Normally, I’d resent the idea of having to pay for a product that someone is wanting me to go out of my way test and then spend hours writing a review of. In some cases however, chipping in toward being given something truly special really is worth it, even if you are as tight as I am (Scottish blood? Sorry Dad…)
Back before January’s life changing house fire, I had a choice of two sleeping bags that I could use – one a lovely Marmot Pinnacle, given to me by the man who designed it (it’s a long story that I’ll only tell if you manage to catch me in the pub and buy me a pint), and the other an Alpkit Pipedream 400 I’d bought to use on Alpine climbs because it was light and packed down tiny. I’ve also used all manner of cheapo Sleeping bags over the years, but absolutely nothing I’ve ever used has come close to comparing to the new love of my life – the Western Mountaineering Ultralite.
The quality of this bag really does merit a better testing than I can really give it at this time of year – it yearns to be taken out in the cold of the autumn and winter. Camping in the snow, all snuggled up inside, surrounded by a gorgeous cocoon of stupendously lofty down? Definitely what the Ultralite is begging me for. Unfortunately in that regard, we are currently in what counts as the British summer, but of course, being in Wales means that actually, the ‘summer’ weather can be pretty atrocious and at night it can still get pretty cold. The bag has now had what I consider to be a semi-reasonable testing in areas as varied as my attempt at riding the Trans-Cambrian way (where it sat taking up very little room in the bottom of my riding rucksack), to just sleeping outside the house in a bivi bag as I was watching the owl babies learning to fly, to tent camping on a very cold night near the summit of Cadair Berwyn, amongst others. I’d still like to come back to this review once the bag has seen some winter or Alpine action, but for now here is my review.
Currently (12/06/2011) £323.99 from Webtogs unless you’re a short-arse like me, in which case they will let you have one of the Short length ones for £314.99.
- 454g of 850+ fill high loft down (425g in the Short one)
- 3D down baffle behind zip
- Full down collar
- 5 inch loft from finest goose down filling
- Short length weight: 790g
- Standard length weight: 820g
- Long length weight: 870g
- 20°F / -7°C Now, this is the controversial one, and I’ve simply quoted what W.M. have quoted on their website. I will comment later on about just how warm I think this thing really is and where/when I’d be most happy to use it (my own ‘real world’ opinion, as temperature ratings of sleeping bags really are pretty unhelpful in all honesty).
For a little background information, I actually spent last Friday up with the guys at Beyond Hope – the UK importer for Western Mountaineering (amongst other brands), admittedly on unrelated business, but, I did have the opportunity to have a proper discussion about W.M. bags, their construction techniques, the quality of the down they use, the testing they do, and why people rave about them. I’m not going to go into everything on here, but one thing I will mention is that the quoted 850+ fill-power down used in all of the W.M. bags, may actually be more like what we usually know as 900 fill-power – of the same quality as the very best stuff that manufacturers like PHD use (for anyone unfamiliar with the name PHD, go look them up – they are the home of UK made custom sleeping bags, jackets and other insulating products of the highest quality and practically much an institution in Climbing and Ultralight circles. My comparing W.M. with PHD is nothing but a massive compliment to both companies).
Field testing, always a hardship. Keep your eyes open for the review of the Nemo mat I’m lying on here later on too…W.M. have produced a fantastic page on their website outlining the features of their sleeping bags that really deserve to be noticed, which makes my life easy as I can just direct you to the link and then simply comment on the elements that I really liked and feel I should draw attention to.
“You look like a worm! A giant, blue, poofy, snuggly worm!” I think I’ll take that as a compliment…
The important stuff and my opinions
- Loft. The first thing you notice about the Ultralite, the moment you pull it out of it’s fluorescent green cotton storage bag (yes, I did say fluorescent green), is just how much it lofts, instantly. In all honesty I’ve never seen a bag quite like this, even after it had been crammed into a stuff bag for a couple of days, upon pulling it out in a matter of mere seconds it will have re-lofted back to being possibly the snuggliest thing I’ve ever seen.
