I really hope I’m warmer from now on

I’ve spent the odd night over the past winter feeling rather cold. The most “interesting” of these was that episode in the wood-shed between 3am and 6am on a Saturday morning. The absence of sleep before 3am and after 6am probably didn’t help, but I suppose I’d hoped that it would have been warmer during those 3 hours. I probably managed about an hour in total, which made for a very long and cranky Saturday of walking.

This event, and some other recent events, have convinced me that maybe it’s time to fork out some cash and replace the Kathmandu PaceSetter bag that I’ve mostly used recently. I think some people would see the words “Kathmandu” and “Sleeping Bag” in the same sentence (or any gear for that matter), and immediately think that it’s a horrible product. I don’t want to criticise it too much if I can help it, because it’s served me pretty well. At this point I still plan to use it during summer because it’s adequate and probably better suited. It’s usually okay in huts and under an open fly at the low-ish altitudes where I’ve used it, but I can vouch from my own experience that for a sleeping bag that was marketed near the top of the Kathmandu range, I still thought it was… well… flimsy and unreliable, and sometimes cold, at least when it was exposed to places that weren’t under much other shelter.

Consequently, and just in time for mid-Spring (I’m brilliant at timing), I’m now the proud but uncertain owner of a new Macpac Sanctuary 700XP sleeping bag, which I hope will turn out to be more appropriate for some of the winter-like things I want to do in the future. It’s not the warmest bag in the range, but when looking at the relative weights and the loft and down fill, it already seems much warmer than what I already have and without being any heavier.

I say I’m uncertain because I still haven’t made up my mind on what to think about the new Macpac/Fairydown combination. Macpac and Fairydown used to be New Zealand’s two flagship outdoor brands. Unlike many of the imports, they both have a history of having designed and manufactured a lot of gear targeted and suited to New Zealand conditions. It’s also great having brands with relatively local repair shops in New Zealand. For all of this kind of thing they’ve earned a lot of respect from New Zealanders over many years. Having the two traditional competitors spliced into the same company for a streamlined business model just seems weird, though.

For anyone who doesn’t know, last year a company called Mouton Noir (that’s French for “Black Sheep”) purchased the remains of Fairydown, which had gone into liquidation. It aimed to re-design the manufacturing and distribution process and make it competitive once again. This resulted in Fairydown products no longer being available in regular outdoor shops, at least in New Zealand. Mouton Noir eventually opened a small collection of Fairydown retail outlets in major New Zealand centres. They began as Fairydown Liquidation Clearance outlets, but at some point morphed into Fairydown retailers that were selling newly-manufactured products. (I’m not 100% sure if Mouton Noir owned them at the time they were clearance outlets.) I wrote some of my thoughts about this a year ago. I still have mixed feelings about the whole thing, but I’m also coming from my own perspective which isn’t a business perspective, and it sounds as if it’d be difficult for the business to survive any other way, even if it’s sold its soul in a sense.

In February of this year, Mouton Noir also purchased Macpac. Macpac products were immediately withdrawn from all independent outdoor retailers within New Zealand. For a month or so it was sales and clearance galore for existingly-shelved Macpac products, and soon they were all gone. Practically overnight, all of the “Fairydown” retailers suddenly became “Macpac” outlets, to the extent that receipts were still printing with the “Fairydown” name while the signs outside said “Macpac”. Fairydown now exists as a product branding on some of the products in the Macpac shops and seemingly some products are still being manufactured under that brand, but the shops are all called Macpac. As of today, at least in New Zealand, my understanding is that Fairydown and Macpac branded products can now only be bought from the Macpac retailers which exist in various New Zealand centres, or via the Macpac mail order website. (If anyone can correct me on any of this then by all means please do.)

Like many other people, I still don’t have much of a clear idea of exactly what’s going on here or what the implications are, whether it be about the quality of the gear, or the long term business model. There have been a couple of obvious consequences for the Macpac product range since its change of hands, however:

  1. Much of the range has disappeared, as Macpac has consolidated things into a few of its former models. This is probably to make things more efficient as the business was being made more viable. For example, since the 2006 catalogue, at least 6 of Macpac’s main range of Tramping packs have disappeared from the menu. (Specifically the Cascade, Glissade, Torre, Traverse, Nikau and Ravine.)

    Perhaps they’ll be back one day if and when the systems get sorted and there’s demand, but for now they don’t seem to be available. This is a shame because if the Macpac Ravine were still available, I think I’d have bought one. It’s a relatively light-weight cut down minimalist single-access tramping pack, which really is ideal for things like pack dragging and bush-bashing compared with all the junky imported packs available on shelves right now. I’ve independently run into quite a few people who swear by Macpac Ravines.

  2. Things have gotten cheaper. Notably, my 2008 model of a Sanctuary 700XP sleeping bag is about $200 or $300 cheaper than the previous year’s model. In practice this is great for a consumer because they’re more affordable, but it has made me wonder if the bag being sold under the same model name is actually the same bag, as opposed to something with modifications. I asked the manager in the shop who assured me that it is the same, and that the cheaper price is entirely a reflection of improved and more efficient distribution. It’s made in China, but the old ones were also made in China at least for the last few years, and so is virtually everything that’s imported from overseas these days.

    Also, in this thread over on the Fishing and Hunting website, one of the Mouton Noir people (under the alias of ‘blacksheep’ on page 4 of the discussion) chipped in to re-assure people that it’s only the distribution changes which are affecting the price.

Well, now I have a sleeping bag suitable for colder conditions. Whatever the outcome, I do, at least, expect it to work much more nicely in the cold than my existing one. Since they’ve been shunted around so much, Macpac and Fairydown as brands will really have to earn my trust again, but so far they haven’t produced anything I really didn’t like. I guess time will tell for sure.

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