The Best Sleeping Bags Money Can Buy

by Dirk
12/10/2012 01:39:16 P.M.

Picture yourself in North Carolina, you’re at 5,200 ft, and it’s so cold that your water bottle is frozen. You neglected to bring a 4-season sleeping pad because on this trip you were going to go “ultra light.” In fact you barely even consider to highly modified, half cut Z-lite, much to write home about-but still, you feel as though you’re wrapped in a fluffy cloud of warmth. Everyone who isn’t you is either cold or complaining - maybe your choice in bringing along your Western Mountaineering Alpinlite 20 bag wasn’t such a bad idea. As you sit in revel in your pre dawn victory - you reflect on the past 3 days on the Appalachian Trail, your last minute purchase of your new sleeping bag, and whether or not it was worth it.

Scheduling a Trip

Upon deciding to attempt what I thought was a pretty hefty mileage goal of 100+ miles in 4 days on the Appalachian Trail, I started to reassess what in my pack list could actually be left at home. I’m not unfamiliar with packing light but I knew that this trip was going to require me to shed even more pounds on the scale - so I started a new strenuous training program while building a meticulous new gear list. There were several items that I believed needed to be recycled in my pack, the main one being my very outdated sleeping bag. So after much research and a lot of advice from my co-workers, I settled in with the Western Mountaineering Alpinlite down sleeping bag.

The Gear List - The lighter, the better

There are 3 things that typically weigh down a backpack the most - the pack itself (2-5 lbs), the tent (2-4 lbs), and your sleep system (3-5 lbs). If you tally up the difference between the high and low marks it represents a relative range between 7 lbs. and 14 lbs. The hikers on the high end will probably expect to carry up to 30 lbs. when fully loaded, the hikers on the bottom end will probably expect to carry no more than 20 lbs. I fell somewhere in the middle and it was critical that I get my pack weight down in order to do 25+ mile days on the AT. Our trip’s Thanksgiving weekend weather forecast ranged anywhere from high’s in the 70’s to low’s in the teens (with altitude and wind chill). This, in effect, made for a packing nightmare - especially when trying to keep my base weight below 10 pounds.

Why Western Mountaineering?

I chose this bag because of its reputation as one of incredible quality and outstanding performance. Not only do I have several co-workers who have through hiked the Appalachian Trail with Western bags, I have a co-worker who has done the Triple Crown with their bags. The choice to go with the Alpinlite vs. the Ultralite boiled down to the fact that it has a bigger shoulder girth than the Ultra even though it’s slightly heavier. With the addition of the Western Mountaineering Alpinlite 20 degree bag, my pack lightened by more than a full pound. At 1 lb 15 ounces this bag kept me toasty with its 850+ down insulation and comfortable down in the teens with minimal extra clothing. These bags also have a reputation of lasting for a considerable amount longer than most other bags, and I’ve heard of the Western Mountaineering Company offering to re-stuff the bag at a fraction of the price of a new one.

As I slowly refined my pack list I made a few alterations - I purchased a very light, Etowa tarp set-up that weighed no more than 19 ounces, I cut my Z-lite sleeping mat down to weigh around 7 ounces, and my Crown 60 pack weighed in at 2 lbs. 2 ounces. The addition of the light weight sleeping bag brought my base weight in the sub 10 pound rage - exactly where it wanted to be.

My experience with the Alpinlite

It typically doesn’t take much for buyer’s remorse to set in; but after my first night on the trail there was no doubt that I didn't regret buying it. The bag was incredible. Not only did it contribute to lessening my pack load, it performed perfectly in the frigid nights, in conditions where the amount of clothing in your pack is not warm enough once you’ve stopped moving. After 29 miles of hiking and 13 hours on the trail (day 1), my body was exhausted and could do little to warm me up even when I was fully kitted out with every clothing item that I brought. The first thing I did while preparing dinner was hop into my Alpinlite and within a few minutes I went from shivering to shedding layers. There is an expression that some of the ultralight hikers like to use at our store, “the heat is in the feet”- I’d like to add to that “…or in your Western Bag”. 

Words of Advice

These bags come at quite a price, that’s the kicker, but I would recommend these bags to anyone who depend on their gear to keep them safe from the elements and who require light weight items that don’t compromise functionality. It’s easy to find a lightweight bag at a reasonable cost - but as I’ve come one too many times to realize in the outdoor industry, you get what you pay for.  

This bag would be good for people who:
- Are considering a thru hike
- Are ultralight hikers or weight conscious hikers
- Like sleeping comfortably at night
- Use their gear constantly (less likely if the bag is going to in the closet 364 days out of the year)