Dream. Plan. Live.
by Mackenzie Griesser
As an environmentalist in a capitalist society, I can’t help but think about how the gear and apparel I purchase are manufactured. It would be super disappointing if the companies making products that are meant to be used in the great outdoors were actively contributing to unsustainable practices that harm the planet! I was curious to see just how sustainable the brands we carry are so I did some research and was happy to find some great information. When we talk about how sustainable a company or product is, we have to consider the “triple bottom line”: social, economic, and environmental sustainability. If the company or product does not meet all three of these qualifications, we can’t call them truly sustainable. In my research, I found that there is way too much information to discuss all three of these components in one blog, so this is the first of a 3-part series covering each factor that makes up the “triple bottom line”. The following is a brief summary of the environmental sustainability initiatives of some of the brands we carry, specifically outerwear and apparel companies.
When we think about the sustainability of apparel, there are a few questions we must ask ourselves: Where did the raw materials come from? How were they obtained? What processes do they go through as they are made into a garment? How long can they be used before being thrown out and added to the ever-growing landfill? Luckily for us, most of the brands we carry answer all of these questions directly on their websites and are great at providing consumers with transparency concerning all of their processes, from cradle to grave. Mountain Hardwear even goes as far as to publish lists of the manufacturers that produce their materials every year for the public to see! Most other brands, including Arc’Teryx, Ibex, Patagonia, and Prana, perform Life Cycle Assessments regularly, following products from manufacture to disposal to ensure that they are doing everything as efficiently and sustainably as possible.
When it comes to raw materials, the brands we carry are pros at finding the most sustainably procured materials at a reasonable price. Both Patagonia and Prana use several recycled and re-purposed materials, including down from old bedding that is washed and sterilized, wool from old sweaters and scraps from production, cotton also from production leftovers, nylon, and polyester made from pre- and post-consumer recycled plastic. They both also utilize hemp, which leaves the soil it is grown in healthy enough to grow food crops directly after harvest, as well as organic cotton, which is not genetically modified and does not require fertilizers or pesticides. Patagonia takes it a step further and also utilizes Tencel, a branded lyocell fiber that comes from the pulp of trees grown on farms certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, yulex and guayule rubber, which together make a more sustainable version of neoprene, and undyed cashmere.
Chemical management is also very important to consider. The big “bad guy” often used in outdoor apparel is perfluorocarbons, or PFCs, which are used in waterproofing materials. However, several brands now use more sustainable alternatives including single polymer polypropylene and short-chain PFCs, which biodegrade much easier than other chemicals and take less energy and resources to obtain. Arc’Teryx also adheres to a strict Restricted Substances List to ensure the materials they are using are safe for both the consumer and the environment.
The last thing to consider when determining the sustainability of a garment is what will happen to it once it wears out. Several brands, including Patagonia, Ibex, Chaco, and Arc’Teryx, encourage customers to send back worn-out or damaged products to be recycled or repaired in order to prevent adding waste to landfills. In general, however, all of the brands we carry make super hardy and durable products, so they will last a long time.
Another thing to consider is ensuring that the animals that materials are sourced from are treated well. Every brand we carry that utilizes down in their products (Sea to Summit, Rab, Patagonia, Outdoor Research, Arc’Teryx, and Prana) are certified under the Responsible Down Standard. To be accredited under these standards, the farmer and company must adhere to some standard principles. First, birds are never live-plucked or force fed. Also, the welfare of the birds is respected from birth to death. This means injuries and illnesses are prevented as much as possible and treated in a timely manner they cannot be prevented. Companies that are accredited under these standards are randomly audited multiple times a year by third-party companies, usually with unannounced visits, and only products with 100% certified sustainable down can carry the RDS label.
