Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Big Guy Gear Review: Sleeping Bags

Big Guy Gear Reviews are what the sound like--gear reviews focused on the usability for big guys. If you're a proportional six-footer, congrats: you can use literally every piece of gear on the market. If you're a big guy, however, you know it's a frustrating marketplace. I'm here to help.

For reference, here are my basic dimensions: 6'5", 260 pounds, dress shirt is 17"x37".  I wear XL shirts and 38x34 pants. I'm built with more of a weak-man's barrel chest than a fat-man's beer belly. I have what Lululemon calls "hockey butt." If you're tall and not broad, or broad and not tall, these reviews will still help you find usable gear.

Being a big guy and finding a sleeping bag mix like oil and vinegar, with no option to emulsify. At this point I've tried and returned so many bags that I'm keeping my current bag out of embarrassment more than complete satisfaction (though it is pretty comfortable comparatively). 

Read through to find the winner and see recommendations and precautions along the way. And for basic tips, check out the Gearing Up article on sleeping bags. Also, thanks REI, www.rei.com--your return policy made it possible for me to get a bag I could sleep in. I honestly feel bad about the returns, but I think the goodwill earned makes up for it.




I had to upgrade my sleeping bag for backpacking from my car-camping bag, a rectangular 40-degree bag from Sports Authority...comfy, but heavy, bulky, and unable to keep me warm on a July night I'm Flagstaff. Like any clueless purchaser I made a trip to REI, figuring their selection and expertise would do me right.

All bag dimensions given are for the long version of that bag. If you don't need a long the Mobile Mummy and Big Agnes bags still offer more girth than most bags.

The first bag I tried was a Sierra Designs Zissou 23. At REI. The random temperature rating seemed good for 3-season use in Arizona and it was available in long. My body fit inside, so I purchased. Then on a December backpacking trip outside Phoenix I froze my ass off because it was too tight in the hips and shoulders, making cold spots that kept me awake through the night despite being in long underwear and a +15 bag liner. Turns out that even though 78" length works, the 64" shoulder girth and 60" hip girth didn't provide me enough room to move and stay warm.

So I returned the Zissou and ordered a Kelty Ignite 16, not realizing it had basically the same dimensions, hip girth is actually 2" slimmer. Once I got inside I realized my mistake and made another return.

After considerable research my next purchase was a Sierra Designs Mobile MummyAt REI (available in 1.5 to 4 season, and ultralight versions). Its 84" length, 68" shoulder girth, and 60" hip girth seemed like it had to be a large enough bag. The "mobile" aspect seemed gimmicky, but also didn't seem to take away from function. The arm holes were positioned such that I felt like they would rip when I pushed my arms through (or I'm just too tall), so I only used them for the times I zipped it all the way up and the zipper wouldn't unzip from the inside and I had a panic attack. I took this bag on an Easter weekend backpacking trip to Havasupai falls. Temperatures at the bottom of the canyon were quite mild--to the extent that I had to start the night with the bag fully unzipped. I woke up chilly and got in my bag liner, I woke up chilly again and zipped up. Around 4:00 AM I woke up again with a cold butt. The way I lay when sleeping combined with the hip girth were causing compression and cold spots. There's no way the temperatures dropped below 40f overnight (we got up at 5:30 am amd i comfortably wore shorts and a light sweater to break camp) and this bag is rated to 16 degrees so this shouldn't have been a problem. If you don't have a large hip/butt, or don't sleep jackknifed like me, this bag may be a great option.  Unfortunately, this went into the returned column for me.

At this point my frustration was getting intense--I couldn't find a way to filter by hip or shoulder girth on any website, nor could I find anyone locally to help. Finally I found that REI has a gear pro available by email, so I sent them my predicament.  Their suggestion was the Big Agnes Lost Ranger. So I went to my most local store to try it on. It felt magical, but the REI guy at the store suggested the Big Agnes Summit Park because it has a 25" pad and more shoulder and hip girth than the Lost Ranger. It wasn't available in-store, so online I went...

