WORDS AND ADVICE FROM THE EXPERTS
SLEEPING BAGS: THE ULTIMATE GUIDE
The key to happiness on the trail, in the campground, on the beach, or anywhere that you decide to lay your head outside of your home, is a restful night's sleep. This can only be achieved by making sure you have adequate shelter from the elements, a comfortable cushion between your body and the ground, and the warmth (or coolness) needed to keep your body at it’s desired temperature. The one piece of equipment most fundamental to all of these needs is a quality sleeping bag. There are many different factors you want to look into when shopping for and purchasing the best sleeping bag for you. For instance, a taller person you would need to look at the size of the bags. For hiking you would want a lightweight sleeping bag that is easily packable. Do you prefer the mummy sleeping bag or traditional rectangular sleeping bag? What is the climate you will be sleeping in most often? Down or synthetic fill? All of these questions will help you find the perfect sleeping bag needed to maximize your enjoyment in the great outdoors. It may seem daunting, but don’t fret because this guide will help you narrow down your search and get you the best night’s sleep possible.
Sleeping Bag Shapes:
The shape of your sleeping bag is important. Because it will dictate warmth, comfort, size, and often times weight. Some of it is just preference, but some details are necessity.
Mummy Bags: The mummy sleeping bag is one of the more popular versions on the market, and for good reason. The shape of the sleeping bag is more streamlined and uses less material than a traditional rectangular bag. For that exact reason the mummy bag is going to be lighter. Less material equals less weight. So for anyone planning on a hike or trip that requires them to be concerned with the weight of their gear, the mummy bag is going to be their go-to. Another benefit of the mummy bag is that the shape is warmer by nature of it’s design. The shape hugs your body and allows for less “dead space” where air gets cooler. With the snug design of a mummy bag your body heat is trapped closer to the body and warms up more efficiently. One of the downsides of the mummy shaped sleeping bag is that it does not allow much room for movement and for some people this can be problematic. You really have little to no room to adjust your body throughout the night. Most mummy bags come designed with a hood that zips closed either partially (around your face) or all the way up covering your entire head. This is excellent for staying warm in frigid weather and allows for you to minimize air flowing into the bag at night.
- Best for cold weather because of the design and lack of "dead air".
- Most lightweight and compressible because it uses less material makes it the top choice for backpacking.
- Mummy bags all have hoods which help protect you from the elements.
- Can be restrictive and some people need more space.
Rectangular Sleeping Bags: Rather than being fitted to your body shape like the mummy bag, the rectangular sleeping bag is more roomy and boxy. Exactly what you would expect from a rectangular bag. This is the classic sleeping bag shape and they have been around since the beginning. They lack the hood that all mummy bags have leaving them open at the top and less protective from the cold. You can get rectangular bags with good temperature ratings that can withstand some very cold weather, but by design they are not usually as warm as a mummy. With this being said, a lot of us are not camping in sub-zero temps and would like a more comfortable and less restrictive night’s sleep. The rectangular bag is great for beginners and experts alike who want a comfortable bag and don’t need to worry so much about weight. Great for campground camping, sleeping on the beach, or taking to the lake. If you want the most lightweight and warmest bag, this may not be your first choice, but for many of us it’s all we need.
- Great starter sleeping bag, generally more affordable.
- Comfortable and roomy with enough space for a full sized pillow.
- Not as warm due to more dead air space and the lack of a hood.
- Perfect for people who need more room to move and don’t like tight spaces.
- Not as lightweight due to a bulkier design. Not ideal for backpacking.
Hybrid Sleeping Bags: These are exactly what they sound like. A hybrid between the body hugging mummy bag and the roomy rectangular bag. There are a variety of different shapes on the market but most feature more room in the areas you need to move and accommodate multiple sleeping styles. They will still use less material than a rectangular bag making them more lightweight but will also allow you to sleep comfortable without so much restriction around the shoulders, hip region, and feet. They still have more weight than most mummy bags so for backpacking you still may want to use a different style but they can be packed down and compressed in most cases. They are also more warm than a rectangular bag because they still maintain some of the same principles of the mummy bag, so if you need something in the middle this may be your ideal sleeping bag.
Temperature Ratings and How To Decide:
There is no exact standard that all companies use to measure the temperature rating of their sleeping bags. But with that said, most of them are pretty accurate. Generally the temperature you see is supposed to represent the lowest temperature the bag can withstand while keeping the occupant at a comfortable temperature. As we all know, no two people feel comfortable or warm at the same temp so this rating may be best served by adding about 10 degrees if you know that you are somebody who gets cold easily or needs extra warmth when sleeping. The temperature rating will almost certainly keep you alive in the range it shows, but alive and comfortable are different. You can always add extra clothing if you feel a little chilly in your bag but you really want to try to get a bag that will meet your needs.
