Making the right choice from a plethora of sleeping bags for your backpacking trip is vitally important. If you’ve ever been curled up shivering in a fetal position waiting for the warming sun to come up, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. If you haven’t – good, let’s read on to keep it that way!
The sleeping bag has to keep you warm, but not sweating. Comfortable, but not too heavy. After all, that is one of the four most heavy items you will bring on your trip. Should it be a synthetic or a down sleeping bag? Does it have to be waterproof or not? All the answers to questions you didn’t know you had are here!
When I was a kid my dad bought me a sleeping bag to go on overnight fishing trips with him. I loved going out in nature and sleeping under the stars listening to the strange sounds of the wild. Naturally, backpacking was a perfect fit. I loved everything about it, still do. When he got me that sleeping bag I couldn’t keep my hands of it, I even replaced my bedsheets and slept in it on top of my bed … The sleeping bag back then to me had a much deeper meaning. When tucked in it, I imagined I was in a tent surrounded by trees and bushes listening to the crickets and breathing in the fresh mountain air.
Because of that I even read Robinson Crusoe. In my childhood eyes, I saw the book as a survival guide and another way to look at nature.
Plus I wanted to be prepared if I ever got stranded on an island!
This might sound silly but I keep a copy of Robinson Crusoe on my e-book reader to remind me of those childhood days!
Now there is a mountain of information, different fabrics, down or synthetic, ethical down, temperature ratings. It’s alright, I will help you not only to choose the best backpacking sleeping bag for you but with this guide, you will understand sleeping bags so you can judge a bag according to your preferences!
At the end of the article, once we’ve covered what a good sleeping bag looks like, you and I will look at a few good sleeping bag examples.
Let’s start with answering the question how does a sleeping bag keep us warm!
A sleeping bag must always have an insulating sleeping pad underneath!
How does a sleeping bag keep you warm?
A sleeping bag does not warm you in itself. It simply traps the heat your body produces. The body warms the air in the bag and the one trapped in the insulation. In order for the insulation to work, it has to be free – not compressed otherwise it loses it’s properties because there is no trapped air to get warm and to keep the heat in. The sleeping bags are separated into different temperature categories depending on how they retain heat. This is done to help you decide what sleeping bag to bring based on the minimum temperatures at night of the places you are going to backpack in.
Based on that the bags can be separated into 3 categories – summer, 3 season and winter sleeping bags
Summer sleeping bags are rated for temperatures of 30F +. They are the lightest in the line up because they don’t need much insulation. No hood or shoulder insulation preventing draft(draft collar or shoulder baffle) because you really don’t need them in the warm summer months.
3 season sleeping bags are for temperatures of 10 to 32F +. Ideal for spring and fall. You can use them in summer only if you are hiking in the mountains where it’s a bit colder. They come with features to retain heat such as straps to close the hood around your nose, draft collars, draft tubes to prevent the warm air to escape from the zipper area.
Winter sleeping bags are for temperatures of 10F + and below. Here we can often see water-resistant outer shells. This is to prevent higher humidity in the tent from being absorbed by the sleeping bag.
Here is where a subcategory can be defined – a 5 season sleeping bag – this is the polar bear sleeping bag option in extreme conditions such as high altitude mountain expeditions. Regular backpackers should not be too concerned about this category but be aware that if you take a 5 season sleeping bag on anything other than cold winters you are going to be soaking wet.
Nobody likes to sleep in a wet bag.
Sleeping bag Temperature Ratings
I think we pretty much covered it with different temperature ratings for different seasons. The European Union set a standard, the European Norm (EN) and some manufacturers started to rate their sleeping bags according to it. It is much easier to make a decision on your next sleeping bag when everyone is using the same yardstick.
There are two terms you need to know when it comes to EN-rated bags.
Comfort rating – comfort rating is the minimum temperature that you are going to feel comfortable in the bag.
