The lake is a mirror smooth silver in the early dawn’s chill. Across the water the first rays are just peeking over a towering row of granite crags, their southern faces festooned with scattered, clinging patches of stubborn snow, like the cut off battalions of some long defeated winter. An occasional trout pierces the surface and collects its breakfast, a ripple in the silence, a ripple in the sylvan circle of life. A ripple in an ancient breathing rhythm somehow easier to feel than see.
You yawn, stretch, search for thoughts. But there’s only one. Urgent and uncompromising. Like a roar it comes forth:
“Coffee. Coffee now. Where the @#!& is the freaking coffee?!?”
Why? Because you slept like elk dung, Shakespeare.
It happens. But it doesn’t need to! There is no more critical component of outdoor gear than your sleeping bag. One must sleep well to feel well. NEMO Equipment makes some of the best sleeping bags in the world and anybody who’s spent a night in one will tell you the same. This guide is an in-depth look at one of the industry’s leaders in sleeping bag design where every detail has been fussed and fidgeted over until it’s perfect. I personally own and regularly use a NEMO Sonic 15 Regular (see below) and it’s the best sleeping bag I’ve ever had.
To help me to get a handle on the company’s design philosophy, I chatted with Lead Product Designer, Kurt Schnackenberg, for an insider’s view of what’s different about NEMO sleeping bags. Kurt is a sleeping bag guru, putting his Industrial Design degree from the University of Syracuse to work creating the some of the best bags in the world. When Kurt describes the elaborate lengths he and his colleagues go to to find every new and better way to design a product, he makes you feel like they’re planning the Moon Shot. I just want to sleep well in a bag that will last a few years, but for Kurt it’s where art and science meet at his design desk day in, day out.
Finding Your NEMO (Sleeping Bag)
For a company that only started to bring products to market in 2005, NEMO Equipment has leapt into the pantheon of elite outdoor brands fueled by an obsession for innovation and attention to detail. It’s a hard market space to succeed in, but a year rarely goes by anymore without NEMO winning a couple of big gear awards. Nevertheless, they are still a small New England company, working in a highly competitive industry, and I don’t think a lot of people really know how good their stuff is.
I didn’t prior to joining the LONECONE tribe. I knew they had bright colors, a modern aesthetic and interesting designs. But after picking through their sleeping bags up close one by one, I can now say with authority (authoritah!) that the NEMO difference is in the details: The materials, the design, and the no-holds-barred commitment to quality that will deliver again and again over the life of the product. There are very few brands out there putting this much effort into everything from baffle design, to waterproof foot boxes, to invisible zippers for no other reason than it will make their sleeping bag a better product.
Which NEMO Bag is Right for You?
Even though it’s been said a million times, choosing the right outdoor gear is always about tradeoffs. The ideal sleeping bag is four things: warm, light, comfortable and compressible. Actually, it’s five things, number five being cheap. But – you guessed it – the warmer, lighter, cozier and more compressible the sleeping bag, the more it’s going to cost.
The exact balance of these factors is an individual choice, but NEMO is always aiming at the high end of the spectrum. “We’re simply committed to making every part of the sleeping bag the best it can be at a price that’s reasonable. If there’s something that will make it a better product, that’s just what we do,” Kurt says.
We’ll break the NEMO bags down first by shape and then by fill, which is a little different than most guides. Usually the “which sleeping bag is best for you” conversation revolves around the tradeoffs between down vs. synthetic filled bags, but NEMO offers some unique shapes that address comfort in a new way. NEMO Spoon™ shaped bags give people who sleep on their sides or need more maneuvering space for their legs a great new option. For some of you, that’s probably going to have a more direct impact on your sleeping experience than anything else. But let’s start with NEMO’s big-time 4-season bags.
Mummy Shaped NEMO Sleeping Bags
At the apex of the NEMO lines are their best-of-everything all-weather bags, the Canon and the Sonic. These are traditional mummy-shaped, down-filled bags with the temperature ratings necessary for four-season use. Down still dominates as the fill of choice for most high-end sleeping bags due to its weight, unsurpassed compressibility and longevity of use. After all, if you’re going to drop $1000 on a -40 degree rated bag, it probably needs to last a long time.
