Saturday, May 25, 2013

Western Mountaineering Summerlite

Choosing a sleeping bag can be one of the more difficult gear decisions. It is difficult not only because it is a critical piece of gear but also because what is necessary in a bag depends on so many factors such as environmental conditions, user health and metabolism, and user experience. Of course, cost is also a major factor for most of us and this needs to be considered. This review will be on the Western Mountaineering Summerlite sleeping bag. I will first go over why I chose to buy the Summerlite and then I will go over real world performance.
Western Mountaineering has an excellent reputation in the backpacking world for producing high quality down sleeping bags and clothing. They are a California based company using high quality European goose down as their fill material and all labor is done locally (San Jose). They also have very good customer service. All of this quality comes with a price, as you can imagine. Western Mountaineering bags and clothing are not cheap.
Although cost is an issue, I also think that a high quality bag is a worthy investment. With proper care they will last many years and staying warm is important in most environments.
I bought the Summerlite in late 2009, it has been my primary sleeping bag since then, so I know this bag really well.

Lori playing around in the new Summerlite

I chose the Summerlite based on a few factors. Living in California I knew that I would not be exposed to a lot of wet, humid weather (I have used down bags in the pacific northwest without issue but it is more tricky there); I would be camping mostly in 3-season weather; I wanted something that was lightweight but effective; I was familiar with using sleeping bags (rather than quilts); and the incredible reputation of the company also factored in.
The Summerlite is rated as a 32o F. bag, has 10oz of down and uses very light shell and liner material. Total weight is around 19oz, not bad at all. I had heard from many people that Western Mountaineering was conservative in their temperature ratings, that they were in fact warmer than advertised.
Temperature ratings are a really tricky thing and can vary widely between companies. Some are more “optimistic” with their temperature claims while others are more conservative. There is a US system and a European system as well. While not useless, ratings need to be taken with more than a few grains of salt. Individual metabolism and preferences will also play an important role in how warm a bag feels.

I don't have very many pictures of my Summerlite, this is from the Western Mountaineering website

With that being said, I had hoped that I could be toasty warm down to 32o with only a minimal base layer on (on a sleeping pad as well). I also hoped that I could supplement the bag with some other layers and get myself down to 20o while still remaining comfortable. Unfortunately, I was a little too optimistic with my hopes.
I can say with absolute certainty that with only base layers, on a decent sleeping pad, in tent or bivy I am comfortably warm down to the low 40s. If I throw on a light down jacket, hat, pants and wind shell, then I am good to the mid 30s, to go below that I need to really supplement by clothing. There is a limit to the effectiveness of layering as the bag is not spacious, so adding too much clothing will have diminishing returns. It also helps to eat something high in fat before bed. And site selection is important, I try to sleep under trees if I expect colder nights and out of the wind.
I hope that I am not misleading anyone, the  32o rating is accurate, the lower rating of a bag is not intended to represent the lowest temperature where you can expect to sleep soundly and warmly. It is more likely to keep you warm enough but not necesarily comforatable. There are many bags that are rated at this temperature that are not as warm.

Summerlite inside HMG Echo shelter
Perhaps the epic reputation that Western Mountaineering has caused me to have unrealistic expectations, that and the glowing reviews I have heard. In hindsite, for the conditions I normally encounter, I should have gone with a warmer bag. I have made it work but I have certainly had some cold nights.
My current thinking is that I am going to start looking at sleeping quilts rather than sleeping bags. I think they will work better for me, are more versatile and there are quite a few really good quality cottage gear manufactures making them. If Western Mountaineering made the kind of quilt I am looking for I would certainly consider them.
The bottom line is that the Summerlite is a really good bag, I would say it is very good for 2+ seasons. If you are looking for a traditional sleeping bag for warmer temperatures and don’t mind shelling out $350, then I would recommend it.  But if you are looking at camping in the shoulder seasons and expecting temperatures in the 30s or lower, do not want to be confined to a mummy bag, or are a colder sleeper then I would say keep looking, there are plenty of great options out there.