While down is utilized in many products we sell, we can’t forget about good old merino wool (AKA Miracle Fabric.) Ibex definitely leads the way when it comes to wool that is harvested sustainably. They only use ZQ merino, which has a pretty intensive certification process. Any farmer can be accredited if they meet the 5 freedoms granted to animals by the Animal Welfare Act. First, the sheep must be properly fed with wholesome foods that meet all nutritional requirements, as well as be provided with limitless water. Next, they must be given appropriate shelter. Another freedom granted is the freedom from unnecessary pain and distress, which means the farmer must know how to handle them to avoid distress and maintain their property so that there is little risk of injury. Also, mulesing is prohibited under this category. Mulesing is a surgical procedure where sections wool-bearing skin that are susceptible to retaining bacteria that attracts flies are removed. While this procedure does decrease the chances of flystrikes, there are more sustainable ways to deal with this issue, including regular inspections and cleaning and shearing of the vulnerable areas. The next requirement is that the sheep must be allowed to exhibit natural patterns of behavior, which essentially means they must be given adequate space to roam and interact with one another. Finally, the farmer must be able to provide prevention, rapid diagnosis, and treatment of injury, disease, and parasite infestation if any of these were to occur. If a farmer meets all of these conditions, they can be accredited under the ZQ merino standard. Every 3-5 years unannounced audits are conducted, usually by a veterinarian.
Environmental sustainability is such a. important thing to consider when investing money in a company by purchasing their products, especially when it’s a company that specializes in outdoor gear! While some brands offer more sustainability initiatives than others, every apparel brand we carry does a great job of being environmentally conscious when sourcing materials for their products and when manufacturing them. I always feel much better about supporting companies that consider these sorts of things, even if it costs them a little more money, than companies that are only out to make a profit regardless of what effects their processes have on the environment. However, environmental sustainability is only one third of the triple bottom line! Stay tuned for more info on the social and economic sustainability initiatives offered by the brands we sell here at Roads Rivers and Trails.
So you want to sleep in the wide open world of nature without freezing to death over night. This is a rather typical human concern.
Based on my experience, folks gearing up for outdoor adventure often think of a sleeping bag before they think of anything else, even their footwear or their backpack. Quite understandable. I can walk a few miles in any shoe with some snacks and a water bottle in an old school bag and head out into the woods for the night. When I get to my camp, however, if I plan on sleeping, I am going to need something to keep me warm if I want to get any shut eye at all. Shivering and snoozing do not go hand in hand.
The sleeping bag, unlike much of backpacking’s more esoteric gear, is a common item to have lying around whether or not it has ever been used in the open air. You may have one sitting around from your childhood or have placed one in the trunk of your car for emergencies. But now you’ve gotten the itch for adventure and you’re wondering about wandering a bit. Is your old Batman sleeping bag going to cut it when the winds start whistling through the pines? To tell you the truth, probably not. If you want to get out and stay out, a good sleeping bag can be the difference between an enjoyable morning sunrise hike and a sleep-deprived slog back to car.
That being said, there are a lot of sleeping bags out there, made for different purposes, and at a variety of price levels. This blog will serve as a map to guide you to the correct bag for your situation.
EN Temperature Ratings
First off, let’s talk about ratings and standards. Understanding the modern method of rating sleeping bags for warmth will be important while choosing your new bag. You may have been in this situation before: you’ve borrowed a friend’s bag and the tag claims that it is a 0 degree bag, so you take it out when the temperature drops down to 20 degrees and end up clacking your teeth all night. Such a situation would leave a sour taste in anyone’s mouth concerning so called “ratings”. When it comes to survival, you need to know the capabilities of your gear. If companies are labeling their products with misleading information, how are you supposed to know what you are actually getting?
Enter the EN Rating, more accurately known as the European Norm 13537 Standardized Rating for Insulation. In 2005, a standard testing and rating system was established in Europe and, soon after, reputable sleeping bag companies across the world began to follow suite. Utilizing a standardized, third-party system to test the insulation of sleeping bags (involving metal dummies and such. Read more), the EN rating tests how a sleeping bag retains warmth while keeping in mind that different human bodies will produce different levels of heat while sleeping. Instead of a bag being rated with a simple number, such as 0 degrees, an EN rated bag will have a range of temperatures: Upper Limit, Comfort, Lower Limit, and Extreme.