Both the Canon and the Sonic use 850 “fill power” European goose down which is as light and as warm as it gets in the industry. Fill power (fp) is a measure of the down’s loft, which is the key to its ability to retain warmth and provide insulation. The higher the rating, the warmer and lighter the down. High quality downs of 700fp or greater are more difficult to harvest and in great demand worldwide, which is why they are more expensive. NEMO’s down sources are all “responsible down” certified, so that adds some cost as well, but it’s the right thing to do. Happy birds make happy down! There are a few bag makers out there using 900fp down fill, but it’s hard to determine what that really gets you in the end. Either way, these are superb sleeping bags that are going to provide decades of satisfying use.
Down fill, however, is about all that is “traditional” in the Canon and Sonic. The first design feature that jumps out right away are the zippered Thermo Gills™ running down each side. These let you regulate your comfort level by opening the gills to ventilate heat when things get a little toasty. It’s basically the sleeping bag equivalent of opening a window when the air gets stuffy. According to Kurt, “This is my favorite design innovation so far. It’s simple, it adds almost no weight, but it dramatically extends the comfort range of the bag. It’s exactly the kind of thing we try to come up with.” From personal experience I can tell you they really work! It makes a 15 degree bag quite comfortable well into the 40s and 50s. Hard to believe nobody came up with something so obvious before. It’s a great feature.
Then there is the baffle design. To achieve maximum warmth with minimal weight, both the Canon and the Sonic deploy vertical baffles that flow with your body shape for more rapid and uniform heat distribution. At first I thought they just made the bag look all Buck Rogers and space-agey (which they do), but actually the vertical baffles reduce the possibility of cold spots sometimes common with quilted row style baffles. Each baffle is then further segmented internally by Insotect Flow™ gates to keep the down all nice and even. Like I said, there’s a lot going on in NEMO sleeping bags.
The Canon, being the kind of bag you’d need to summit Everest or ski across Antarctica, is entirely waterproof with a strong 15 denier OSMO™ shell and breathable waterproof liner. The Sonic is only a little less so with a DWR treated nylon ripstop shell and a waterproof foot box. And the interiors? Buttery. In my conversation with Kurt, he described how they would look at dozens of possible materials for every feature and have the engineers test them all. But in the end, sometimes it would just come down to the hands-on feel that put a certain fabric over the top. “The interior of the bag is the contact point with the customer. Whatever else we do, that aspect has to be awesome.”
Kurt let me in on one last design feature in these bags that isn’t found anywhere in the literature. The waterproof foot boxes have a small additional layer of synthetic insulation in the midst of all the goose down to guarantee toasty uniform heat retention around the feet. The properties of the synthetic are such that when combined with down, just a thin layer eliminates cold feet in all but the iciest of toes. They came up with that after using thermal imaging on prototypes to spot heat loss. Science! And no cold spots! No 2:00AM wake ups to grope around for socks. Really great stuff.
Spoon™ Shaped NEMO Sleeping Bags
There are a lot of people who just can't get comfortable in a mummy shaped bag. The struggle is real. We've come to expect it, and many of us have gotten used to it, but it's all but impossible to duplicate all your favorite sleeping positions in a mummy bag. For those of you who need more room for your legs to maneuver, NEMO has a great solution. NEMO’s Spoon™ shaped sleeping bags give you significantly more room around the elbows and knees so you can sleep on your side more comfortably. Stretch stitching helps out even more. As I said above, one of the differentiators with NEMO sleeping bags is that you can now pick the perfect bag for you not just by its filling and features, but by its basic shape.
Down Spoon™ Shaped Bags
NEMO’s top 3-season bags, the Nocturne and Women’s specific Rhapsody, are packed with high-end features in both 15 and 30 degree rated versions. These bags feature 750fp down treated with Downtek™, a water repellent coating that helps keep the down dry. The Nocturne and Rhapsody are several ounces lighter than a similar rated Sonic in part because there’s less waterproof lining in the construction. The Downtek™ therefore provides an effective layer of defense in case things get wet.
