I’m a minimalist, I think… well at least the last two years have been a neverending onslaught on all my possessions, commitments, and any other complications in life, trying to cut right back to the real me and find out how simple life can become. Doesn’t mean I’ll always live like this, but I think it’s a healthy exercise, and when it’s complete I’ll be able to think much more critically about whether I ever want to go back to being more complicated in any way.
About 21 months ago I decided to give loads of stuff away and move out of my rented flat to live in a tent. About 15 months ago I decided to give up the tent and sleep in a bivvy bag instead. This has been my sleeping arrangement since then for cold Winter nights:
You can’t quite see everything in these photos but I would sleep in my thermal base layer clothing, inside a silk liner (white) inside a fleece liner (black) inside a down sleeping bag (red) on a closed-cell foam mat (blue) on an inflatable mat (red) all inside a waterproof windproof breathable bivvy bag (black). Yes that’s four bags and two mats – what kept me all warm and cosy down to temperatures of -6 Celsius in my experiments last Winter. Of course that was quite a bulky bunch of stuff to carry around, but my bike made light work of it:
In warmer months I reduced this to three bags and one mat – the silk liner to keep the Marmot Atom down sleeping bag clean, the Thermarest Prolite self-inflating mattress, and an Alpkit Hunka XL bivvy bag to keep it all clean and dry from the outside and provide a wind break.
This works fine. I kept it all rolled up in the order you see above so that when I wanted to sleep I just rolled it out with a flick of the wrist and all I had to do was give the self-inflating mattress a couple of puffs to finish it off, then get in bed. I love the simplicity of it, like on the dry night in the photo above when I just rolled my bed out on a tennis court in Maidenhead.
The only issue is that a down sleeping bag needs some looking after. The manufacturers write: “do not store compressed – allow to loft when not in use.” I think they write these instructions for people who live in houses and only use their sleeping bags for little weekend adventures or occasional week-long expeditions. In contrast the outdoors is a lifestyle for me, which means that I need to squash my sleeping bag and pack it tightly every day, all day, most days of the year. I noticed after a few months that my sleeping bag was not as puffy and warm as before. Washing and tumble-drying restored it to its former glory, but this is extremely laborious and a bit costly to do properly.
It’s important to ensure that moisture never builds up inside a down sleeping bag because it will cause the down to scrunch up causing loss of insulation and odours. So I have to make a point of hanging it out to air every morning, and even if I’m staying over with friends or family I have to unpack it and let it loft.
It’s not a major chore – on warm dry mornings like the one on the tennis court I brushed my teeth while the bags were airing. In Winter or wet weather I would drape the sleeping bag over a chair in a cafe or at a client’s house.
In addition I always carried a synthetic-fill jacket made by Rab Carrington which stuffs neatly into its own chest pocket so I can use it as a pillow. It’s not supposed to be waterproof but it has a hydrophobic coating on the outside so it shrugs off a light shower and the synthetic insulating fill (called Primaloft, developed by the US military) doesn’t hold much water – if it does get wet it still insulates you a bit and dries quickly without loosing its loft and form. On really cold nights I could wear this pullover inside my sleeping bag. It has kept me very warm despite a year of abuse.
All this stuff works well so why experiment any further? Well, there are three main motivations. The first is to make my pack smaller and lighter, making it easier to sling over my shoulder or cycle up a hill. If you carry all of your possessions everywhere you go, every day of the year, you quickly tire of them if they’re heavier than necessary. I dream of carrying such a light pack that I could go out for a run with it on my back and not really notice that it’s there. That way I won’t need to hide my bag in a bush every time I go for a run. Secondly having less stuff means less stress – less that could be stolen, damaged, less items that need maintenance and repair, and less stuff to rummage through everytime I want to get something out of my bag. And finally, being content with next to nothing is better for my wallet, my mental health, and the environment.
And there’s another objective. So far I’ve been learning how to sleep outdoors in all kinds of British weather but I’ve been relying on heated buildings to hang out in during the day. I’ve been carrying enough insultion to keep me warm all night, but it’s useless during the day because it’s awkward to sit let alone walk around or cycle when I’m inside my sleeping bag. So during the daytime it’s just dead weight.
