Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Zpacks Sleeping Bags Double Review: 40 Degree Long Term and 20 Degree First Impressions

Recently in Back to Back Episode 2, I briefly talked about my two Zpacks sleeping bags, and how I think that for my purposes (Ultralight and long distance backpacking) they are one of the best bags money can buy.  So I figured I would elaborate a bit on these excellent additions to my gear closet by writing up another double review.  I should note that before buying each bag, I did a lot--boarding on an obsessive amount--of research.  These are bags that have consistently gotten good reviews, like this one for example.  I gave it a lot of thought, which is reasonable considering that these sleeping bags are indeed a big investment for most people.  You can check out all the details on these bags here at Zpacks, but I will include my own measurements and specifications on my two bags shortly.

I have had my 40F/5C bag since spring of 2013, and it has been used quite a lot in the two seasons that followed.  If you have followed any of my trip reports/trail guides (see the tab above if you haven't), then odds are you've probably seen my 40 bag at a campsite I was at.  I use it for roughly half of the year, from late spring to early fall; or put another way, for low temperatures of about 30F/-1C.  On one occasion I pushed it to 26F/-3C, but had to wear all my layers (and was able to sleep alright), but found that this is pretty much the limit of this bag.  When temperatures are more than around 50F/10C on warm summer nights, I open the bag up and use it more like a quilt.  Anything over 60/16C for low temps is too warm for this bag, but this is rare where I hike (Sweden/Norway).  I have since made a DIY summer bag that I also plan on using as a bag liner during frigid winter nights in combination with my new bag.

I just got my 20F/-7C bag this summer, and obviously have yet to try it out.  I wanted to have two sleeping bags that, with a few adjustments, could cover all my backpacking needs for getting a good nights sleep year round.  This will be my bag for the rest of the year that my 40 bag can't handle, roughly late fall to early spring.  For a long time I have experimented with different combinations of clothing, liners, and even using two sleeping bags at the same time during winter and very cold temps.  

After putting my 40 bag to the test, I had my sights set on the 20 bag to update/complete my sleep systems.  For the past three winters I have used older sleeping bags of mine, none of which were winter bags, and pushed them to the limit and beyond with a lot of improvisation and tweaks.  And I got by alright, but in colder months of the year, I would have to put up with a lot more bulk and weight of extra clothing, liners, and sometimes two sleeping bags.  Not to mention all this being a bit fussy and time consuming.

So yeah, I wanted to spoil myself a bit.  I've been doing this whole sleep out in nature thing for nearly two decades, so it was finally time to get what are pretty much my two dream bags.  As I said in the Back to Back video, I would be disappointed if these bags didn't last me at least a decade, and each will be used regularly during their respective season.  But enough background information, on to some more pics and specs:

The 40 bag is on the bottom, 20 bag on top.  At the head end of each bag are Zpacks Cuben drybags.

Underside of the bags, with 40 bag to the left and 20 to the right.

40 degree sleeping bag specs:

Weight: 415g without stuff sack, weighed recently (today)
Shell: Older Pertex Quantum, newer bags are now made with slightly lighter .75 oz/sqyd Pertex Quantum GL
Fill: Default 900 fill down
Size: Wide/Long
Zipper and draft tube: Default and none
Other features: Loop on foot end to hang in storage (which is what I do), came with a slim Cuben drybag which I replaced with slightly larger stuff sack to help preserve the loft of the down.

My own crude measurements using a tape measure:
Loft: ~9cm
Length: ~178cm
Width (at widest point): ~68cm

20 degree sleeping bag specs:

Weight: 610g without stuff sack, weighed recently (today)
Shell: .75 oz/sqyd Pertex Quantum GL
Fill: Default 900 fill down
Size: Wide/X-Long
Zipper and draft tube: Default and none
Other features: Loop on foot end to hang in storage (which is what I do), came with a medium Cuben drybag which I replaced with a slightly larger stuff sack to help preserve the loft of the down.

My own crude measurements using a tape measure:
Loft: ~13cm
Length: ~185cm
Width (at widest point): ~70cm

Below are a few close up shots of the shell and stitching.  As you can see, the older fabric is more of a mossy green, and the newer fabric is more of a forest green.  The newer fabric has a slightly more slippery feel, but then again it is also brand new, so this could change with time.  The bags are soft, smooth, and puffy all over.  They are very comfy to lay inside of, breathe well, and warm up quickly after getting inside.  The draw string around the top is easy to use, and while I had some concerns about the elastic string that it is made out of, no issues to speak of from my 40 bag.

There is a slight difference in the zipper strap at the head end of the bags which you can see below.  The older bag has a soft Velcro strap, and the new one has a flat, plastic buckle.