Minimum rating(extreme) – this is the minimum temperature that the bag is going to keep you from going into hypothermia. You will not be comfortable, but you will be kept alive.
Now, not all sleeping bag manufacturers have chosen to pass the EN testing and get their approval. That does not mean that their bags are not adequate. On the contrary. Many of the most reputable brands don’t have this standard slapped on their sticker but their bags deliver the temperature ratings they say they do. After all, their reputation depends on it and we hikers like to know which sleeping bag is good and which is not. Word gets around fast!
Types of sleeping bags
There are three main types of backpacking sleeping bags. Rectangular, mummy bags and quilts. There is a specific use for each type, but some are more versatile than the other. For example :
- A rectangular sleeping bag doesn’t come with a hood. They are the most inefficient because there is more space to heat up. They are heavier and usually, they are more of a camping solution best used in the summer.
- Mummy sleeping bag is considered the standard. It actually looks more like a sarcophagus … oh … I get it because the mummy is IN the sarcophagus …silly me. Yap, that’s a mummy bag alright! Because the mummy bag is snugger all around it keeps heat in better. There are many variants of the shape but essentially it comes down to a more snug fit plus an adjustable hood with different features based on the temperature rating of the bag.
- Quilt – A quilt is basically a mummy sleeping bag without the back portion and the hood. It can clip around your feet to create a foot box it also can clip around the neck as a draft collar. You will have to use a hat or hooded clothes to compensate the lack of an included hood. Quilts are very lightweight. The idea behind them not having a back is if you compress the insulating material you lose the trapped air and there are no insulating properties to be had like that.
Quilts are much more versatile than standard sleeping bags because of the adjustability. They can have attaching straps to sleeping pads to trap in the heat better. Quilts dry faster and you can wear beefier clothes under them as you like. This allows you to use the quilt in a wider range of temperatures.
- Sleeping bags that can be zipped together forming a double sleeping bag – yes lovebirds, there is such an option and it is not restricted to only one type of sleeping bag. Just look for the features stated in the specs of the sleeping bags you are looking at.
When to use a Quilt and a Mummy bag
Whenever you like of course. Sleeping bags are a very personal choice. Everyone has different criteria and feels comfortable in different sleeping bags. For instance, men sleep warmer than women, so generally, in colder conditions, women should switch to a warmer mummy bag quicker than men.
My general thought when going about this question goes like this: You would be ok using a quilt for anything above freezing temperature. Otherwise, a mummy bag will hold in heat better and won’t be as drafty.
If you are concerned about weight while going on a long trip or a thru-hike sure, a quilt might be your best bet. Just don’t forget to pack a puffy hooded jacket.
What materials are sleeping bags made of?
Here we’re going to look at what are the best materials for a sleeping bag. What is generally used? What is the best sleeping bag for you? Synthetic or down? Do you need a waterproof outer shell on the sleeping bag? What is loft and why does it matter? How about durability? How durable are down and synthetic sleeping bags? Ah, so many questions, relax, there are simple and quick answers.
Let’s start with the insulating materials. They can be down or synthetic.
When we talk about down we have to talk about a few key topics :
What is down? This is the fine layer or feathers under the tougher exterior feathers of a bird. In our case, this would be a goose or a duck. This is the better material when it comes to insulation. It is lighter, warmer and when taken care of properly – much more durable and it packs really well. The downside is that it loses all insulating power when it gets wet and it takes a long time to dry out.
Ethics – yes, there are ethics involved while purchasing a down sleeping bag. What do I mean by that? Well, down is a byproduct of the meat industry. And that is fine, but some down is taken by plucking the bird alive multiple times which is very cruel and it should not be supported by a purchase. So in this case, if you care if the down was harvested in a humane way. Most reputable brands take pride in their down being humanely sourced. “Ethical down” in short.
Price – down is expensive. The prices can be from two times and up compared to a synthetic bag. What you get for that price is a lightweight sleeping bag. With proper care, it can last a very long time.
