Time-Tested Gear: Sleeping Bags and Pads

Many starry nights–and a handful of miserable ones–revealed the best bags and pads over the years.

Tried and True

Marmot Col MemBrain

Veteran Pick

The North Face Cat’s Meow

From the Vault

Ice ledge camping

Editors’ Choice Hall of Fame

MontBell’s UL Spiral Down Hugger #1

Field Notes

Expert Wisdom

Best of BACKPACKER

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Marmot Col MemBrain | The North Face Cat’s Meow | Ice ledge camping |

Editors’ Choice Hall of Fame| Field Notes | Expert Wisdom |

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Tried and True

Marmot Col MemBrain


Nothing makes you appreciate a really warm bag like a really cold night. Our testers’ first experience with Marmot’s down bags and their exceptional performance—thanks to great loft, meticulous construction, efficient shape, and smart details like stiffened draft tubes that don’t snag—was in 1979, when testers used the 5°F Gopher on frigid nights in New York’s Catskills. The same category-leading features continue to make Marmot’s bags—like the -20°F Col MemBrain (pictured) and the 15°F Helium MemBrain—best of class. After hitting several of Colorado’s Fourteeners with the Col, our current testers say that the waterproof/breathable MemBrain shell fabric keeps moisture at bay, yet still allows the bag to breathe so well that the 20-below bag stays comfortable to 20 above. $619; 4 lbs. 4 oz.; marmot.com.

Marmot Col MemBrain | The North Face Cat’s Meow | Ice ledge camping |

Editors’ Choice Hall of Fame| Field Notes | Expert Wisdom |

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The North Face Cat's Meow (Courtesy Photo)

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Veteran Pick

The North Face Cat’s Meow


“In the mid-90s, when I first tested this 20°F synthetic bag in New York’s Catskills, I was impressed by its warmth (the temperature rating is conservative), its durability (I carelessly bivied among rocks and roots), and its killer price ($159). Since then, several aspects of the Cat’s Meow have been elevated: It’s now insulated with Climashield Prism, which is warmer, lighter (by two ounces), and less bulky than the old fill, and the hood has been retooled for a better fit. But the price on this inflation-buster has miraculously stayed the same (since 1993!). $159; 2 lbs. 10 oz. (reg.); thenorthface.com.

—Jonathan Dorn, Editor-in-Chief (and tester since 1995)

Marmot Col MemBrain | The North Face Cat’s Meow | Ice ledge camping |

Editors’ Choice Hall of Fame| Field Notes | Expert Wisdom |

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From the Vault

Going to extremes: During this 1992 sleeping pad test, our tester hacked out an ice ledge nearly 18,000 feet up a Bolivian mountain—and hit snooze.

Marmot Col MemBrain | The North Face Cat’s Meow | Ice ledge camping |

Editors’ Choice Hall of Fame| Field Notes | Expert Wisdom |

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MontBell’s UL Spiral Down Hugger #1 (Photo by Steve Howe)

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Editors’ Choice Hall of Fame

Get the ultimate payoff from your backcountry bed—a light load and a deep sleep—with this bag/pad combo (both earned EC Awards in 2009). MontBell’s UL Spiral Down Hugger #1, with 800-fill down, has unique diagonal baffles that maximize thrashing room without sacrificing thermal efficiency. Therm-a-Rest’s Neo Air is astoundingly warm and 2.5 inches thick, yet it packs down to the size of a pint glass. Bag: $329; 2 lbs.; montbell.com. Pad: starting at $130; 13 oz.; cascadedesigns.com.

Marmot Col MemBrain | The North Face Cat’s Meow | Ice ledge camping |

Editors’ Choice Hall of Fame| Field Notes | Expert Wisdom |

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Field Notes

“When the foot end of your sleeping bag rubs up against a condensation-ridden tent wall, the result is wet, cold feet, something I couldn’t afford on an already cold, wet staff trip along the Olympic Coast in 1997. That’s when I learned this technique: To protect my sack, I either wrap the foot end of my bag in my rainshell, or I stick it inside my pack or a spare garbage bag.” —Thom Hogan, Executive Editor, 1997-2000

Marmot Col MemBrain | The North Face Cat’s Meow | Ice ledge camping |

Editors’ Choice Hall of Fame| Field Notes | Expert Wisdom |

See all Time-Tested Gear

Expert Wisdom

1. Size matters. Climb in different models and check wiggle room. A superefficient mummy cut is no use if you can’t sleep.

2. Go long. For cold-weather bags, get the long size. The extra space at the foot is a great place to keep water, batteries, and electronics from freezing.

3. Dress right. When you wear excess layers to bed in a trim-fitting mummy bag, the insulation compresses so the bag can’t keep you warm. But if your bag is roomy, layer up so your clothes take up the dead air space.