A good night’s sleep can make or break a trip. The key factors to ensuring a restful night are staying warm and comfy, especially in cold weather. A good sleeping bag and sleeping matt that provides proper insulation, especially from the ground, is vital in preventing heat loss and are essential pieces of gear when camping.
My own sleep system has two features in mind, the first criteria, which goes without saying, is comfort. I don’t mean just warmth, it must also have good ventilation to also keep me cool. It must be roomy because I’m a side sleeper who tends to toss and turn quite a lot. Likewise, as a wild camper, I must be able to get out of as quickly and as easily possible. The second criterion is that it must be ultralite, not just in weight, but more importantly, it must have the smallest pack size possible in order to take up the least amount of room in my pannier.
The best insulator for these two conditions is goose down, an exceptionally light, highly compressible and very warm insulation. However, these useful properties are lost when it gets wet so some people prefer a synthetic loft as it retains its insulative qualities, even when wet. Nevertheless, if you can keep the down dry then it’s my preference. Keeping it dry is easily achieved with a good waterproof bag.
In order to further increase comfort and save space I decided to use a quilt rather than a traditional sleeping bag. The classic mummy shaped, goose down sleeping bag, whilst good at meeting my demands, compresses the insulation beneath your body rendering it useless. The extra ventilation and unhindered extra space of a quilt, allowing greater freedom to move, as well as the zipper-free ease of entry, make this alternative a winner. Moreover, as a large fella I find that even the extra large sleeping bags quite restrictive and uncomfortable.
The large Thermarest down comforter meets my requirements and has a few additional features that I like. Chiefly, the elasticized foot box and perimeter snaps that allow me to integrate the quilt with my mattress, via the Thermarest fitted sheet, thereby minimizing drafts and slip-offs in the night. Conversely, the lack of insulation beneath your body means relying instead on the inherent insulation from the mattress. It is therefore vital to use a good matt that insulates you from the cold ground.
My choice of mattress is the Exped 7DLX inflatable mattress with integrated pump. The Exped mattress offers all the comfort of an inflatable mattress, but unlike regular blow up mattresses, it contains goose down insulation in the vertical baffles to prevent heat loss from the ground. The 7inches of cushioning is perfect and the extra width that comes with the deluxe model means I have plenty of room on the matt to roll over and move around. Moreover, the luxury features are not at the expense of weight and size, as it packs smaller than any other matt, of any kind, that I have seen.
To add the final touches to my sleeping experience I use an Exped Comfort Foam Pillow. Its large and inflatable with synthetic insulation, which I attach to the top of the Exped matt. Likewise, I often utilise the Thermarest Tech blanket, which, like the down quilt, also has the perimeter snaps for attaching to the mattress, via the fitted sheet. The also blanket serves as a great additional pillow and is also great for keeping warm when sitting around camp.
Like clothing, an effective sleeping system should be layered, or ‘modular’, as this is the most effective way to increase the rating of the sleeping bag. In colder weather, a silk liner can be used, but as this restricts movement, I prefer to simply wear a layer of thermal underwear. Likewise, when its even colder a bivvi bag could be used but, my preferred alternative to the bivvi bag is to simply wear a fleece layer, socks and a beanie.
Finally, staying warm is easier than getting warm – so go to bed warm. Take a hot water bottle to bed or have a hot drink before settling down. Don’t drink too much as you’ll need get out in the night to pee – stay in the warm shelter by using a pee bottle. Alternatively, do a little exercise to warm up before climbing into your sleeping bag, but be careful not to become saturated in sweat.
Thermarest Ventra Large Down Comforter
After considerable contemplation I finally purchased a Large Thermarest Down Comforter priced £127 from Expedition Hardware. I purchased this item because it is better suited to side sleepers, tossers and turners like me. An XL sleeping bag is fine but the cost is a large pack size. Conversely the Down comforter is not only an excellent insulator but it packs incredibly small, probably 1/3 the size of my XL Sleep Cell Bag. However, down is useless when wet so I store it in a Sea-to-Summit Event Waterproof Compression Sack. The poppers on the sides of the Ventra snap directly to the Thermarest mattress using either the fitted sheet or with the Thermarest mattress snap kit. The Ventra is much more akin to my home sleeping experience.
My initial impressions were that it was going to be a great addition to my sleep system – I wasn’t wrong. It’s nylon fabric feels exceedingly nice to the touch and is soft and smooth against my skin. The elasticised footbox is very handy in going over the end of my mattress or just wrapping around my feet. Likewise, the small storage pocket on the upper edge of the comforter is ideal for storing earplugs. The stuff sack is adequate but can be reduced further with a compression sack. It’s important, however, not to store down in a compression sack for the long term as this will damaging the down and reduce it’s insulation value. Instead, when not in use at home I either hang it or store it in the cube provided.
I look forward to testing it out camping at the weekend…
I took the Thermarest Down Comforter camping at Steeple Bay where the temperatures only got to about 10C. I used it in conjunction with my Exped 7DLX down insulated inflatable mattress. Having had the quilt fully compressed it quickly sprang back to life once released from its waterproof prison. The quilt feels quite thin but I found it to have good insulation, it was soft on the skin and it kept me more than warm enough throughout the night.
One thing that struck me in the night was that the upper baffle part of the duvet is lacking in insulation, which wasn’t remedied by giving it a shake. This might not be that problematic as it’s pulled up under my chin but it’s something I’ll be mindful of. This duvet is claimed to be good down to about 4C and whilst I have yet to try it at this temperature I think this may be a tad ambitious. If I were to don a hat and some sleeping gear I may well be comfortable at these lower temps. I look forward to finding out…
Exped 7DLX Inflatable Mattress with integrated pump
I went through three other mats before I found the Rolls Royce of sleeping matts. I first used a cheap closed cell foam matt but this was very uncomfortable. I then went to the Vango comfort matt… not much better and it was massive when packed. I then used the green Thermarest Trail Lite, which packed smaller and was marginally more comfortable but it still wasn’t in the goldilocks zone: comfort and lite. I had seen the Exped matt but I couldn’t bring myself to pay the £100+ price tag.
