2016-09-29

Alpaca Fur sleeping bag

In my search for a lightweight set of backpacking gear involving no plastic, I've been looking for something that works as a sleepingbag.

My thought had been to go with a twined rabbitskin blanket. There's research showing these are incredibly light, and that one in the 4-8 lb range can likely outperform a 0 degree down sleeping-bag in raw insulation ability (ignoring shape issues). They've been used for many thousands of years (we've found them in archaeological digs from near the last ice-age), so clearly they work. There's only one problem, to make one large enough for me to wrap up in would require ~70 rabbit-skins, and I don't have easy access to that many rabbit-skins. Traditionally people would have plenty of skins just from their regular hunting for food, but I've yet to hunt rabbit.

While I was working on finding a good, ethical (by my standards) source for these hides I went to the Big E (a large agricultural fair in Massachusetts) with Angie, and ran in to someone selling alpaca skin blankets. I couldn't resist and bought this for $400:

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Surprisingly, no alpaca are harmed to make these alpaca skin blankets. Alpaca are worth WAAAY to much to kill for their skin (we're talking 10's to 100's of thousands), so these blankets are only made from scraps of alpaca hide from alpaca that have died of natural causes, sewn together in a patchwork.

Alpaca are a species of Camelid. Closely related to Llamas they've been bread in the Andies for thousands of years as a source of wool to keep warm in the high mountains. This is in contrast to llamas which were bread as draft animals. Alpaca fiber is actually warmer than sheep's wool, and most importantly for me it's hypoallergenic (I have a mild allergy to normal wool, sadly). It also sheds dirt crazy well, and basically doesn't slip from the hide at all.

To make it usable as a sleepingbag I took some buckskin I tanned and used that to add some ties so I could tie the foot closed and bundle the rest around me. The idea is to use it like a backpacking quilt, where the joint between the two sides ends up under me so it won't leak much heat. I can open it up of course as well or use it in other configurations in warmer weather. The hide was already backed with a fairly open weave cotton canvas to add a little wear resistance, so I'm leaving that on for now.

So, how does it work?

I tested a couple of nights ago. I slept in it naked and at 3:00am it was 40F and dewy, and I was definitely warm enough. The biggest issue was drafts through the foot box. I think with a little more fiddling to bundle the footbox tighter and seal out drafts it'll work down below freezing pretty well. I'm guessing I can take it to ~25F without trouble, which is good enough for my purposes.

I'm about 5'6" and I bought one just barely long enough and wide enough for me to keep the weight down. I also bought the lightest one the lady had (made apparently with juvenile hides, which are thinner)  The whole thing weighs just a bit over 5 lbs, and rolls up to about the same size as my current 5F down quilt. Here's a photo of it rolled up, with my hand for scale.

IMG_20160928_093910

For the test I ran a couple nights ago I used a normal closed-cell foam sleepingpad on top of an oilcloth tarp I treated. Along with fiddling with the footbox I need to do more experimentation with pads. Depending on how badly it absorbs water, and how insulationg it is to lie on I have to work out whether I need a ground cloth, a ground pad (and what material to use for that), or both. That'll have a big impact on my final weight.

In other news, the oilcloth worked great as a groundpad, and when we took it up in the morning the fabric was a touch damp, but it hadn't wicked much of anything through. I need to run more tests on it still, but hopefully I'll have some good news to report on that front as well in a couple of months.

So, I'm going to say I've solved the problem of a light enough sleepingbag for my "no plastic, AT-style backpacking kit" project. Woot!

Oh yeah... and it's SOO COOOZY!

UPDATE:
I've added draw-strings to either end by simply punching holes in the backing fabric and running twine through. This lets me draw the foot up nice and tight, and draw the top up around my neck, making it MUCH warmer, this probably gained me 10F worth of warmth.

UPDATE 2:
I've now actually slept in ~28 degrees, and a bit windy. I wrapped the alpaca in my waxed cotton poncho, and used no ground-pad, though I did wear a hat, warm tights, and a sweater (I took off my second sweater and put it under my hip, for extra insulation).
Surprisingly I was actually quite warm, particularly for my toes. The draw-strings make an enormous difference.
Overall, This should be plenty good enough for an AT kit.

10 comments:

  1. So cool! I've got the rabbit skins laid out on my floor to try and sew into a quilt. It's looking like a stone age diorama so far. :D

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    1. AWESOME! I can't wait to hear the results!

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  2. Thanks for taking the time to discuss this, I feel strongly about it and love learning more on this topic.
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  3. Very interesting article. I have researched the woven rabbit skin blankets of the California and Arizona and have found a way to make a blanket using knitted Rex Rabbit fashion ponchos available on EBay or Aliexpress. A 72"x60" blanket weighs approximately 4lbs; it is best to cover the blanket with material. The Rex do not shed as much and are a plusher/warmer fur.
    I have worked with alpaca too. Repurposed an old woman's greatcoat for a light bag, and am repurposing an alpaca outer fabric with sheared fur interior woman's greatcoat. Unbelievably plush. $32 delivered!
    As far as a pad, have experimented with organic felt wool pads from Heartfelt Collective in California. Two layers at 3/8" each. 20"x60" weighs 1.75 lb and rolls up nicely. best to have an oilskin cover made.
    What is the approximate uncompressed thickness of your alpaca pelt?

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    1. Wow, that sounds like some really neat experimentation! BTW, later on I wrote a bit more about this: http://www.blog.smalladventures.net/2017/05/a-wool-poncho-and-working-sleep-system.html
      I'm thinking that for serious winter weather I might want to replace the wool poncho with a rabbitskin blanket.

      Those ponchos are interesting, they are called knitted, but looking at them they look stripped and sewn rather than knitted, woven, or twined... am I understanding right? So, probably not quite as warm as twined, but I love the ease of getting a full blanket and the price range.

      As for a pad. Surprisingly, as you can see by that earlier post I've been getting away with just the pelt and blanket and no pad, even in the 20's. That said, for colder weather your felt pads would be ideal. It's great to know that they work well.

      For oilskin, I'm making my own now. It's almost as good as commercial based on my testing: http://www.blog.smalladventures.net/2017/08/howto-waxing-cotton-2.html. So that might be an option. I'm saving weight by using a groundcloth made from a waxed high-qaulity sheet as my pack bag as well.

      Lastly, for the alpaca pelt... I'm not sure how to measure that. It doesn't stand consistently like rabbit or something. The staple is ~2" if that helps. It's actually juvenile alpaca so the skin will be lighter weight.

      Thank you so much for your comment. It's comments like these that keep me blogging :D.

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  4. Matt,
    Please send your email contact info to mine. We have mucho to discuss. Thanks.
    Lawrence c/o Cheryl Jennings account

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    Replies
    1. Mine's public: https://www.smalladventures.net/mbrewer/index.html

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