a lot of choice out there though.

    The Rab ascent 900 is top of my list at the moment but I was wondering if anyone has any bags they would recommend for UK winter bivvying?

    I find the minimum temperature ratings confusing as my (obviously insufficient) two season synthetic bag has an ‘extreme rating’ of -10 degrees C and I was definitely cold at around 0. The Rab ascent has a ‘minimum comfort rating’ of -19C, does this mean I will be toasty warm during most normal winter nights in the UK?

    Is it worth getting a bag with some waterproofing to combat the condensation issue? Ashley’s vapour barrier suggestion sounds good and could perhaps work out cheaper… I am likely to only be doing short trips.

    Thank you in advance.

    Reply
    • Alastair Posted

      Hello! Getting a good sleeping bag is such a hard choice. If I was a lavish millionaire I’d probably buy 10 different bags – it’s impossible to get one that solves all problems.
      I’d say that a -19 Comfort bag is overkill – unless you spend a lot of nights in the mountains in winter.
      No – you don’t need a waterproof bag. For Arctic trips and some mountaineering a vapour barrier is a good idea. A breathable bivvy bag is important too.

      Reply
  10. Hi Alistar,
    Thank you for your reply and advice! I’ve finally ordered a Rab Ascent 700 and can’t wait to try it out. I’ll let you know how it goes!

    Reply
  11. I’m confused, I bought this for a winter camp in Scotland and found myself cold during the night. I wore wool socks & a base layer inside & the temperature didn’t drop below -2 I believe. So not up to the job. But as per usual it’s different for each individual user. Yet after reading your review, I’m thinking I should have just got a Tesco cheapy but then you say you get what you pay for?

    Reply
    • Alastair Posted

      Generally you do get what you paid for. Warmth also depends on how much warm food you have eaten, how damp the air is, how tight your socks are. I’d give your bag another chance.

      Reply

 
 

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