Fill power – this is a measurement of the ability of one ounce of down to retain air. The more air it retains the higher the fill power. So bags with higher fill power require less down to be within the desired temperature rating. A 650 fill power down sleeping bag would weigh more than a 900 fill power bag with the same temperature rating. But…, yes there is a but. Seeing as how lightweight down already is – you don’t need to go for the higher rating and pay a premium price just to save a few ounces.
Hydrophobic down – water resistant down which is supposed to dry faster and get wet slower. Real world testing shows that the benefit is marginal at best and the money can be better spent elsewhere. Just get regular down if there’s a big price difference.
There are many types of synthetic insulation but usually its some sort of polyester fluffy fibers. Not all synthetic insulation is the same. Some can be much lighter and provide better insulation. And then there is heavy synthetic insulation. Heavy synthetic insulation has contributed a lot to the perception that synthetic weighs more than down and packs much bigger. This is still true for the most part. After all synthetic bags are cheaper than down in part because of those drawbacks. As technology improves synthetic insulation can only become an even more attractive choice.
Synthetic insulation loses a little of its loft every time you compress it. Dries out faster. Now that we have a baseline with down, let’s see how synthetic insulation stacks up to it. Here are the pros and cons of a synthetic bag:
Synthetic can be up to 2 times heavier
up to 2 times the packed size of an equivalent down sleeping bag
up to 2 to 4 times less durable (5 years compared to 10-20 years from a well maintained down bag)
loses a bit of its loft every time it’s packed
hypoallergenic (some people are allergic to down)
very easy to maintain
dries faster than down
Considering everyone is mentioning it I have to say it too but lets put a bit of perspective in it.
“synthetic insulation keeps you warm even when wet“
Let’s think about that point. It’s definitely a positive, considering down loses all its insulating properties when wet and dries out very slow. But, and that is a big BUT, whether it’s a soaking wet bag or mildly wet, I don’t like sleeping in the wet. I’m sure I’m not the only one. I’ve seen many beds and not one was water sprayed to make the sleeping experience more enjoyable… It might sound good on paper and it’s definitely a positive point for synthetic insulation. So it’s more a question of beeing able to better survive in a cold environment with a wet synthetic than a down mummy bag.
The outer layer of the sleeping bag is also important. Usually, the more expensive the bag, the lighter the outer layer is to help with overall weight reduction. The sleeping bag does not get a lot of abrasion wear and tear so the outer shell does not need to be very tough. It does not matter if the nylon is 10D or 50D, a branch or a sharp rock is going to pierce both just as easily. Outer shell denier(D) count is usually in the 20-30 range going up to 50 which is heavier.
Do you need a waterproof sleeping bag or not?
There are sleeping bags with waterproof breathable outer shells. Waterproof and breathable go hand in hand, otherwise, water from our sweat would be trapped in and we’d still get wet. This option can add up to 80-100$ to the price compared to a regular sleeping bag. Waterproof is kind of a strong word though. I would say water resistant at best, so don’t go in the shower with your waterproof sleeping bag.
You don’t need waterproofing for a 3 season sleeping bag. There is also an option to have only the foot box waterproofed to prevent moisture seeping in from the condensation from the floor of the tent.
So in short, you don’t need a 3 season waterproof sleeping bag, but having a waterproofed foot box is not a bad idea.
Choosing between a down and a synthetic sleeping bag
Down vs Synthetic
Now that I’ve filled your head with the pros and cons of each material how do you choose? What is the best sleeping bag for you?
Well, we know that down is terrible when wet, so it has to be synthetic on the off chance we manage to “wet the bag”, pardon the pun. In reality, down is really not that hard to keep dry. Even a simple garbage bag can keep it dry when packed. Having good ventilation in your tent will prevent it from absorbing the otherwise accumulated moisture.