Overall I have been extremely happy with my 40 bag.  It is the single best sleeping bag I have owned and used in my life, and it feels good to have left behind the loads of cheapo synthetic bags I used for the majority of my life as a backpacker/camper.  I really hope that my new 20 bag can match my high expectations, and so far I see no reason why it won't.  I have never had an issue with my 40 bag being soaked, but that is more a result of experience and proper planning.  It's hard to put an estimate on how many nights of use it has seen, but I get out about once a month (sometimes more, rarely less) for usually 2-3 nights, and for half the year my 40 bag is/was in my backpack.  Plus I also use it on family camping trips.

I should explain why I opted for a longer size for the 20 bag.  The 40 bag fits me like a glove, just right.  I am about 183cm/6ft tall, and when I get snug inside the 40 bag and pull the drawstring, it fits nicely around the bottom of my neck, with my feet just barely touching the end of the foot box.  As an experiment I got in and pulled the 40 bag up as far as I could, and it goes to the middle of my face, with my feet tightly pressed up on the end of the footbox.  I have never felt the need to pull the bag over my face or head, as I usually have a down hat and/or scarf that I sleep in, or sometimes a hooded jacket.  However when it is really cold out, I want to maximize the loft in the bag, have plenty of room in the footbox, and be able to pull the bag to the very top of my neck.

Now that I have switched to a hoodless sleeping bag, I am never going back.  I find it to be much more comfortable, and when it is cool or colder out, I am going to be wearing jackets with hoods and warm scarf/hats anyhow, so a hood is redundant.

Getting in and out of the bags was never a big deal for me.  When it's warmer, I sleep with the zipper open, and it's like a blanket that is secured to your feet.  When it's colder, I keep the zipper zipped all the way up all the time, and just slip the bag on and pull it up while sitting/laying on my sleeping mat.  I don't really think about the zipper and don't really feel it much or at all while I am sleeping or resting in the bag, and it is easy to zip up and down, rarely getting snagged.  The fabric on the 40 is holding up well, with no durability issues.  On occasion a down feather will poke out of the bag, but they are easy to pull back into the bag from the other side--and this is an issue with pretty much all down sleeping bags.

I highly recommend these sleeping bags to anyone that is a backpacker, be it an Ultralight or not--so long as you're doing any significant amount of hiking.  If you're a car camper or doing relatively low (i.e. less than 10km) amounts of hiking, I'd say you're better off with a good but heavier bag that will cost you much less money.

I've also reviewed several Zpacks backpacks, which they are also famous for.  Well, in the UL community and even some traditional backpackers now, Zpacks is well known for a lot of their high quality products.  But out of all the Zpacks gear that I own, the sleeping bags might just be the best quality product.  There are other backpacks that come somewhat close to Zpacks, though I prefer my Zeros and Arc Blast.  Nothing comes close to the sleeping bags from my experiences.  

I've tried a ton of synthetic bags from cheapo to good (e.g. Fjällräven), and a few other down bags of good to very good quality (e.g. Golite, Marmot), and nothing can compare to my Zpacks 40 bag.  Granted, I have not tried other top-tier bags/quilts out there (e.g. Katabatic, Enlightened Equipment, etc.), but I have tried quite a lot of bags in the nearly two decades that I've been backpacking/camping.  A lot of that has to do with having to replace poor quality synthetic bags.

The short of it is this: Zpacks sleeping bags are crazy light without any drawbacks as far as I can tell and am concerned.  If I had to replace my sleeping bags, like say my house burnt down or something, I'd buy the exact same two Zpacks sleeping bags.  Some might say the lack of hood might be a drawback, but as I noted earlier I find that to be a plus rather than a minus for me: more comfort and less weight for a win-win.

Yeah, they ain't cheap, but if you can afford them, they are on the very top shelf of sleeping bags.  And keep in mind there are other, more expensive bags out there.  If you are new to backpacking or have less money to spend on gear (or both), this is a hobby that you plan on doing regularly, and you plan to put in mid-range to longer hikes on your trips, I would suggest that you first go the DIY route.  Do some research, buy some fabric and insulation, and make your own sleeping bag (or have someone you know help you make it).  After you have a good DIY bag you can use, you can then start saving up for a good down bag, like a Zpacks bag.  You put aside 30-40 bucks a month for 10-11 months and you got yourself enough for an excellent UL bag or quilt.  For me, a good bag (and sleep system in general) is one piece of gear that is really worth splurging on if backpacking is your thing.

Other than the price, I honestly can't think of any critiques of my Zpacks sleeping bags.  Time will tell for my new 20 bag, but seeing as there are only a few subtle changes (lighter fabric and a new buckle at the top of the zipper), I doubt it will perform any different than my 40 bag--only much, much warmer.

And as usual, the obligatory disclaimer: in spite of perhaps coming off like a Zpacks fanboy and/or hired critic, I am not sponsored or hired by them (or anyone else), and the bags were bought at full price.