Review by Coy Starnes
The Brooks-Range Elephant Foot sleeping bag is a sleeping bag that looks like a mummy bag that is missing the top end where the shoulder area and then hood are usually located. And thus the use of a separate top (a hooded down jacket is ideal) is needed to complete the sleeping system. The idea being, if you are packing a good warm jacket, then why not use it as part of the sleeping system and save weight on the sleeping bag. The bag features 800 fill down and the shell and liner are made with a breathable, water-resistance fabric. Anyways, besides the potential weight savings, there is one more reason I am ecstatic at the prospect of using the Brooks-Range Elephant Foot bag. I use a hammock most of the time and getting in and out of a tight fitting mummy bag is not the easiest thing in the world. I have already tried the elephant foot one night in my hammock and I can safely say, getting in and out of it is a breeze. But before digging deep into the review I think a brief look into the concept of this type sleeping system (often called a half bag) is in order. But even before that I’d like to share a series of pictures that show how I used the bag for the first night. The first photo shows the bag and what I wore, and the next few show me getting into the bag and finally all set up for the night.
And now on to the concept of the half bag sleeping system. In recent years sleeping bags have become lighter and more efficient, largely due to improved construction methods and new fabrics. Down has not changed…but the sorting methods have, and now many of the top end bags use high fill power down, often in the 800 to 900 fill power range. Typically, the hiker seeking the lightest possible setup chooses a bag that will barely meet the coldest temperatures he expects but will have a light jacket to add just in case it gets colder than expected. But this also means that if unable to hike for whatever reason, the hiker is forced to stay in the sleeping bag to stay warm, or if hiking in extreme cold, the light jacket will just have to do. With the Elephant Foot bag, the hiker will of necessity have a heavier jacket, so stops in bitter cold will be easier to manage. Of course the trade off might be that the jacket is too warm for hiking most of the time. But other than that, there really is not much downside to this type sleeping system that I can tell. I’m sure testing over the next few months will reveal things I am not aware of and I will share these finding as the report is updated.
Before getting the bag out in the field I weighed it at my local post office. According to their scales the bag weighed 14.6 oz in the stuff sack and the stuff sack weighed .6 oz so the bag itself weighs 14 oz even. The advertised weight is 16 oz. Now normally I am happy to find gear that actually weights a little less than advertised, but in the case of an ultralight sleeping bag, I really am leery because one way to have a lighter bag is for some of the down to be missing. And of course I don’t know just how accurate the scales at the post office are, so the bag may very well be closer to 16 oz than I realize. But if it keeps me warm to 15 F or even 20 F I will be tickled. I say this partly because I have seen other bags with claimed temperature ratings only to find I was only comfortable at around 10 F warmer than they were rated. So I guess it is a good thing that the first nights use saw a low of 27 F. I definitely like to test a product in slightly milder conditions for the first time or two until I get used to the system.
I also took a few key measurements before using the bag. It comes in a stuff sack that measures 11 inches long by 9 inches tall and it stuffs very easily into the stuff sack. In fact it probably could be a lot smaller and I’d almost be tempted to use this stuff sack for storage between trips. But I like this stuff sack bacause I like a slightly less crammed stuff sack because it lets other gear form around it instead of being a small hard lump in my pack. The bag measures about 57 inch long and comes up about midways on my chest, not quite up to my armpits but closer than I expected. It measures 27 inches wide at the top and tapers gradually down to around 16 inches wide at the foot end. I know I’m not a skinny guy at 6 feet tall and 240 lbs but I found it fit me very well. Anyways, after letting it loft a few hours, I measured 4 inches of loft. However, it is really hard to say how exact this measurement is because it was lower in places and higher in others, but I feel this is a pretty fair assessment.
