2015 sleeping bags: Higher down prices allow more inroads for synthetics

Check out new sleeping bag technologies and designs headed to outdoor retail in 2015. Plus new sleeping pads and outdoor blankets.
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Water-resistant down has been a big consumer hit in sleeping bags, alleviating fears of taking the natural insulation into wet environments, while maintaining the loft and lightweight advantages. Better yet, the applications have gotten more reliable, manufacturers say, yielding more consistent performance results and bringing more brands on board with the innovation.

But, to no fault of the technology — there’s little cost in adding water-resistance — down sleeping bag prices have soared in the face of higher costs for the raw natural insulation.

The reason is that down is a byproduct of food (e.g. it isn’t supposed to be live-plucked), but fewer people are eating duck and goose, particularly in Asia, due to bird-flu scares, so supplies are dropping. At the same time, down’s popularity has never been higher, both within and outside the industry, so demand is rising. Long story short: Lower supply and higher demand equals higher prices.

And here’s where synthetic sleeping bag insulation providers see their opening. The hybrid synthetic/down designs that invaded insulation apparel this winter have arrived to sleeping bags at Summer Market with a similar variety of ideas on how best to insulate against high prices and low temperatures.

The hybrid debate centers on blending or layering the two fills. Blends have the advantage of mimicking the softness and loftiness of down with better compressibility for packing small. But numerous brands tell O.R.D. that their tests with blends showed reduced performance when moisture came into play, as the mix tended to clump and trap liquids. The opposite camp favors layering synthetics with down, typically with the down on the outside for loft and the synthetics on the inside for wicking.

Layering the insulations, such as in the Kelty ThermaDri Dualist 20 (MSRP $149), promotes heat retention and moisture movement with proven techniques, said Frank Kvietok, director of advanced development at American Rec, parent to Kelty and Sierra Designs. “Don’t pull out the Cuisinart, blend these fibers together and think you’ll end up with something better.”

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Marmot employs similar down/synthetic layering in its Alloy 20 (MSRP $315), but flips the insulations on the underside, with the synthetic closet to the ground and its water-resistant, 700-fill Down Defender on the inside, while on top, the down remains above the synthetic for loft. Down-only is used in the hood and neck for comfort.

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Show goers also will see plenty of new, all-synthetic bags at Summer Market as brands target affordability, taking advantage of higher-end designs and fill technologies filtering down to the masses.

“The performance you’re getting out of price-point synthetic bags keeps getting better,” said Mark Hrubant, senior brand director of consumer camping at Johnson Outdoors. Companies are tapping a flood of synthetic fill technologies coming from Asia to design their own proprietary versions that improve heat retention at lighter weights and smaller pack sizes. Eureka’s Synthesis insulation in its Spero 20 (MSRP $129) utilizes different filament deniers and varying interlocking staple lengths that provide structure and compressibility — reducing packed size by about 15 percent along with less weight at 3 pounds, 1 ounce.

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To spread the adoption of last year's Backcountry Bed debut, Sierra Designsintroduces all-synthetic versions (MSRPs $180-$220) of the zipperless design. Mountainsmithbrings a mix of vertical and horizontal baffles plus a 60/40, top/bottom synthetic insulation distribution to maximize loft and thermal efficiency in its new Ptarmigan 35 (MSRP $120) sleeping bag. There’s also a two-way zipper that wraps around the front the bag at the bottom like a backwards “J” for easy venting and the ability to pop out your feet and walk around while still in the bag. To that latter feature, more brands — although still a niche — are viewing sleeping bags much more in the light of apparel, where the piece can wear like a jacket. Big Sky Internationaljoins the trend with its Walkabout 3-in-1 sleeping bag (MSRP $200), which can be set up as a sleeping bag, long jacket or quilt.

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Even the most basic rectangular bags are seeing some innovation for 2015. Wenzel's Temp Control (MSRP $59) includes an adjustable middle layer that can be put on top for more warmth, on bottom for more comfort or entirely removed for warmer nights. There’s also a removable hood.

