Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Overland Journal, Winter 2017.
For decades, the humble sleeping bag has gone relatively unchanged with only subtle variances evident from one offering to the next. It’s the mark of a proven format, but isn’t the only way to squeeze in your 40 winks. New designs have emerged, some born of wilderness savvy, others derived from heady sleep science. The modern sleep system, far more than just an insulated bag, has revolutionized how campers spend the moonlit hours. Over the course of a year, I set out to test the best sleep makers, some suitable for the soloist, others created for cuddlers.
SYMPHONY LUXURY DUO | EDITOR’S CHOICE AWARD (DUAL SYSTEM)
Wide temperature range
Large sleeping area
Best snuggle quality
The perfect antidote to insomnia, the Symphony Luxury Duo represents the cutting edge in backcountry bedding. Like nearly everything in the Nemo Equipment catalog, nothing about it is conventional, and if there is a more sublime sleeper available, I have yet to find it.
When Nemo Equipment’s designers set out to develop their luxurious camp bunk, they didn’t draw inspiration from sleeping bags—they sought to emulate the qualities and comforts of an actual bed. The foundation to the system is a pair of Nomad insulated sleeping pads effortlessly inflated with the addition of built-in foot pumps. Each pad is 6 inches thick with vertical sidewalls to maximize surface area. When joined together they provide the same amount of sprawling real estate as a queen-size mattress.
Atop the pads, and holding them snuggly together to eliminate any gapping between, is the Symphony Luxury Duo bedding system. The bottom layer is a quilted pillow top filled with a thin layer of synthetic Stratofiber insulation. Above that is a lightweight brushed polyester sheet held securely against the sides of the bedding with full-length zippers. The heavily insulated top quilt, also filled with Stratofiber, connects to the edges with heavy snaps and is sewn into the foot section to ensure it stays put through the night. A thick blanket fold at the neck and a deep but loose-fitting hood section defend against chills when approaching the Symphony’s 30ºF temperature limit.
As a sleeper for two, the generous size and ability for each person to tuck into the top layers as they would at home to regulate temperature makes the Symphony Luxury Duo unique in the camping world. The multi-layered construction increases the seasonality of the system as the comforter can be peeled back, exposing only the inner sheet, or additional blankets added between the sheet and quilt for extra warmth. With a weight of just under 10 pounds, almost 18 pounds with the two pads, it isn’t a lightweight solution. But for those prone to toss and turn all night or reluctant to sleep on the ground, the Symphony Luxury Duo is unequaled for sleeping bliss.
$370 | NEMOEQUIPMENT.COM | 800-997-9301
Captive sleeping pad sleeve
Difficult to insert pads
Not as warm as expected
For many years, the best way to get the double-sleeper experience was to zip two single sleeping bags together. Although an effective solution, it does have disadvantages. Two adjoining bags typically retain independent foot and head sections which prohibit a proper full body snuggle with your bag mate. It’s also challenging to get in and out of conjoined bags given the centrally located zipper placement.
The Big Agnes Sentinel eliminates those negatives while retaining all of the desired twin-bag benefits. Each person has their own access into the interior with the zippers placed along the outer edges. That also facilitates better individual temperature modulation for optimal comfort. The dual sided zippers allow the top layer to be folded downward like a traditional quilt, further augmenting the Sentinel’s bed-like qualities.
With an undivided foot section, one sleeper can warm their ice-cold toes on their partner’s toasty feet, and each half has its own hood for maximum heat retention. Below the bag, an enlarged nylon sleeve fits two rectangular Big Agnes sleeping pads. For maximum warmth, we used their Insulated Air Core Ultra units. They’re held together tightly to reduce any gapping, although a central seam is slightly noticeable. Large pockets in the base of each hood keep pillows from going astray, and a drawstring around the top opening cinches the insulated draft tube snug enough to seal out cold air.
Filled with water-resistant 650-fill DownTek insulation, the outer shell is sewn with a simple yet effective square baffle construction to keep fill from migrating or clumping. The polyester ripstop outer shell and nylon taffeta liner pack small and resist bunching when moving about within the bag’s interior.
Rated to 30ºF, the Sentinel is ideally suited for milder seasons; its weight of 3 pounds and 9 ounces makes it light enough for everything from vehicle to foot travel. With a shoulder width of 105 inches, there is a surprising amount of room for two without any fear of claustrophobia. If you like the idea of sleeping in close quarters with your campmate, but still require a system with low weight and a compact stuffed size, the Sentinel 30 might be your ideal solution.
