Sleep In The Dirt

Self-Support on Idaho’s South Fork

Product Reviews

Idaho’s Class IV-V South Fork of the Salmon River drops a whopping 1,600 vertical feet in 40 miles, before dumping into the Main Salmon for an 18-mile paddle out. It combines wilderness and whitewater into one of the best self-support kayaking trips in the country. The only caveat being you’re paddling a loaded boat — which ups the ante even further. Kayaks are already short on room for everything from safety to sleeping gear, so space and weight are at a premium.

For my recent trip— at a not-too-beefy, not-too-boney level of 3-feet — that meant testing out some of Big Agnes’ lightest, most compact sleeping gear. In all, tent, bag and pad clocked in at just 4 lbs., 6 oz., not nearly enough to blame for me missing some of my lines.

Tent: Copper Spur HV UL1 

This baby was the schnizzle for the drizzle — especially during the first night’s storm at the put-in where the South Fork meets the Secesh. While the lightning and thunder (barely louder than the roar of the river) was an ominous start, the tent shed the rain perfectly and with it any misgivings I had about what lay ahead. Its tapered footprint contoured to my body, minimizing weight to just 2 lb. 2 oz., while still leaving room for my drysuit to the side. I kept the fly on for night two and used just the body for star gazing on night three (at least those I could see between the towering canyon walls).

It set up easy thanks to the new TipLok Tent Buckle™ while I waited my turn for our lone Jet Boil. Inside, I stashed toiletries (just a toothbrush) in 3D bin pockets, putting remaining gear in an awning-style vestibule outside. A new ‘mezzanine’ at the foot even provided elevated storage. It excelled just as well when it was time to pack up; it rolled up so small that I could fit it into the tiny space in front of my feet, trimming my boat for the turbulence ahead.

Pad: Insulated AXL Air

Oh, Big Agnes Insulated Air AXL pad, how I covet thee. You took up barely more space than a beer can (I brought two Alaskan Ambers, thank you) and far less weight at a paltry 14 oz. Plus, after I spent the first day popping a mini-wheelie in an untrimmed boat, as with the tent you fit up front easily, evening out the weight. Sleep-wise, you were a gem. Even without a bag sleeve to slide into, you stayed in place way better than I did on the day’s rapids — with your large outer tubes keeping me on line.

As BA’s lightest, most packable, three-season pad, this one helped sleep come easily, even after we saw a bear coming our way across the river from camp.

Sleeping Bag: Star Fire UL 30° Down

So it might not be the best idea to bring a down bag on a trip where it’s surrounded by water. But the Star Fire is made with treated 850 fill power water-repellent DownTek™ and a Pertex® shell, so if it did get wet and it still retains its loft. Its beauty is that when the 1 lb., 6 oz. bedding is cinched with BA’s compression strap, it bundles up into a nearly softball-sized orb, which easily slid into any dry bag I mustered. Self-support rookie that I am, I didn’t really have a system, and kept putting different things in different bags. Another nice feature is its mummy shape for weight savings and heat (aided by baffle construction and 3-D anti-snag draft tube along the zipper).

Pillow: Sleeping Giant

Okay, okay, so it’s a lightweight self-support. And each night we’d be so tired we’d pass out on an ant pile. But it’s nice to have some creature comforts after kayaking Class V and for me the Sleeping Giant Pillow was well worth its whopping 7 ounces. Besides its noseplug-like weight, its other redeeming feature is that it scrunches up tiny; you don’t even know it’s in your stow float. But blow it back up when it’s nighty-night time (after day one that came at a hard-partying 8:30 p.m.) and there’s no counting the bighorn sheep you saw clinging to the day’s hillsides to fall asleep. A layer of memory foam on top gives it even more cush for your wet whitewater dreams.

About the Author: The 14-year publisher and editor-in-chief of Paddler magazine and founder of, Eugene Buchanan has written about the outdoors for more than 25 years, from covering the X Games for to working for NBC at the Beijing Olympics. With freelance articles published in the New York Times, Men’s Journal, Sports Afield, Sierra, Outside, National Geographic Adventure, Forbes Life, Ski, Powder and other publications, Buchanan is a former ski patrol and raft and kayak guide whose passion for traveling and writing has taken him to more than 30 countries on six continents.

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