So the general rule you can apply is – you can use none waterproof down sleeping bags in cold DRY weather.
Synthetic is better for cold humid(or generally humid) environments where the condensation in the tent is high and it is imperative to keep your sleeping bag dry.
So to answer the question, while being up to twice the price of synthetic, down sleeping bags have a very big advantage you cannot overlook. Being twice as light and twice as small when packed is a huge plus when saving weight on long backpacking trips is a priority.
The synthetic sleeping bag is the more budget-friendly option. In the 5 years that we previously stated that the synthetic sleeping bag could last, depending on the use, it can lose 20-30 % of its loft. Even then you can still use it, just pack a warm jacket to compensate. Five years is a lot of time, so purchasing a synthetic bag would make more sense if you were just starting out and gathering gear on a budget. You can always upgrade later!
Another way to look at it is – if you are a regular outdoorsman – go with a down bag.
If you are just starting to hike and gathering gear – go with a synthetic sleeping bag.
It ultimately comes down to weight, price, and purpose. Down comes with a higher initial cost but it is well worth it in the long term. If you want to be as light as possible – go with down insulation.
If you are on a tight budget and a pound or two does not bother you – go with synthetic. Or if you’re going in a very humid environment, synthetic will be a better choice. The longer the trip the heavier and more tiring the load will be. So if you go synthetic, I would suggest strengthening your lower back and legs, ergo – choosing synthetic makes you healthier. Hah, I crack my self up sometimes. Although I’d suggest you strengthen your legs and lower back no matter which way you decide to go.
How much does a sleeping bag weigh?
Not enough to break your back, but just enough for the sleeping bag to be one of the heaviest objects in your backpack.
Two pounds and bellow is the light category, 4 lbs is a bit on the heavy side but still bearable. Keep in mind that winter sleeping bags will be heavier than their 3 season counterparts because they require more insulation. Here the phrase – “the lighter and more compact the pricier it gets” swings in full force!
Choosing the right fitting sleeping bag
You have to take into consideration the height and width of the bag. Look at the stated length of the bag and if you just fit – get the longer model. If you are compressing the foot box your feet will get cold fast – look for a longer model.
A mummy bag has to have room for you to shift, twist and turn in. If you are a side sleeper it has to be roomier. If you add multiple layers of clothes a slim fitting bag would not be able to fit. So when you try sleeping bags try them with different layers of clothes to simulate using them in colder environments. Do that if you plan on using the sleeping bag in colder environments of course.
Look at the return policy when buying online so you can safely choose the right fitting sleeping bag for you.
How to take care of the sleeping bags
All this time I’ve been mentioning a sleeping bag will last long “if you take care of it properly”. It’s about time we see how to do that exactly.
Storing – storing is different than packing. When you pack your sleeping bag you aim to make it as compact as possible to take it out on a trip. But when you store it, it has to be free so it does not lose its loft quicker. If you forget your sleeping bag in a packed state at home for a long time you are amortizing it for no good reason. This has a greater negative effect on a synthetic sleeping bag as it loses loft quicker than down. You can hang it in a wardrobe or put it in a big bag without compressing it.
Washing your sleeping bag– hand wash the sleeping bag in a bathtub with mild soap specifically designed for down or synthetic depending on the insulation. Check the label for drying. Follow the instructions how to dry it in a dryer to avoid mildew.
No need to worry if you see feathers sticking out of your down sleeping bag. That does not necessarily mean it has ripped. The feathers have just found their way through the fabric, pull them down from the underside and it should be fine.
Don’t forget the pillow! Of course, a regular pillow would be half the size of a backpack so a good backpacking pillow or some soft clothes tucked under your head is a must. Some hoods even have a pocket for that. The “clothes pillow” is for the weight conscious but if you can, take an inflatable backpacking pillow for a more comfortable sleep.
