How To Choose The Perfect Camping Sleeping Bag
Choosing the perfect sleeping bag isn’t a decision to be taken lightly or on a whim. Many factors come into play, ranging from your budget to the terrain and the climate.
Nonetheless, a high-quality, warm sleeping bag is an absolute must-have, whether pitching a tent, hanging a hammock, or roughing it with a bivvy.
Now, whether you’re planning a leisurely summer camping trip or a rugged winter adventure, here’s what you should remember when choosing the best sleeping bag.
Understanding Temperature Ratings and Warmth
First, you must pay attention to temperature ratings when picking a sleeping bag. You don’t want to be stuck in a bag that’s not quite warm enough.
Generally, sleeping bags have 2 temperature ratings. There’s the “comfort” and the “lower limit” ratings. The comfort rating, usually, is the temperature at which the average cold sleeper will feel comfortable.
Meanwhile, the lower limit is the temperature at which the average warm sleeper will feel comfortable.
But don’t get too caught up in the numbers. Remember comfort is subjective- your personal preferences, body type, and the size of your sleeping bag will affect how warm or cold you feel. The same goes for factors like condensation and the R-value of your sleeping pad.
Consider choosing a slightly lower temperature rating than you think you’ll need. Better safe than sorry.
Synthetic Fill Vs. Down Fill
Another important factor is the type of fill material used in the bag. And you’ll typically have two options: down or synthetic. Each with its unique set of pros and cons.
Down fill is popular due to its exceptional warmth and compressibility. And it is lightweight. With its impressive warmth-to-weight ratio, down is a top performer regarding insulation. It’s also more durable than synthetic fill. That means your bag will likely last longer.
However, down is not without its downsides. When it gets wet, down loses its loft and can no longer trap warm air. This can make it less effective at keeping you warm. Additionall
y, because down is more expensive and difficult to source, sleeping bags filled with down tend to be pricier.
On the other hand, synthetic fill is typically made of polyester. And it is more affordable than down. It also maintains its insulation properties even when wet. So it’s a good choice for rainy or humid conditions.
However, synthetic fill tends to be bulkier and heavier than down, and it’s less durable over the long term.
Ultimately, the choice between down and synthetic fill depends on your needs and priorities.
If you want a lightweight, packable bag that will keep you warm in dry conditions, down might be the way to go. But synthetic fill could be the better option if you need a bag that can withstand wet weather. And when you don’t want to break the bank.
The Durability of the Sleeping Bag Shells
One often-overlooked factor is the shell denier, which measures the thickness of the outer material. But why does it matter?
For starters, a thinner shell means less weight and more compact packed size. But it also means less durability, which can be a concern if you’re tough on your gear or like to sleep out under the stars.
Some ultralight bags, like the Feathered Friends Tanager, have a shell denier as low as 7D. That’s so thin; you can see the feathers through the material. Heavier backpacking bags usually fall in the 20-30D range.
Burlier models like the Marmot Trestles can go up to 70D.
Also, consider how you’ll be using your sleeping bag. Durability may not be a major concern if you sleep in a tent on a sleeping pad. But a thicker, more hardwearing shell may be a better choice if you’re cowboy camping.
Or when you’re planning to bring a furry friend into your tent.
So, next time you’re looking for a sleeping bag, don’t just focus on the temperature rating. Pay attention to the shell denier too, and choose a bag that’s both comfortable and built to last.
Sleeping Bag Design
The design and features of a sleeping bag have a significant impact on its performance.
First up is construction. Premium bags usually feature a box wall construction, where the fill is trapped inside brick-shaped baffles. While larger baffles give more space for insulation to loft, they can be prone to down migration, causing cold spots.
Smaller baffles, angled baffles, and zoned construction can all help prevent this by stopping the fill from moving around.
Simpler bags often use stitch-through construction, less thermally efficient but lighter weight and easier to manufacture. Some synthetic bags even forgo baffles altogether, using a single sheet of insulation to reduce cold spots and improve durability.
But it’s not just about construction. Other features, like hood design, zipper location, and draft collars, can greatly affect a bag’s warmth and versatility. Look for a bag with features that fit your camping style and preferred temperature range.
So, remember that there’s more to consider than just the fill. Pay attention to the bag’s design and features. Then choose one built to keep you warm and comfortable no matter where you camp.
Weight and Packability
Weight and packability are key, especially for backpackers who don’t need their gear to bog them down.
So, what should you look for in a lightweight, compressible bag? First, a high fill power is key. The higher the number, the more warmth the bag provides for less weight.
Second, look for a low denier for the shell fabric. This means the material is thin and light but more prone to snags and tears.
In terms of shape, a mummy bag is your best bet for maximum warmth and minimum weight. As for the temperature ratings, look for a bag warm enough for your needs without adding unnecessary weight.
Premium bags from brands like Western Mountaineering and Feathered Friends are some of the lightest and most compressible on the market, but they come with a hefty price tag.
Cheaper bags like the Teton Sports LEEF use bulkier synthetic fill and weigh more, but they’re also more affordable.