- Weight. It’s light. Really light. And it packs small. This bag is made from some of the highest quality down money can buy, and some of the lightest, most down-proof fabrics you can find. The warmth-to-weight ratio of this thing is simply phenomenal. If anyone can find me a bag to beat this in terms of warmth-to-weight, please let me know as I’d absolutely love to see it. This will be my go-to bag for pretty much everything now, all year round. Admittedly, in the depths of winter I’ll probably need to be layered up inside it (being a girl who suffers the cold), but for 95% of what most people would consider ‘three season’ use I’d be more than happy in this (and I’ll use it in all four seasons).
- Fabric. W.M. also use a fabric that is impressively down-proof. Normally with a down bag, you open it up and inside you’ll inevitably see a few bits of rogue down floating around having leached through the fabric or the seams. There are far less escapees in this bag than with any other I’ve seen (Marmot, Alpkit, Rab, Mountain Equipment…). The fabric feels absolutely gorgeous next to the skin, it is positively luxurious.
- Zip. It’s the little things that can often make or break a product, and in this case the way W.M. have presented the zip issue is nothing short of ‘shout out loud’ refreshing. Not only do you get a zip with a tag on each side (rather than one that you have to slide round to get it inside and never seems to start on the side that you want it), but they’ve laminated a strip of the fabric each side of the zip, stiffening it, thereby preventing the fabric from being pulled into the zip. Stick and snag free zippage! The bag is almost worth the price-tag for this simple feature alone in my opinion.
- Construction. There is some clever stuff going on here with what Western Mountaineering call a ‘Differential Cut’ in the main body of the bag:
They also build in what they then call a ‘Reverse Differential Cut’ in the hood of the bag:“Its purpose is to give the inner shell a smaller circumference than the outer shell. This eliminates extra fabric inside the bag that could lead to cold spots. All of our mummy bags are differentially cut to promote proper lofting and to protect against down compression when knees or elbows push against the inner fabric.”“Our hoods are cut so that the inside of the hood is made with a larger piece of fabric than the outside. This creates a hood with loose down filled fabric which surrounds your head. That way you can can enjoy warm insulation around your head and face without having to cinch the hood tight. Also, the extra fabric can be adjusted to create a down filled ruff or bill across your forehead.”Both of these work – cold spots are much reduced around joints when you stretch and move, compared with a more conventional bag construction, and the hood is indeed wonderfully snuggly without necessarily having to do up the drawcord (which is something I absolutely hate having to do – having a small circle to breath through and a cord pressing into my face really doesn’t feel great).
In short, I think this sleeping bag is one of the best and nicest pieces of outdoor kit I own. It’s not something I would ever have considered buying had I not been offered the testing gig as it’s a cut above my normal sort of price operating range, even for high level equipment. However, now that I’ve experienced what the top end actually buys you, I’m not sure I’d ever feel happy buying a ‘lesser’ bag now. The quality of design and construction is impeccable, I have found absolutely nothing whatsoever to criticize in this sleeping bag (and you all know by now that I’m particularly anal about things that annoy me or are what I consider to be sub-standard).
It’s light, incredibly warm, supremely comfortable, fits me like a dream (I could wear layers inside if I wanted to) and actually makes me want to find excuses to use it. The simple genius of the reinforced zip strips mean the zip hasn’t even bugged me by getting stuck as they inevitably do normally. The draft tube that covers the zip is squishy and lovely (so basically it’s full of down and actually really works), as is the neck baffle. The foot has extra down in it so I’ve managed to even get away with not needing my socks on inside it (a first!). The drawcords work, the storage and stuff bags are adequate (although I choose to transport the Ultralite inside a lightweight roll-top dry bag to protect it), and it isn’t even a bad colour!
The only down-side is the >£300 price tag, but in all honesty, with the amount of care, attention to detail and the level of component and construction quality there is just no way I can argue that the cost should be less – this bag is worth every penny. It’s available in three different lengths and anyone of a slightly broader build than me could also look at the Western Mountaineering Alpinelite, which is essentially the same bag as the Ultralite, just with a wider cut!
The link bit
The Ultralite from Webtogs: http://www.webtogs.co.uk/Western_Mountaineering_Ultralite_Down_Sleeping_Bag_101792-19697.htmlOther down sleeping bags, including others from Western Mountaineering: http://www.webtogs.co.uk/Down_Sleeping_Bags/
Western Mountaineering’s homepage: http://www.westernmountaineering.com/index.cfm
The W.M. Product and Construction info page: http://www.westernmountaineering.com/index.cfm?section=about&page=Product-Details