And now for how the Elephant Foot did. I was using my Hennesy Deep Jungle Hammock with the bubble pad between the layers of the double bottom. I added a thin closed cell foam pad on top of the bubble pad because the low was forecast to be 25 F. I used my warmest down jacket but unfortunately this jacket does not have hood. However, I have several good winter hats as well as a ColdAvenger facemask. I also packed my warmest winter gloves. I wore a regular weight cotton/polyester sweat pants, a thin pair of wool socks and a thin but fuzzy merino wool sweater. When I first set up camp it was 44 F and very windy. By 8:30 PM when I turned in for the night it was 40 F and the wind was still kicking pretty good, making the tress squeak and leaves rustle. The moon was also very bright so the light and the noise made sleep difficult. But getting in the Elephant Foot was as easy as falling off a log, or as the Geico insurance commercial suggest, “even a cave man could do it” but I’ll get into that more in a bit. Anyways, I woke up at around 11 PM and it was still not all that cold at 36 F but the wind was much calmer now. My nose felt a little cool so I went ahead and added the ColdAvenger facemask to my headgear. I went back to sleep easy enough but woke up at 2:30 with my feet feeling a little cool. By now it was 31 F. I didn’t pack any extra clothes but I did have a thin shirt I was using as a pillow so I placed this down over the bag at my feet and it seemed to help enough that I managed to go back to sleep for a couple of more hours. When I woke up at 4:30 AM it was down to 27 F and my feet were feeling pretty chilled but not unbearably so, just to the point that I was wishing they were warmer. I was not sleepy any longer so I just decided to pack up and head home. As I hiked home I considered my options for the next chilly night. A slightly thicker pair of sweat pants over a medium weight pair of thermal bottoms and a thicker pair of socks would have probably been plenty. And for real comfort, a pair of down booties might have been the ticket. I hope to be able to find out before all the cold weather is gone.
I do want to comment just a little on the 15 F rating. As I mentioned earlier, I got just a wee bit chilled at 27 F, especially my feet. But I also know others might have been fine at even cooler temps and some would feel colder than I did at 27 so it really is a subjective area to comment on. But in looking closely at the bag I see it has sew through construction instead of box baffles. As mentioned earlier, I also laid the bag out and let it loft a few hours and it has about 4 inches of loft, but of course this is the top and bottom combined. I did notice that the top seems like it lofts a little more than the bottom but that was hard to determine, but regardless, more down on the top would be a good thing since the down on the bottom gets squished and is not much benefit unless I roll over. I say all this to say, that the 15 F rating is a little optimistic in my honest opinion. But as light as the bag is, I’m not disappointed, in fact, I’m ecstatic to have a 14 oz bag that will keep me reasonable warm down to 27 F. And perhaps my bag is missing a couple ounces of down and it would have been warmer if it weighted 16 oz instead of 14. One other possibility I had not even considered until another hammock user pointed it out is the possibility that my cold feet could have been because my feet are higher in a hammock then when sleeping flat on the ground. He mentioned that he had experienced the same thing and usually just wore thick socks to compensate. And thinking back, my legs really never were uncomfortable, just my feet. I am leaning more towards carrying my down booties the next time to see if they wont solve my cold foot problem.
Anyways, based on my observations from the first night I’d say this bag fits into what are normally called three season bags. In fact I could see having a range of “Elephant Foot” bags for different seasons, a heavier bag with more insulation for real cold conditions and a lighter version with less insulation for summer use. I would also be easy enough to even combine 2 bags for really cold weather so maybe have one slightly bigger to fit over the smaller one. And a choice of down or synthetic would be nice, mainly because synthetic is usually more affordable but also might be needed for really wet conditions. But back to the bag I have, it should be easy enough to adjust my gear/clothes to make do for most conditions. As I mentioned before, I really wish I had packed my down booties because for just a few ounces, they would have kept my feet toasty warm. In warmer weather I will still probably wear socks and at least a thin thermal bottomlayer, more to protect the bag from my toenails and skin oils than to stay warm. I should be able to pack a much lighter jacket.
