Is it Necessary?
If you plan to make pilgrimage for a single day – or a few hours – a sleeping bag is entirely superfluous. Leave it behind. Unless you are the ultra-cautious type, or you like napping in holy places (recommended).
But if you are making an overnight pilgrimage, you will almost definitely want to sleep. Slumber is a marvellous way to connect to a place, by slipping into unconsciousness and awaiting the dreams that come there. In the Judaeo/Christian story, it is the great gift we were given on the seventh day – rest.
To free yourself on pilgrimage from having to buy access to accommodation in a traditional indoor format, and to allow yourself to sleep in Churches partnered with the BPT – or outdoors – it is really important to carry your bed with you. And the lightest and warmest form of such a mobile bed is a sleeping bag.
How Sleeping Bags Work
We are not technicians, but these are the gleanings of our experience. Sleeping bags are like whole-body snug-pockets. They work by trapping your body heat into a zip-upable tube, and retaining it. Some sleeping bags can keep you warm at ridiculously low temperatures, while others will do almost nothing anywhere at all. It is important to choose the right one. Nothing spoils dream-filled holy slumber like uncomfortable constant shivering.
Warmth levels quoted by manufacturers are important, but often misleading. Each maker has slightly different ways of testing this, and there is no single objective methodology to go by. Every human has their own temperature responses, and we all react differently at different times to the weather, the cold, and the damp etc. If you are hungry or wet, you will feel colder. If you are older, you tend too feel colder. If it is windy, you may also feel colder. Such a complex variety of conditions defies testing. Your sleeping bag does not change, but you – and the world around you – do.
As a rule of thumb, if you are making a summer-only pilgrimage, you want a sleeping bag that can go down to 0 degrees centigrade. By ‘go down to’, we absolutely mean the ‘comfort levels’. Everything else is smoke and mirrors, and can be ignored. ‘Extreme ratings’ are criminally misleading. This means the temperature outside that you will probably not die at, but will almost certainly sustain hypothermia related injuries. It is not meaningful guidance at all.
Because Summer in Britain is a 3-season event, having a sleeping bag that is ready for anything is seriously recommended. And if you feel too warm, you can always unzip it and use it as a quilt.
If you are walking in Spring or Autumn, you want a bag that can go to lower temperatures. We recommend around -7 degrees centigrade, because it can happen, and again, you do not have to zip up all the way, or keep your head inside – but if you need to, you can.
There are still some manufacturers selling square sleeping bags without hoods. Try to ignore them. If it is cold, you need to keep your head warm too.
There are also manufacturers selling sleeping bags that do not surround you, but are quilts that clip onto your roll mat. And others sell sleeping bags that are in fact half jackets, so you can wear the top half during the day and simply clip on the leg part by night. That’s all good. But we believe the simplest solution can be the most reliable and best.
A sleeping bag is possibly the biggest and most expensive item a pilgrim will carry, so it is the most important thing to get right. Also, nothing spoils a pilgrimage quite like a shivery night. The day after is less well-powered, less grounded and less happy. We heartily recommend cosy comfy sleep.
The Choice of Fill
There are two main types of insulate filling used in modern sleeping bags. It would be unfair to call one modern and the other old-fashioned – both are high-tech in their ways. The first is ‘synthetic’ fill – which is puffy polyester wadding.
Now, the advantage of synthetic insulation is that is is durable – it works well even when wet – and it tends to be cheaper.
The disadvantage of synthetic insulation is that it is heavier, it is plastic, and it is less compressible, so it takes up more space.
The other option is feather/down. Really, you only want to think about Down. This is the soft fuzzy stuff beneath the feathers of a bird. And the only down worth considering is Goose down, because it has the highest warmth to weight ratio.
The advantages of Goose Down are that it is traditional – a feather bed is an ancient sign of luxury – it is very lightweight, and almost miraculous in its warmth – it compresses into a smaller pack than synthetic insulation. It is without doubt the highest quality material with which to insulate a sleeping bag.
