42 Comments

  1. Jason
    Jason October 8, 2013 at 5:25 am

    Hey there…do you have any recommendations of specific bags to use? a 40 degree will be fine for me, as i’m an extremely warm sleeper…but I’m trying to avoid spending $300 (or more) on a bag…i’m not saying I”ll go cheap, cause I know better than that…but still I want to spend less…Thanks

  2. Curt
    Curt October 8, 2013 at 6:16 am

    Good analysis. I had to make the same decisions when I hiked the JMT in 2011. I also chose a 20 degree down bag on the assumption that is was probably only a 30 degree bag. We did have nights that were sub 30’s and I was glad to have the warmer bag. I also used the lightweight silk underwear as my sleeping bag liner and after much experience I believe that it’s the right choice versus carrying an actual liner. Add socks and a beanie and it will shave at least 10 degrees off of the bag temperature thus making a 30 degree bag more like a 20 degree bag.

    Now almost all good sleeping bags are EN or European Norm rated so in most cases if it says that it’s a 20 degree EN rated bag then it’s probably accurate on average (my 20 degree bag was not EN rated which is why I assumed 30 degrees). If you chose a 20 degree EN Rated bag then yours probably is a 20 degree bag which is why you were too warm sometimes. Also keep in mind that overall this was a very warm year in the Sierras with no snowpack. In 2011 we had almost 200% more snow than usual over the winter and spring so some places were like a refrigerator.

    All that being said, this summer for the Sierras I chose a 32 degree REI Flash Sleeping bag that is a hybrid with Polartec synthetic fill on the bottom and down on the top. It’s an ingenious idea because the part that is exposed to the ground is synthetic and will dry faster if it gets wet. It also doesn’t compress like down so you have an insulated layer that has some value, with a down quilt on top. And the best news is that in a regular it only weighs 1 lb. 9 oz. and compresses into a very small compression sack. At around $260.00 it’s fairly reasonable too, especially if you have a coupon.

    I have a 40 degree travel sack as well, but it weighs almost as much as the REI Flash and I would be reluctant to take it to the Sierra’s unless I knew that it was going to be warm or I was not expecting to camp at elevations over 10,000′. I would not risk it on a 2 week trip not being certain of weather conditions. In general, for all purpose three season California backpacking I recommend a 32 degree EN rated bag for men and a 20 degree EN rated women’s sleeping bag for women (there is a difference in EN ratings for men’s and women’s sleeping bags).

    The 40 degree bag is great for summer and early fall trips into my local mountains (Santa Barbara) for a short one to two day trip. I can pack it into a daypack with all of the gear that I need for a short trip and go out ultralight. I would not sleep in my rain gear ever. That would be like sleeping in a sweat box.

  3. Ravi
    Ravi October 8, 2013 at 7:12 am

    I also made a less than perfect choice for my JMT hike this year. I purchased a Marmot Helium long which I believe weighs in at 38 ounces. It is a down filled 15 degree bag which one would think should be more than adequate. In fact, it was just fine for most of the nights. But on the colder nights, I had to use additional layers because the bag was way too big for me both in length and width. I thought I needed a long since I’m 6’1″ but a regular probably would have been fine. But even then the Helium is a wider bag, probably too wide for me. I’m looking at selling the Helium and buying a zPacks bag for next year but I’m undecided on going with a 30 or 20 degree bag. The zPacks bags are roughly half the weight of the Helium … and probably will be warmer for me since they are cut more narrow.

  4. Fred Brockman
    Fred Brockman October 8, 2013 at 9:18 am

    I subscribe to the idea that one’s entire suite of clothing can be worn at night with the sleeping bag or quilt. For me, for a summer/early fall hike in the high Sierra, that is 2 long underwear bottoms (silk-weight and expedition weight) plus hiking shorts, and 4 tops (two silk-weight and one expedition weight long underwear, and lightweight down sweater with hood), beanie cap under the hood, and lightweight wool socks. I find that a 30 degree quilt allows proper space around the body whether all these clothes are on, or none are on. I wore all of this at Guitar Lake in mid-Sept and was toasty when it was in the upper 20’s outside and my quilt became wet due to condensation dripping onto it. I also bring a reflective emergency sheet that can be used for excessively cold weather that might occur once every 10 or 20 nights, or when one gets wet.

  5. Dana
    Dana October 8, 2013 at 12:32 pm

    Love your analysis! I purchased a new bag this summer for my Yosemite hike; a Columbia 32° bag, weighing in at 1lb. 9oz. I snagged the prior year closout for about $150! It was a steal, but I was concerned that it wouldn’t be warm enough when I reached the higher elevations. I sleep in silk and synthetic base layers. While in Vogelsan and Toulumne Meadows, the night time temps dipped into the mid to low 30’s and I brought additional layers into my tent so I could layer up if I got too cold. Well, it never did!! I’m glad I made the choice based on the weight and skipped the bag with the colder rating.

