Every year, I like to recognize the piece of new gear that has had the greatest influence on my enjoyment of backpacking. This year’s winner is the Therm-a-Rest Alpine 35 Blanket (click for my review), a down quilt which I started using this May and have used on almost every overnight trip since.
Last year I was on the fence about switching from a sleeping bag to a quilt (see the Tentative Quilter.) I was worried that I’d miss the added security of bottom and top insulation and warmth provided by a mummy style hood. But, I decided I’d ask Therm-a-Rest to send me an Alpine 35 Blanket to try, just the same. I had no idea how profoundly it would alter my sleeping insulation preferences then.
As a side sleeper, I’ve had my share of troubles over the years getting comfortable in mummy style sleeping bags which let’s face it, are designed for back sleepers. While the introduction of lightweight insulated inflatable mattresses like the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir vastly improved the comfort of side-sleeping backpackers and campers, there hasn’t really been a major corresponding design change in sleeping bags. Talk about a huge market opportunity: 61 percent of American are side sleepers.
I can still remember the first night I slept with the Alpine 35 Blanket, on a cold rainy night in the Ethan Pond shelter on the New Hampshire Appalachian Trail. I combined it together with my Mountain Laurel Designs Superlight Bivy Sack (another Gear of the Year winner) and a NeoAir Xlite sleeping pad. I got to sleep immediately in my natural side sleeping position and slept blissfully all night through. I also didn’t snore, something my shelter-mates appreciated, because I never rolled onto my back. It rained heavily that night and there would have been no place for them or me to go to escape the roar.
When I sleep with the Alpine 35 Blanket, I put my sleeping pad into the bivy sack and stuff the Alpine Blanket blanket between the two. Not only does the bivy sack keep me on the pad all night, but it eliminates any side drafts and probably adds a few degrees of warmth, as well. If I’m too warm, I simply pull the blanket to the side and use the top of my bivy like a sheet.
As a side sleeper, sleeping with the Therm-a-Rest Alpine Blanket is very similar to sleeping with a down comforter, except for the fact that it has an elasticized foot box and down filled baffles running down the sides to eliminate drafts. With 700 fill power down and a 20D nylon shell, the Blanket compresses down to a small package only weighing 1 pound 5 ounces. While not as lightweight as the quilts made by some cottage manufacturers who use 850 or even 950 fill power down, the Alpine Blanket is only a few ounces heavier and significantly less expensive. It’s also 8 ounces lighter than my high-end ultralight sleeping bag and compresses down much smaller giving me the flexibility to use an even lighter and lower volume backpack.
In addition to traditional tarp and bivy style camping, Therm-a-Rest has also developed other ways to use the Alpine 35 Blanket that are more appealing to mainstream base camp and car campers, such as the ability to secure the Blanket to a sleeping pad or a fitted sheet that covers a sleeping pad. I think these options are a clever way to make quilts “safe and comfortable” for the mainstream and to speed their adoption over the “mummy bag status quo.” For more details on how these modular snap systems work, watch this Therm-a-Rest sleep system video.
People are often surprised when I tell them that my favorite thing about backpacking is sleeping well. Especially, since so many people don’t sleep well outdoors. I can honestly say that the Therm-a-Rest Alpine 35 Blanket redefined my perception of 3 season sleep system comfort this year and recommend that you give it a try if you’re a side sleeper or have never quite felt comfortable sleeping in a mummy bag.
Disclosure: Philip Werner received a Therm-a-Rest Alpine 35 Blanket from Cascade Designs for review.