Sleeping bags come in all shapes and sizes, but with so much information to consider, it’s easy to feel bombarded with jargon. From temperature rankings to comfort levels, here’s everything you need to know to help you find the perfect match.
To help you make the right choice, sleeping bags are categorised by season. Unfortunately, they don’t always line up nicely with actual seasons, so they can be a bit hard to understand.
Ideal for warm summer nights around 10ºC or higher. If you’re summer camping in Europe, this is a great choice and a lighter option for carrying around.
A good choice for cooler nights around 5ºC or higher. Ideal for late spring to early autumn, this is the season most UK family campers go for. You may need extra measures to keep you warm in cooler months, though.
Ideal for cold nights around 0ºC or higher (but not if conditions are frosty). This season is best for camping from spring through to autumn. It should keep you warm on cold nights but not too hot when it’s mild. If temperatures drop from 0ºC to - 5ºC you’ll probably start to feel cold though.
The best choice if you’re expecting frost or snow, or temperatures of -5ºC or higher. These winter bags are suitable for very cold winter nights and will do a good job at keeping you warm down to -10ºC
If you’re stuck between two seasons, it’s best to go with the one that has a slightly lower temperature rating than you actually need. If you’re looking for a summer sleeping bag, then a 1 season bag is ideal for warmer nights. But if you’re expecting subzero temperatures, then a more heavy duty winter bag, such as a 4 season, should be the best option.
The next important category to help you find the best sleeping bag is its temperature rating, which identifies the lowest temperature at which a bag should be used. So if a sleeping bag is described as a “0ºC bag”, then most users should still feel comfortable at temperatures no lower than 0ºC.
It should be noted that these ratings assume you’re also using a sleeping pad, which increases a bag’s insulating capabilities by protecting you from the cold ground.
As one person’s sleep comfort levels can differ greatly to another (depending on your metabolism, whether you’re male or female, or maybe just a warm sleeper), sleeping bags come with additional information to help you make your decision. These ratings should be used as a guide only.
This shows the temperature a “standard woman” can expect to
sleep comfortably. This is usually the best guide to look at.
This rating aims to show you the temperature at which a “standard man” will start to feel too warm.
This limit shows the temperature at which a standard man may start
to feel cold. Remember, this will be slightly lower for a man than a
Size, Shape and Weight
In order to keep you warm, sleeping bags trap and hold a layer of air next to your body. Because of this, finding a good fit is essential to keep you comfortable. The less air space there is between your body and the bag, the easier it is to warm up fast and keep warm.
The most important thing is feeling comfortable. Some men find a women’s size a better fit due to their narrower shape at the shoulders, whilst some women feel more comfortable in a men’s size. It doesn’t matter what size you go for, as long as it’s the right one for you.
Men: This is a standard bag size and available in a variety of shapes.
Women: Women’s sleeping bags tend to have some extra insulation in the upper
body and footbox. They’re also usually narrower at the shoulders, wider at
the hips and slightly shorter than men’s sizes.
Kids: Kids sleeping bags tend to be mummy shaped to provide maximum
warmth and usually have synthetic insulation.
Depending on your body shape, the way you sleep and where you’ll be using the bag, you can choose from a variety of shapes including rectangular, semi-rectangular, mummy, and double-wide.
This is a popular shape for camping bags as they maximise comfort and roominess. However, other shapes offer more efficiency when it comes to warming up. Rectangular bags which are the same size, style and length and have compatible zips can be zipped together to make a two-person bag.
Barrel Shaped / Semi-Rectangular
Sleeping bags used for camping and backpacking often have this shape as they’re better at keeping you warm. They are also popular with large-frame users as they offer good comfort.
Mummy sleeping bags are narrower at the shoulders and hips to maximise warmth. This shape is often used for backpacking and car camping bags. On the plus side, they tend to be lighter than other shapes, but some people find it harder to get comfortable.
This shape is designed to comfortably sleep two people. Double-wide bags are roomy and cosy and can be combined with an air mattress or sleeping pad to provide a great night’s sleep. Most can be zipped apart to create individual bags.
The weight of your sleeping bag is an important factor to consider, especially if you want to fit into a backpack and carry it long distances. For hiking and traveling purposes, a lightweight sleeping bag is a great choice as they usually weigh less than half a kilo.
If you’re expecting extreme conditions, on the other hand, you shouldn’t be focusing on an ultralight sleeping bag and compromising on warmth. You’ll need a heavier bag which is more suitable for very low temperatures.
Down vs. Synthetic Insulation
When it comes to insulation, sleeping bags are available with natural down (made from goose or duck plumage) or synthetic materials. There are clear advantages and disadvantages to both, but when it comes to durability and warmth, down sleeping bags are usually a better option.
Down Insulation Pros
- In a warmth-to-weight ratio, there is no man-made fiber which matches down. It simply offers more warmth than synthetic insulation.
- Down holds its shape well and offers great longevity. With proper care and cleaning, down sleeping bags can last a lifetime.
- Down absorbs body moisture and then allows it to evaporate, so you stay warm, dry, and comfortable.
Down Insulation Cons
- Down’s biggest disadvantage is that if it gets wet, it loses its insulating capabilities and takes a long time to dry out.
- It requires special cleaning which can be labour intensive, as harsh soaps and detergents can break down its natural loft and luster.
- Poor-quality down can harbour dust particles and other allergens.
- Down is more expensive than synthetic insulation.
Synthetic Insulation Pros
- Synthetic insulation is water resistant, so you can stay warm even if your bag gets wet.
- It dries much quicker than down.
