These two articles first appeared in the Uncle Wacko’s Gear Corner column of Wanderlust, our ATC Club magazine, in July and August 2019 respectively.
They are repeated here as a potential tramping gear resource for NZ conditions.
Warning: Uncle Wacko has strong views and may challenge tramping assumptions and sensibilities!
Quick link to second article:
How to get a beaut sleeping bag
Start by deciding on the lowest temperature your bag will have to handle.
For most of you, this’ll be -2° to -4°. Unless you really feel the cold, this should see you right for all but winter or alpine camping trips. If it gets a bit brass monkey on you, piling on more clothes will help.
Now all bags have stated temperature ratings, so choosing one that’ll handle the range you want should be a piece of cake, right?
Yeah, nah. Not so fast.
The truth about manufacturers’ temperature ratings
So there’s this Standard, EN13537, with a recognised method for testing sleeping bag temperature ratings. So it’s all scientific – great right?
Problem is, many manufacturers ignore it completely and concoct their own ratings. Many of those ratings are dodgier than a loyal Trump staffer – some are so fanciful they’re downright dangerous.
So follow this rule:
Only believe temperature ratings where the bag has been tested and rated against the Standard, or you know you can trust the manufacturer.
Stick to this, and you’re pretty much right. Blokes should work off the "Lower limit", sheilas the "Comfort" rating.
Here’s a few other things you’ll want to know.
Buy down, not synthetic
Only consider a synthetic bag if you’re going to be in prolonged wet conditions. They handle moisture better, but hey, you’d be a bit of a drongo getting any sleeping bag wet, wouldn’t you?
Down is way lighter and crunches down much smaller in your pack.
Only buy high loft down
Down quality varies big time. You want at least 800 loft, ideally higher. It fluffs up much more than lower loft, so is warmer – you need less of it for the same temperature. Meaning a lighter, less bulky bag.
There is one ever so minor downside to this though – high loft down is eye-wateringly expensive. Suck it up, geese with the good genes don’t come cheap apparently.
Do you sleep warm or cold?
A mummy bag hugs your body more so is warmer – great if you’re a cold sleeper. But they can be way too hot, or claustrophobic, for warm sleepers. A looser rectangular shape is better for you.
Zips add weight and are source of air ingress/egress. So the lightest bags have shorter zips. But warm sleepers often prefer longer zips for better ventilation options.
Do you need one? Warm sleepers often don’t, so can bank the weight savings a bag without one gives. If it gets too parky you can wear a beanie - or take a separate down hoody.
What sleeping bag should I get?
Now that you know the basics, here are the brands to go for:
Western Mountaineering – they’re simply the best
I’ll let you into a secret – WM bags are so good Uncle Wacko was gonna recommend them and nuthin’ else here (but the bloody editor talked him out of it).
They’re impeccably constructed, and temperature ratings spot on. Pick one that suits from their ExtremeLite Series – you won’t get better.
Recommended: TerraLite, semi rectangular, -4° comfort, 850 – 900 loft, 820 grams, USD510.
Sea to Summit
The Spark or women’s cut Flame ranges are the go. They’re excellent bags, light and well-made, with the added advantage you should be able to climb into one and test it at your local supplier before buying.
Recommended: Spark III, mummy, -2° comfort, 850 loft, 650 grams, NZD600-700 with a bit of luck.
This is the brand if you want hoodless. They’re either full or ¾ length zip, 950 loft down, and just look at those weights! Trampers who own them invariably rave (on and on) about them – which says something.
Recommended: 20F Classic, -7° comfort, 950 loft, 560 grams, USD379.
They make good bags but don’t used the highest loft down so they’re a tad heavy. Their advantage is price – you’ll save yourself a hundy or two.
Recommended: Epic 400, mummy, -1° comfort, 800 loft, 810 grams, NZD460.
So there you go. You’ll be as snug as a bug in any of these bags. We’re really starting to get you sorted, aren’t we.
Rounding out your sleeping system
Sleeping pads do two jobs: insulate you from the ground (so you don’t freeze your nunchucks off), and make you comfortable enough to sleep.
You’ve got two decent options.
Closed cell foam
There’s only one way this makes sense - cut yourself 4 sections a foot or so long and 500mm wide and tape them together on one side only.
Laid out, they’re your sleeping pad, folded up the support in a super light frameless pack. Sit on ‘em during the day. Three birds with one stone, coupla hundred grams in weight, total cost less than 20 bucks.
Uncle Wacko used this sophisticated setup for years - works a treat.
But wait ... I can hear your gnashing and wailing from here. Not comfortable enough for your sedentary old bones? Then go for the second option.
Inflatable air pads
To start with, forget self-inflating pads, they’re way too heavy and bulky.
For three season use, blokes should get R-value 2 or above, sheilas and cold sleepers 3-4. R-value is a measure of insulating ability, so how well the pad lets you retain body heat.
For winter you’ll want R-value 5, and for camping on snow take an additional thin foam pad as well.
Standard pad length is 72 inches but there are also small and larger sizes.
Newsflash: You probably don’t need a full length pad. Uncle Wacko only ever uses a small size outside winter, 119cm long, and he’s not exactly vertically challenged.
Thing is, your legs don’t contact the ground that much, so why have a pad under something that’s off the ground anyway. You can slide some clothes or your pack under them if you need to.
A small size save heaps on weight, bulk and dosh.
What to buy
OK, let’s not ponce about here. The only mat to buy is the Thermarest NeoAir X-Lite. R-value 3.2. Regular is 350g, $399; small 230g, $329.
Don’t even consider anything else – no other brand competes on weight, bulk or warmth. Thermarest are simply in a league of their own.
For winter, get the XTherm – R-value 5.7, 430 grams.
Think they’re a bit pricey? Tough, that’s just what you gotta pay.
Sleeping Bag Liners
Liners slow down the soiling of your bag from sweat and body oils.
Or so they say. If you sleep butt naked, that might make sense. But if you wear a bunch of clothes, what difference are they really gonna make?
And some of you are way, way too precious about having to wash a sleeping bag anyway. Get over it, it’s really not a problem.
Ducks and geese don’t fall apart when they’re wet, and nor will your bag. Just follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
So liners are an optional extra.
I see they come in silk, cotton, fleece and polyester. My, my ...
And can weigh anywhere from 100 to a completely ridiculous 300+ grams.
And here’s another ridiculous thing about bag liners – manufacturers’ claims about how much warmth they add. Don’t believe a word of it, it’s marketing twaddle. You might gain a degree or two, but most will do diddly squat. You’re way better off wearing a fleece or down jacket for extra warmth.
If you must have a liner, buy whatever feels most comfortable and is still light. And enjoy the added excruciating delay in the middle of the night extricating yourself from your bag for those emergency bladder relief episodes.
So now you've got a sleep system – bag and mat, and liner if you want it.
If you’ve followed Uncle Wacko’s advice (and you’d be a right plonker if you haven’t!) then your mat will weigh 230-350g and your bag 560-820g. Now that’s damn good kit at a nice low weight.
Lordy, we might even make competent lightweight trampers out of youz yet!
Back to Tramping Gear main page