Upper Limit refers to the temperature at which a standard man* can sleep without sweating.
Comfort refers to the temperature that a standard woman* can sleep comfortably, in a relaxed position, all night.
Lower Limit refers to the temperature that a standard man* can sleep for 8 hours without waking because of the cold.
Extreme is the minimum temperature that a standard woman* can remain at for 6 hours in the bag without incurring hypothermia.
*A standard man is described as 25 years old, 5’7″, and 160 lbs. A standard woman is described as 25 years old, 5’2″, and 130 lbs. Obviously, this does not describe everyone. The EN rating should be used as a guide more than a guarantee. If you sleep hotter or colder than others, adjust accordingly. As a general rule, the larger you are, the more heat you produce. They are assuming in these ratings that a standard man is larger than a standard woman and thus produces more heat as they sleep.
For example, my sleeping bag has an EN rating of 41 degree Comfort, 32 degree Lower Limit, and 5 degree Extreme (note: many bags do not include the Upper Limit. I guess they assume that you know when you are too hot and can unzip the bag and cool off in that case). I am a fairly hot sleeper, being 6′ and 215 lbs with huge muscles and a grizzly beard. The 32 degree Lower Limit is rather on the money for me, though I can stretch it a few degrees below freezing without suffering much sleep loss. The 0 degree bag mentioned before could have been marketed that way to advertise its extreme rating only, meaning its lower limit was probably more around the 25 degree range.
Keep in mind that this rating takes into account the user’s sleeping clothes, a ground mat, hydration levels, food intake, and even the few degrees of warmth a tent may provide.
Heat Flow and Bag Shape
While we are on the subject of insulation, let’s step back for a moment and consider how sleeping bags work in the first place. When you are out in the woods, away from your furnace and fireplace, you are your own heater. More specifically, the calories you eat metabolize into energy which is given off as heat. Your body can’t help but heat the air around you. The nature of heat is to move. Without insulation, the heat you are giving off will move away from you to a colder place and will continue to do so as long as the air outside remains colder than your body. The goal of insulation like your sleeping bag is to trap this heat and form a buffer around you from the cold air. You produce heat, the bag catches it, and you feel like the air around you is warm.
Different bag shapes allow you to customize how efficient you are at capturing this warmth. In cold temperatures, you want as much of your body ensconced in your bag as possible. Enter the Mummy bag. The most efficient of the bags at retaining heat, many modern backpacking bags use this shape. With a mummy bag, you are able to cover all of your body except for your mouth and nose (which you don’t want covered. Breathing is nice. Not filling your bag with the liter of water you breathe out at night is even nicer). The Mummy Bag is a tight fit. This is a part of its design. The less air between your body and the bag, the less air you have to warm before it gets caught in the insulation. This can be uncomfortable for some. It takes some practice for most to sleep in a fetal position with little room to move inside of a bag. Despite this drawback, the Mummy Bag remains popular and this is why: unmatched heat retention.
You don’t see as many Rectangular bags in backpacking these days. The heat you loose from having such a free, open style is enormous. That being said, when the nights aren’t so chilly and you simply need something to cover up with, a lightweight rectangular bag can be just the thing. Rectangular bags can also open up into a convenient blanket. Little to no restriction of movement is the big seller here. Some companies have begun the manufacture of insulated quilts that serve a similar function. If the Mummy style is so uncomfortable to you that you are not able to sleep, the loss of a bit of warmth may be worth it depending on the weather.
