Ultimate Guide to Choosing a Sleeping Bag
When camping, getting a good night’s sleep is important. There are typically a lot of things to do and a lot of fun to be had when you are spending the night outdoors, however you won’t be able to enjoy those things if you are not sleeping well. This being the case, choosing the right sleeping bag for your adventures is very important. Due to the many options available, when looking for a sleeping bag, it is hard to know where to start. The following guide will review the options available and answer the questions you may have as you consider making this important purchase.
Things to Consider
First, it is a good idea to think about how you will use your sleeping bag. Consider the following questions, as the answers will be key in your decision.
- Are you looking for a new sleeping bag for backpacking?
- Do you plan to mainly use your sleeping bag for car camping, where you are driving up to your campsite?
- What temperatures do you plan to camp in?
- Which of the following are most important to you:
- Packing ability
When looking at sleeping bags, it easy to be attracted to the appearance of one. It is best to not make your choice based on the color or pattern; first make sure it meets your needs.
Sleeping Bag Shape
I will start with the shape of the sleeping bag. There are two main shapes: rectangle and mummy. There are also variations between the two main types.
The rectangle is exactly as described; it is rectangular in shape. It will have a zipper on the bottom that comes up one side and can be opened up and laid flat. The rectangle is popular among casual car campers that usually sleep outdoors in warm temperatures.
The mummy sleeping bag is a good choice if you need a lot of warmth. It has a hood for your head and neck; is wider at the shoulders and narrower at your feet. By providing a snug fit, the mummy sleeping bag gets warm pretty quickly.
Sleeping bags that are made for backpacking will most likely be mummy-shaped. When it comes to mummy bags, consider what is most important to you; for the greatest thermal efficiency, a mummy bag that is narrow in the shoulder and hip areas is best. For more comfort, a mummy bag with a wider area for shoulders and hips (or a semi-rectangular bag) would be preferable; though it will be a bit heavier.
Women’s vs. Men’s Sleeping Bags
You will notice that there are some bags that are specifically for women and some specifically for men. The bags made for women are created to fit the shape of a woman; typically these bags are shorter than the men’s bags and have less room in the shoulder area and more room in the hip area. Usually there is additional insulation in the upper body area of the women’s sleeping bags. While this is certainly a starting point when you are looking at sleeping bags, it is important to remember that every person is different. What is supposed to be shaped for your gender may not be ideal for you.
Sleeping Bag Fill
A big question, when purchasing a sleeping bag, is what type of fill is best. You can choose down fill, synthetic fill, or a combination of the two.
Down fill (either goose down or duck down) is the most expensive. Though the cost is higher, sleeping bags with down fill offer some benefits to keep in mind. They are considered best for cold climates, because sleeping bags made of down fill retain the most heat. These sleeping bags also weigh less and compress further than synthetic bags, making them a better choice for backpacking. Down sleeping bags are also considered more durable.
The negative of down sleeping bags, aside from the higher price, is that they are harder to dry if they get wet or damp. Should the sleeping bag get wet or damp, the insulation that is supposed to be keeping you warm won’t do so. There are down fill bags that have waterproof shells, which is something to consider, particularly if you intend to spend time camping in areas that get a lot of rain.
Synthetic fill sleeping bags (usually a type of polyester) are typically cheaper than those filled with down. The positive of a sleeping bag with synthetic fill is that it will be less expensive and will dry faster should you be caught in wet weather. The ability to dry quickly is a plus, particularly if you do a lot of camping in wet areas.
Synthetic fill sleeping bags are heavier than those filled with down, making them a less ideal choice for backpacking. They also don’t compress as well, so in addition to the extra weight, it will be more difficult to pack a synthetic fill sleeping bag. These sleeping bags tend to not last as long as the sleeping bags made of down fill, and tend to not be as warm.
Something to consider in regards to synthetic fill sleeping bags, according to the outdoor outfitter REI, is whether a synthetic insulator is short-staple or a continuous filament. Short-staple have short strands of filaments that are densely packed in order to limit heat loss. The bags are typically softer with increased flexibility and better able to be compressed when packed. Sleeping bags with continuous-filament fill are more durable, however they feel stiffer and don’t compress as well as the short-staple fill bags.
A Combination of the Two?
There are sleeping bags made of both down and synthetic fills. Is this the best of both worlds? Some sleeping bags blend the two insulation types together and distribute the blend evenly throughout the sleeping bag. Others may use the more durable synthetic material on the bottom of the bag and the down material on the top.
