By Pablo Velasco
Reprinted from The Leader, Summer 2001, Vol. 16, No. 3
The first time I saw the Big Agnes sleeping system, I thought, "Wow, what a great idea, finally somebody came up with a sleeping bag and pad that will stay in place throughout the night!" But I never really thought about the "set-up" process involved-until I was inside a four person Kiva with three other people and 240 lbs of gear in the middle of a thunderstorm in the Southwest.
A good night's rest:
Unlike most sleeping bags that are filled top to bottom with insulating material, the Big Agnes system is filled only on the front of the bag, and the bottom is made of a rectangular shaped sleeve (with no filling). The sleeping pad slides into this sleeve, providing the necessary insulation and cushioning.
So here's the tricky part: The REM (rest easy mama) sleeping pad has to be at least partially inflated before you can attempt to push it into the bag's sleeve. It does take a little extra effort, space, and time, but once you have it set up it's like having a bed out in the field with you. Once you close your lids, roll your eyes back, and start snoring, it doesn't matter what type of sleeping acrobatics you perform throughout the night or how many times you roll over, you will always have the top half of the sleeping bag on the top, and the pad right underneath you. Plus you will wake up on the same side of the tent you went to sleep on! There is lots of leg room and the 1 1/2 inch thick REM sleeping pad provides excellent cushioning compared to a regular ensolite pad, which also fits since the Encampment is designed to accommodate any type of pad measuring 20 x 72."
One cool feature are the "no draft tubes," which run all along the base of the bag and are filled with insulating material to prevent cold air from entering the bag. On some cold nights, however, it takes quite a bit more energy to warm up the space around you. This extra effort happens because you cannot "cuddle up" in your bag since the bag and the pad are integrated. You can take care of this by throwing a few extra layers into the sleeping bag to fill up those empty spaces. The bag also has a built-in pillow sleeve, which can be stuffed with a fleece jacket.
What kept me up at night:
The big Agnes girdle (which is a variation of a compression stuff sack) does an awesome job packing the sleeping bag very small. But, although smaller than an ensolite pad, the Big Agnes REM pad is still pretty bulky compared to a 3/4 length Thermarest.
One thing to think about with the Big Agnes system is the possibility for the sleeping pad to suffer a puncture or tear from prickly or rocky environments, (as with any other inflatable pad) leaving you with almost no insulation at the bottom of the bag in the event you can't find the air leak. This problem can be easily solved in the first place by replacing the REM pad with a closed cell foam one. A nice bonus is the fact that Big Agnes does include a repair kit with their sleeping pads.
The manufacturer assures me that some of its major glitches are being worked out. New models will have an easier system for sliding the sleeping pad into the bag. Mummy style pads are now available, and Big Agnes mummy bags are due on the market soon. These new products will reduce even more weight and bulk.
Overall, the Big Agnes Encampment proved to be a very comfortable three season sleeping bag, great for short-length trips or car camping if used with the REM sleeping pad. But unless someone else is carrying your gear, I would not pack it along on an extended expedition where space and weight are limiting factors. I am looking forward to trying out the BA sleeping system once their mummy style bags come out. Check it out at www.bigagnes.com.
Pablo is a current NOLS instructor; he came to NOLS in 1999 as a student on a semester in Alaska.