Luckily, people can be smart and inventive. There is a compromise between the two styles and it is called the Semi-Rectangular bag. With this style, the user can customize the bag depending on the temperature. The body of the bag is looser fitting than a mummy, allowing more room for movement within the bag. The top is open like a rectangular bag, but with a hood and drawstring, letting you “mummy up” in the middle of the night if the temperature drops. The ability to unzip the entire bag is also present for warm weather conditions. The Semi-Rectangular bag is the best of both worlds in many ways, though not as much a bag of extremes. A Mummy bag will be capable of greater warmth. A Rectangular bag will be looser and allow more movement. The Semi-Rectangular bag is a great compromise, however.
Big Agnes has bags that contain a sleeping mat sheath on the bottom, meaning that instead of the insulation on the bottom of the bag being compressed while you roll around on your mat at night, the mat fits down the back of the bag. They contain a hood like a mummy bag, but are more roomy in the middle to allow for movement. With this style, rolling off of your mat at night is not an option. However, this requires that you always use your sleeping mat (which is a good idea anyway).
Down v. Synthetic
The great argument rages: do you want a down insulated bag or synthetic? I have no answer for you, only information. Behold:
As you might expect, people are divided on this subject and for good reason: both types of insulation are useful in certain situation. Guaranteed to be soaking wet? Synthetic might be a better choice. Going for fast and light? Go Down.
These days, a few companies are also utilizing Hydrophobic Down, which resists being saturated with water, retains its loft even when wet, and remains lighter and more compressible than synthetic. For more information on Hydrophobic Down, click here. To read more about down in general, including info on different fill weight, click here.
Say that you have a 30 degree bag which will be great for the first few days of your hike, but on your third day, you’ll be sleeping at elevation and are afraid that your bag won’t cut it when the temperature drops. Do you have to take two bags rated for different temperatures? No! Enter the sleeping bag liner. These are micro-fleece liners for your bag which come in a variety of weights. Liners can drop the temperature rating of your bag up to ~20 degrees and also help to keep your bag clean (which helps with the durability of the insulation and saves you a lot of effort). Read all about it.
Choosing the Right Bag
Now that you’re familiar with the way sleeping bags work, how they’re shaped, what they’re stuffed with, and how they’re rated, it’s time to choose your bag. When making your choice, consider the following: price, weight, packability, durability, comfort, and appropriate temperature range. Know what adventures you’re planning, what weather you can expect, how long you want your bag to last and how light and compressed you need the bag to be. There is no right bag for every adventure, unfortunately. If you are into winter camping in Alaska, your bag probably won’t do for an Appalachian Trail thru-hike and vice versa. At RRT, we carry a variety of different sleeping bags for a variety of purposes. To read more about the different styles of bags we offer, click on any of the links to the brand websites below. The best thing to do, of course, is to stop in the shop, talk to one of our knowledgeable staff members, and actually crawl into a few bags to see which one is right for you.
Autumn hiking: the trees blazing from inside out, the air purified by chilled winds, the campfire smelling like it should. Autumn seems a beautiful time to spend your time wandering around the woods. And then the rains come. Unlike a nice, refreshing summer shower, the rains of fall don’t play nice. They bite and they seep into your bones and set teeth to clacking around. Getting caught in the wrong storm this time of year can be dangerous. Enter the rain shell, an autumn hiker’s best friend. Not to disparage the storms of other seasons, of course.
Much like the shell of our turtle friends from whom we take much advice, a rain shell means protection from harm. Whether it be rain, snow, wind, or cold, modern shells are designed to keep you alive, dry, and moving. There are times when staying in the tent, playing cards, and drinking hot cocoa sounds marvelous. The reality of the situation is that hikers don’t often have that sort of luxury. Hikers gonna hike and, more often than not, moving through a storm means moving to safety. So we throw on a rain shell and move, down the ridge, away from the menacing black clouds and the lightning on the balds.