The disadvantages of goose down are that it costs a lot. Also, there are ethical considerations – how have the geese lived? Are they looked after, or is your sleeping bag adding animal cruelty to the world? Also, when goose down gets wet is becomes useless, and takes quite a long time to dry. So you need to take extra care to ensure it stays dry. Also, though goose down is compressible, the more you squidge it up the less well it expands and does its job, and the longer the sleeping bag takes to plump up.
The best sleeping bag is the one you have access to – that you can borrow or can afford.
But if you are on the market to buy one afresh, we recommend you go for the best possible one you can manage. Think of it as an equivalent to renting a flat or room. You will get – with care – far more free or low-cost nights sleep from your sleeping bag than you will get from your 28 days contracted rental fee. This is a mobile hotel you are buying, as well as a sense of physical freedom and the capacity to sleep under great trees and in ancient churches. In other words, push the boat out, and go for the best sleeping bag you can. You will not regret it, when the nights draw in upon the hillside…
The Best Quality
The very best sleeping bags in the world – the pinnacle of the technology – are made in England, by a company called PHD – Peter Hutchinson Designs, up in Nottingham.
These sleeping bags are hand-stiched, using the best materials and the finest grade goose down available – up to 1000 grade (the lightest and fluffiest of all). Nothing else really comes close in terms of quality. This is what professional mountain climbers and Antarctic expeditions advocate.
The bag in this picture is the Minim 400 K – which is warm enough for most British pilgrimages at -5 degrees centigrade, is coated with a waterproof outer skin, and weighs only 585 grams. That is astonishing. But so is the price tag – £420.
It’s slightly less mind-blowing cousin – but still miles ahead of everything else – is the ‘normal’ Minim 400 at 670 grams – which costs £315.
These are both minimalist sleeping bags, tapered to a thin cut with short (if any) zips. These are all about warmth to weigh ratio.
If you are making a winter pilgrimage, the PHD range of Hispar sleeping bags is worth a look – though in terms of pricing they are rather prohibitive. You want it – it looks so good – but unless you are very committed to sleeping out in the cold, it is pretty distant.
If you visit their website, you can choose from pre-made sleeping bags or the options to ‘design your own’. Have a go. It’s fun, and teaches you about the different technologies that sleeping bags use, like baffles and zip lengths and outer materials. They’re surprisingly complicated.
But as with the best, expect the price-tag to match. And these rarely come up second-hand, because once you have one, you hold onto it. Not for the faint-pocketed!
The Best Value
The most decent sleeping bags that undercut all other manufacturers while still providing incredibly good quality kit are also an English company called Alpkit – though they outsource their manufacturing to China. Hence the prices.
Alpkit’s motto is: Go Nice Places, Do Good Things. We like this. It’s almost pilgrimage…
Alpkit offer great sleeping bags. The ones we have tested and recommend are from their PipeDream range.
This is a sleeping bag that will keep you warm and comfy in most conditions you will encounter in Britain. It uses ethically sourced Goose Down, and has a DWR coating on the outer fabric – helping to protect the Down from spillages or rain, which might impact on its performance. And it offers all this in a package that weighs in at 840 grams – less than a bag of sugar.
This is a relatively ‘serious’ sleeping bag. It costs a fair chunk of cash – £175. BUT – if you were to buy a similar performance sleeping bag from a ‘bigger’ brand – like RAB – it would cost perhaps double this price. It looks costly, but Alpkit offer rock-bottom pricing. Not sure how, but we’re glad they do.
If you are looking to invest in proper outdoor gear, which will keep you warm and happy without adding to the weight of your pack, which will last and accompany you on many journeys to come – this is the sleeping bag to buy. In terms of making outdoor living affordable, Alpkit are leading the race. By miles and miles…
The one down-side – these sleeping bags are like Glastonbury tickets – as soon as they are in stock, they are out of stock. So you have to pre-order. Take it as a mark of just how good they really are…
The Good Enough Option
OK – this is a fall-back sleeping bag, the cheapest possible Down option we can find. It is currently (July 2016) on offer from Cotswold Outdoors, who will probably always have a similar item in stock at a similar price.
It is made by a manufacturer called Robens, and is named the Caucasus 300. It claims to be sufficient at 0 degrees centigrade, which we doubt to be true, but anywhere a bit warmer than that and it should be jolly sufficient.
