Correspondence: Sleeping gear

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I often receive e-mails from friends with simple questions regarding equipment, routes, or my approach to cycletouring. Some of these questions regard saddle sores, handlebars, free camping, hub adjustment or malevolent rednecks. For their queries, they often receive lengthy, detailed responses. Considering my time and effort, I hope to share more of these correspondences for the benefit of others. These are real conversations, edited only for grammar with some additional links for easy navigation. Illicited by the following question, a detailed response regarding sleeping gear was drafted:

Elise, a friend from Oakland asks, “What are you guys doing for sleeping arrangements these days. Saw some pics on the blog. It looks sweet. No tent? Bivies? Down or synthetic? What sleeping pads have you got?”.

Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2, used this for 4 years

For two people, a real tent makes a lot of sense. For short trips alone, a bivy or tarp could work, but if I expected any rain of bugs, I would grab a tent. I don’t like sleeping in the basic bivies, such as the REI Minimalist. More advanced bivies use short poles for support, ventilation, etc. and approach the cost and weight of a small 1 person tent. Big Agnes has some sweet tents for 1-2 people, all of which would be light enough not to notice on the back of a bike or in a backpack.

Big Agnes has the Seedhouse 1 on sale, which uses slightly heavier fabric than our SL2 (SL=superlight):

The Seedhouse SL or Fly Creek UL tents from Big Agnes are some of the best lightweight tents available. Made in China, but the company is based out of Steamboat Springs, CO and has real people on staff. They have repaired my tent for a nominal fee the last two summers while passing through town and provide excellent customer service on the phone, via e-mail, and in person. Of course, the repairs come after hundreds of nights of use, so I consider the product to be quite durable.



Sleeping pads:
Thermarest Pro-Lite (me, red), Big Agnes (Lael, orange)

I’ve been using the Pro-Lite for years. It is warm enough for anything I do, and I don’t mind that it is only 1″ thick, although some people may prefer more cushion. The Big Agnes pads are 2.5″ thick, but require a lot of huffing and puffing to inflate. There are similar pads from Exped (Synmat UL 7) and Thermarest (Neo-Air), both of which are quite a bit more expensive than the BA, but lighter. The Pro-Lite is nearly as light as any pad available, but isn’t super cushioned. It has some insulation for warmth, and is self-inflating, which means it only requires a few breaths of air.

Lael’s pad is technically a prototype that I bought in Steamboat at BA for $20, but is much like the BA pads you will find at REI or a local outdoor store.

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We have finally settled on sleeping bags after several years of testing different models from REI. In the end, REI simply didn’t stock what we wanted so we bought them at local shops in Missoula and Bozeman. Technically, the REI website lists some nice down bags from Marmot, but most stores don’t stock them.

Mont-Bell U.L. Super-Spiral Down Hugger 3, 30deg, 1lb 6oz (me, green)

This bag uses an elasticized stitching that stretches when you move, but keeps the down close when you are sleeping, improving loft and reducing cold spots. High quality down (800 fill or higher) is the main way to get a lighter warmer bag, although this elastic stitching ingeniously adds some warmth, without adding weight. They make this design at several temperature ratings, in down and synthetic. Synthetic bags are always cheaper, although a bit bulkier when packed and a little heavier at the same temperature rating. Some people say that down will last forever, although it’s probably an overstatement for several reasons. If you plan most of your camping in average to dry conditions such as in most of the mountainous west, down is great. Moisture has never been a serious issue with our down bags, especially with a good tent.


Western Mountaineering SummerLite, 32deg, 1lb 2 oz. (Lael, red)

WM makes the best USA based ultralight down bags, in San Jose, CA. Nice construction with only the nicest down available. Lael’s bag is tiny when packed, although mine is nearly as small. Lots of models are available which basically add more down for more warmth. The UltraLite would be a good 3-season bag, and is slightly warmer than the SummerLite. Feathered Friends in Seattle also makes nice down, although I think WM does better ultralight stuff.


Wiggy’s makes synthetic bags in CO, and prices are very good for USA made gear. It’s not super small or light, but it’s super-durable, cheap and made in the USA and you could ride over to Walnut Creek to pick up the Desert Mummy model from Rivendell.

Great sleeping bag values:
REI has a Halo 25deg down bag on sale for $199, which is pretty small and light for a solid three-season bag. Our old REI Sub-Kilo down bags lost a surprising amount of feathers, so I’m not sure of the quality. That was four years ago.

There used to be a Halo 40 which packed to a nice size and would probably be fine for extended summer travel if you wear some clothing to bed, as we do. It doesn’t make sense to carry a big bag and lots of clothing when you can just put it all together for the coldest nights.

Vapor barrier liners: In the mountains and later in the season, we both use a vapor barrier liner (VBL) which adds a lot of warmth to the system, but can be left at home in warmer weather. For an exhaustive explanation of VBLs see the Rivendell site or this excellent article by Andrew Skurka.

I have the orange sil-nylon VBL from Rivendell made by Etowah Outfitters in Georgia. It was a great value, but is now discontinued. Lael has a fancy, expensive vapor barrier from Western Mountaineering called the Hot-Sac VBL which is a real cooker. You should be wearing long underwear and other clothing before you consider adding a VBL, as an order of operations.

Let me know if you have any more questions. Oh, we sleep “out” as much as possible to avoid the effort of setting up and putting away the tent. We both enjoy the fresh air as well.





10 thoughts on “Correspondence: Sleeping gear

  1. Once again, you’ve produced a post as if you’ve been reading my mind. It really is uncanny. Thanks again for publishing your hard-earned knowledge for the benefit of what is likely a lot of people.

