SLEEPING PARTNERS DREAMS

TRIED & TESTED; There are bags of ways to stay warm, dry and cosy while camping under the stars. Our panel push some to the limits
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The Independent Culture
It's official: the British are becoming more rugged. No longer a nation of slothful television watchers and pampered wimps who would no more dream of spending a night outside a centrally heated bedroom than plunge into a bathtub full of ice, we now hike, climb, ride, abseil and dive to the remotest corners of our environment - and when we get there, we're delighted to sleep miles from civilisation.

Whatever the reasons for the market growth (population pressures in urban areas and increased awareness of health and fitness are often cited), outdoor equipment manufacturers are delighted. They, in turn, provide an added incentive: it's no longer necessary to feel cold, wet or uncomfortable, even in extreme conditions.

THE PANEL

We asked two teams of outdoor enthusiasts to give a range of sleeping bags a fair trial. Andy Reid, manager of The Castle Climbing Centre in London's Stoke Newington and specialist cave instructor Robbie Warke of the Rock Climbing and Caving Centre in Chudleigh, Devon, both led expeditions where cold and damp were potential problems. On a less serious level, half-a-dozen happy campers, including the Purvis family, the Hudds and Naomi Depeza, tried out the sleeping bags under canvas on a balmy summer night in London, which severely tested some bags' claims to "wick away moisture" from the inside.

THE TEST

Sleeping bags are increasingly stylish and hi-tech, with a bewildering list of properties intended to cope with different seasons and conditions. The problem is that most consumers only want to buy one - and they want that bag to be inexpensive, pack down, be light to carry and yet as comfy as a featherbed. Compromises of course have to be made, but overall we were impressed with manufacturers' efforts to meet the demands of a very knowledgeable and demanding market.

*MILLET'S ARIZONA

pounds 14.99

"Well, what can you expect for this sort of price?" was the response of most panellists to Millet's cheap and cheerful, rectangular, synthetic bag. It illustrates early ideas of the sleeping bag, when folding over a quilt and securing it with a zip was the height of invention. It leaves dead air space around your feet, so they get cold; you can't pull the head opening tight, so all the heat escapes around your shoulders; and it doesn't come with a stuff-sac, so it's awkward to transport. But "you could give it to the kids to use in the garden," according to Andy Reid, who revealed that it had made a very good sleeping mat on his mountaineering trip.

***OUTBOUND SEASON 4 AND OUTBOUND JUNIOR

pounds 39.99 and pounds 19.99

The look and silky feel of the black and orange adult's bag and nicely patterned child's bag in the Outbound range appealed to all the camping novices in London. "It's highly erotic," opined Andrew Purvis, who said he would like some underpants made out of the same fabric and, moreover, reported sleeping on top of a torch for a half-an-hour before feeling any discomfort. But like much outdoor equipment, the quality of a sleeping bag is often only evident in extreme conditions. "This is a dog of a bag," said the tester who slept in it on a mountain in Switzerland, explaining that it wasn't as warm as the Ajungilac, weighs a lot more, has a badly manufactured zip and "grotty stitching in places". "Basically this is a three, not four season bag and it definitely needs a compression sac, not an ordinary stuff-sac - any large artificial bag needs one." At least the cost is comparatively low, which is attractive if you are an occasional camper; the professionals said it was "a false economy". The Outbound Junior was enjoyed by the children, but Andy Reid has good advice for cost-conscious parents: buy an adult's bag and then tie a belt below the child's feet; sleeping bags should after all last years, not six months.

***BLACKS POLAR 300

pounds 69.99

This bag, produced by the popular camping store chain, was rated "all right," meaning that it has all the features - mummy shape, reasonable compression sac, neck baffle and self-repairing zip - and "did the job perfectly well, but none of us would say this is the bag for us". It did also have the added advantage of fitting the hunk-sized mountaineers reasonably well, who agreed that it was "good value for seventy quid".

****AJUNGILAC KOMPAKT

pounds 110

Acknowledged by many of our experts to be the premier synthetic bag on the market, this British-made, 3/4 season, mummy-shaped sleeping bag lives up to the reputation of its Norwegian parent company - which makes even more splendid versions not sold in this country, but surely accessible to jet-setting sportspeople. The Kompakt was let down by being "four inches too small" according to the cavers, who insist that outdoor types like them are 6ft on average, not 5ft 10in - a common problem with sleeping bags in all price ranges.

Apart from this, it kept its (naked) tester warm at -5C, has "an excellent stuff-sac, unlike some," is easy to operate with draw-cords around the neck, features a self-repairing zip (the teeth do not break if you accidentally rip it apart) and a thoughtful strip at the bottom on which to write your name and address. ("Lots of people have the same colour bag, you know.")

***VANGO ULTRALITE 900M AND VANGO OMEGA 350

pounds 69.99 and pounds 99.99

These bags - the tiny Ultralite for summer, the more substantial Omega for all seasons - surprised the panellists with their performance. The women of our camping party fought over the Ultralite because it is so neat and light, then complained that its nylon lining was "really sweaty" in the summer heat, while the cavers were amazed that it kept them warm, even though they could see through it when they held it up to the light. Both bags were thought well-made, especially the Omega, which was hailed as "excellent" and "the best shaped mummy bag," since the zip goes up past your head and only a hole for the face, as opposed to the cowl hoods usually provided. The panel would have awarded four stars to the Omega range if only the Ultralite had neck baffle (to equip it for all weather conditions). It fared well with the Alpinists and Robbie Warke said he would carry it as an "emergency bag" because it was so light.

*****MOUNTAIN EQUIPMENT SNOWLINE

pounds 239

As our only example of a top-of-the range, down-filled sleeping bag, perhaps it was inevitable that the Snowline, from prestige manufacturers Mountain Equipment, should turn out to be the unanimous favourite. Softer than a duvet and silky to touch, the bag naturally won acclaim from the urban princesses - but it also drew praise from the professional climbers and cavers, who say they use only down bags normally because they are light to carry, cool in summer, warm on the mountain top and, due to their cost, last forever. This one has "an excellent elasticated hood and neckband" which allow you to draw them up tight and still get your hand inside. It is perfectly stitched and baffled (note that any area where stitching squashes a bag's filling will make a "cold spot") and the down has been treated to repel water. (The only disadvantage of a down bag usually is that if you get them wet on a trip, they are rendered useless.) Potential purchasers should also be aware that down bags need careful dry-cleaning and have to be stored unrolled to avoid crushing the filling but otherwise, if you can afford it, the Snowline is the Rolls-Royce of the sleeping bag world.

STOCKISTS

Outbound, call the Hotline on 0171 680 5119; Blacks Camping Stores sells its own brand, plus Mountain Equipment, Ajungilac and Vango; Millet's from Millet's stores nationwide.

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