A camper’s first sleeping bag is a beacon that signifies one’s succumbing to the callings of the great outdoors; it is also a gateway and practice for future gear purchases. The daunting confusion from the variety and price tags is here to stay, and it doesn’t get easier with each gear purchase. But that’s why these [topic of your choice] 101 pages are written—to assist in finding the gear that suits you best.

The first consideration is determining what this sleeping bag will be used for. If you’re primarily car camping, then weight and packability isn’t a crucial consideration. But if you’re intended on breaking speed records in thru-hiking, you’re going to get down to the nitty gritty on specifications, weight, compactness, and don’t get me started on ultra-light set-ups.

Once the intended use of the sleeping bag is determined, the floodgates of features begin.

Sleeping Bag Insulation Type

Many stores seem to separate their sleeping bags by insulation type—down or synthetic—as an easy 50/50 filter.

In terms of functionality, the major thing to note is that down does not retain warmth when wet. If you’re camping in areas of heavy moisture and rain, you would want to consider a synthetic bag. However, new technology offers hydrophobic down—which allows down feathers to retain its loft when coming in contact with water, thus retaining its ability to hold in heat.

Down

  • Pros:
    • Lightweight and easy to compress
    • Warmer than synthetic (ounce for ounce)
    • Retains loft & shape with proper care
    • Wicks body moister and allows it to evaporate
  • Cons:
    • Does not work when wet (unless hydrophically treated)
    • Harsh chemicals will break down loft and luster
    • May contain allergens
    • More expensive

Common term in the specifications of a down sleeping bag is “fill-power”—a down bag’s ability to trap heat. The maximum fill-power for duck down is 750-800 (premium goose down can reach 900).

With down sleeping bags, it’s important that you do not store your bag in the compressed state, as this would decrease the loft in feathers and hinder their ability to hold warmth.

Synthetic

  • Pros:
    • Insulates when wet
    • Quick-drying
    • Hypoallergenic
    • Less expensive
    • More durable
  • Cons:
    • Bulkier/does not pack down well
    • Fibers break down over time

Sleeping Bag Temperature Rating

Temperature rating is heavily determined by the environment you will be camping in. Unless you have the worst blood circulation ever (aka a zombie), you wouldn’t need a 15° bag for sea level camping in Mediterranean weather.

It’s important to take temperature ratings on bags with a grain of salt as they differ within each company.

Your choice of the temperature rating depends on the season you’d use the sleeping bag for. Examples of weight ranges are:

  • +35° and higher = Summer
  • +15° to +35° = 3-Season
  • +15° and below = Winter

Note that the colder the bag is rated for, the more expensive and bulkier it will be because more materials will be used to hold on to heat.

Sleeping Bag Shape and Length

Rectangular

Imagine taking a comforter and folding it in half, then taking a zipper to close two sides. This classic shape allows space and comfort, but not the best for packability. If you’re a car-camper, this sleeping bag would be a great choice.

If you have two of the same sleeping bags—one a right-hand zip, and one a left-hand zip—you can combine these to make a double-wide. You can also do this if you have two sleeping bags that are not the same bag, but have the same size zippers, similar size, and opposing zipper sides.

Barrel-shaped

These bags are a hybrid of the rectangular-shape and mummy-shaped. The top is the wider parts, and the bag begins to taper/funnel smaller in the leg and feet area. This bag allows for a little more movement than mummy bags, and a little better packability than rectangular bags.

Mummy

Very common shape used in backpacking for its more efficient packing size. Mummy shapes are typically more narrow or pear shaped in order to reduce weight and air tunnels—in turn maximizing warmth.

Double-wide

Why bother bringing two rectangular bags when you can just have one bag that fits two people? Double-wide bag designs have been getting craftier in that you can find some that fits two sleeping pads, and some that have a hood for each person. Some bags are even tapered to mimic the fusion of two mummy bags.

Typical examples of length

  • Short (under 5’6″)
  • Regular (5’6″ – 6′)
  • Long (over 6′)

Sleeping Bags for Women

Despite women often feeling more cold than men, women’s bodies are generally better at internal temperature control. When keeping the core warm, the body pulls warm blood away from the hands and feet. Manufacturers create women-specific sleeping bags by either re-shaping a bag or increase the insulation.

Re-shaping a bag is often achieved by widening hips and narrowing the shoulders, or making a bag shorter without decreasing the amount of insulation used. Creating a tighter fit limits air gap between the body and the bag, thus decreases the amount of air a body has to warm up.

Increased insulation can be achieved by increasing overall insulation, or strategic placing of added insulation by adding more insulation in the foot box of a sleeping bag—because women’s hands and feet get cold.

Suggested Sleeping Bag Brands

Higher End

Feathered Friends | Western Mountaineering | Rab

Middle Range

Sierra Designs | Big Agnes | The North Face | Kelty

What I use: Western Mountaineering MegaLite

What I wish I had: Rab anything because I love their down products

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

 

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