When it comes to gear reviews, nothing replaces real world use. You can’t expect to learn much from someone who starts writing before they open the box and is done soon after. Every item needs to be taken out into the world so you can determine its limits and how well it holds up while doing the things you go out there to do.
That being said, I think backyard testing also plays an important role and I think that is true for everyone, not just reviewers. Being familiar with how things work before you go is just common sense, yet every year a lot of folks head out into the woods with a new tent, stove, or other item they have never used before. The stories I read about the first few overnight spots along the AT and the tales of misadventure folks get into with unfamiliar gear there both amuse and frighten me. It just seems outrageous to begin a 2000 mile hike without at least trying things out once, but apparently it is somewhat common.
I find backyard testing to be especially useful for trying out various sleep system setups. The time to find out that something isn’t right is at home rather than out on the trail. Most of the year it is just about comfort, but for cold weather camping survival is also a factor. Plenty of other gear such as water purification and food supply fall into that category year round. The folks on the AT have the benefit of being in contact with other people who can be pretty helpful and that may be why so many feel comfortable heading out basically unprepared. Where I go I may not see anyone for days if things go well so I don’t pretend someone will save me from my foolishness.
That brings me to last night’s backyard test to see just how good this new over quilt really is when it gets cold. I set up the tent and bedding early to make sure everything was at ambient temperature before I headed out for the night. It was just dipping past 0°f when I peeled down to fleece sleep layers and crawled under the quilts to read by lantern light for a few hours.
Unlike a mummy bag a quilt leaves your head to defend itself from the cold. In really cold weather like this I sleep in a fur lined Mad Bomber with a balaclava underneath. Last night I tried out a new polypropylene one which was light enough to breath through yet provided enough vapor barrier that I didn’t have any frost on the top of my hat in the morning.
Underneath I had two Therm-a-Rest pads, a Trail Pro and a Neoair Xlite. Above I had the Ventra 40°f down quilt with the new EE Prodigy 20°f on top. One other new addition for this test was on my hands which are usually an issue for me. I recently picked up some military ECWCS mitts and discovered the removable liner mitts might make for good sleepwear so long as they were dry at the end of the day.
The sleeping was pretty good for most of the night. I had to step out of the tent a few times which definitely was an eye opener, but was able to get the quilts warmed up again each time. An hour or so before dawn I woke up and could feel the cold. Temperatures by this point had dropped towards -15°f and rearranging the bedding wasn’t doing the trick.
I admitted that I’d found the limits of this new quilt combo and started reaching for insulation fast. First I pulled on a puffy jacket and then the nano puff pants. Crawling back under the quilts I could feel my body was making some headway as it warmed up the new layers, but it wasn’t enough. With cold you want to stay ahead of the game. Once you get behind catching up is difficult. In the wild I would have popped a chemical hand warmer at this point, but since I had the option I pulled the plug on this test.
Based on this test I now know that I don’t need extra insulation to go a little below zero, but if I’m going a lot below zero I should wear more to bed. Finding that out via a backyard test meant I could go inside the house, toss some wood on the fire and ponder my new found wisdom from under a blanket on the couch. Doing that same research in the wilds probably wouldn’t have killed me, but it certainly wouldn’t have ended with Mrs Stranger making me heart shaped pancakes for breakfast. Another of the benefits of backyard testing!
Whether you are an old hand picking up a new bit of kit or you are just getting started with an entire caboodle of unfamiliar gear it is worth spending a little time getting to know just what you’ve got. If you’re going to have problems close to home is always better than somewhere on the path less traveled by