Speaking of waterproofing, all Spoon™ shaped bags have DWR treated nylon shells with high water repellency. The Nocturne and Rhapsody, however, go a step further with a very nifty feature for down bags: A waterproof footbox. You may not do a lot of backpacking in the snow and rain where a fully waterproof bag is a necessity, but every time your bag rubs up against a tent wall, there’s good chance it’s going to get wet! An OSMO™ waterproof/breathable footbox eliminates this problem completely. Just like the Thermo Gills™, I'm surprised more bag makers don’t do this. It’s a straightforward solution to an old problem.
Both come with another distinctive NEMO feature: A luxurious blanket fold around the neck and an integrated pillow pocket. I personally use a NEMO Fillo Luxury as my camp pillow (SO worth it), but the pillow pocket gives all you clothing stuffers out there a super comfy option. A handy watch pocket with a slick invisible zipper keeps your watch and valuables close at hand.
Women’s Specific Bags: Are they really any different? All of NEMO's Spoon™ shaped bags come with a women's specific version. Several other bag makers do the same. But other than color scheme, what's the difference? Well, for NEMO, it means dimensions and measurements more inline with years of feedback from actual female campers. Better dimensions can save you weight with an overall smaller bag and keeps you warmer. It also means a little more insulation in the footbox area. So it’s not just a marketing ploy. NEMO strives to make the best gear possible and providing women specific sizes is right inline with their core mission.
Next up are the Salsa and Rhumba models using 650fp Downtek. The down has a little less fill power, and there’s no waterproof foot bed, but these are still superb high-end sleeping bags. They have all the other features and comforts of the higher priced NEMO sleeping bags at a little lower price point.
Hybrid Down/Synthetic Spoon™ Shaped Bags
To bring the price down on a high-performance bag without sacrificing quality, the Fusion and Aria add synthetic insulation to the mix for a unique hybrid fill solution. Both models use a proprietary hybrid mix of 550fp Downtek™ and Stratofiber™ synthetic insulation. Stratofiber™ is NEMO’s chosen formula for polyester staple fiber insulation optimized for a balance of warmth, loft and value. Synthetic insulation is generally heavier and less compressible than down, but has the advantage of maintaining its insulating properties when wet. It’s also quite a bit cheaper.
The Fusion and Aria combine the best of both fills by using Stratofiber™ on the bottom of the bag so that you have a dry and warm layer under the compression of your body, and a lofty comfortable layer of down on top. Both bags are still very lightweight with even the 20 degree versions only weighing about 2 ¾ lbs. NEMO’s signature blanket fold, pillow pocket and watch pockets are all included as well.
Synthetic Spoon™ Shaped Bags
Down is admittedly pricey. But for many, its advantages are well worth it. For others, synthetic insulation has really come along way in the last few years. Gone is its undeserved relegation to bargain-bin slumber party sleep sacks! Nor does NEMO bother making anything that’s not the best in the business. So if they make a synthetic sleeping bag, it’s going to be a world-class.
The Verve and Celesta models are 100% Stratofiber™ polyester fill to provide great value without sacrificing performance. Kurk describes how NEMO chose Stratofiber™ after a battery of performance tests identified it as the best combination of insulation, lightweight and compression. In fact, Kurk says that if money were no object, there are some synthetics out there that would “blow everything on the market away, lighter and warmer, including down.” So, when can we expect NEMO to release this super science wunderbäg, Kurk?!? #takemymoney
NEMO uses offset quilting to stack the top layer of baffles over the seams of the bottom layer to minimize heat loss through the stitching. Synthetic insulation also keeps you warm while wet, something that untreated down does not. A DWR ripstop Nylon shell, an oversized blanket fold, pillow pocket, adjustable hood, and watch pocket make this a feature rich bag at a much higher level of quality and performance than most synthetic bags on the market.
Rectangular NEMO Sleeping Bags
At first glance, you might think NEMO rectangular bags are just really nice car camping bags. True, their retro styling and NEMO’s tendency to use cute babies and kids in their product photography might give you that impression, BUT NOTHING COULD BE FURTHER FROM THE TRUTH. These are high-performance sleeping bags! They are just ridiculously roomy and comfy thanks their rectangular shape.
