How to Pick a Sleeping Bag for Your Camping Trip
Your sleeping bag is one of the most important pieces of equipment you take on a camping trip, and having the right one can make the difference between your dream getaway and a backcountry nightmare. When choosing one, you have to consider weight, packability, warmth, and comfort. Even the most lightweight backpacking sleeping bags will still be one of the bulkiest things you pack.
There are different bags for different activities and different times of the year. Even if you know all the best sleeping bags for camping, you still need this information in order to choose the right one. With so much to consider, from insulation type to different traditional shapes, temperature ratings, and weight-to-warmth rations, it can be overwhelming when making a decision. That’s why we put together this guide, containing everything you need to know about how to pick a sleeping bag.
The first consideration when picking a sleeping bag is where and when you’ll use it. If you’re car camping and don’t need any special technical features, then there’s no reason to shell out a lot on the fanciest sleeping bag. Sleeping bags made for camping have a simple design, it doesn’t matter how big or bulky they are so long as they keep you warm and comfortable. If you don’t have restrictions on size and weight, then you can pick out almost any sleeping bag you like.
If you’re a backpacker, your sleeping bag needs to be light and packable. You don’t want your sleeping bag to hog all the space in your backpack, so packability is an important factor. Your sleeping bag is one of the three most important, and heaviest items you’ll carry as a backpacker, alongside your tent or shelter, and your pack itself. If you’re backpacking, you need the lightest, and most easily compressible sleeping bag that also fits your other requirements. The limitations of this are budget and temperature rating.
If you’re mountaineering on a serious backpacking expedition, you have the same requirements for a backpacking sleeping bag with a few extra considerations on top. When sleeping up a mountain, warmth and water resistance become more important for your sleeping bag. Mountaineering and climbing sleeping bags are often the most expensive, as they require top-quality materials to keep you warm and dry without weighing you down. Some have waterproof shells, and other similar features, which make them both more protective and more expensive.
Sleeping bag temperature ratings can be a little confusing, so selecting the right one for your expected weather can be a challenge. The number on the packaging usually represents the lowest temperature at which the bag would keep the “average sleeper” warm. However, this temperature rating isn’t the only thing that affects your warmth and comfort on a camping night; your location, the weather conditions, your tent, sleeping pad, clothing, and personal metabolism all have a big effect on your comfort levels too.
The best way to assess which temperature rating you need is to compare to a sleeping bag you’ve previously owned. Everyone’s ideal sleeping temperature is different, so judging off a single number can be a challenge. One common mistake when selecting a sleeping bag is getting one rated for your coolest night of camping; sure, you’ll be warm enough when the temperatures really drop, but for the majority of your camping trips, you’ll be carrying a sleeping bag larger and heavier than is necessary.
On the coldest nights of your trip, you can use other methods, such as extra layers, to provide additional warmth and keep you comfortable. Choose a sleeping bag that fits the majority of your nights in the backcountry; you can make adjustments for the few days of the year when it might be too hot or cold.
Some sleeping bags are rated with a standardized test, which is the most reliable way to compare different sleeping bags. The EN rating will come in the form of three numbers; the comfort limit, lower limit, and extreme rating. The comfort limit is the warmest rating on a sleeping bag, this number is the temperature at which the average woman could sleep comfortably in this sleeping bag.
This number is geared towards women as they generally sleep colder than men. The lower limit is the lowest temperature that a man could comfortably use the bag at, while the extreme rating is the survival rating for a woman.
If you don’t have an old sleeping bag to compare to, always err on the side of caution; select a bag around 5 degrees warmer than you think you’ll need. You can always unzip the sleeping bag if you’re too warm, and it’s better than freezing every night of your trip. For three-season use and summer camping at high elevations, we recommend using a sleeping bag rated 30-35 degrees. If you’re a particularly cold sleeper, it’s best to go for a 20-25 degree rated bag, for colder times of the year.
Insulation type has a huge impact on the specifications of your sleeping bag. The type of insulation, which is effectively your sleeping bag’s stuffing, makes a huge difference to warmth, weight, and packability. Sleeping bags most commonly use either down feathers or synthetic fibers as insulation. There are differences in warmth, drying time, cost, and comfort between different types of insulation, so pick carefully when you’re investing in your future camping trips.