The Summit Park was the worst bag I tried, though by numbers the biggest at 78" long, 80.5" shoulder girth, and 74.5" hip girth. At REI. It has an older design than the Lost Ranger, which tied the head of the mummy to the pad and pulled the sides of the bag taught. Laying in the bag was instantly uncomfortable--the drawstring on the head cut into my forehead and the bag was pulled so snug that there was more compression in this bag than in the smaller Lost Ranger. It is also heavy and bulky...over 5 pounds, and nearly $600, with the lightweight long, wide pad (that is required with the Big Agnes sleep system). This bag has great user reviews so apparently people like it, but I found everything to be lacking...except the 25" wide pad. Another immediate return. If it suits you, it is worth noting that this line has several bags of different temperature ratings. 

Worth mentioning is the Kelty SB20. At REI. I tried it on against the Lost Ranger, my ultimate purchase, and found it surprisingly roomy at 84" long but just 64" shoulder girth. It was a tempting option and the waterproofing at the head and feet appealed to me since I'm tall enough to always touch part of my extra long tent.

Winner: the Big Agnes Lost Ranger, as recommended. At REI. With dimensions of 78" long, 73" shoulder girth, and 68" hip girth, and its updates design as compared to the Summit Park, this is the roomiest bag I have found. Notable design updates include a head area not attached to the pad and sidewalls that are not pulled tight to the pad--meaning you're not unwillingly tucked in tight. As a result I was able to sleep on my side as usual, and move around, without any compression or cold spots. In fact, during my camping trip to Flagstaff with overnight temperatures in the mid to low 30s, I actually woke up sweating. There are two major downsides to this bag. First, at 20" wide its pad is difficult to fit on, even sleeping on my side and stomach. If it had  25" pad it would be the most comfortable bag I could hope for. Second, because the bag is attached to the pad it doesn't move with you meaning if you sleep on your right side with your head in its compartment you get a face full of sleeping bag and drawstring...not at all comfortable. But overall this bag gave me room to move and the pad provided fantastic cushioning. It's a keeper and I don't know of a bag on the market that would work better. This series also comes in different temperature ratings and an ultralight version.

Gearing up: Sleeping Bags

There are few items more foundational to camping or backpacking than a sleeping bag. And contrary to what I expected, it's not entirely realistic to just order a bag and get something that works for you.


Sleeping bags are unlike clothing or tents or backpacks where fit mostly affects comfort; with a sleeping bag fit can easily affect function. Too big of a bag, resulting in too much dead space, can reduce the warmth of your bag. Go too far to the other extreme with too snug of a bag and you'll compress the insulation and get cold spots. Trying on sleeping bags is as close to playing Goldilocks that most people will ever get.

If you're doing online research you will find it is easy to filter bags by length. Six feet tall or less, you'll do with a standard bag. Six-one to six-six, you'll want the long. See my Big Guy Gear Review for ideas. Over six-six, get a new hobby because you'll never find anything that fits. 

Length isn't the only important measures shoulder girth and hip girth are also important measures that you'll probably have to determine on a bag-by-bag basis until retailers realize that's an important filter criteria. Too tight in the hips can make cold spots, same for shoulders--and tight shoulders can make ingress and egress difficult.

The style of bag will play a large part in how it fits. A mummy bag will be the snuggest and will restrict your movement the most, but will also generally be the lightest and smallest option. Don't be deterred by the name, they are actually quite comfortable. Semi-rectangular will give you the best of both worlds, with more space than a mummy and less bulk than a rectangular bag. The rectangular bag is probably what you envision when thinking of a sleeping bag. These are going to be the heaviest and bulkiest, but will give you room to sprawl. They will usually have a higher temperature rating than other bags, making them usable in fewer scenarios (but a bag liner can increase its range). The rectangular bag is less preferred for backpacking due to size and weight, but there's nothing inherently wrong with them so if that's all you have go for it.