And now to wrap up this first report. The idea is so elegant and simple that I am surprised this type bag is not more popular. But the fact remains, full length traditional mummy bags continue to dominate the backpacking arena. But for a hammock user like me, an “Elephant Foot” style bag is even more appealing just based on ease of getting into the bag. I cant stress enough how easy it was to pull the bag up under me, then zip my down jacket up over it. In fact, since I had my jacket on before laying down I did not use the suspender straps except to help my pull the bag up when it was down at my feet, but once in place it never even hinted of sliding down. I’ll end by saying that after just one nights use I can truly say it is a better system for me. Stay tuned for further updates as I continue to use and experiment with this awesome sleeping system.
Brooks Range Elephant Foot update
April 28, 2010
I have now used the Elephant Foot bag for a total of 4 nights, but non have been as cool as the first night which I reported on previously. I have used the same hammock (my Hennessy Deep Jungle) and bubble pad on every trip. The bag has been all I could hope for as far as making my hammock camping much easier. But the bag does seem to attract storms…. OK maybe not, but the fact remains that on two of the four nights I experienced some pretty strong thunder storms and saw high winds on both those nights.
The first stormy night was on March 9th. This hike was in local woods here close to home. The temps were fairly mild as I set up camp and did not change a lot overnight. In fact the temperature at 8 PM was 55 F and it only dropped to 51 F overnight. My wife was not real happy that I was camping in storms but since I was close to home she relented and let me go without much of a fuss. I wore sweat pants, a light wool sweater, thin wool socks, a boggin and some thin gloves to bed. The storms rolled in at around 3 AM but other than the noise and some rain blown onto my hammock netting the night went smoothly. I used a fleece jacket for my top end insulation and was fine. It was cool enough at the beginning of the night that I pulled the Brooks Range Elephant Foot bag on up over my legs to start with. I mention this because on my next two hikes I started each night with the bag just laid across my legs.
My next outing was on April 10th. It got pretty chilly, but still not anything close to the 15 F rating of the bag, and at least it didn’t storm this night. The hike started of at 65 F but the temperature did drop a lot overnight to a low of 38 F. So on this night I spent a few hours with the bag just loosely laid across my legs. I had on the same clothes as the March 9th overnighter except for my down jacket in place of the fleece. I slept several hours before waking up but it was getting very chilly by now so I decided to put my legs inside the sleeping bag and cover my chest area with the jacket. I also wore my boggin and gloves during the last few hours before morning. I had only hiked about 2 miles before setting up camp so I was not all that tired but I still slept soundly. I credit the sleeping bag and my hammock.
The last night in the bag saw more storms. This hike was on the Fiery Gizzard in southeast Tennessee, about 70 miles from home. The weather forecast called for thunderstorms overnight and severe weather the next day so we opted to do most of our hiking the first day and camp fairly close to the trail head. So after 7 miles of hiking I was fairly tired before going to bed. We ate supper as the sun went down but the cloud cover was already building in the west and the wind was picking up. I tuned in around 9 PM but before I could get to sleep I heard thunder off in the distance. Then the wind started really kicking up and the trees tops were making a lot of noise so going to sleep was just about impossible. However, shortly before midnight the winds died down and I went to sleep to the sound of a gentle rain on my hammock fly. It was still pretty warm and I went to sleep with the bag laid across my legs instead of inside it. And much like the other warm night, I eventually woke at around 3 AM. After getting up and watering a nearby tree I crawled back in the hammock and went ahead and got inside the bag. I was not really feeling cold, just cool enough that I felt better with my legs inside the bag. I also laid my down jacket over my chest area (I had been using it as a pillow). My fleece jacket would have been plenty but I had packed my down jacket just in case it got colder than expected. It only dropped to 63 F overnight so I was a little hot in the bag and under the jacket but not so hot I couldn’t sleep and I was not sweating. My boggin and gloves stayed in my pack all night. The one major difference in this night and the previous three was that I did not wear sweat pants or a long sleeve top. Instead I had on some very light nylon shorts and a thin synthetic top. In fact these were the same clothes I wore hiking on the hike in. I had packed some sweat pants and a long sleeve top but it was so warm that I didn’t feel the need to change at bedtime. Had I done so I may have never needed to get inside the bag at 3 AM. Here are the clothes I had on at bedtime…minus the pack, shoes and trekking poles of course.