Down insulation is no doubt superior to synthetics, even considering the technological advances that are always being made in synthetic materials. Down continues to have a higher warmth-to-weight ratio, it compresses down better to be packed and has a much longer life too. If you properly care for a down sleeping bag, it could last the average backpacker an impressive 20 years. In comparison, synthetic sleeping bags tend to stop being as effective after 5 years, so they won’t keep you as warm.
One downside to feather down sleeping bags is that they lose a lot of their ability to keep you warm when wet. Even a slightly damp down sleeping bag will be a lot less warm and can take up to five times the amount of time to dry too. However, as long as you can keep your sleeping bag dry, down remains a far superior option. It’s well worth the higher price, as the investment could last you through decades of camping trips. It’s also worth noting that certain down sleeping bags are water-resistant to combat this issue.
Synthetic sleeping bags are more affordable than their down equivalents, but their main advantage by far is the ability to keep you warm when wet. Although of course, they won’t be as effective, wet synthetic insulation is much better at keeping you warm than wet down. If you’re on a trip where soaked gear is likely, it might be a good idea to use a synthetic sleeping bag.
Synthetic insulation will also dry much faster afterward in the event of a water disaster. It’s also worth noting that some campers might choose a synthetic sleeping bag in order to avoid gear made from animal products; it’s a valid choice. Mainly though, your primary reason for buying a synthetic insulation sleeping bag would be budgetary restrictions. For best results you should use a sleeping pad with a high R-value.
Fill power is a specification used often to describe down sleeping bags, but you might not know what it means. This number tells you how “lofty” the down used inside your sleeping bag is. The higher the fill power, the more air that gets trapped by the down. That means higher fill power equals more warmth, but less weight. Remember, the temperature rating on your sleeping bag is still what describes how warm it will be; a 30-degree bag will give you the same level of warmth. However, a lower fill power means more down is required to achieve said temperature, making your sleeping bag heavier.
Sleeping bags with high fill power are the very best, and also the most expensive. A bag with a fill power of 800 or more will have an amazing weight-to-warmth ratio and will be easily packable. If you want a winter sleeping bag made from premium high fill power down, you can expect quite a hit to your wallet. On the other hand, a 600 fill power bag is much more affordable, and still more lightweight and packable than most synthetic insulation sleeping bags.
The shape of a sleeping bag can have a big effect on several different important elements, it’s not just about personal preference. Some sleeping bag shapes are lighter, some warmer, and there are different technical considerations too.
Rectangular sleeping bags are most common for general campers, this traditional style is most comfortable and most similar to your bed at home. They allow for a more natural sleeping position and likely a sounder night’s sleep, however, they are much heavier and bulkier due to no optimization whatsoever. The rectangular shape means there’s a lot of additional material not in use, so these sleeping bags aren’t a good choice for backpackers.
Rectangular sleeping bags also don’t do as good a job keeping you warm, as the extra space inside wastes body heat. These traditional sleeping bags are best for casual camping; they can be unzipped into a blanket, two can be zipped together to create a double bag. Unless you’re up a mountain and need more specialist equipment, a rectangular bag is an easy and comfortable choice.
Mummy sleeping bags are the lightest option if you still want to stick with a traditional sleeping bag shape. These bags are tightly fitting to your body, which makes them much more efficient at conserving heat, but can feel restrictive and uncomfortable to some campers.
Usually, mummy bags are narrow around the legs, widening a little around the torso, with a hood under the head and a small opening for your face. Mummy bags are the most efficient when it comes to saving on space and weight, and they’re the best at keeping you warm. If you’re a backpacker going ultralight, and saving on space and weight is of the utmost importance, then a mummy bag is probably what you need.
There is a middle option between mummy bags and rectangular bags, which offers a compromise between comfort, packability, and warmth. Semi-rectangular bags, sometimes called barrel-shaped bags, aim to offer more optimized design with better heat retention than rectangular bags, without being as restrictive as a mummy bag. These sleeping bags also tend to fall somewhere in the middle when it comes to packability as well.
There is a new style of sleeping bag that isn’t yet as popular as traditional options, however, it’s a great one to consider if you’re serious about camping. Quilts are designed to eliminate the wasted insulation that you sleep on top of; we’ll explain. When you lie down inside a sleeping, all the insulation and padding underneath your body is compressed down into nothing. Since the insulation requires air in it to retain warmth, the parts of your sleeping bag flattened when you lie down are essentially useless, making them wasted packing space and weight.