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With more competition from entry-level synthetics, mid-to-high-end brands are stepping their game. Mountain Hardwear will begin upgrading its popular synthetic Lamina line of sleeping bags for 2015. It starts with a new Hyper (formerly Ultra) lamina, which will be available in 0-, 20-, and 35-degree versions (MSRPs $230-$290). The trademark welded seams remain, with improvements such as zone-mapped insulation — more in the feet, chest and neck — and a center-front zip. Expect to see more of that center-front zip on bags across the show floor and in the future sleeping bag designers take cues from apparel.

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“You try it and ask yourself: ‘Why hasn’t it always been this way?’” said Robert Fry, global director of marketing and design at Mountain Hardwear. “It’s so intuitive, like zipping up a jacket … no more awkwardly reaching to the side.”

Despite the aforementioned price hurdles, down bags are still king among many weight-saving backpackers and pretty much every brand has jumped aboard the water-resistant bandwagon.

The North Face shows off its 800-fill, water-resistant down in the Inferno 0-degree bag (MSRP $599). It, too, has a center zip, plus a little more room than a tight mummy for comfort. Chevron baffling (zigzagging on a horizontal line) helps boost the bags strength and it weighs in at 2 pounds, 15 ounces. And Nemo Equipment brings its 850-fill, water-resistant duck down in the Sonic 0 (MSRP $500), which employs its zippered-gill technology for venting around the body’s core.

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Both the Brooks Range Mountaineering Drift 30 (MSRP $439) and Big Agnes Zirkel UL 20 (MSRP $450) employ 850-fill, water-resistant DownTek insulation plus Insotect Flow vertical baffling technology to keep the down from shifting and evenly distribute heat. While Therm-a-Rest’s Antares HD (MSRP $500) gets a water-resistant update with 750-fill Nikwax Hydrophobic Down, plus an inner reflective lining to boost warmth with less down.

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New sleeping pads offer a breath of fresh air
Air sleeping mats quickly have become a camper favorite, as their buoyant comfort scores points with side sleepers, and their lightness and small pack size win favor with backpackers.

While Exped, Therm-a-Rest and Big Agnes helped pioneer and continue to expand the market, now comes the fun part as more competition swoops in to push the innovation envelope even further.

One such example is Sea to Summit’s entry into the category with a full collection (MSRPs $100-$220) of lightweight-, comfort- and insulated-oriented sleeping mats. The key component throughout the entire lineup is hundreds of individual circular air cells (instead of air tubes) that independently absorb pressure, allowing for a supportive mat that doesn’t bounce and roll users at every movement. Think of those mattress commercials where the wine glass stays perfectly still as the kid jumps on the other side of the bed — well, we haven’t tested these mats to that extent yet, but you get the point. A few other features to check out: a neat, single inflate/deflate valve that deflates super fast without having to roll and reroll; and in the Comfort Plus models, there are actually two separate layers of air — for if one gets punctured on the bottom, the top layer of air remains to make it through the night.

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While air mats continue to take market share, the allure of self-inflating foam remains. Therm-a-Rest evolves the latter with its EvoLite Mattress (MSRP $120), which provides a lightweight (1 pound, 1 ounce; 2.1 R-value) foam option (just a few breaths to top it off) with the added comfort and loft (2 inches) of strategically placed air channels.

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Beefed up blankets
Sleeping bags are great, but never underestimate the practicality of a good blanket at camp.

Whether it’s a light cover for a hot summer’s night in the tent or a ground cloth for a picnic in the park, brands are offering new blankets, beefed up for the outdoors.

Nemo Equipment’s Victory Blanket (MSRPs $50/$80) comes in two sizes and features a soft flannel top with a waterproof bottom, impervious to mud and sand. There’s also a hidden pocket to stow a phone and keys while at the beach. In a similar vein, PahaQue introduces its TentRug, also in two sizes, with a durable waterproof material on the underside and a plush, low-pile nylon carpeting on top.

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For nighttime coverage around the campfire or perhaps during a chilly evening at the ballpark, there are blankets with added benefits. Check out Ticla’s Henry David Throw which has hand warmer pockets, and Nemo’s Puffin Blanket (MSRP $100), sporting a curved perimeter to deflect drafts and a foot hideaway to tuck in feet.

For the technical camping crowd, consider the Big Agnes Kings Canyon UL Quilt (MSRP $200), a lightweight, PrimaLoft-insulated sleeping-bag alternative made to fit a variety of pad sizes with a pocket in the footbox to keep it and pad in place.

--David Clucas

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