- It’s usually a cheaper option than natural down.
- Synthetic insulation offers hypoallergenic properties as it is a manmade fiber.
Synthetic Insulation Cons
- With a heavier warmth-to-weight ratio than down, it tends to be bulkier and less compact, adding weight to your backpack.
- Synthetic insulation is less durable and breaks down over time.
- Lower-end synthetic bags are often stiffer which can cause fit problems.
If you’re planning on sleeping under an open sky or if you think you’re going to be exposed to water in some way, then a waterproof sleeping bag is a good way to go. Both down and synthetic bags are available with water-resistant fabrics.
However, this doesn’t usually mean you can lie in a puddle and stay dry, as proofed outer layers aren’t perfect and may let water in at the stitch.
For complete protection in any weather situation - including puddles - then you’ll need to go for a model with a completely taped outer shell. Just bear in mind these carry a considerable weight penalty.
Popular sleeping bag linings include nylon, polyester, taffeta, fleece, cotton, flannel or silk, and each material provides a different level of comfort.
Nylon / Polyester / Taffeta
These fabrics are soft, smooth, comfortable and breathable, and are commonly used in different types of bags. Cheap sleeping bags often use Nylon or Polyester, whilst slightly more expensive ones use Taffeta.
A fleece sleeping bag feels soft on the skin and is ideal for keeping you warm at low temperatures. However, as this material traps heat, you may start to feel uncomfortable as temperatures rise.
Cotton or Flannel
Cotton and flannel linings are usually found in rectangular sleeping bags. These natural materials are popular as they’re lightweight, breathable, durable, and pretty easy to repair.
Silk is often used to line higher-end mummy sleeping bags. It’s soft, supple, and breathable, and shouldn’t cause overheating from trapping body warmth. On the downside, it tears easily and can be difficult to repair.
Waterproof sleeping bags tend to be heavier and more expensive than ones with regular lightweight fabric, so these are usually only worth considering if you’re expecting to use the bag in extreme weather conditions or for sleeping under an open sky.
RipStop is made from nylon or polyester which has heavier threads to reinforce the fabric. It’s stronger and more resistant to tears and moisture.
DryClime, MicroFiber, and Gossamer Micro are good choices for sleeping bags with a strong, moisture-resistant shell. They’re also a softer material than Ripstop.
DryLoft is breathable, comfortable, and has great water-resistant abilities. It’s probably the best bet for keeping your dry and warm on the inside whilst leaving dampness on the outside.
Benefits To Look Out For
There are so many things to consider when it comes to choosing the right sleeping bag that it can all get a bit mind boggling. Here are some of the most useful benefits to look out for.
To stay comfortable, your sleeping bag needs to keep you at the right temperature and give you enough room for you to get a good night’s sleep. Whilst rectangle bags are roomier, mummy sleeping bags are more efficient at providing warmth. So think about what will provide more comfort for your specific needs.
If you camp all year round, you may need to consider buying several sleeping bags. Whilst 3 season bags offer the most versatility (spring through to autumn), if you’re also going to be exposed to extreme temperatures, then you’ll need to consider a zero degree sleeping bag as well.
When a sleeping bag has a high fill power number, it doesn’t mean it will keep you warmer. This is a numerical system given to down to determine its “universal lofting value”, so the higher the number, the lighter it will be.
To help pack your sleeping bag even smaller you can use a sleeping bag compression sack. If you’re planning on carrying your bag in a backpack, it’s best to consider a light, compact sleeping bag so it takes up as little room as possible.
You can increase your level of comfort and vastly improve your night’s sleep with a few small additions.
Travel Pillow: These are much smaller and lighter than standard pillows, so they’re a great choice when you have limited space available.
Liners: Inserting a liner into your bag will add some extra warmth and keep your sleeping bag clean.
Sleeping Mats: These provide an extra layer of insulation between you and the ground to help keep you warm.
Air Beds: Why lie on the hard ground when you can use an air bed to add some extra comfort to your sleeping bag setup?
To preserve quality and considerably extend the life of your sleeping bag you need to clean and store it in the right way.
How to Wash a Sleeping Bag
It’s essential you follow the manufacturer’s instructions when it comes to washing your sleeping bag. For many, it’s easier just to get them professionally cleaned, but if you prefer to do it yourself, here are some tips to follow.
As your sleeping bag may not fit in your washer or dryer, it’s often easier to go to a launderette. You’ll need to buy a gentle, non-detergent soap which is suitable for washing down or synthetically filled items, and remember never to use bleach or fabric softener.
Drying a sleeping bag can take a very long time, up to two to three hours even in a dryer, so you may want to take a book with you. It’s also worth hanging up overnight before you put it away to ensure it’s not at all damp.
How to Store a Sleeping Bag
When you’re not using your sleeping bag, it’s best not to store it in a small stuff bag as this can break down the insulation. They’re only designed to withstand stuffing for short periods of time, so ideally, you should hang it up in a cupboard or store it on a flat surface, such as under the bed (but don’t place anything on top). You can also buy extra large stuff bags or use a large, breathable pillowcase if you’re short on hanging space.
To avoid your bag getting mouldy, make sure it’s completely dry before storing it away. It’s best to keep it in a cool, dry place, but don’t put it in a watertight storage bag.
Before you set out to find the perfect sleeping bag, you need to think about your own personal needs. Are you a cold or warm sleeper? Do you like having extra room to move about? What season are you most likely to use it in?
This comprehensive guide should help you understand more about the different types of sleeping bags available. Reading about other users’ experiences and checking out sleeping bag reviews are other good ways to help you make the best choice.