When choosing a sleeping bag, it is important to consider when and where you are going to camp. Do you mainly camp a few times in the summer and don’t see that changing? Then a bag with a temperature rating of 35 degrees Fahrenheit will be just fine. But if you want to be camping throughout the year, you should look at different options. As far as the temperature ratings go, many sleeping bags (particularly the 3-season backpacking sleeping bags) are rated by the European Norm (EN) 13537. This system of temperature rating is internationally accepted and considered to be the most dependable standard available. When it comes to EN testing, there are two temperature ratings given for the sleeping bag:
The comfort rating (this is in regards to women using the sleeping bag) states the lowest temperature at which the average woman will remain warm in the sleeping bag.
The lower-limit rating (for men using the sleeping bag) states the lowest temperature that the average man will remain warm in the sleeping bag.
It is important to note that the temperature ratings are based on the person using the sleeping bag wearing one layer of long underwear and a hat, and sleeping on a one inch thick insulated sleeping pad.
For those sleeping bags that are not rated based on the EN system, you may see something like +35 degrees. A +35 degree bag “should” keep the user warm at a minimum of 35 degrees. However, when taking into account the differences between men and women (as the EN system does), and the fact that every person is different, to be safe I would consider that, for a female, a +35 degree bag would be comfortable at a temperature no lower than 45 degrees. These sleeping bags are great for the casual, summer camper as they are the least expensive and you will not have to worry about getting too hot.
Should a 3-season bag not have an EN rating, it may state anywhere from +10 degrees to +35 degrees. Sleeping bags in this temperature range are good options for someone like me who wants to camp as soon as it is reasonable (minimal or no snow on the ground). Keep in mind that a bag that is rated at +20 degrees may be comfortable for you at 28 degrees but not at 20 degrees. Should you know you will be camping regularly in 20 degree temperatures, it might be best to choose a bag that is +10 degrees. In my experience, it is better to have a warmer sleeping bag. If you get too warm, you can unzip the bag a little bit to let some of the warmth out and cool you down. In warmer weather, you can unzip your bag and sleep on top of it with a sheet to stay cool. If your bag is not keeping you warm, there is little you can do but throw on another layer of clothing. And it is very hard to have a good night of sleep when you are cold.
A sleeping bag that is considered +10 degrees and lower is necessary for winter camping. If you plan to camp in low temperatures, a four season bag is imperative. These are typically pricier but a worthwhile investment.
Sleeping Bag Construction
Another thing to look at is the construction of the sleeping bag itself. There are several ways for insulation to be held between the outer shell and inner lining of the sleeping bag, with the intent being that the insulation is spread evenly throughout the bag.
Down Sleeping Bags
In the case of down sleeping bags, there are two ways the bags may be constructed:
Box Baffle is a method where there are vertical baffle walls that are used to connect the outer shell to the inner liner of the sleeping bag. This approach makes sure that there is an even layer of insulation and stops the down from moving, providing consistent warmth.
The sewn-through technique is popular for ultra light bags. As in a quilt, the shell and liner of the sleeping bag are sewn together. The negative of this technique is that there may be cold spots at the stitched areas.
Synthetic Sleeping Bags
There are three different ways synthetic bags may be put together:
Cut pieces or sheets of fill that are sewn to the shell and lining are called shingles. The shingles overlap each other and ensure there are no cold spots in the bag.
The layered or off-set quilt involves two layers of ongoing insulation in which the top sheet is sewn to the outer layer and the bottom one is sewn to the lining. The layers keep the cold air from getting through the seams.
The quilted-through involves a sheet of insulation that is designed to fit the bag and is sewn together with the lining and the shell. This is best for warm-weather bags as it does not eliminate cold spots.
Other Important Materials
Most sleeping bags of higher quality have an outer shell that is made from a waterproof fabric. Another possibility is for the shell to have been coated with a durable water repellent finish, which will ensure that water that gets on the sleeping bag will not soak through the fabric of the shell.
Inside linings are typically polyester or nylon taffeta. These materials are comfortable and allow the sleeping bag to breathe well.
The Best Choice for You
Earlier I mentioned several things to consider when looking into purchasing a new sleeping bag. Refer now to those questions and how you answered them. Understanding what is most important for you will help you to choose the sleeping bag that best meets both your wants and you needs. If you have experienced camping and know you will continue to sleep outdoors, a sleeping bag is an investment that you know will pay off. If you are looking to get started camping and are not sure how you will feel about it, choose a more economical option and camp in warmer weather while getting a feel for whether camping is something you would like to do long-term.
Please share your experience purchasing a sleeping bag. What features have you been happy with and would you recommend?