Even in the Winter there’s no problem with this because there are plenty of warm places to hang out during the daytime here in London. When I’m at work I get warm shelter and mugs of tea, and after work I can lounge in pubs or cafés with some of the money I’ve earned, or in a multitude of free public places like the Barbican Centre, the Southbank Centre, museums, or one of London’s main train stations. Or I can visit friends. If I didn’t have any work in the Winter and couldn’t afford to hang out in pubs and cafés I would go south, a long way south until it’s always sunny and the Winters are warm. Like Malta or Sicily or Greece, where I could enjoy the beach day and night and only spend the bare minimum on food.
So the logic is that in the cold northern cities there’s work and money therefore plenty of shelter, whereas down in the tropics there might not be so much money but it doesn’t matter because I don’t need it – outdoors is plenty warm enough.
I’ve got plenty of work here in London – in fact Winter is the most busy season for piano tuning because everyone cranks up their central heating which dries the wood out causing all sorts of problems. I already know that I can sleep really warm in temperatures as low as -6 Celsius but so far I haven’t been carrying enough insulation to be able to stroll around and sit down outdoors in those kinds of temperatures without eventually feeling cold.
I’m curious to find out how much insulation I need to carry to be able to do this. It’s more inspiring to walk and think or sit and read in the dim, atmospheric light by the River Thames at night, admiring the relections of London life, than it is to be forced to sit in a crowded pub or cafe with music that’s not to my taste. I find the train stations interesting places to spend time but they can get chilly and they’re not as peaceful and relaxing as the riverside.
Why carry a Winterweight sleeping bag that I don’t use all day plus Winterweight clothing that I don’t use all night? Couldn’t there be a way of combining the two? If there’s anything more simple and lightweight than travelling with and caring for a sleeping bag, it’s not having one at all… but is that possible?
I read about lightweight backpackers who only carry a Summerweight sleeping bag in the Winter but wear their clothes inside it to boost the temperature rating. In contrast others said that they do carry a Winterweight sleeping bag as they only like to wear pyjamas or base layers inside their sleeping bags because they find clothes too restrictive at night. The reasoning is that if you sleep fully clothed the elastic hems can restrict your blood flow, and also because the warmth of the warmest parts of your body is less able to warm up the inside of a sleeping bag and spread to your colder extremities. The heat from your core needs to be able to spread freely to your hands and feet, and it does this both inside your body through your circulatory system and outside your body by heating up the inside of your sleeping bag. The critics of sleeping fully clothed believe that wearing too much clothing to bed prevents this from happening efficiently.
So my initial reaction was to dismiss the idea, instead I planned on getting a really warm puffy Winterweight sleeping bag made up for me by Peter Hutchkinson Designs (PHD) in Cheshire. Peter Hutchinson has been at the top of the game for decades in the custom design and manufacture of outdoors gear for major expeditions to the Arctic and the highest mountain ranges. His company called Mountain Equipment grew really big and he became more of a businessman than an expedition-wear designer, which he didn’t like, so he sold that and now he has a small specialist team in an old mill in Cheshire who make down clothing and sleeping bags to order under their own label: PHD. They’re famous for having the highest warmth to weight ratio down clothing in the world.
To compliment the sleeping bag I wanted to upgrade my sleeping mattress. Since I started sleeping outdoors I had been using the Thermarest Prolite self-inflating mat, made in Ireland for the North American company Cascade Designs, which is only rated for three-season use. It’s been great in the warmer months because the foam inside it expands so it inflates itself – all you have to do is give it a couple of puffs to finish it off, which means you can roll your bed out anywhere and be asleep in no time.
Last Winter I boosted the insulation with a closed-cell foam mat placed on top of it, which made it very warm indeed, but altogether this was quite a bulky and heavy solution.
I had found the best Winter sleeping mat but it wasn’t available yet, until this year, when I finally got my hands on the ultimate Winter mat that is miles ahead of the competition: the Thermarest Neo-Air Xtherm.
