Time for a backcountry skiing gear blog. As always, the WildSnow.com clan continues their search for useful sleeping bags. We need big comfy car-camp bags; slim mummy bags for lightweight backpacking; cooler bags for hut interiors; huge ones for backcountry skiing camping. Back as a young lad in my formative days as a mountaineer, I briefly worked for a nascent backcountry gear company in Aspen, Colorado. It was the early 1970s, and synthetic insulation (Polarguard) had realized its place in the outdoor equipment toolbox. Synthetic made what were arguably the best sleeping bags and parkas for real-world use because unlike down it still performed in wet conditions. But synthetic was heavy. It still is. Even the best synthetic fill is noticeably heavier than down for a given warmth sleeping bag or garment, and it’s still harder to pack.
During my stint as a gear nerd, I conjured up the concept of building sleeping bags and parkas with both down and synthetic, thus combining the best of both worlds. So we built a few “hybrid” items with down on the inside next to body warmth, and a layer of Polarguard synthetic on the outside where it could deal with moisture attacks. The concept worked amazingly well. I still have an expedition parka we made that I’d take to Denali tomorrow — thirty years after we sewed it up in the basement under the Aspen grocery store.
Enter the millennium — and Dualmax. It took three decades, but the down/synthetic combo concept is finally in the mainstream gear market, and elegantly executed. It works this way. Overseas manufacturing company Tungsang International developed the process to make Dualmax product using high-tech components such as Primaloft, lightweight partitioning fabric to control the down layer, and more. Companies such as Marmot and Big Agnes have their designs made by Tungsang, using the Dualmax technology.
For summer backpacking we favor the Marmot Fusion, a Dualmax bag that’s slim and versatile. At this time we have a Fusion out for testing in the Colorado San Juan mountains, on a backpack trip with a group of teenagers (good test, if you ask me). Praise goes to Marmot for using Dualmax to make a no compromise bag for the core backpacker. We’re hoping Marmot comes up with more versions of Dualmax sleeping bags and perhaps some jackets in the near future — this is a winning combo of design and material that will work well for all backcountry skiing applications.
We’ve also got a couple of Big Agnes Dualmax bags in play. The Crystal model uses 650 fill down in the Dualmax system (Marmot uses 600) for a bit more puff. Big Agnes sleeping bags are all designed to use your sleeping pad as the bottom insulation (there is no fill material in the bottom side of their bags). The idea is you slip a full-length pad into a slot on the bottom of the bag, and you move inside the bag while tossing and turning, rather than having the bag move with you as one tends to do in a classic mummy bag. The comfort of the Big Agnes system can’t be denied, but it takes some getting used if you grew up with narrow mummy bags that cling to your body shape as you toss and turn. We prefer the Crystal’s semi-rectangular shape for automobile or pack animal supported camping, but we like a slimmer bag while backpacking, to yield a higher warmth/weight ratio and the option of using a minimal sleeping pad.
Back to ancient history: What amuses me about today’s blog is that beyond dual fill technology, that early 1970s gear company I worked for in Aspen back in my “day” also pioneered none other than making sleeping bags with integrated pads in the bottom. The outfit was called Aspen Alpine Equipment. It was started by a hippy named Mountain Rick who arrived in Aspen sometime in the late 1960s. Rick was known around 60s Aspen for his mountain boots, backpack, enjoyment of free love, and tendency to head off into the the wilderness now and then for some lightweight backpacking. Mountain Rick was a thinker and had a lot of good ideas about gear, but like many visionaries his business skills left something to be desired (folks such as myself were not much help in that area either). Nonetheless, I’m sure the gear innovations Rick and others instigated in those days filtered into the collective mind, and resulted in much of what we’re seeing these days.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.