When you hike (or bike or kayak or whatever you’re doing out in the wild) you sweat. So what’s the use of keeping the rain off if you’re just going to swim in your own slop? So, waterproof, yes, but breathability is also a major issue when choosing a rain shell. The purpose of this blog post is to help you find the right shell for the right purpose. This process can be confusing for a few reasons:
1: “Waterproof” does not mean waterproof. Confused? Good. A little confusion is good for the brain. Makes for good learning. A truly waterproof shell would be a terrible choice for the trail. To be truly waterproof, the material would have to be impermeable, meaning that no water can get in, but no water escapes either. That’s no good. That’s a sweaty plastic sack. So what we’re looking for is more accurately called “highly water resistant” but “waterproof” sounds shorter and sweeter so that’s what they call it. And there are levels to this, of course. To be called waterproof, a material must meet certain criteria. The measure of waterproofing is called Hydrostatic Head, which is fancy talk for how much water they can stack on top of a material before it starts to leak. 1,000 mm = “waterproof”. Will a 1,000 mm rain shell keep me dry if Zeus decides to unleash his fury on poor Goatman for looking crossways at a thunderhead? No. Serious weather rain shells rate more along the lines of 10,000 to 20,000 mm (that impermeable sack we spoke of earlier would be 40,000+). That’s about as technical as this article is going to get. I’ll throw some links down at the bottom for those who want to delve deeper into the science behind it all. What I’m getting at here is that a tag that says “waterproof” on a jacket can mean a variety of different things. Gore-tex vs eVent vs Pertex Shield+ vs H2NO? Here at RRT, we can tell you the difference in waterproofing between our styles of rain shells. Come in and ask. I dare you.
2: But can we tell you about breathability? If you liked the slightly complicated nature of waterproofing, you’re going to love the absurdly complicated nature of breathability! At least in this case, breathable means just that: allowing the passage of air and moisture. You hike, you sweat. Best case scenario, your sweat evaporates and, water vapor being smaller than raindrops, escapes from your rain shell through the tiny holes in the “waterproof” fabric. So there must be some way to test how much water vapor escapes from the material. Of course there is. There are a few ways actually and not one standardized test across the industry. Different companies, different materials, different tests. Do different tests test the same thing? Sort of. They all tell you how much water vapor passes through material. Do any of them simulate wilderness conditions in which you are bouncing off of trees and rubbing bellies with granite and sweating at different rates, in different humidity, on a different mountain, in a different country? No. Nature isn’t a controlled laboratory (thank goodness). So we leave the lab and go out in it and let our skin do the testing. And the companies would agree. They all have their labs but they also have their athletes out in the bush, getting it done.
As I mentioned before, we carry a variety of rain shells at RRT. Below, I will break down the differences, similarities, and various uses of each shell. Remember: these are words on the Internet. If you really want to experience the thing itself, come in and talk to one of us, try on a couple of styles, and see what is going to work for what you want to do.
Company: Rab Style: Latok Alpine
Waterproofing: eVent Layers: 3 Weight: 18 oz.
We’ll start with the big boy: Rab’s Latok Alpine, store favorite for keeping you dry in the worst conditions. Designed, as the name suggests, for protecting you on exposed alpine climbs, the Latok Alpine is serious protection. It boasts the highest breathability and is rugged to boot. Going on a mountain-climbing trek where you’re guaranteed to get dumped on for days and want a shell that won’t give out on you, no matter how much punishment you put it through? This is it. At 18 oz., this is also the heaviest shell we carry. Perhaps overkill for an afternoon hike with 50% chance of rain.
Waterproofing: Pertex Shield + Layers: 3 Weight: 15 oz.
We go lighter from there with Rab’s Xiom. Great jacket to throw in your pack on a long backpacking trip. It’s still Rab and still 3 layers, so the durability is there, but at less than a pound the Xiom won’t weigh down your pack when the sun comes out. Added pit zips make this a highly waterproof and breathable design. Pertex Shield + is Pertex’s highest end fabric for weight and performance.
Waterproofing: eVent Layers: 3 Weight: 19.6 oz.