At £120 a pop, what makes it so special? Well I hope it doesn’t pop that’s for sure! It has the highest warmth to weight ratio of any commercially available sleeping mat in the world. It inflates to 2.5 inches thick and has four reflective barriers and lots of air pockets inside. This insulates the body from heat loss in three ways. Like any air mat there is less conduction because air is a poor thermal conductor. Therefore (within a certain range) a thicker mat will insulate better than a thinner one. But in addition, the matrix of air pockets inside the mat also prevents convection – the movement of warm air away from your body where it could swap with the cold air on the other side of the mattress. And finally the four foil barriers reflect your natural infra-red radiation back into your body, preventing heat loss by radiation. The end result is that, according to Cascade Designs, the Xtherm has an insulation value more than two-and-a-half times greater than that of my old Prolite, but amazingly it still weighs about the same. It packs much smaller too – my Prolite is on the left and my new Xtherm is on the right – it’s about the size of a two pint plastic milk bottle.
I went from a 183 cm regular size Prolite weighing 460 g to a 168 cm medium sized Xtherm weighing 410 g. The difference in weight and bulk can mainly be attributed to the foam inside the Prolite that expands to inflate it. The Xtherm doesn’t have this so you have to inflate it entirely with your lungs or an inflation sack, and at 2.5 inches thick this could take a lot of blowing. Although I am 188 cm tall I got the 168 cm Xtherm because I decided that I didn’t need any insulation under my head because I can use my clothing for a pillow.
It sounds pretty high-tech for a sleeping mat, but the reviews were good so I bought one.
Now in possession of such a warm, insulating mattress I began to ask myself: why is sleeping bag insulation so thick all the way around? After all, the down insulation that’s on the bottom of the bag gets squashed flat when you lie on it, so it doesn’t provide much insulation, and with a sleeping mat as warm as the Xtherm I only need insulation on the top.
I read about ‘top bags’ on the internet – sleeping bags with down insulation on the top side but only a thin fabric liner on the bottom. I also noticed that quilts are becoming increasingly popular amongst ultralight backpackers for the very same reason. They’re basically just like a flat duvet instead of a bag but they’re still filled with high quality goose down, and some of them are shaped to fit the body to save the weight of the unused corners of a rectangular quilt. They normally have straps to wrap around the sleeping mat for a close fit, and offer more versatility in varied weather because you can pull the quilt loosely over half of your body if it’s too warm to be completely wrapped in it.
I even found some quilts that are made to fit sleeping mats – they have a sleeve into which the mat is secured so that you sleep snugly wrapped between the quilt and the mat with no gaps for warm air to escape. I thought about getting PHD to make me a quilt that will fit the Xtherm exactly.
But what about insulation for walking around and sitting down outdoors in freezing weather? What about finding a combination that will work both for that and for sleeping in? There were some amusing ideas circulating on the internet:
These combination suits don’t look all that convenient to wear except when walking around a campsite in the morning – the problem is that I never sleep in a campsite, I just sleep in a corner of the city and as soon as I wake up I whizz off to a café or to work. I’d rather carry more versatile clothes that can be separated top and bottom.
And if I go for the custom-made quilt I have no doubt that I’ll sleep toasty warm in the depths of Winter. But I’ll never find out whether life could have been even more simple – whether I could just sleep fully clothed with no quilt or sleeping bag. I decided that despite having read a few comments about it not being a good idea, I should try it first. So I bought some clothes from PHD:
It’s the Ultra Down Pullover plus clip-on hood, the Ultra Down Vest and the Minimus Trousers, the warmest, lightest down clothing in the world, hand made for me in Cheshire. I’ve never experienced such a high level of service as that of PHD; they normally make everything to order within twenty days but they happened to have the extra-large trousers in stock which I ordered together with the large pullover, so I asked if they could send the trousers first and the pullover later when it was ready because I was off to London and could use the trousers in conjunction with my old jacket for my first bagless experiment. I mentioned that it was getting cold outside. Instead of replying with an email, they replied two days later with a package – it contained the trousers and the pullover, hand made for me in just two days! The XL trousers were far to big, designed to be put on over whatever trousers you happen to be wearing when you start feeling chilly. I also noticed that although it was the right length, there was quite a bit of space under the pullover so I ordered a down vest and send the trousers back for medium sized ones (which fitted fine). The idea is that I can wear the vest alone in cool weather, the pullover alone in colder weather, then in freezing weather or for sleeping I can wear them both plus the trousers. I the above photo the medium sized vest fits snugly under the large sized pullover. And here’s the vest worn on it’s own:
I’ve never worn an insulated vest before but I think it makes sense – I never insulate my legs as much as my torso so do I really need to insulate my arms so much?