Once you find a good fit, you stilll have to make sure you have a temperature rating appropriate for your use. REI has a great tutorial on temperature ratings and I won't attempt to out do them, but in case you don't click through I will say that you want a temperature rating below the coldest temperature you will experience. Remember that you will lose heat to the ground and because you compress the insulation you're laying on, so a sleeping pad will be important for warmth...and also what masochistic doesn't camp with a sleeping pad.

If you find that your bag isn't quite warm enough you can always buy an insulated bag liner. These can be synthetic or silk and are like a lightweight sheet cocoon that add up 10 or more degrees of insulation. Liners add versatility to bags, they can be just enough insulation on warm nights, and also add some ventilation between your skin and the bag material.

Of lesser overall importance are weight and volume. If you're going ultralight and can pay around $400+ for a bag to save a few ounces then you may care a lot about weight. But if you're an average backpacker then you'll probably be fine with any backpacking bag's weight. Similar for volume concerns--get a waterproof compression bag to save space and your bag's insulating ability...that will probably take care of most of your volume concerns, but bags can take up a lot of space inside a pack.

Do make sure to have a way to keep your bag dry, a heavy-duty trash bag will do in a pinch. Down loses its insulation when wet. Waterproofed down (known by various trademarks) and synthetics will retain some insulation ability, but sleeping in a wet bag sounds awful.

If you're buying a new bag I highly recommend trying on as many as possible. Lay in your normal sleeping position on a pad similar to what you use. Move around to see how that affects fit. Test the zipper--few things make me panic like being in a mummy bag that won't unzip easily. Most bags have side zippers, but some manufacturers are making chest-zip bags. I'm not really a fan because those are more difficult to make the bag into a blanket on warmer nights.

Make use of the Internet and read user and professional reviews. Many online retailers have gear specialists available by email. Or go crazy and interact with the humans at your local store. Still in doubt? Buy somewhere with a generous return policy so if you find fit problems you won't be stuck with a bag that's defective for your needs.

And once you have a bag make sure to care for it correctly. A properly cared-for down bag can last decades.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Havasupai Falls Adventure

This is real and it's in Arizona.  Yes.
Over Easter weekend some friends and I backpacked to Havasupai Falls on a 2 day/1 night trip.  It was an amazing trip and I highly recommend it.  In the past I felt it was a daunting excursion based on anecdotes from acquaintances who had made the trip.  Whether they had tales of woe about getting a permit, or waxed hyperbolic about the rigors of the hike, or showed their ethnocentric side about the Supai community, it just seemed like a trip that was quite an undertaking.  Well, it's not.  So, if you had the same impression as me go ahead and try again.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Hopping through Holbrook



Holbrook, Arizona.  "Where's that?" seems to be the most common response to hearing the name of this city.  "It's in Navajo County.". [glazed look, feigning knowledge not wanting to belie more ignorance] "You know, you pass through it on the way to the Petrified Forest if you're taking the west entrance."  "Oh, ok," says the person who stopped being interested between 'Holbrook' and 'Arizona.'

But, look, Holbrook has the only Popeye's Chicken in Navajo County, so take note.

Ok, Holbrook.  Honestly, not a place to stay the night unless you're on a long trip and this happens to be where you are at dark.  But if you find yourself passing through it's not so bad and, depending on where you're coming from in city frame-of-reference, can be a refreshing experience.

Tear some tortilla, put on some cheese fries, top with guac, sour cream, beans, steak, fold, enjoy, repeat until comatose.
And OH MY GOD, go to Jalapeño Poppers (maybe AKA Jerry's).  Yes, the more discerning food snob would be repulsed by the name, then again by the signage, then again by the interior...but for the love of everything that is holy, treat yourself to a meal here.  Whether you go on one-dollar Wednesdays and gorge on tamales, tacos, or the other two amazing items you can get for a buck, or if you go and have a proper wild-west meal of green chilie cheese cheese fries and steak picado, you won't be disappointed. 