I will touch on this subject briefly- you need a sleeping pad no matter what sleeping bag you choose. The choice depends on your preferred way of sleeping. Side sleepers need more cushioning than back sleepers. The sleeping pad is essential because it provides an insulation barrier between you and the ground.
“But what about the back of the sleeping bag, it has insulation too right?”
That is a good question. The insulation needs “loft”- air to be trapped inside it to work. When we sleep in the sleeping bag we compress the part that touches the ground making the insulation lose its insulating properties. That way it becomes just a cushioning material. For this reason, we need the sleeping pad – to hold our weight without losing its insulating properties. The extra comfort is a bonus.
Affordable sleeping bag choices
Let’s start with a budget-friendly synthetic bag
Outdoor Vitals StormLight 35
Insulation: Synthetic StormLIGHT insulation
Temperature rating: 35F lower comfort rating
Shell: 75D Ripstop, waterproof
Packed Weight: 2 lbs. 2 oz. + 3 oz. compression bag(included)
Packed Size: 7×7”
Can Be Zipped to make a double bag
The OV StormLight 35 is a very budget-friendly synthetic sleeping bag. It has a newly developed synthetic insulation that is waterproof and lightweight and packs smaller. Rated for 35F lower comfort rating, which means that you’d most likely feel ok in the 45-60F range. The waterproof shell, as well as the waterproof synthetic insulation, make this sleeping bag a good choice for humid environments. On the inside, there is a handy pocket for small items. There is a draft tube along the zipper but no draft collar around the shoulders. This can be somewhat mitigated by a well cinched up hood string. I’m not going to hold it against it.
Here’s the fun part – the blue(right-hand zipper) and orange color(left-hand zipper) variants of the StormLight can zip together to make a double sleeping bag. This is where you imagine an awkward wink!
Another good feature is that the bag is machine washable. Proper care for it couldn’t be easier.
There have been some reports of failed zippers. These are complaints for the older model. I contacted Outdoor Vitals and they confirmed that they’ve put sturdy YKK zippers to address the issue! Even if something fails don’t worry – the bag comes with a limited lifetime warranty. From my experience, their customer support is quick to respond. You will have to look long and hard to find a better synthetic sleeping bag for the money!View at Amazon
Kelty Cosmic 20
Insulation: 600 fill power DriDown(hydrophobic down)
Temperature rating: comfort 20 F
Dimensions: 3 sizes -Short: fits up to 5 ft 6 in; Regular – fits up to 6 ft; Long – fits up to 6 ft 6 in
Shell: 50D Down proof polyester Ripstop (so down doesn’t poke out)
Packed weight: Short: 2 lbs. 6 oz.; Regular – 2 lbs. 9 oz. ; Long – 2 lbs. 13 oz.
Packed size: 7×12 in (compression bag included)
This is a budget-friendly down mummy sleeping bag. The 600 fill power is adequate and I know I said that hydrophobic down is only marginally better. That is still a big plus in this value for money sleeping bag. It has the anti-snag full-length zipper. There’s a draft tube along the zipper and there’s an inside pocket for small items. A nice soft draft collar to prevent heat from escaping around your shoulders is also present.
Oh wait, I almost forgot! The zipper is two way so if it gets too hot you can unzip the bottom side for your feet to breathe. The Kelty Cosmic comes in a variety of temperature ratings: 0-20-40F. Add another 10F-15F and that would be the actual comfort level as many reviewers reported. You can choose what suits you best, but the Cosmic 20 is quite a capable 3 season down mummy sleeping bag.View at Amazon
Sleeping bags can come in all shapes and sizes. But there is always “the right shape and temperature rating” for the right job. A good sleeping bag is an essential piece of gear you should choose wisely. Armed with this knowledge you can choose the right sleeping bag for your hiking adventures! A good sleeping bag to me is just as important as a nice pair of hiking boots!
Let me know in the comments below what are your thoughts on synthetic vs down sleeping bags. I’d love to read about your favorite sleeping bags and why do you like them!