I went to the Horizons Unlimited motorcycle travel festival at Ripley with my Thermarest Trail Lite. I settled down for the night, tossing and turning to awake with a stiff back and totally shattered from no sleep (not the booze). From that moment on I decided not to skimp on but to buy the best kit I could afford. I had realised that a good nights sleep was vital and could easily make or break a trip. With my wallet in hand I plodded down to see Les on the Travel Dri Plus stand to get an Exped matt. Les quickly sorted me out with the Exped 7DLX inflatable mattress with integrated pump at a great price. One that quickly becomes reasonable when you realise how vital a good nights sleep is. Not to mention the high quality production and the 5 year manufacturers guarantee. Here’s a few piccies of the matt (courtesy of the Exped review at woollypigs):
Thermarest Fitted Sheet
With the perfect Mattress and quilt combo the only thing required was to put the cherry on the cake with the Therarest fitted sheet, which is designed with the Thermarest matts in mind, I wondered if it would be compatible with my own Exped matt? The sheet is available in a variety of sizes, and patterns. I ordered the 30x77inch Grey. Would it fit? NB: I made the mistake of ordering from Rutland Outdoor but after 2 months of waiting and endless excuses I cancelled my order and went to AllOutdoor, where not only did I get it cheaper and with free delivery but it arrived within a couple of days.
When my sheet arrived I opened it with baited breath, would it fit? It did fit and perfectly. It’s soft feel against my skin greatly enhanced the overall comfort of my mattress. Furthermore, it’s the missing link that literally brought together my mattress and down quilt making a perfect sleep system. The strap holds the sheet firmly in places and prevents it shifting, a common problem for tossers, and if that’s not enough, it packs very small.
In conclusion, like much of my kit, some of it is pretty expensive, but it is all very well designed and very well made. I have tried cheaper alternatives and they did not work for me, that’s not to say that they won’t work for you. I consider my purchases an investment and with good care I am confident this kit will out last its competitors and I will get my money’s worth. I have no regrets or buyers remorse and I am VERY happy wit my sleep system: it. meets my demands of comfort and ultra-liteness.
Post trip thoughts
Okay, so I took this system with me on my 3 month solo trip to and through Mongolia and Siberia,wild camping along the way. I had a variety of weather from baking hot sun to freezing cold rain. The kit stood up exceedingly well and I am very pleased with it, albeit with a minor grievance. Storing the Ventra in a waterproof sea-2-summit compression sack was agreat idea as it would very often rain and whilst my pitching and striking of camp is good there’s always the chance of it getting wet. And we all know that down’s worst enemy is water. In the hot weather the Ventra was overkill, this is not a problem because that’s why I have the tech blanket, but it really comes into it’s own when the temperatures begin to drop. On cooler nights the Ventra offered plenty of toasty warmth and if it got a little too heated I could easily cast it off, and the soft cool finish was heavenly on the skin when you were off the bike and finally settled in for the night.
However, comforter is definitely not 4-season, it’s three seasons at best. In the cold weather it’s simply insufficient and it’s claims of comfort down to 4 degrees C is seriously overrated If you want to use the Ventra at this temp and below, put on some extra layers. I like this product very much but I want it to be able to handle much colder temperatures – not arctic but at least below freeing. The way I see it, I can ether buy a thicker down quilt or supplement it with the tech blanket. I admit that I have been doing the latter, but I like to use just one item and sleep in shorts and a lite tee. Plus, buying another down quilt is prohibitively expensive with very little extra comfort. The 3rd way, as I see it, is to simply modify what I already have with a little more down insulation. Good down is readily available and can be bought quite cheapily, so with a dash of know-how a sprinkle of skill, or a good seamtress, I could easily beef this Ventra up to a full on 4 season quilt. This is exactly what I intend to do. Then, if it’s any colder I can further supplement it with the blanket and or some extra layers of clothing.
The mattress was excellent, it never let me down and did the donkey’s share on the insulative work in keeping me warm on those cold nights. In addition, it was very easy to clean and after several uses I was well practiced in rolling it up into the tiniest of packages. The fitted sheet made a big difference in comfort, plus it made the mattress quieter and prevented things from sliding around. I cant say much about the Exped pillow, it was insulating sure, but wasn’t all that comfy, I often found myself using my blanket or a bag of clothes as well. I was really glad I decided to go with a camping quilt, it is such an improvement on the traditional gas which I just hate. Even with it’s cold weather weakness it’s still better than it’s equivalently rated bag. With a the slight modification this quilt will be perfect and much better suited to the British (and European) climate. I recommend without reservation, that you try, for yourself, a down camping quilt system, just remember to keep it dry.
I’ve since upgraded the pillow to a Nemo Fillo. It’s a great inflatable camping pillow with a layer of comfy foam covered in a plush micro suede that is machine washable. It packs a lot smaller than my exped and is much quiter and more comfortable; I really didn’t need the extra synthetic insulation in the exped pillow. Another great feature of the Nemo Fillow is the elastic cordage on the back to add jacket or something to bulk it up if necessary. It is quite expensive but its worth it in my opinion – I put great importance on a good night sleep.
Having contacted Thermarest about the loss of insulation, especially around the top baffle, they’ve told me to send it in under warranty. They’ll either repair or replace it. Just got to get around to sending it now.