The Brooks Range Elephant Foot bag has been a huge success as far as I’m concerned. It has certainly made using my hammock a lot easier then I have ever experienced with more traditional bags. In fact, there have been a few nights that I might even preferred a zipper down the center of the bag so I could have opened it a little more. I say this because when I laid it across my legs it really did not cover them everywhere and since the bag was not spread out I had the full thickness of the bag over the parts it was covering. I also am not so sure about the suspender straps built into the bag. They are kind of in the way when getting in the bag and I have not needed them to keep the bag up once I pull it under my hips. I’m not sure if it might be more prone to sliding down if I were sleeping on a pad in a tent but It’s hard for me to imagine it sliding down much if at all once I have it pulled up all the way.
Wrap-up for the Brooks Range Elephant Foot
June 8, 2010
I have used the bag two more nights since my last update. The temperatures have remained warm, too warm in fact for a bag with no zipper or way to vent at the foot end. The lowest temperature I encountered during this last phase was 59 F on May 17th followed by 66 F on June the 4th. But in a way, I consider this good news as it reflects on just how effective a sub 1 lb sleeping bag (remember mine weighted in at 14 oz) can be. The one saving grace in using the bag on these rather warm nights is that I could use a very light jacket.
On both nights I used a very light weight fleece jacket. In fact, I did not put it on but instead just laid it across me to allow maximum ventilation. However, this was not an option for the bag. In other words, since there is no way to open up the Elephant Foot bag, any part that was over me was automatically double the thickness. Also, the bag is not very wide, so when laid across me it did not droop down across my legs. This made me feel weird as I like to be covered up. Even at home I at least keep a thin cover on all the time.
So I am back to the same suggestion I made in the previous update for making a great sleeping system even better, which would be to add a zipper down the top center of the bag. I do understand that this would add a little weight to the bag but to me it would add so much versatility that it would be worth it. I also understand the heat rises so there might be times when the zippered part would need to be rotated over to the side, almost but not under the sleeper where it might be uncomfortable. And since there is no hood on the bag it really is not important which side is up.
One thing I have not discussed much is just how much freedom of movement this sleeping system allows. And by that, I mean how I have been able to twist and turn at will during the night. This is important from the standpoint that I often like to look out either side of my hammock during the night. Previous experiences taught me that this is pretty difficult when zipped up inside a full mummy bag. I will say that the bag is a little confining as far as being able to spread my knees or feet apart but that is pretty much the nature of small lightweight sleeping bags and overall I was able to move around a lot more freely in this setup than in a typical mummy bag.
I would also like to comment on the durability of this bag since this is the last report. After using the bag a total of six nights I have not found anything even remotely hinting of a problem. When unpacking at the end of each trip I have looked for stray feathers that might indicate down leakage but so far have been rewarded with finding none. Of courses six nights is not really a lot of use but if there were going to be major problems I think they may have started showing up by now. And of course the zippers and such are still working fine..that was supposed to be funny in light of my complaint about the bag not having a zipper.
First of all, the Brooks Range Elephant Foot bag is an awesome solution for my needs when the temperatures called for a warm yet extremely light bag. I think the ideal range for my use was when temperatures were between 30 to 50 F. I never got the chance to find out for sure, but I think the small addition of extra thick socks or even down booties would have made the bag great down to at least 20 F, which is pretty amazing because when looking at the bag in its stuff sack it defies logic that it could be as warm as it is. The fact that I would prefer a model with a zipper that would enable me to use the bag over a broader temperature range does not take away from the fact that the Elephant Foot bag offers the most warmth per pound of any bag I have ever used. But to me the real benefit to the bag was the ability to get in and out of the bag while in my hammock. It really did make getting situated in my hammock much easier and also made the nature calls in the middle of the night an annoyance rather than a thing to dread. It is such a nice cool weather setup that I am almost ready for cold weather again.
I am from northeast Alabama where I spend a lot of my time divided among several hobbies that include backpacking and dayhiking, canoeing and kayaking, and just getting out enjoying nature.