  6. dana
    dana October 8, 2013 at 1:22 pm

    Thanks for all the thoughtful analysis! My daughter and I were on the JMT this summer for three weeks (late July to mid-August). Beautiful weather generally, but we were both cold most nights. I believe that nighttime temps were in the high 30’s; we had several nights of frost. I had a 30deg GoLite down quilt with a Sea to Summit silk liner; she had an REI subkilo (rated to 20deg). I know I’m a cold sleeper (5′ 7″, less than 120 lbs) but I was still a little surprised by this. I often wore two layers of long pants and multiple layers on top including an UL down sweater with hood plus beanie. (Clearly I would perish on Mt Everest.)
    Anyway, I guess my point is there seems to be huge variability in the comfort range for different people.
    And I have a question: how is it that one can be simultaneously chilly and clammy (damp, almost sweaty) at night? I’ve experienced this my whole camping life, regardless of cowboy vs tent, sleep system, teens to late middle age!

  7. Steven Shaplin
    Steven Shaplin October 8, 2013 at 6:13 pm

    Hey Ray, I really enjoy your post. In 2010 I did the JMT pack weight over 50lbs, I had a very hard time to say the least. I’ve redone my equipment and in 2012 I did the hike again. When I left Happy Isles my pack with food and water was 21lbs. I use a 20 degree bag 1lb15oz made by Feathered Friends with silk long johns. On warmer nights I just use it like a quilt.

  8. geekgirl
    geekgirl October 9, 2013 at 3:42 am

    The sleep system is what I actually find to be one of the most difficult portions of gear to get dialed in.

    I have a bunch of bags for just this reason. I have a 32 bag, that even with medium weight base layers, is inadequate at 40 degrees, yet another 32 degree bag is hot with no base layer at the same temp.

    I personally, opt for a little lower temperature bag, and then just use it as a quilt if I am hot, or the temp doesn’t get low.

    For those looking for a down bag that doesn’t break the bank –

    Try the Kelty Cosmic line. Although I personally would not go with a 40 degree bag, they have one that is less than 2 lbs., and a bit over $100. The 20 degree bag is 2 1/2 lbs, same price, depending on where you buy it. I own the 20 degree version, and it’s a really solid bag. But, be forewarned – the 20 degree bag is comparable to an EN rating of 32. That is the one I would go for.

  9. Richard
    Richard October 9, 2013 at 8:44 am

    First, sleeping in rain gear: I’d never plan on this as the backup warming plan. The times in the Sierras when I’ve regretted my gear choices were when I was hit by a long series of rain during the day. Since my rain gear was wet, there was no way it was going to be inside my sleeping bag.

    I think getting a very warm down bag is the best first step in weight savings. The one I ended up with is the 20°F bag (REI Igneo at 1 lb 15 oz), but my JMT was fairly late in the year and many of my nights were down to 20°F outside, with several days of rain, and even a little hail and tiny patches of snow falling at the passes, for example when I camped at Wanda Lake just below Muir Pass.

    Even with the warm-ish down bag, I have some lightweight ways of staying even warmer. A silk bag liner is wonderful, since the silk can be shifted to wrap the part of the body that feels coldest, and at just a few ounces (4+oz, I think) it makes more sense than carrying extra clothing.

    Where I save weight: First, I’ve been using a solo TarpTent (the Rainbow), which is about as light as you can go if you insist on full coverage against mosquitoes and creepy crawlies at night. My cooking gear is just a light alcohol stove, and with only freezerbag cooking I’m only boiling an average of one cup of water twice a day. For water purification I use tablets (iodine during the day, chlorine dioxide over night) instead of the heavier, but perhaps more appetizing, filters or steripens. And I’ve upgraded to a lighter backpack and sleeping pad than my historic ones; a 3lb GoLite Quest and the wonderful ThermaRest NeoAir XTherm. This got my baseweight down to 24lbs, I think. With a full food and water load I think I was at maybe 35lbs.

  10. Jill
    Jill October 9, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    Thanks for the words on this one Ray. What I’m doing right now is working on making a down quilt. It’s impossible for me to sleep on my back (I’ve got a rather major lower back issue) and have a hell of a time sleeping in a mummy bag on my side with the way I sleep…so I’m hoping that the quilt will work out for me. I had the brilliant idea of putting an emergency space blanket on the bottom side with my sleeping pad to try to keep from losing heat to the ground. We’ll see how that actually works…

  11. Richard Russell
    Richard Russell October 9, 2013 at 2:15 pm

    One advantage of sleeping in all of your clothes, apart from allowing a lighter bag, is that in the morning you are ready to go. No need to hop around in your socks trying to get dressed in the cold. If you do your homework the night before, you just need to put your boots on, stuff your sleeping bag, and off you go. This is a great help if you are trying to start hiking at sunrise, which is essential for those big 20-mile days.