$370 | BIGAGNES.COM | 877-554-8975
VELA HD DOUBLE QUILT
Plush pad cover
Smart draft baffle design
No head protection
Too small for some couples
Versatility is the name of the game with Therm-a-Rest’s extensive line of pads, sheets, couplers, and quilts. The Vela HD Double Quilt, when joined to a pair of NeoAir XTherm sleeping pads and a quilted pad cover, makes for one of the more comfortable two-person sleepers we’ve tested, particularly considering the system is so light at just over 4 pounds.
The key to the Vela’s comfort and thermal efficiency is its three-dimensional design. Not just a quilt by conventional standards, it has pronounced insulated baffles along its two sides to help shut out the cold. The foot section includes an elasticized pocket encapsulating the bottom of the sleeping pads to ensure warm feet don’t inadvertently poke out into the chilly night. Six additional keeper tabs at the edges prevent either occupant from stealing more than their fair share of the covers, a contest my wife usually wins.
Filled with water-resistant 650-fill power Nikwax Hydrophobic Down, the Vela has a generous cut of 72 inches at the shoulders and a total length of 84 inches. The gossamer-light 20-denier outer and inner fabrics pack small and drape comfortably over both sleepers without bunching or clinging to clothing. Contributing to the bed-like feel, the quilted Down Coupler serves as a bottom sheet, adds extra insulation, and holds the two 20-inch-wide Neo- Air XTherm pads together with no uncomfortable gaps in between. Perhaps the most advanced sleeping pads on the market, they have an impressive 5.7 R-value to further boost warmth.
Because even the best beds need a good landing pad for your head, we opted for two Therm-a-Rest AirHead pillows. The inflatable core is baffled for stability and wrapped in a thick layer of open-cell foam with a brushed polyester cover. For those who prefer a tall pillow, the AirHead stands at a lofty 4 inches thick. An ideal system for traveling pairs with limited storage space or strict weight constraints, the Vela HD Double Quilt, XTherm pads, and Down Coupler create a soft and dreamy cocoon for two.
$280 | THERMAREST.COM | 800-245-2992
SEA TO SUMMIT
BASECAMP BCII | EDITOR’S CHOICE AWARD (SINGLE SYSTEM)
Top layer can be detached for use as a quilt
Small stuff sack for sleeping mat
At first blush, the Basecamp BcII looks like just another traditional sleeping bag, and it does retain the best facets of that proven format. It has a tapered foot box for optimal thermal performance as well as a properly shaped hood, both essential elements when the mercury drops to the bag’s 15ºF rating. It’s only on closer inspection that the innovative design elements become evident.
When sliding into the BcII for the first time, the most noticeable quality is the internal volume. Sea to Summit describes the cut as contoured rectangular. I would call it mummy shaped, albeit a chubby mummy at that. The shoulders have a 77-inch internal circumference, perfect for larger sleepers or those hoping to avoid an uncomfortable nylon squeeze. The wide girth extends all the way to the foot box with just a slight taper, providing sufficient room for wandering elbows and knees.
The most welcomed innovation to the Basecamp and one long overdue is the addition of a near 360-degree zipper system. Starting at the hood, dual zippers allow the 750+ Ultra-DRY Down top layer to fold down on both sides like a traditional comforter. It can even be removed entirely and used on its own as a large contoured quilt in warmer temperatures, or to reduce packed weight and size.
Because there’s nothing worse than slipping off your sleeping pad mid-dream, the Basecamp employs a three-point retention system built into the lower half of the bag. The most prominent is a stretch lycra harness at the foot with two additional nylon webbing straps near the waist and lower torso. For this evaluation, I used Sea to Summit’s latest self-inflating Comfort Plus SI Mat. With ample insulation for sub-freezing temps and superb plushness, the open cell foam within the mat does the hard work of inflation once the multi-function valve is opened. The BcII has a stretch panel below the hood to lock a Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow Premium in place, so it stays put all night long.
With a weight of 2 pounds, 10 ounces for the bag and 1 pound, 15 ounces for the 3-inch-thick sleeping mat, this is not an ultralight sleep system, but it represents the next evolution in versatility and comfort. After dozens of nights of use over the last year, I can confidently say it is one of the most comfortable single-person sleepers I have ever tested.