Altogether the purchase of these three garments wasn’t cheap – £540 in total. But I payed more than that every month in London rent for many years, and after many months of paying it, the room still wasn’t mine and I had to leave it. However these clothes will be mine for the rest of my life, and I’ll use them every day to keep me warm. Of course you could probably get the full set elsewhere for less than £150 and be equally as warm, they’ll just be more bulky and heavier to carry around, and they certainly won’t be made in England! I consider it worth the extra money to get the highest warmth/weight ratio so that I can travel fast and light. When you carry the same bag every day of your life it starts to make sense – living outdoors with minimal posessions, this is the most important thing you have to spend money on.
The clothes contain 900 fill power goose down from old free-range European birds, the most springy lofty goose feathers you can get. ‘900 fill power’ means that one ounce of the stuff will expand to fill 900 cubic inches – this is the highest rating you can get anywhere. Consequently the puffy garments can be squashed into a small space in my pack – I mean really small: I managed to squeeze the trousers, vest and pullover all into a four-litre stuff sack.
But I decided not to store them so squashed and instead let them loft a bit inside a bigger bag.
Up until this point it was all theory. But would it work in practise? Could I sleep outdoors in London in the Winter with no sleeping bag? With perfect timing I’ve come back to London at the beginning of November, a great opportunity to test sleeping arrangements as the city gradually gets colder.
The first night outdoors in London I was in at the deep end – temperatures went down to +2 Celsius, three degrees colder than average for the time of year. Without the sleeping bag I really was travelling light – the bivvy and the new mat fit together inside the mat’s inflation/stuff sack. The black nozzle connects to the inflation valve of the Xtherm mat.
As you can see I was back at my favourite sleeping spot in Battersea Park – the Peace Pagoda monument: a room with a view. Inflating the mat was a real chore – the inflation sack that came with the Xtherm must only have a capacity of about eight litres, and I had to keep on squashing the air in for what seemed like an eternity.
One and a half hours later I was still squashing air into the mat! By this point I had made myself comfortable and was listening to some music. I swear that inflation bag must be leaking somewhere – I must find a bigger one or something.
Notwithstanding I was happy because after two hours lounging outdoors in all the down clothing I still felt as warm as toast. This was what I had wanted – but would I sleep warm too?
Finally I got to sleep, wearing my ‘Michelin Man joins the Dark Side’ down suit, on the luxuriously thick Xtherm sleeping mat inside my trusty Alpkit bivvy bag. I was warm from underneath, the mat was doing a great job, but I felt a slight chill from above. However it was the wee hours of the morning and I had stayed up so late without eating that I don’t feel it was a fair trial. I concluded that I needed to try a few more nights.
Another thing I had wondered about was what to use as a pillow. When I slept in a sleeping bag I used my jacket which stuffs into its own pocket, but now I was wearing all my clothes at night and the new mattress was twice as thick, so I needed to find a really fat pillow. I had purposefully chosen a 168 cm long mat, 20 cm shorter than me, in the belief that I’d be using a pillow. Nonetheless if the last 18 months of lifestyle experiments has taught me anything it’s that one can suddenly become much more resourceful when the need arises, so I decided to just try it and work something out. As it turned out my bag proved adequate. Since I was wearing all my down clothing and my pair of woolly socks the bag only contained my piano tuning tools, phone charger, and a couple of other bits and bobs but I put my high-vis cycle jersey inside to cushion it a little, and that worked fine. (It’s a new bag, my luggage system has changed and I’ll write about that another day.)
