How to Choose a Sleeping Bag
Having a good night rest can make or break a camping trip. If you’re well rested you feel better, can cover more miles, and have more energy than if you spend all night tossing and turning. This is why having a good sleep system is extremely important. If you’re going to splurge on anything for camping, make it your sleeping bag and sleeping pad.
There are so many different choices out there that it can be hard to choose. I’ve broken down the different factors to consider when selecting the right sleeping bag for you.
This sleeping bag is designed for comfort. Since you’ll be camping with the car nearby, you don’t need to worry about the weight of the bag and these are typically less expensive! Also, if you’re camping as a couple, you can consider getting a double bag. Still, focus on the temperature rating, you want to be warm and comfortable.
Weight, compressibility and temperature rating should be the main factors you consider. Still, of course, look for something comfortable, but it won’t be fluffy and big like your down comforter at home. A sleeping bag is considered one of the “Big 3” when it comes to backpacking weight, in addition to backpack and tent. These bags also get more expensive.
You’ll mainly want to focus on warmth for this bag otherwise you’ll be up all night sleeping in all of your snow clothes and still cold since you aren't moving. You’ll also want to look for a bag that offers water resistance. These will also be pricey because of the insulation.
This is a combination of looking for a backpacking bag and a winter bag. You’ll want something light, very warm and water resistance. These bags will typically be the most expensive since they have the best quality insulation available.
When choosing the temperature rating, go for lower than what you expect to be the lowest temperature on your trip. If you get too warm, you can always unzip it which is better than being too cold.
Another thing to consider is if you typically sleep hot or cold. Although there is no universally adopted system you can look for an EN number which has widely become adopted in Europe.
EN Comfort is the lowest temperature the average woman can sleep comfortably.
EN Lower Limit is the lowest temperature the average man can sleep comfortably.
Most people go for a three-season sleeping bag since you can use it in a variety of different environments and since mountain weather can be variable.
Summer Season - 30F or higher
Three-season - 15F to 30F
Winter - 15F or lower
Sleeping bags keep you warm by trapping air and holding it next to your body. The more spacious a bag is, the cooler it will be.
You’ve probably used one during your middle school sleepover. They are not tapered at the feet, they have plenty of room to move around. You can even unzip them completely and use it as a blanket. Since these bags are spacious, they are not thermally efficient.
These bags are a medium between a rectangular bag and a mummy bag. These bags are roomier compared to a mummy and offer more warmth since they’re more confined compared to a rectangular bag. If you’re a side sleeper or toss and turn at night, this bag might be a perfect option. These will be a little heavier than a mummy bag.
True to the name, they look like a mummy! They fit snug through the feet, legs, and body, are more thermally efficient, lighter, and typically warmer.
Different Types of Down
Down is the lightest, warmest and most compressible option. It’s also more expensive than synthetic, but it does hold well over the years.
With down, the fill power tells you the quality of the bag. The fill power just means how many cubic inches one ounce of down consumes in a beaker. They typically range from 600 to 900, the higher the number the warmer the bag.
Synthetic is the best option for wet conditions. It’s usually made from polyester, dries fast and continues to insulate even when damp. It’s also non-allergic and less expensive. The tradeoff is it usually is bulkier and heavier.
Sleeping Bag vs Quilt
For ultralight (UL) backpacking, quilts have become the preferred option.
Quilts are lighter and smaller but hold warmth. They are basically a backpacking blanket. They have one side, can attach to your sleeping pad and close around your feet and neck. You’ll also need a hood with a quilt to keep your head warm. Quilts are also a good option for side sleepers and those who toss and turn.
However, the warmth of the quilt does also depend on the sleeping pad. If you don’t have a good sleeping pad, or it deflates, you’ll lose your warmth.
The best choice is whatever you are comfortable with. A good night rest can make or break your entire following day on the trail.
Caring for the Bag
Keep the bag clean(ish)
Try to avoid sleeping in your dirty hiking clothes. Oils, sweat, dirt, sunscreen, and bug spray can soak into your bag and effect your bags insulating power. Wash off even if it’s just with wipes and change into clean clothes before going to bed.
You might also want to consider a sleeping bag liner which will add a layer of fabric between you and the bag. Some liners are designed to add warmth to your bag, so if you’re going winter camping or will be in colder conditions than your bag will tolerate this might be a good option to not getting a new bag.
Be careful with it
Jumping around camp in your bag will trash the toe box. Don’t throw it on the ground at camp, put in your tent or on your sleeping pad. Let your bag air out daily.
When storing your bag, take it out of the stuff sack and store it loosely as it is or in a large breathable sack like cotton or mesh. Storing your bag in a compressed sack will eventually damage the fill.
Try spot cleaning before washing because it will help preserve the longevity of your bag. Use non-detergent soap and a toothbrush to clean the hood and neck areas that tend to trap the most oil from our skin and hair. Make sure to hold the shell away from the insulation to help keep it from getting wet.
Typically most bags can go years without needing a complete wash.
If your bag is losing its fluffiness and darkening, it’s time to wash it. First, look for the manufacturer’s instructions and follow those.
You can also choose to have your bag professionally cleaned but don’t take it to the dry cleaners, the solvents they use can strip natural oils from down that help the bag retain its loft.
You can also hand wash it or use washing machines. Make sure to use non-detergent soap that is specially made for washing down and synthetic filled items, use as little as possible. Never use fabric softener or bleach.
Don’t wash a sleeping bag in a machine with an agitator, it can strain or rip the seams. Use cool or warm water on the gentle cycle. You can use a dryer to dry the bag or you can lay it flat on a clean surface and let it air dry. If you’re using a dryer, when the bag is nearly dry, I like to add a couple of clean tennis balls to help break up any of the fill clumps and restore the bag's loft.
Make sure the bag is completely dry before putting it away.