$380 | SEATOSUMMIT.COM | 303-440-8977
Can be used directly on the ground
Ample wiggle room
Captive sleeping pad
Quality of materials
Slightly large packed size
When it was released in 2016, the Moonwalk introduced a fresh concept in backcountry slumber. Aimed at bikepackers, hunters, and other travelers with space and weight limitations, the Moonwalk was primarily engineered for people who like to sleep alfresco, out in the open and directly on the ground.
To that end, the bottom layer is made of durable, waterproof nylon sewn in a unique, three-dimensional bathtub configuration. Within that lower half, a full-length sleeve accommodates a rectangular sleeping pad to ensure the sleeper doesn’t roll off their bed. For my evaluation, I used Nemo’s 3-inch thick Tensor Field insulated mattress filled with extra Primaloft fibers for optimal cold weather performance. The pad also has a reinforced bottom layer for added durability.
The top of the Moonwalk is generously stuffed with 650-fill power down with water-resistant DownTek sewn into plump latitudinal baffles. The foot section, often prone to getting wet from condensation when used in a tent, is covered in waterproof fabric. The upper and lower insulated components work in tandem to provide the system a conservative 30ºF temperature rating. When the digits dropped just below freezing, the Moonwalk remained comfortable, but the lack of a hood created modest challenges with regard to head protection.
For those that feel confined in mummy bags, the slightly tapered rectangular shape offers ample shoulder, leg, and foot room. The 62-inch width at the shoulders accommodates larger sleepers or those seeking extra wiggle room. It is exquisitely comfortable given its low weight of 2 pounds and 2 ounces, or just a shade over 3 pounds with the sleeping pad. With a full-length zipper on the left side backed with a puffy draft tube, the Moonwalk does remarkably well at retaining body heat. Rounding out the package, and keeping with the light but comfortable theme, I plopped my head on Nemo’s bantamweight Fillo Elite inflatable pillow.
To further the utility of the Moonwalk, I paired it to Nemo Equipment’s Escape Pod bug bivy. Held aloft above the bag with the brand’s proprietary inflatable AST air beam technology, the three-part system is easy to set up and never fails to provide a sound night’s sleep.
$280 | NEMOEQUIPMENT.COM | 800-997-9301
Small packed size
No lower insulation
Hood is extra
Anyone traveling under their own steam knows every ounce carried must strike a delicate balance between added comfort and ease of portability. For many years, this imposed harsh penalties on sleeping systems which were often underinsulated, bereft of features, or agonizingly snug. Colorado-based Katabatic Gear is dedicated to the small batch manufacture of premium sleeping bags aimed at the discerning gram counter. An avid thru-hiker, founder Aaron Martray’s designs are not just light, but versatile and extremely comfortable.
The product of Martray’s extensive backcountry experience, the Flex 30 is unlike anything else on the market. Blending the better qualities of a traditional sleeping bag with those of a lightweight quilt, it qualifies as ultralight without any irksome sacrifices apt to foil a good night’s sleep.
Comfort is derived from the flexibility of the design, hence the name. A small zipper along the lower edges joins the bottom third of the Flex together to create a bag-like enclosure to best wrap around the sleeper for optimal heat retention. An insulated draft tube at the neck, and a drawstring closure at the foot seal out cold air. For warmer temps, the Flex can be unzipped and used as a fullcoverage quilt.
Additional features include a proprietary retention system to ensure the Flex stays positioned over the sleeping mat as well as optional nylon webbing straps to hold the quilt in its bag-like configuration. Filled with responsibly sourced water-resistant 850-fill power down supplied by Allied Feather & Down, the insulation is stuffed within large continuous baffles made of high-quality Pertex Quantum ripstop nylon.
At only 20.9 ounces, with packed dimensions roughly the size of a football, the Flex is perfectly suited for foot or bicycle travel but also makes for a superb travel blanket where space and weight are a concern. Because the design forgoes a lower layer of insulation, it is important to pair it to a properly insulated pad. For our tests, we used a Sea to Summit UltraLight insulated mat with a 3.3 R-value. When temperatures dipped to the lower limit of the Flex’s 30ºF rating, the lack of a hood was noticeable, but Katabatic’s optional down-filled Crestone hood solves that issue.
$365 | KATABATICGEAR.COM | 303-984-4189