Think of the Bergen as the Latok Alpine’s big brother. It weighs more because it’s bigger and more roomy for more fully fleshed out individuals. If you find the athletic cut of modern rain shells restrictive, fear not! The Bergen is here. All of the advantages of breathability and waterproofing of the eVent liner are still apparent in this jacket. For a couple of ounces more, you simply have more room to be comfortable.
Waterproofing: Gore-tex Layers: 3 Weight: 11.8 oz.
Arc’teryx doesn’t mess around. A three layer shell at less than 12 ounces, cut to fit the body in motion, with heavy duty Gore-tex lining. Arc-teryx construction is unmatched in the business and, despite its low weight, this shell can take a beating. Though not as breathable as eVent or Pertex Shield, this shell is still a contender for lightweight backpacking in any condition you can throw at it. If you’ve never tried on an Arc’teryx piece, do yourself a favor. These guys know exactly what they’re doing and they do it very well.
Waterproofing: Gore-tex Layers: 2.5 Weight: 16.3 oz.
OR makes some great gear and the Foray is no exception. Gore-tex is big papa when it comes to waterproofing. They were there first and they still do it like they mean it. Sheds water as well as the Latok Alpine and, while losing a bit of breathability, also loses a few ounces. Any advantages to that? Sure. A bit warmer of a jacket can be a good thing in the cold. This is another shell meant to handle whatever you throw at it. They add two way pit zips to compensate for the loss in fabric breathability.
Waterproofing: Gore-tex Layers: 2.5 Weight: 13.7
The Aspire is the women’s specific OR shell that is much like the Foray for men, but fit specifically to a women’s curves. Gore-tex knows not gender, so you’re still getting a heavy-duty severe weather jacket with the Aspire.
Company: Outdoor Research Style: Helium HD
Waterproofing: Pertex Shield + Layers: 2.5 Weight: 9.1 oz.
We are dropping ounces here. The Helium series from OR, much like the noble gas for which it is named, floats compared to the beefy shells we’ve been learning about. This is a long-distance backpackers’ jacket, truly: extremely breathable, lightweight, and immensely packable. Able to shrug off all but the most extreme rains, this is the sort of jacket you throw on when you’re in for the long-haul, need to keep moving rain or shine, but can then forget about on the nice days. While not the jacket I would choose for alpine excursions or deep winter treks.
Waterproofing: Pertex Shield + Layers: 2.5 Weight: 6.4 oz.
I have eaten candy bars that weigh more than the Helium II. A stripped down little brother in the Helium series, this is a minimalists dream. Ultra-light, ultra-breathable, ultra-packable. If you’re the type of backpacker that cuts your toothbrush in half, removes your zipper pulls, and doesn’t bother cooking food on the trail, here you go. Also a great shell for trail-running, mountain biking, or any other high-intensity outdoor activity where you might run into unwelcome rain.
Waterproofing: H2NO Layers: 2.5 Weight: 12.2 oz.
The stylish choice, Patagonia’s Torrentshell is not as waterproof as eVent or Gore-tex and not as breathable as Pertex Shield +, this one lands right in the middle on every scale. Great for everyday wear, in town or on the trail, the Torrentshell will keep you dry as you go about your business. Not an alpinists shell and a bit heavier than our lightweight options, this one is a good all-around jacket with Patagonia backing it up, so you know it is greener than grass (in the environmental sense).
Waterproofing: Dry Q Core Layers: 2 Weight: 14.3 oz.
The most affordable jacket in our line up, Mountain Hardwear’s Finder Jacket is a great starter shell. Though a bit heavier than our lightweight options, this jacket will breathe better than some of the sturdier Gore-tex options, though will not take quite the soaking. Great jacket for layering or to shrug off quick storm, not as useful in serious weather when staying dry is crucial. For the price, however, the Finder is a good all-around jacket.
Helpful, technical links for your perusal:
Links to the companies mentioned above: