Friday, October 5, 2012

"Made in the USA" Gear Review- Kelty VariCom Military Sleeping Bag/Bivvy System

In 2006, Kelty Backpacks collaborated with the US Army's NSSC (Natrick Soldier System Center) to develop a Sleeping Bag/Bivvy System that could meet the rigors and requirements of combat duty. Since then, the VariCom, (as it's known today) has been used by not only members of the armed forces, but also federal first responder teams and federal law enforcement agencies.

Recently, Kelty decided to make this system available to civilians as well. Rocky Mountain Bushcraft was honored to be one of the first sites to be asked to review the VariCom.

VariCom System SPECS (from Kelty manual):

    • Made in the USA by Kelty
    • Sleeping bag type- Synthetic
    • Insulation material- Climashield
    • Reduced weight and carry size allow user to carry more mission critical loads. 
    • Quick egress features for easy exit. 
    • Secondary closure system allows the user to close the sleep system even after the primary zipper fails or freezes. 
    • Modular high compression stuff sacks allow the user to deploy with just the components that are needed for the temperature and conditions in the deployment region. 
    •  Two high compression stuff sacks, when used together, compound the compression of the system creating smaller carry sizes. 
    •  “Gloves On” feature allows the user to operate all system features while wearing cold weather or tactical handwear. 
    • “Boots On” feature allows the user to utilize the sleep system without removing footwear. 
    •  Breathable stuff sacks allow moisture to transpire out of the system even while compressed/stored. Care should be taken to carry the system in a water resistant pack. VariCom components should not be strapped to the outside of a pack where they may be exposed to wetness.
    • WEIGHT (as measured on a digital postal scale): Gamma 0 Degree Bag w/stuff sack- 4 lbs 9oz, Delta 30 Degree Bag- 3 lbs 1oz, Bivvy- 1 lb 13 oz. Combined weight of all components- 9 lbs 7 oz
      The System

      The VariCom consists of a Bivvy Bag, 0 Degree Synthetic Sleeping Bag (Gamma), and a 30 Degree Synthetic Sleeping Bag (Delta).

      The Bivvy Bag 
      (Yes, Dave is inside it, looking rather like a mummy if you ask me)
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      0 Degree Gamma Sleeping Bag
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      30 Degree Delta Sleeping Bag
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      Component Features

      The VariCom was designed so that it can be used interchangeably at any time of the year, and under any weather conditions. In the warmer months, the bivvy can be used with just the Delta 30 Degree Bag in lower elevations, or it can be combined with the warmer Gamma 0 Degree Bag during high mountain expeditions. Under extreme cold conditions, the two sleeping bags can be combined with the bivvy for protection down to -30 Degrees. A bug screen bivvy, called the "No Fly Zone", is also available as an accessory for people who have to trek into areas infested by insects.

      "Quick Egress" Feature

      One of the main features of the VariCom is the ability to quickly exit any of the three parts. This is accomplished by what Kelty refers to as "hook and loop" closures that line the area along the zippers of the bivvy and sleeping bags. This hook and loop system also serves as a backup in case the zipper should fail.
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      All three pieces come with their own stuff sack. The stuff-sack that comes with the Gamma 0 Degree bag is slightly over-sized, to accommodate all three components if pack space is limited.

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      The sleeping bag stuff-sacks feature easy-to-use compression straps. Two of the straps open the side cover with a heavy plastic buckle:

      In comparison to the heavy duty stuff-sacks that come with the sleeping bags, the stuff-sack that comes with the bivvy is a bit more delicate.

      I would definitely recommend carrying the bivvy\stuff-sack inside the Gamma bag stuff-sack during field excursions if possible, as I don't think it would hold up well by itself under hard use.

      Another feature of all three components is "boots on" sized foot boxes, which allows the user to enter and exit without removing footwear, and "Gloves On", which allows the user to operate all components of the system without removing cold weather gloves or mittens.

      (click to enlarge)

      Sleeping Bag Features

      The sleeping bags use a material called "Climashield" for insulation, which the manufacturer claims "has the highest level of thermal efficiency in the industry." I can't vouch for the authenticity of this claim, but I do know that Climashield is used in many high-end synthetic sleeping bags sold by larger companies like Northface, for instance.


      Both the Gamma and Delta Bags feature a velcro adjustment on the back of the head area, to adjust for different body sizes and weather conditions:

       (click to enlarge)

      Additionally, the draw cords on the hoods of the sleeping bags are made of shock cord, allowing an exit even when not using the "quick egress" hook and loop system:

      This easy-exit feature definitely comes in handy when camping in enemy bushcraft territory, or when startled by rascally bears at night.

      Weight-wise, both the Gamma and Delta bags are very competitive with similar offerings from major companies like Mountain Hardware, The North Face and Marmot, for instance. At just under 3 pounds without the stuff-sack, the Delta 30 degree bag is bordering on ultra-lite status for a synthetic bag, and the Gamma Zero degree bag, which weighs just under 4 pounds, is also fairly light for its rating.



      The Bivvy itself is constructed from a material that Kelty claims is waterproof and breathable, with all seams sealed at the factory.

      (click the enlarge)

      It has an integrated Delrin pole that holds the bivvy fabric away from the ears for improved hearing, and also serves to improve water shedding. The pole is flexible enough that it doesn't need to be removed when taking the bivvy in and out of the stuff-sacks.

       (click the enlarge)

      The zipper system has an additional piece of material covering it to ensure that water doesn't enter the interior during heavy rains:

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      Dave inside the bivvy, looking like he just woke up. I think he was dreaming about buying a new Mora survival knife, but missed out because I shook him awake!

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      Hood with draw cord loose:

      Pulled tight:

      Made in the USA!
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      I've had the VariCom system since late spring, so I have been able to test it under many different weather conditions. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), Colorado, like most of the country, experienced an extremely warm spring and summer, making it impossible for me to test the Gamma bag down to its zero degree limit. Back in the spring, however, I was able to test it in a Hennessey Expedition Hammock with nighttime temps down to 18 Degrees. Anyone who's familiar with hammocks knows that 18 degrees in a hammock is a lot like 0 degrees on the ground inside a tent. I would have liked to have tested the system in true winter conditions, but the weather just didn't cooperate. I do believe, however, that the hammock test, combined with the other tests, gave me enough of an impression to estimate this system's overall performance.

      I divided the field testing into four categories- 1) Comfort level under various weather conditions 2) Waterproof testing the bivvy 3) Testing the "Boots On" and "Gloves On" features and  4) Testing the "Quick Egress" feature.

      Comfort Level

      Delta 30 Degree- I used the Delta 30 degree bag on a few overnight mountain treks, as well as my primary sleeping bag at my wilderness base camp, which is located at 8700 feet in elevation. Even during the hottest part of summer, temperatures regularly dropped into the mid to high 30s at night, so this bag really got a workout.

       (click to enlarge)

      My impression is that the Delta, if used without the Bivvy, is rather optimistic with its temperature rating. I'd say that it is comfortable down to about 40 degrees, unless you're wearing long johns. With wool socks and long johns, it's a bit better, maybe down to the low 30s. When used with the bivvy, however, the rating seems to be closer to 30 degrees.

      I asked Kelty about their method of testing and rating the VariCom, and I was told that it is rated to three levels; comfort, limit, and extreme. They said that 30 degrees is the limit, and that 40 degrees is in the "comfort" zone, if used recreationally (sleeping without being fully clothed, as would most campers and backpackers). The system was designed primarily for soldiers, who will most likely be wearing BDUs, and will often still have their boots on inside the bag for quick deployment and defensive reasons. I did try out the Delta on a 32 degree night with some bushcraft attire and my boots on. There was definitely a difference, and I was fairly comfortable, so it appears that Kelty's explanation of the rating was correct.

      Gamma 0 Degree Bag-
      As I mentioned before, I was able to test the Gamma bag in a Hennessey Expedition Hammock on an 18 Degree night. I used a foam pad in between the sleeping bag and the hammock to prevent excess heat-loss underneath. I slept very warm and comfortably during the night. I also used the Gamma a few times recently when the nighttime temperature dropped into the mid-20s, and it was so warm that I had to keep it vented to prevent discomfort. My guess is that the Gamma is a little more accurate in its rating than the Delta, based on the way it performed in my tests.

      Bivvy Bag- I tested the bivvy several times in heavy downpours to see if it was indeed waterproof. It performed as advertised - there were no leaks. My most extreme test was to spend the night in the Delta bag, inside the bivvy, on a frigid, rainy night, with temperatures in the mid-30s.

      (click to enlarge)

      The bag didn't leak, though condensation was definitely worse than in most tents. Of course, this was a worse case scenario for condensation.  Most bivvys, regardless of the quality of construction, would have a problem on a night like this simply because of the small space and lack of venting compared to tents.

      The soggy morning after, with the Delta bag pulled out to dry the condensation by a campfire:

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      "Boots\Gloves On" Feature- True to the name, the "Gloves On" and "Boots On" features do work. I wear a size 10.5 boot, and I had no problem getting in and out of the system components with them on.  I also tried the "Gloves On" feature during some colder weather, and I had no problem getting the bags or bivvy open and closed while wearing heavy mitts.

      "Quick Egress" feature- I definitely got to try this feature out when a hungry black bear wandered into my camp back in July, and tried to eat the contents in my Luggable Loo porta-pooper (yuck!).

      While restfully sleeping in the Gamma Bag at 4:30am, I was awakened by a loud crashing sound outside my tent. I instantly sat up, with my heart racing. Even though the Gamma bag was zipped up all the way, the flexible shock cord allowed my torso to come through the top opening quickly when I sat upright. With bear spray in my hand for safety, I went outside and scared the bear away from his foul delicacy with some rather loud yelling.


      When Kelty sent me this system to review, I wasn't sure if it would work well from a bushcrafting perspective. It is, after all, a sleep system designed primarily for soldiers, who need to move quickly, with gear comfort often taking a back seat. I also confess that I'm not a huge fan of bivvy bags, mainly because of condensation issues, regardless of the fabric used.

      After spending many months with the VariCom though, I've become convinced that this system is actually a viable option for bushcrafters who like to be on the go, and like their gear tough, yet functional. Under more normal weather conditions, the bivvy is relatively comfortable (especially windy conditions), and what it gives up in ventilation to a tent, it makes up for with virtually no setup\breakdown time. It's also quick to jump into if you get caught in a sudden storm.

      The sleeping bags' soldier-ready features, such as "boots on", "gloves on" and "quick egress", are also "bushcrafty" assets.  Many bushcrafters like to camp in primitive areas, where they might be jumping in and out of their bags with their clothes still on, to keep an all-night fire going during the winter or chase away hungry bears in the middle of the night!

      I also like the year-round concept of the Varicom.

      Yes, the entire system will cost you north of $600, but considering that it will effectively protect you from anything short of an Antarctic winter, is light to carry, easy to use, and is made right here in the USA, I'd say it's money well spent.

      The VariCom is available exclusively from veteran-owned and operated US Elite Gear. Enter promo code "ROCKY5" to get 5% off of any purchase in the store, including the Varicom.

      About the author
      Jason Schwartz is the founder and senior editor of Rocky Mountain Bushcraft. He is a former Red Cross certified Wilderness & Remote First Aid Instructor, and has taught bushcraft and wilderness survival techniques to the Boy Scouts of America, interned with the US Forest Service, and studied wilderness survival, forestry and wildland firefighting at Colorado Mountain College in Leadville, Colorado. Jason has also written for magazines such as The New Pioneer and Backpacker, including writing the "Tinder Finder" portion of Backpacker's "Complete Guide to Fire," which won a 2015 National Magazine Award (NMA). Email him at rockymountainbushcraft @ (without spaces)