The “Grab and Go” rectangular bags are designed around an integrated sleeping pad that slides into a pad sleeve built into the bag. The pad then becomes the insulating layer against the ground, saving weight and bulk in the bag. Together the bag and pad become an luxurious camp futon nearly as roomy as a twin bed. Here at LONECONE there’s lively a debate whether this even counts as “camping” anymore, but anybody who’s lost a few nights sleep wriggling around on the lumpy ground isn’t going to complain. The rectangular NEMO sleeping bags come in all kinds of configurations.
Down Rectangular Bags
The Concerto and Strato Loft both boast 700fp Downtek™ insulation which makes them rated at 20 and 25 degrees respectively. Which is a serious sleeping bag. They pair perfectly with any NEMO 25 inch pad. These aren’t exactly thru-hiking bags, they’re too heavy for that, but they have waterproof footboxes, internal gear pouches and tons of glorious space so you can sleep just like you would at home. The Concerto has a built-in quilted mattress top for more cushion and an integrated sheet and Blanket Fold™ combo which makes it a very cozy abode from 20 to 80 degrees.
The Tango Solo and Tango Duo Slim actually could be thru-hiking bags by taking the integrated pad-and-bag concept in the opposite direction towards ultra lightweight. The Tango is rated to 30 degrees and weighs only 810 grams. It fits 20-25 inch pads, which for NEMO sleeping pads means just about another pound to pound and a half in weight. Throw up a tarp or combine with a bivy sack and now you're talking serious lightweight camping. The Duo Slim fits two for backcountry cuddling and/or space hogging (as the situation requires). Because nothing says love like sharing a sleeping bag for 3 months on the PCT.
Synthetic Rectangular Bags
The Mezzo Loft and Symphony series bags use Stratofiber™ synthetic fill to provide great value without sacrificing performance. Using the same “Grab and Go” concept as the Concerto and Strato Loft, these bags are packed with features including waterproof foot boxes, integrated pad sleeve, internal gear pouches, billowy Blanket Folds™ and more.
Both have Luxury models that provide even more interior space so you can sprawl shamelessly like never before. The Mezzo Loft Duo provides enough room for two. There is now no requirement to sleep poorly in the great outdoors! Enjoy your day more by getting a great night’s sleep.
Special NEMO Sleeping Bags
If it seems like this guide is really long, it is. NEMO has 18 models of sleeping bags, not counting any long, duo or luxury versions. Designing the perfect bag for your individual needs and goals is paramount to NEMO’s vision for itself. Two more options round out the 2016 NEMO collection.
The Moonwalk™ is designed for use directly on the ground. It has a waterproof tub all the way round the bag and an integrated pad sleeve tough enough to use with floorless shelters and tarps. Filled with 700fp Downtek™ it is rated to 30 degrees with a nice drawstring collar to seal in body heat in lower temps. The advantage here is the obvious weight savings on the shelter side. At 2.2 lbs, the Moonwalk™ seems ideal for bike trekking, thru-hiking or any other adventure where minimalism is the order of the day.
If you’re into minimalism, the Siren™ is the featherweight champion of the NEMO line. It's the Yellow Jersey wearer of the Tour de Lite. The Siren™ is more or less a 850fp down comforter with every stitch, fixture, tuck, and corner meticulously assembled for ultralite glory. As the lightest NEMO in the whole collection, it barely weighs 540 grams and can be packed to the size of nerf football. Technically, it's not even a sleeping bag in the purest sense, but more of a down quilt with fixtures and an optional lacing system that allows you wrap the bag around a variety of pads, the NEMO Tensor 20R being the ideal companion. A Siren and Tensor 20R paired together weighs just 2 lbs. For a 30 degree rated sleeping system, that’s as light as it gets.
If you made it all the way to end, THANK YOU! We hope it has been helpful. We love this brand and are confident you will too. Feel free to leave any questions in the comment section. Happy trails! #AdventureAnywhere