Sleeping Bag Technology and Shell fabric:
The first thing you see when you look at a sleeping bag is the shell. This is also the first line of defense against the elements and should be of good quality. Most technical high quality sleeping bags will have a durable ripstop nylon shell. The good thing about ripstop nylon is that it is super lightweight and one of the more resilient fabrics on the market today. Some high quality shells will have a waterproofing membrane like Gore-tex built into the nylon, others will use a waterproof laminate to coat the shell. The important thing is that the waterproofing needs to be breathable to ensure comfort of the occupant. These options are generally for harsh conditions and would be found on top-tier sleeping bags only. The interior of most of the high-end bags is made of polyester which is very soft and offers excellent breathability.
On less expensive or “beginner bags” you may find the shell constructed or other materials such as polyester. Polyester is very similar to nylon but does not offer the same durability as the ripstop. If you are a novice camper and don't plan on rugged terrain or using your bag very often, a polyester shell may be right in your wheelhouse.
Cotton bags are generally the least expensive and almost always are rectangular in shape. They are fine for warm nights or inside sleeping. They do offer breathability and comfort but they are very poor at retaining warmth if wet. Even the morning dew will cause a cotton bag to get damp and once that happens it can take a very long time for it to dry. Cotton is fairly easy to clean and to take care of which makes them nice for kids and novice campers alike. They can keep you comfortable in mild conditions but will not have the same temperature rating as their synthetic counterparts. These bags are for people looking to have a backyard sleepover or just a sleeping bag to take to a friends house to enjoy the comforts of floor sleeping. If you are looking to backpack or worried about weight, the cotton bag is not for you.
Sleeping Bag Fills:
The fill in your sleeping bag is that soft warm stuff sandwiched between the shell and the lining and it’s probably the most important component. In fact, it is certainly the most important as it is what keeps you warm and comfy throughout the night.
Down Fill: Down fill in a sleeping bag is the same type of down you would expect in a nice duvet or a down jacket. It is made for the soft little underfeathers of geese and other waterfowl. Just like in jackets the “fill” of the sleeping bag is a direct measurement of the volume a certain amount of down takes up. So a very lofty down that fills more volume would have a higher fill rating meaning more warmth. Down is ultralight and super warm which makes it one of the most sought after fills for many applications. It’s warmth to weight ratio is the absolute best, meaning that, for example a 15 degree rated down fill would be lighter than any other 15 degree rated fill on the market. One negative about down is as soon as it gets wet it loses nearly all warmth, meaning you need to make sure you keep your bag dry. Down can be compressed over and over again whilst still maintaining it’s integrity and warmth. This makes down a perfect fill for somebody looking to conserve space on the trail or in their pack. The light weight and compressibility combined is what makes down so appealing.
Synthetic Fill: Basically this can be anything manmade. Most of the time synthetic fill is created using small strands or fibers of polyester. A lot of brands have their own fill with proprietary blends and claims. It is comparable to down in a lot of ways but simply does not match the warmth to weight ratio of down. This is not to say that synthetic is far inferior to down, because the technology gets better all the time and some synthetics are really pushing the envelope. There are also some other good qualities that separate synthetic from down. One of those qualities is that the lack of feathers or organic material means that it is hypoallergenic and great for people with allergies. It is generally much less expensive than down for a similar temperature rating. Also, synthetic fill can retain some of it’s warmth when damp unlike down.
How To Choose Your Perfect Sleeping Bag: For some of us it’s going to come down to cost vs comfort. More experienced folks who are serious about their gear will go for the top of the line bag for the conditions they plan on facing. Down sleeping bags are generally considered the cream of the crop, unless you plan on being somewhere wet (like the Northwest), due to its unmatched weight to warmth ratio and packability. Some of us who are on a budget want to maximize the quality without emptying the bank account will go with a synthetic fill as they are generally a cheaper option. Synthetic still gives great warmth and packability while keeping the weight down, though not as much as down. For the very novice car campers or those who just want a fun summertime bag may even opt for a cotton filled sleeping bag due to it’s ease of care and breathability, not to mention it’s the least expensive option on the list. Really it all comes down to what you're looking for and how serious you are about backpacking, trekking, hiking, or camping. Whatever you do, make sure you have fun!