The Alpinist Mountain Standards reviews apply Alpinist's tradition of excellence and authenticity to gear reviews by providing unbiased, candid feedback and anecdotal commentary to equipment tested (hard) in the field. Our panel is comprised of climbers who use the gear every day as part of their work and play. Only the gear they would actually buy themselves, at retail price, qualifies for the Alpinist Mountain Standards award. The five-star rating system is as follows:
One Star = Piece of junk.
Two Stars = Has one or more significant flaws, with some redeeming qualities.
Three Stars = Average. This solid piece of gear is middle-of-the-road on the current market.
Four Stars = Better than most comparable gear on the market. It has one or two drawbacks, but still 90% positive.
Five Stars = Is there such thing as perfection? An Alpinist Mountain Standards award-winner.
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Marmot Helium MemBrain Sleeping Bag: Old Faithful
Posted on: January 25, 2011
MSRP: $439 (regular); $459 (long)
Marmot has always excelled at making sleeping bags. I bought my first Marmot bag in 1985 when the company was called Marmot Mountain Works and I needed a lightweight bag for climbing, hiking, and bike touring. It provided me with 15 years of hard service before an undignified cremation in a hot commercial dryer near J-Tree. At the time I was attempting to dry the bag quickly after large canned tuna and cheap red wine meal made a forced exit in the middle of the previous night's open bivy.
Last summer I returned to my old ways by testing out Marmot's Helium sleeping bag. Initially no features jumped out as being unique or innovative. Even the navy blue color and a retro white zipper were unmemorable. In a seven-month period I logged 100-plus days in the Helium in a wide variety of situations: spring snow storms on Mt. Rainier, trekking in India, bivouacs in the North Cascades and more than a few nights in the guide lounge and my VW van. Thinking back on all those trips I can't recall a single instance where the bag let me down in any way.
Over the years I have become used to having many different bags to choose from, making sure to balance the need to stay warm with the need to carry the smallest, lightest pack possible. Professional climbers and intrepid yuppies can swing a different bag for every situation, but most folks need to find one that will do it all. I've learned that if I'm only going to own one sleeping bag, it should be a 20-degree model. Twenty degrees is just warm enough to stretch into winter tent camping, yet not so warm that it becomes hot while alpine climbing in the summer. The Helium rated a few degrees warmer, but I found the extra warmth to be cheap insurance in the cooler shoulder seasons. The Helium's materials—850-fill down enclosed in high-tech fabric—give it the weight of a typical 20-degree bag.
I appreciate that the Helium only contains features that are necessary for ease of use and comfort. The zipper moves nicely, never seeming to snag on the bags fabric and never allowing a draft to sneak in. The hood closes snugly around my face and has no interior collar so it requires just one draw cord. The waterproof-breathable MemBrain fabric does what it is expected to do: let moist air out, but not let water in during limited contact with a damp tent wall.
The Helium compresses well, and the cut of the bag is roomy enough to be comfortable but close fitting enough to minimize air space. My Helium is a left-zip and long, which fits people as tall as 6 feet 6 inches. Even though I am 5'11", I appreciated the extra room at my feet to stash damp socks or an extra layer. The long bag weighs 2 lbs 9 oz while the regular weighs four ounces less. Not insignificantly, the stuff sack that comes with the bag has held together well, is appropriately sized and is easy to stuff the bag into. As the stuff sack is not a compression sack, I usually cram in an extra pair of socks to maximize space in my pack.
The simplicity of using the Helium won me over in the end. Each night my routine is simple: un-stuff the bag, crawl in, pull a cord, zip a zipper and fall asleep. The Helium is reliable, durable, elegant, and practical. After a testing it for so long in the field, it is the first thing that comes to mind when customers ask for advice on which bag to buy for summer climbs in the North Cascades, or even a winter bag for lightweight ski tours.
Pros: zippers don't snag; tailored cut makes the bag warm and comfortable; very compact.
Cons: $459 is pushing the envelope a bit for an all-around bag.