Favorite Gear: Western Mountaineering Highlight Sleeping Bag
Tester: George "Laughingman" Cole
One of my first "ultralight" purchases, made pretty much on the strength of a review posted on the Lightweight Gearshop website (http://www.backpacking.net/gearbag2.html#highlite), was the Western Mountaineering Highlight sleeping bag. However, I wasn’t comfortable with this purchase. Even though the review was glowing and I had long recognized Western Mountaineering to be the Rolls Royce of sleeping bags, I had trouble believing that anyone could make a bag that weighs a pound, much less one that could keep me warm in 40 degree weather. So, I ordered the Highlight from Only the Lightest (http://www.hikelight.com), as this on-line dealer has a 30-day-no-questions-asked return policy.
Waiting for mail order gear to arrive is my middle-aged equivalent of the week before Christmas. I even call my UPS man Kris. This time, however, the small cardboard shipping container that finally got left on my stoop felt like it was empty. For a moment I thought, "It’s happened, the ultimate mail order ripoff." But, when I opened the box I found a firmly packed stuffsack, not much larger than a football, that was clearly labeled Western Mountaineering, and out of this sack bloomed a shiny burgundy full-size sleeping bag. I was still dubious, however, because the bag was so light that when I flapped it in the air to fluff it up it almost floated. I knew it would be too fragile to last more than a season.
That was nearly four years ago. Since then I have used the bag on dozens of occasions. In fact, until I made the Hennessy Hammock my primary solo shelter and added a pad pocket to a RAB Top Bag to make it suitable for sleeping in a hammock, I used the Highlight every time I went out – Summer, Spring or Fall. In the Summer I found it perfect by itself. I never felt too warm in it. And, while it is nominally rated at 40 degrees, I’ve used it in a tent without clothing or liner in 36 degree weather, although I can’t say I was toasty in those conditions. However, wearing silkweight stretch Patagonia underwear and Polartec 100 fleece jacket, pants, socks and gloves I’ve slept very comfortably when the temperature inside a one-person tent was 24 degrees. I’ve also substituted a vapor barrier suit for the underwear and clothing and slept comfortably into the mid to high twenties. These days I use the bag in Summer, Spring and Fall when I sleep in shelters or a tent. It also serves as a Winter liner bag in my Feathered Friends Great Auk.
Because I almost always use a silk bag liner when I know I won’t need to sleep in clothing, I’ve only had to wash the bag once, and it lofts as high and looks as good today as the first time it floated out of its stuff sack. Although I’m careful with my gear, the Highlight has proved as durable as any bag I’ve owned in forty years, except for that 1950s issue 11 pound Canadian military surplus vulcanized canvas bag that introduced me to vapor barriers. But, alas, my Highlight doesn’t weigh a pound. It weighs a bit less than 18 ounces.
My bag is constructed out of a nylon taffeta fabric (current Highlights appear to use a ripstop fabric) that can’t weigh much more than 1 to 1 ½ ounces a yard. As flimsy as it appears, this fabric has proved very strong, and I no longer treat it as if it were rice paper. Moreover, the weave of the fabric is so tight that when I pour water into a small depression all I get is a puddle of water. Even after a minute or so there is no incursion of moisture into the down, and after the water is poured off the fabric doesn’t feel damp or show a moisture stain. On several occasions I’ve slept in a cold rain in my Stephenson 2R with a friend and my dog and a lot of wet gear. A substantial amount of condensation has collected on the walls of the tent, and the outer fabric, especially on the foot of the bag, has stayed wet all night. However, I’ve not noticed any dampness inside the bag that I couldn’t attribute to perspiration, and the down has appeared to stay as dry as it does in dry conditions.
The 775 fill power down is held in place with square stitched-through baffles. Even when sleeping with no clothing in sub 40 degree weather I have not noticed any drafts, so the baffle stitching must be very tight. It is also very even and has never shown any wear or tendency to pull, even in high stress areas. Occasionally a down feather seems to work it’s way free, but this happens rarely. Fully fluffed, the bag lofts at 5 inches, giving an effective over-body loft of 2 ½ inches.
My regular size Highlight’s interior length is about 71 inches, measured from the foot box seam to the bag opening. With the hood completely uncinched and layed flat the length is 84 inches, measured from the foot box seam to the hood top seam. I am 5’9" tall, and with the hood cinched tight around my face I have several inches of room at the foot of the bag. Cinching the hood is accomplished with a single non-stretch cord secured by a barrel lock on the right side of the bag
The interior girth of the round footbox is about 36 inches. Girth at the hips is 56 inches. At the shoulders the girth is 60 inches. My shoulder-chest girth is 49 inches, my waist is 33," my hips are 36," and the bag fits like it was made for me. During the night I sleep on both my back and my side and I’ve never had the bag bunch up or develop a cold spot due to being too tight.
My bag has a 35" # 5 half zipper with inner and outer pulls on the left side, although it can be ordered with a right-side zipper. My only beef with the Highlight is that this zipper separates at the bottom. Before I stitched the zipper tracks together so that the bottom doesn’t separate it could be a real pain to align the tracks and get the zipper started from inside the bag. Other than that, however, this bag has proved that it is worth every bit of the $200 I paid for it. I may even ask to be buried in it.