There are tradeoffs to going ultralight, though. Thin shell fabrics and fragile zippers can easily snag or tear; features are often minimized to shave ounces.
Shape of the Bag
Did you know that the shape of your sleeping bag can make a huge difference in weight and packability? The shape of your sleeping bag can determine how much you can carry it. And, of course, how comfortable you will be while sleeping.
The mummy bag is one of the most common shapes for backpackers. The contours of a mummy bag are tailored to fit the curves of the human form. They offer a snug fit around the feet and legs and more space around the hips and shoulders.
This clever design includes a hood that wraps around the head, ensuring that body heat is locked in tight. And with less material needed for construction, mummy bags are the top choice for lightweight and easy packing. That may be why they’re a hit with backpackers.
There are other options for the side sleeper or those like twisting and turning in their sleep. Some sleeping bag manufacturers have designed roomier bags, taking into account the shoulder and hip girth of the sleeper.
For instance, Nemo has introduced their “spoon” bags with more space around the shoulders and knees, such as the Nemo Disco 30.
However, remember that these roomier bags come at a cost – they tend to be heavier than their mummy-shaped counterparts, and there’s a greater chance for chilly drafts and pockets of cold air.
Another critical factor to consider when selecting a sleeping bag is filled power. This term refers to the amount of space that one ounce of down takes up in a cylindrical tube, also known as the loft.
Fill power numbers typically range from around 550 to 900, with higher numbers representing higher-quality down. Higher-quality down feathers have a more fabulous loft, which means they retain heat better, weigh less, and are more compressible.
While sleeping bags with higher fill power may be more expensive, they are also lighter and more packable than bags with lower fill power down. So, when you’re ready to invest in a high-quality sleeping bag, watch for fill power specifications.
Hydrophobic Down vs. DWR
Picture this: you’re out on a backpacking adventure, surrounded by nature’s beauty, when suddenly, the heavens open up, and you’re caught in a downpour. Sounds like a nightmare, right? It could be even worse if your down sleeping bag gets wet.
As mentioned earlier, down does not insulate well when wet. Fortunately, many manufacturers now use hydrophobic down, infused with a polymer to make it more water-resistant and less likely to clump when wet.
While hydrophobic down won’t make your bag completely waterproof, it’s undoubtedly a great layer of protection against moisture.
Many manufacturers also treat their sleeping bags with a durable water-repellent (DWR) finish to increase water resistance.
This causes water to bead up and roll off rather than seep through down inside. While DWR won’t save you in a full-blown downpour, it’s a helpful first line of defense against wet tent floors or sleeping on snow.
It’s important to note that DWR will wear off over time. You can reapply the coating with products like Nikwax TX Direct Spray-On Water-Repellent.
So, even if you are in a sudden downpour, you can rest assured that your hydrophobic down and DWR-treated sleeping bag will keep you warm and dry.
Additional Features to Consider
Many of today’s sleeping bags have various extra features to make your camping experience more comfortable and convenient.
Some bags come equipped with internal sleeves to hold your favorite camp pillow and sleeping pad in place, ensuring a comfortable night’s sleep (take the Big Agnes Anvil Horn 15, for example).
Others offer handy stash pockets near the chest for storing valuables like phones or keys, while anti-snag zippers prevent frustrating zipper snags and extend the life of your bag.
Remember that each additional feature adds a bit of weight to your pack. So go with what’s more important.
The price range can be rather broad regarding backpacking sleeping bags. Budget models can start at under $100, and high-end down bags may cost hundreds of dollars more.
More expensive bags are usually lighter, have higher fill powers, and can handle lower temperatures. That means more warmth for less weight.
Still, you don’t have to spend a fortune to get high-quality items. The Kelty Cosmic 20, for example, is a great option that won’t break the bank at just $170.
While it features 600-fill-power down, which can make it a bit bulky and heavy, it’s still a quality bag rated down to 19°F and weighs in at just 2 pounds 6 ounces, making it a fantastic choice for most 3-season conditions.
Hoodless, Zipperless, and Half Zip Bags
The quest for the lightest gear has led manufacturers to experiment with new sleeping bag designs. Hoodless and zipperless bags and half-zip options have emerged as some of the most lightweight sleeping bags.
However, these stripped-down designs come at a cost. Hoodless bags can be chilly, and half-zip or zipperless bags lack the ventilation capabilities of full-zip bags.
Moreover, sleeping quilts, becoming popular among ultralight backpackers, may save weight but sacrifice warmth, comfort, and ease of use.
Although they may be suitable for mid-summer outings in warm climates, we’d recommend a lightweight mummy or hoodless bag for most people and uses. So if you’re on the hunt for the best sleeping bag, remember that there may be better choices than ultra-light options.
Choosing the perfect sleeping bag is the key to a comfortable night under the stars. Don’t let a stormy night’s sleep ruin your camping trip.
Luckily, if you’re car camping, you don’t have to worry about lugging your gear for miles or sacrificing comfort for weight.
You can indulge in all the plushness and space you desire. So go ahead and select the roomiest, coziest sleeping bag you can find and drift off to sleep, dreaming of your next adventure in the great outdoors.