This sleeping bag costs £99 – which is nice. But it is Duck Down, which is simply not as good as Goose Down. However, it is not feathers, which some bags sneak in to try and fool the unwary.
The best thing about this sleeping bag is its low weight and low price. At 980 grams, it is the heaviest of all three options offered here today, but still less than 1 kg – which is an important threshold. If it’s heavier than that, you have the wrong bag.
Don’t expect something like this to endure. If you go cheapest, you go least durable. But this sleeping bag, at £99, would be good enough. And if you are in a rush, it should be available from the high street, where Cotswold Outdoors live.
The Synthetic Alternative
If you’re allergic to down – we’re so sorry – or if you would prefer to sleep in plastic wadding – or if you think you will spill tea all over your sleeping bag – or if you really like carrying heavier things – then you need synthetic insulation in your sleeping bag.
In fairness, this will be a more robust sleeping bag, and will not need plumping out and shaking before use.
We recommend the Mountain Equipment Starlight range. The summer bag – good enough for 3 degrees centigrade – is called the Starlight 1 Extra Long, and it costs £100. It weighs 1200 grams. It is OK. It will do. There are defo worse options.
The slightly warmer upgrade is the Mountain Equipment Starlight II. This costs an extra £10 (£110), weighs a bonus 232 grams (1432 grams) and apparently offers a 5 degrees centigrade boon of comfort (-2 degrees centigrade). But a sleeping bag pushing 1.5kg is of questionable wisdom. As much as anything, you will come to resent the weight, knowing you could have a warmer one weighing almost 1/3, if you’d only saved a little harder…
The Silk Liner
If you have a sleeping bag, you also should acquire a silk liner. It is good to sleep in a goose-feather bed – like in the song Matty Groves (“how do you like my feather bed, and how do you like my sheets? And how do you like lady fair, who lies in your arms asleep?”). But even better, is to combine this luxury with *silk*.
A silk liner increases the comfort and warmth of your sleeping bag. It also allows more versatility – if you are too warm, you can unzip, but have another level of control, not just ‘in or out’.
But the very best thing about a silk liner is that when you are finished with your pilgrimage, after all those exciting nights sleeping in different churches, and under those wonderful trees and starlit skies, you do not have to go through the painful and slow process of washing your sleeping bag. Which takes ages (it’s all in the drying). You simply wash the liner, which dries in a trice, and air the main bag on the line.
This is not just convenient – it also protects the Down in your sleeping bag from accumulating the oils that we naturally produce as human bodies. So your sleeping bag will work better for longer.
A silk liner from a branded manufacturer costs A LOT – prices for the Lifeventure one I use start at £50, so you’d almost be tempted to price down and buy a cotton or polyester one instead. Don’t do it. I found mine in the village Garage Safari for £2.50. Check for secondhand ones, always.
But – the best value silk liners are imported directly from India, without g0-betweens other than eBay. These are simply the best option available.
You can find these on eBay for the unbelievable price of £7.69 – including postage! We really do not know how they achieve this, but is is an indictment for the overheads of large organisations and middle-men that this is possible. Well done and thank you Vintageplace23!
The Waterproof bag
Because a Goose Down sleeping bag is vulnerable to water, and because Britain is so blessed with freely falling rain (at any time of year – and this IS a blessing) – the best way to store your sleeping bag whilst on pilgrimage is inside a waterproof bag.
This has the advantage of compressing the sleeping bag into a manageable size in your backpack. And it means that come what may – even if you walk through storms, or wade a deep river – you can remain entirely certain that by sleep-time, you will have a safe warm dry bed. Knowing this helps.
The best waterproof bags are made by a company called Exped. They are sil-nylon sacks that seal by roll-top and clip. The design comes from canoeists and sailors, who required that their kit was protected from full-immersion incidents. We say that pilgrims also need nothing but the best.
An Exped bag for your sleeping bag needs to be large enough to house it. We recommend either the XL or the XXL versions – at £14 -£17. (Although a L will do too). It is canny insurance to take out, and will not let you down. And as said earlier, having your gear stowed in independent waterproof colour-coded sacks makes unpacking much easier and simpler, without the crazy mess of a student-style backpack.