In the spring of 2017, Patagonia launched its down sleeping bags to much fanfare. Drawing on feedback from its impressive list of ambassadors, as well as a staff teaming with outdoor aficionados, Patagonia may have created one of the best lightweight cocoons ever made. So how did they do it?
To kick off a new series here at Mountain Life, we recently caught up with Casey Shaw, Patagonia‘s Manager of Advanced Research and Design, to get an inside look at the design and thought processes behind the product.
by Brian Peech
What are a few of the key design points you focused on when creating Patagonia’s line of sleeping bags?
First and foremost was the goal of building a truly baffled product, no “cheating.” What that meant is that none of our discerning customers could open up a bag, look inside, and say, “How come I can stick a chopstick through the corner between one chamber and the next chamber.” This may sound trite, but if you care about excellence, you tune your instrument before you go on stage. We also wanted to ensure that manufacturing our new technique was efficient and executable. You can only know this if you build products with your own hands. These are engineered products, not illustrated products. We wanted to avoid “Down Shift” (one of the deadly sins). When you build baffled chambers with a high aspect ratio (baffle spacing divided by baffle height), the down can shift viciously, leaving you with cold spots. This can happen with use and stuffing, it happens when you launder the bag, etc… Bad design in my opinion.
“We wanted to ensure that manufacturing our new technique was efficient and executable. You can only know this if you build products with your own hands. These are engineered products, not illustrated products.”
Tell us about the foot box.
We wanted to engineer a truly sculpted and differentially baffled foot box. All the bags I’ve used and seen (which should not imply every bag ever made) use a lining cut larger that the shell material. This is opposite of what manufacturer’s claim when they speak about the main body of the sleeping bag. Manufacturers love to wax poetic about the virtues of differential cut. If differential cut is so important to insulating you from cold soak, why is it summarily rejected when it comes to building the foot box of the sleeping bag? Because as it turns out, it is damn challenging to build a bag that when your feet splay out against the lining, you are also not touching the shell. Every bag I’ve used allows my feet to squash the down and touch the shell of the bag; I’ve had cold feet in many a bag, but no more.
Why the top zipper design?
We started the project from the perspective of alpine climbing; what does an alpinist need to be more effective in mountain situations? The center zip allows for tying in more easily; you can sit up and melt snow from your hanging stove while having the bag over your shoulders, and in some situations, you can vent more effectively. Not to mention it is very easy to operate the zipper (no reaching across the bag).
“These are details on the level of minutia, but these details are real. A boundary layer of air gets trapped and has beneficial effects, but that is a discussion best had with Scotch.”
What are the factors you consider when sourcing materials?
We wanted to have a durable material that would stand up to boots inside the sleeping bag, and still be very light weight. I also wanted a fabric that wasn’t as cold to the touch the way many bags are when you first get in them. These are details on the level of minutia, but these details are real. A boundary layer of air gets trapped and has beneficial effects, but that is a discussion best had with Scotch. Patagonia also has very strict standards for minimum strengths such as tear strength. Slightly lighter materials are available, but they tear incredibly easily. We have an impressive fabric lab that tests many aspects of material qualities; we don’t choose out of a book.
What should consumers look for when shopping for a sleeping bag specifically for hiking?
Informed customers are the ones most likely to end up with a product that best suits their needs. Hiking itself is a very open-ended idea: fast hiking, light hiking, family hiking, cold weather hiking, metabolic reality/awareness, knowledgeable fuel requirements, sweat quotient, all of these things affect choosing correctly. In short, pick the best tool for the job.
What are some for sleeping bag care?
-Be gentle with zippers.
-Don’t leave a bag in its stuff sac longer than necessary.
-Clean when necessary.
-High quality bags are pretty robust and should last a very long time.
This is the first season Patagonia has released sleeping bags. How did you ensure you got it right?
I’ll speak for myself so Patagonia is not on the line here: Have some pride in the pursuit of excellence. Anyone can choose to make low carbon steel bikes for Walmart, or they can take the time and learn how to weld beautiful seams with Titanium in an inert gas environment. Patagonia wasn’t interested in building another “good” sleeping bag; we were interested in building a better bag. We have the privilege of working with our ambassadors to keep us in the reality zone, and internally at Patagonia, we have passionate outdoor folks who have spent thousands of nights in sleeping bags. This user DNA is critical. Things look awesome under the fluorescent lights.
“For me, curiosity is the foundation of every idea that eventually nudges the bar a smidge higher for the next jump.”
Where do you get inspiration as a product designer?
This is a very personal question and I suspect you might never get two similar answers from designers. For me, curiosity is the foundation of every idea that eventually nudges the bar a smidge higher for the next jump. If one is not curious about the world and how things work, it is much more difficult to envision a better way to execute something. Throw in years of materials, construction and production knowledge and you now have a foundation. And how about years of actual field experience, physiological sensitivity, imagination, the good fortune to ruminate, and…toss in the blender and I’d be shocked if you didn’t froth with ideas on a daily basis.