Quilt style sleeping bags eliminate this waste. They’re intended for use with a good sleeping mat, which will insulate you from beneath. Then, straps are used to ensure no air gaps around your upper body, while your legs would go inside an enclosed or partly zipped part of the sleeping bag. These quilt sleeping bags are less common and will cost you more, but we believe they’re worth the investment for dedicated campers. They are definitely the most weight- and warmth-optimal bags, so we recommend them for mountaineering especially.
Double sleeping bags are also an option, they’re actually a great idea for campers traveling in a pair. A double sleeping bag means you can share body warmth and can travel with a lighter-weight bag. Just ensure that if your camping partner is carrying the sleeping bag, you carry something else extra to balance things out.
The fit of your sleeping bag isn’t just about comfort; it’s about thermal efficiency. To be most effective, you need some air around your body in a sleeping bag for your body to heat, without there being too much dead space that just wastes body warmth. If your bag fits too tightly, it will be restrictive and uncomfortable, preventing you from getting a good night’s sleep.
A sleeping bag that fits too tightly will also make your body compress the insulation more, creating cold spots in the bag. There’s also the subject of sealing out drafts, so the fit needs to be efficient in this way so as to not waste warmth. Some new style sleeping bags have an hourglass shape, to fit efficiently around your body while still giving you space to move.
Women’s bags often have a slightly wider fit at the hips than men’s sleeping bags, to allow for additional wiggle room. Women’s sleeping bags are also generally slightly shorter than the men’s equivalent, and also have a little more insulation and women tend to sleep cooler than men. There are also sleeping bags for tall people at increased lengths.
Construction and baffles
Baffles are stitches in the construction of the bag which holds the insulation in its place. Without baffles, all the insulation in your sleeping bag could fall to one side, making it much less warm and comfortable. Sewn-through baffles are seen most commonly in cheap sleeping bags, where the seam goes the whole way through both fabrics and the insulation. Sleeping bags with this feature are cheaper, and not as good at keeping you warm.
Vertical baffles run from the head to the toe of your sleeping bag and usually have mesh walls inside to stop the insulation from moving around. These usually make for more comfortable sleeping bags. Horizontal baffles are usually seen on the very best sleeping bags, especially bags for cold weather. Continuous horizontal baffles run all around the sleeping bag, and allow you to move the down insulation to different parts of the bag according to the weather.
In warmer climates, you can move down to the underside of your bag, giving you more comfortable padding and less insulation. In colder months, you can more all the insulation to the top of your sleeping bag, making it significantly warmer.
The neck baffle, or draft collar, is a design feature included in the best backpacking sleeping bags. This is a tube of insulation near the hood or opening of your bag that prevents heat loss from inside, by sealing the gap around your neck and shoulders. Some use an elastic cord to cinch around your neck, which could be uncomfortable, while others use larger pieces of fleece fabric which is a more comfortable but less weight-efficient option. Neck baffles are an important design element in cold weather bags, but they aren’t as necessary or as commonly seen in three-season sleeping bags.
We’ve covered all the most important things you need to remember when choosing a sleeping bag, but here we’ll quickly go over a few additional considerations it’s a good idea to keep in mind.
- Zippers: The zipper on your sleeping bag affects the weight, important if you’re an ultralight backpacker. You’ll also need to think about how versatile the zipper makes your bag, and whether it might catch and get stuck on the material.
- Stuff sack: Ideally, you should store your sleeping bag in a stuff sack to compress it as much as possible. Stuff sacks do a great job increasing packability in sleeping bags, so if yours doesn’t come with one, it’s relatively inexpensive to purchase one.
- Sleeping bag liner: Using a liner in your sleeping bag adds a little insulation, but it’s mainly so that you can wash it and keep your bag fresh. Read about the best sleeping bag liners here, but remember that it all adds to your total pack weight.
- Shell fabric: This affects the weight, warmth, but mainly the durability of your sleeping bag. Unfortunately, even the highest denier sleeping bags are easily punctured; if they were any more durable, they just wouldn’t be comfortable.
So now you know all the different considerations when choosing the right sleeping bag. It’s a lot to remember, but your main decision is between down bags and synthetic bags. Most campers just need a three-season bag, with a moderate temperature range. Unless you’re a mountaineer, most warm-weather camping requires a middling temperature rated bag, in the most comfortable shape for you.
Think about whether comfort or weight is more important, as these are what you’ll make decisions based on. No matter your budget, always ensure that your sleeping bag’s temperature rating is at least at a survival level, but ideally higher so that you get a sound night’s sleep.
Bonus tip: Check out this video about redistributing your down with baffles!