    I think that purchases in my not-too distant future are a good down bag, a good lightweight tent, and a sleeping pad made this century. I’ve already starting the funding process by peppering Craigslist with some of my excess bikes and parts. In the likely event that I can only afford one tent, are there any tremendous disadvantages in hauling a 2-person lightweight tent for solo rides? I ask because I imagine this is what you do, and although I anticipate mostly conducting bikepacking excursions by myself, I may occasionally have Stella along on trails that are within her ability.

    Good luck to you and Lael with your travels, and I look forward to seeing what you see at Interbike. Oh, and if you get the chance, ride a Krampus for me.

    • Owning only one tent between the two of us, a two person tent is a necessity. Ours is not a generous two-person model, as such, it is a tolerable size and weight for solo adventures and captures heat well in cooler weather. I’ve become quite accustomed to the additional space this summer while traveling alone, allowing me to spread out and enjoy the indoor space. With two adults, the Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2 is really just a little sleeping cave, and a very reliable shelter. Once you make the jump to a real tent, as opposed to a tarp or bivy, the addition of “space per person” (2, 3, 4 person) is quite minimal. The poles get a little longer, a little more nylon, a slightly longer zipper.

      The Seedhouse, Seedhouse SL, and Fly Creek UL series use similar deigns in lighter weight combinations, progressively. The Fly Creek is the lightest, but isn’t entirely freestanding, requiring two stakes at the feet to give shape to the mesh inner body, not a big issue in my opinion. The Seedhouse is the cheapest series, while the SL cuts a little weight. We have the SL2, and appreciate it’s neutral color, freestanding body, lightweight and durable materials. I’ve looked at other tents before, but nothing convinces me to switch. This is the longest-standing piece of gear in our travels.

      I’ve also heard good things about the Copper Spur series from BA, which uses a similar design as the others, with a short transverse cross-support to allow for two entrances and vestibules on either side. Sliding in and out of the Seedhouse/Fly Creek models requires bit of a snake-like maneuver, although Stella could probably ride her bike right into the entrance, so it’s more of an issue for you. It’s not that bad, but it’s a little goofy when your feet are half in your shoes, bumbling around in the dark for a place to pee.

      The Copper Spur uses the same lightweight materials at the Fly Creek, but with more features. It maintains a competitive weight:

      It’s worth noting the new BA Fly Creek 2 Platinum, which weighs less and costs more. We live in an era of a 2lb two-person tent, and it doesn’t break the bank. Not a bad deal for a full-feature double wall tent:

      All of these models allow use of the mesh inner body or the rainfly, independently. If out for just a night and light rain or dew are the only concern, leave the main body at home for a weight and space savings and a roomy, foolproof shelter.

      A tent lighter than a single tire on your Pugsley? Something is amiss.

  2. I love these types of posts.

    I’m with you on the whole tent/bivy thing. I own a bivy and use it mostly if I’m guaranteed good weather and no bugs. It’s an Outdoor Research Alpine Bivy, which has the advanced short poles you talk about. Packed weight is about 2 1/2 pounds, which doesn’t sound like that much. But if you throw in a tarp in case of rain, add another pound or so. My REI Passage 1 (the REI basic cheapie solo tent) is about four and change packed. Not only that, it provides respite from bugs.

    When April and I camp/tour together we bring a fairly sizeable REI Quarter Dome that theoretically sleeps three, but more like room for two plus gear. Six pounds isn’t lightweight, but we can divide it between two people.

    Speaking of correspondence, got your postcard, thank you. Now I know not to worry about cellphones in the Yukon!

    • I think some people catch the “Traveling light…” tagline and assume I am a real gram counter, and a weenie, as they say. In fact, it’s more of a figurative and spiritual thing than a measure of ounces and grams. However, a simple life leads me to simple, durable gear, and a good lightweight tent is the crux of any camping system. Before and after every discussion of equipment, I mean to say “it all works”. Willingness or the lack thereof, is the greatest fuel or limitation to active travel, not gear.

      My electronics weigh about 10 lbs, I would guess. I’m thinking a drillium MacBook will do more harm than good though.

    • Thanks Eric. We’ve pedaled through SLO several times before, so it’s interesting to read about the prospective bike trails through the area. Riding in from the south on our first time through the area we were attracted by the nice path that most certainly must have led to SLO; in fact, it was a beautiful dead end in Avila Beach.

      SLO is a great town, which Chris once joked would be the western VO headquarters. The weather is certainly much better than Annapolis, and people actually ride bikes in SLO! Last time through town I met Brandt and Garret at the Bike Co-op and spent a night at “The Establishment”. And the collection of bikes at Wally’s, especially the Ritchey; and free donuts at Sunshine. SLO is always a good time.


  3. Hi Nick,

    The travels look like they are going well. I am happy your better half made it back to the stars and bars safe and sound.
    I have a contact for you in Moab. He is pretty capable so you would be in good hands.
    Email, text, or call me and I will give you his information.

    • Hey Peter! I ran into some of your Smartwool compadres at Interbike. We agreed that you must be the best-dressed guy in the office, even though I’ve never seen the competition. Nice guys.

      We’ve decided on a more southerly trajectory, toward NM. Some bike friends are meeting in Santa Fe in a few days for some riding and camping, and we’re thinking that Albuquerque might be a nice place to spend the winter. If you’re wondering “Why Albuquerque?” like everyone else, you’ll have to check it out for yourself. It’s nice, and a great biking town. Seems to be cheap too.

      Thanks for the offer in Moab. I hope to get to UT and AZ soon, so maybe next time. Keep in touch. We’re likely to cross paths again.


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