  12. Art Vino
    Art Vino October 10, 2013 at 3:44 am

    I like quilts..

    Quilt pros:
    less confining
    better ventilation
    more versatile
    lighter
    pack smaller

    I like MLD quick (so does Andrew Surka), because synthetics can be washed on the road. Only con is that synthetics don’t compress as good as down and down is not as water resistant as synthetics, but those lines blur daily as technology progresses.. There are water resistant downs and synthetics are showing up packing smaller and smaller..

  13. Tom
    Tom October 10, 2013 at 7:49 am

    Thanks for another great post Ray. I’ve also struggled with sleep system choices, and for me finding a bag roomy enough is almost as important as staying warm. I have wide shoulders and until I got a bag that wasn’t too constricting, I never slept well. The bag that works for me is the Montbell Spiral Hugger UL, available in different temperature ratings. In this bag I can turn from side to side INSIDE the bag, which is a huge benefit to me. So, in addition to temperature rating, sizing a bag properly and evaluating how you sleep (side sleeper, toss and turn, etc) is also important. I went with a long even though I’m 5’11” as the long has a larger girth measurement. For me, the sleep system is the worst place to economize, and my bag is the most expensive piece of gear in my kit. I am intrigued by quilts though, I’ll investigate that further.

  14. Bill
    Bill October 10, 2013 at 4:20 pm

    I used a 30 degree mummy bag for the JMT in August 2011 and I found that it was a good choice for me. I like the idea of a quilt, but I’m a side sleeper and change sides periodically during the night. I do use my mummy bag like a quilt when it is warm enough by leaving it unzipped and only putting my feet in the bag. When it gets really cold though, I find it warmer with the bag zipped up – especially when I change sides – no cold air gets in.

    I was out a few weeks ago at rock creek and we got about an inch of snow on the ground at night. Temps were probably in the 20s. I stayed warm enough by wearing most of the clothes I brought.

  15. Chris Hauser
    Chris Hauser October 11, 2013 at 8:16 pm

    On my JMT hike this summer, all my gear got wet one evening, and I went to bed very cold, with no tent, in a wet sleeping bag, and no dry clothes, and I quickly started very deep uncontrollable shivering. When I realized I was becoming hypothermic, I drank a cup of hot water, then prepared a hot water bottle, and curled up around that bottle until I warmed up and fell asleep until morning.

    After this experience, I decided I could sleep in any conditions, with any sleeping bag, as long as I had that hot water bottle. Sleeping outside makes it easy to boil water for drinking or preparing a hot water bottle, without getting out of bed.

    Chris.

  16. Karpani
    Karpani October 13, 2013 at 10:07 am

    Chris and Ray, a hot water bottle IS a great idea. What kind of bottle did you use, Chris?

    1. Adam
      Adam October 19, 2013 at 2:11 pm

      I’ve done it with Gatorade bottles (20 oz and 32 oz), and, back when I carried them, 1L Nalgenes.

      I wrap the bottle in with some insulation (extra socks, e.g.), and that slows down the rate at which the heat is emitted. By morning, it’s still warm–good for drinking to warm up quickly.

      1. Felner
        Felner May 31, 2015 at 8:33 am

        Great idea about the hot water bottles. And using the waber in the morning… definitely will try

  17. […] culminated on September 12th. I wrote a little about that hike a couple of weeks ago, and discussed my choice for sleeping bag last week. (If you check out last week’s post, be sure to look at the comments. There were lots of good […]

  18. Byron Nevins
    Byron Nevins October 19, 2013 at 10:50 am

    My first JMT thru hike with my then 20 year old daughter. She is a cold sleeper so I bought her a Mrmot Helium bag. She complained about being cold every night for the first week. I eventually figured out it was pilot error. She didn’t realize the hood had an elastic pull cord. SHe had it completely loose. Once we figured this out she slept VERY warm.

  19. […] been grading the choices I made during my recent John Muir Trail thru-hike. Thus far I’ve scored a “D” for my sleeping bag, a “B” for my sleeping pad, an “A” for my stove, and a “B” for my tent. Next item: how […]

  20. […] previous posts I’ve discussed my sleeping bag, sleeping pad, stove, tent, and water purification strategy. If you go back and read those entries […]

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