A good night's sleep is imperative for all climbing objectives. Whether you're attempting the Nose in a day or just car camping for a weekend of sport climbing, your bag can make or break your climb, not to mention your mood. We teamed up with Backpacker magazine to round up a dozen three-season down bags that were new for 2012 and put 'em to the test from the Northeast to Alaska. For most climates, down is still top dog, thanks to its warmth-to-weight ratio and the additions of water-resistant shell fabrics and (in one case) a new "waterproof" down. The five bags we chose to feature here will have you waking up warm, rested, and thinking you just spent the night at home in your own bed.
First Ascent Karakoram 20º
Weight: 2 lbs. 4 oz.
Performance: One cold sleeper praised this bag for keeping her toasty—without socks—in the Tetons while her tentmates were freezing in warmer-rated bags, and everyone lauded its roomy interior for moving around in the night (and drying out gear). The water-resistant Pertex shell is built for sleeping in the open in extreme conditions, and a month in the Chugach Mountains of Alaska had this bag no worse for the wear. All this for less than $300. "The most roomy, comfortable mummy bag I've ever slept in," one tester said. Another said, "Even warmth from head to toe is why this bag rocks." Night after night of drippy conditions from snow and condensation didn't reduce overall loft initially in this bag, but by the end of a month of use, it was definitely a bit damp. Packing it up in the included stuff sack was a breeze every morning, and it fit in the sleeping bag compartment of a 55L pack with room to spare.
Cons: Doesn't loft super quick when you first unpack it; lessen the problem by unpacking immediately after setting up camp. Warmer nights (around 30°) got a bit clammy.
Conclusions: Exceeds expectations for a three-season bag. It's warm, packable, roomy, durable, affordable, and cozy. Big storage pocket on the chest has plenty of room for sundries.
Mammut Ajungilak 29º
Weight: 1 lb. 12 oz.
Performance: "The mummy bag perfected" is how one Pacific Northwest tester described this bag. Thanks to extra room in the toe and hip area, "there's none of the claustrophobia common with snug-fitting bags," and the inside lining was comfortable even on bare skin; one warm sleeper didn't get sticky at all from sweating, even in 40°F-plus temps. While it's great for recreational camping, "mountaineers will love it for expedition use" because of the fitted hood and a microfiber chin and face guard, which you can tighten up for colder nights or leave loose. (You can hand-wash this microfiber, which is right in the snot/drool zone.) From the Oregon coast to Mt. Hood, the ShelterTX outer material warded off light snow and rain during five nights of open bivies. The entire bag stuffs nicely into the bottom of inverted-pear-shaped climbing packs. Final word: "It's the ideal backcountry and front country bag."
Cons: It's not meant for super-cold environments, so even shoulder seasons at high altitude or in exposed areas might be too cold.
Conclusions: Impressed cold and warm sleepers alike and showed zero signs of wear after 36 nights in the backcountry. It's an excellent all-around bag to begin with, but the water-resistant shell and face guard make it a gem.
Sierra Designs Zissou 15º
Weight: 2 lbs. 14 oz.
Performance: Though many may be skeptical of "waterproof" down, our testers found that it worked quite well, specifically for situations where prolonged exposure to minimal water is an issue. (Think feet against a condensation-covered tent wall, not a continuous downpour.) One tester in the U.K. found it performed great for 10 damp nights in almost 100 percent humidity: "Humid. Always. Like 85 to 97 percent on a 'dry' day, and 100 percent and pouring the other days." Yet the DriDown tester stayed toasty. The bag didn't lose loft or soak through at all compared to another down bag that was noticeably droopy by the third night. "Finally, down that does well in humidity!" This was also the only bag in the review that didn't have any complaints about the zipper sticking. Testers would have liked to see an 800-fill version, but otherwise this bag was a top scorer in all categories: warmth, packability, and features.
Cons: It's a bit heavy for ultralighters thanks to 600-fill down, and expensive for the fill grade. Not super roomy, and no stretchy baffles for night-time movement.
Conclusions: A great bag that's even better because of its exceptional performance (for a down bag) in damp conditions where you would normally have to take a synthetic bag. The women's version is the Eleanor.
Rab Infinity 500
Weight: 1 lb. 14 oz.
Performance: This bag got top scores for its overall quality and craftsmanship, thanks to a smart hood and draft-collar design, and no feathers poking out. Plus, plenty of puff in the 850-fill down and a super-light Pertex Quantum GL 10-denier shell fabric gave this bag the best loft in the test—"really puffy for weight ratio." "An awesome combo of light weight, comfort, and warmth. Great packability." Although it's not designed for open bivies (read: not waterproof at all), that means it breathed well and was ideal for temps from 22°F to 60°F. (Rab lists a low-temperature comfort range between 19°F and 29°F.) One tester said, "I slept in it in the low 20s for multiple nights in the Cascades, and it was fine in a tent with a fly." A two-way zipper means you can air out those tootsies without sacrificing the rest of your warmth, and a smart cinch mechanism for the hood means no smothering or claustrophobic effect.
Cons: Has practically no water-resistance ("You would NOT want to get this bag wet!"), but use it in a tent with a fly and you should be fine. Down shifts around for some cold spots. Pricey.
Conclusions: High loft and total warmth are the ticket here: Our seasoned tester said it was her absolute favorite from the past few years.
The North Face Inferno 0º
Weight: 2 lbs. 15 oz.
Performance: At 0°F, the Inferno is stretching the definition of a three-season bag, but many climbers stretch the seasons. Light, warm, and packable, this bag held great loft over the course of more than 35 nights. None of our testers had any feather leakage, and there were no signs of wear throughout testing. The large, glow-in-the-dark zipper pull is a nice touch when you get up in the middle of the night, although the zipper did snag a bit. Packing this bag was incredibly easy—it is definitely on the small end of comparable down bags. The 20-denier Pertex Endurance shell is geared toward expedition use, and is also very water-resistant. The compression stuff sack doubles as a very small summit pack, which is a nifty feature as long as your summit bids aren't too technical or long, in which case this "pack" wouldn't do the trick. The Inferno is comfortable in the shoulders and leg area, but there's not a lot of extra space around the toes.
Cons: The shell fabric doesn't breathe very well, and the hood wasn't ergonomically designed, so there were some big gaps when it wasn't cinched down.
Conclusions: "A solid bag for simple, straightforward use, if you don't need any pockets or fancy hood design." Warm and light; well-suited for long-term expeditions.