There's the antique store (House of Originals) that's also the best coffee shop in town. It's off Navajo Boulevard north of Rt. 180.  It's literally beside the building where Google drops a pin if you just map "Holbrook, AZ." Don't get too excited, it's not a coffee shop in the big city sense.  For one, when I ordered a 3-shot Americano the two patrons seated at the antique café tables in the café nook tittered in amusement to themselves and said to me "you're gonna be awake!" But they do take credit cards, which can be a rarity in small-town Arizona.  They do not have wireless internet...but they can direct you to THE restaurant in town that does.


That would be Romo's - THE place with WiFi.  Also, a darn good burrito.  You won't want for Mexican food options in Holbrook, but as long as you're sampling them stop by Romo's, it's delicious and the salsa served with your standard complimentary chips has a nice, chunky homemade quality to it.  The service is polite and even accommodating to me hauling in a box of case-files, my tablet, my briefcase, and pulling up to the 4-top with an electrical outlet nearby.  And that small-town quality I mentioned before, yea, as I wrestled the door open to squeeze out with a file box under one arm and briefcase under the other the folks walking out in front of me said "you must be a lawyer."  I felt like My Cousin Vinny, but in the wild west and I was dressed like Owen Wilson in Wedding Crashers (when he's dressed like an attorney). 


Not craving Mexican or antiques?  There's a delightful Italian restaurant attached to the divest bar I've seen in years. (Mesa Italiana Restaurant)  Due to high winds you have to enter through the dive and go in to a white tablecloth Italian restaurant.  Quite the shock to the senses.  But they actually make a solid eggplant parm and their salad dressing isn't just creamy Italian.  Something of a Holbrook gem, if you ask me.  I was lucky enough to go on a night where 97% of the patrons were the red hat ladies.  They seemed fun.

Seriously, WHY?
Holbrook also has such curios as the Wigwam Hotel.  I don't know if the fact that it's called the Wigwam but the units are built like teepees is ignorant, ironic, or slightly racist.  Either way, it's some true Route 66 Americana--even seen on An Idiot Abroad (Netflix that, enjoy yourself).  In the summer, at least, there are regular evening Native American dances in the little park across from the antique store/coffee shop.  Then you have a multitude of petrified wood stores, some Route 66 memorabilia, a store that sells alien things and petrified wood (anyone know that story??), and a passable facsimile of the theater in South Park. 

The real delight of Holbrook comes in the evening in the summer when the monsoon storms sweep the high desert and the sunset paints the sky in pastel.  No matter which way you look, you'll be delighted. 


Sunday, June 15, 2014

Get Started with Backpacking


I've written before about car camping, and now that you're an expert car camper (or want to skip a step) you want to try backpacking.  I have to say, other than climbing, no outdoor activity seemed as daunting to me as backpacking.  But now that I have been once, which definitely qualifies me to write about it, it's clear that backpacking can be pretty easy and fun.  This post is to help get you over the initial hurdles that might keep you from trying; it's not to teach you how to backpack, but I will include some links at the end with helpful info. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

1, 2, 3, 4, I declare a Thumb (Butte) War

 
If there is one defining image of the Prescott landscape, it is the jutting Thumb Butte that watches over town and provides a beautiful foreground for sunsets (as well as an amazing vantage point from which to watch sunsets).  Like most of the Prescott wild, Thumb Butte is very accessible and crisscrossed with hiking and biking trails.  While this is the most obvious, and perhaps easily accessed trail, it can still provide a great workout as the main trial has over 500' in total elevation gain in its 2-mile round-trip loop.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Four Corners Road Trip (and more!)




Recently my family visited from Virginia and wanted to see more of Arizona than we've explored in the past.  Over the course of several weeks of planning they devised a route to take us through practically everything a person could want to see in Arizona.  Or, at least in Northern Arizona.  Seven of us piled into a rented Yukon and drove over 1,000 miles in the next four days.  Those miles took us through four states, multiple National Parks/Forest, the Navajo Reservation, and a Sonic drive-in.

Before I tell you about the trip, let me give you a few tips: