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.