I slept ok, and enjoyed the view of the Thames at sunrise:
If you’ve been following my blog you’ll know that I often get rudely awakened at this sleeping spot by angry Buddhist monks who turf me off their religious monument. But I reasoned that it would still be dark at the time they nomally come and do their little dance and being freezing cold I didn’t think they’d be dedicated enough to come out this morning. In addition the monks are very short and have to pull themselves up to have a look at the top platform where I climb up to sleep – I hadn’t been sleeping here for a few months – so I assumed that after they saw no one for a few weeks they wouldn’t bother checking any more. I was wrong…
The usual little fellow came along dressed in his usual bright red tunic and sandals – I could hear him approaching from afar banging his drum. And what was the first thing he did when he arrived? Pull himself up to check whether anyone’s sleeping on top of the monument! I can’t put his shouting into writing, it was so loud, so angry and quite unnerving, but he didn’t seem to be saying any words in any known language, just short sharp shouts and screams. Fortunately for me he’s too short to climb up, so I pretended I was deaf and fast asleep and did not stir. He shouts grew ever louder and more frustrated as he jumped around – he was quite literally hopping mad! Then he continued banging his drum rhythmically to a chant: “Hoyoooyoooyoo hoyoooyooyoo!”, dancing around the monument and every so often stopping to scream at me. I still didn’t flinch, and since my bivvy bag covers my face completely in cold weather he had no way of knowing if I was even alive. Eventually he disappeared.
From past experience I know that he’ll be back about half an hour later either with a friend and a ladder, or with the Parks Police. I think the Parks Police are tired of him now because it was the ladder last time. Anyway I took the opportunity to pack my stuff and leave in peace before anyone came back. I thought it would serve him right to make an hour round trip in the freezing cold in his sandals and carry a ladder back to Battersea Park only to find that I was no longer there. Goodness me, I thought Buddhists were gentle folk, and kind to those in need! This is about the fourth time he’s shouted his lungs out at me, it’s enough to put me off Buddhism for life! All I’m doing is sleeping – and as a gesture of gratitude I even clean up other people’s rubbish for them before I leave in the morning… when I used to be a Christian we never would have treated a rough sleeper like this, even if they were completely wasted! Maybe next time I should make a video of him and put it on YouTube so that the Dalai Lama can discipline him…
The following evening I discovered that the 24 hour Asda supermarket at Clapham Junction has 24 hour toilets and a cosy seating area inside the entrance. It even has a sheltered bike rack where I can leave my wheels overnight so that my saddle isn’t damp with dew in the morning.
In Asda I bought some 35 litre rubble sacks there and converted one of them into an inflation sack for my sleeping mat. The inflation nozzle that comes with the original stuff sack is designed to come apart easily and puncture any other bag to use it for inflation.
I made my bed in an alley by the side of a big Boots store.
The mat took less than a couple of minutes to inflate with the rubble sack – I was relieved that this super-warm mattress would be practical to use after all. It’s a rough little corner of town but only one person approached me during the night – a big black man loomed out of the darkness and said:
“Are you alright?”
“Yeh, fine thanks,” I replied.
“Do you want some buns?” He gave me a pack of six Asda bread rolls, wished me well and went on his way.
That pretty much sums up the extent of ‘trouble’ I get sleeping ‘rough’. It seems there are a lot of kind people in London…
In the morning a few people took a shortcut through the alley to get to Asda, only about 20% of them returned my cheerful ‘good morning’ greeting. I think it was something to do with me wearing a balaclava and having a bed outdoors in the city. After I took the balaclava off and packed my bed away, I got a lot more cheerful good mornings from the old ladies. I went back into Asda and bought some brie cheese which went down very well with the bread rolls I had been given.
It had been a much warmer night outdoors – about 8 degrees Celsius – so of course I slept very warm and cosy in my down suit.
I love the simplicity of wearing all my down insulation as clothing instead of a sleeping bag- no more chilly moments getting changed and getting in and out of bed. Getting up in the night to pee is no longer a chore. And I feel secure in the knowledge that regardless what temperature it falls to, a bit of walking around in such a heavily insulated state will always warm me up.
The latest experiment has begun well, but I won’t be satisfied until this new strategy proves itself in temperatures of around -5 degrees Celsius which is about the coldest it ever gets in London. It’ll be December soon…