The best sleeping bag for you depends greatly on your personal needs. What season will you be using it in? Are you a hot or cold sleeper? Will you be carrying it in a backpack? The following guide will cover all the details you need to know to help you make the perfect choice.
One of the main dividers when comparing sleeping bags is the season you’ll be using it in. They usually fall into three basic categories; Summer, 3-Season, and Winter.
Summer: Best for late spring and summer, designed for +35ºF and higher
3-Season: Ideal for spring, summer, and autumn, designed for +10ºF to +35ºF
Winter: Designed for +10ºF and lower
It’s usually best to select a bag with a temperature rating which is slightly lower than you’re expecting to encounter. A summer sleeping bag is ideal for warmer nights, but heavy duty winter sleeping bags are a must if you’re expecting subzero temperatures.
Each sleeping bag comes with a temperature rating which identifies the lowest temperature in which the bag should be used. For instance, when a sleeping bag is described as a “20-degree bag”, it means that most users should remain comfortable in temperatures no lower than 20ºF.
These ratings assume you’re using a sleeping pad under the bag, which puts a few more inches between you and the ground to increase the insulating capabilities of your bag.
As well as a temperature rating, sleeping bags come with additional information such as upper limit, comfort level, and lower limit to help make your decision easier. Your own metabolism will also play a part in your decision, as sleep comfort levels differ greatly from person to person.
Upper limit: Indicates the temperature where a man may start to feel too
Comfort Level: The temperature a “standard woman” can expect to sleep
Lower limit: If the temperature falls below a sleeping bag’s lower limit, a
standard man may start to feel cold. This will probably be a slightly
lower limit than a standard woman.
Size, Shape, and Weight
Sleeping bags keep you warm by trapping and holding a layer of air next to your body. A good fit is essential, as less air space means you’ll warm up fast and, essentially, stay warm. Some men may find women’s sleeping bags a better fit or vice versa, it’s all about staying comfortable.
Men: Standard bag size, available in a variety of shapes.
Women: Women-specific bags tend to be narrower at the shoulders, wider at the
hips, and are slightly shorter. They also have extra insulation in the upper body and footbox.
Kids: Sleeping bags for kids tend to be mummy shaped to maximize warmth
and filled with synthetic insulation to hold up to accidents and spills.
The most common shapes you find are rectangular, semi-rectangular, mummy, and double-wide:
Most camping sleeping bags have a rectangular shape to maximize comfort and roominess, but can be less efficient at warming than other shapes. Bags with compatible zippers that are the same size, style, and length can be zipped together to form a two-person sleeping bag.
Semi-Rectangular / Barrel Shaped
Many camping and backpacking sleeping bags have this shape, as it offers more warmth and efficiency compared to rectangular bags. Large-frame users often choose a backpacking sleeping bag as it offers good comfort.
Often found in backpacking or car camping bags, this shape is narrow at the shoulders and hips to maximize warmth. Although they are lighter than other shapes, some find it harder to get comfortable.
These are designed to comfortably sleep two people. A double sleeping bag is roomy and cozy, and combined with an air mattress or foam sleeping pad can provide a great night’s sleep. Most can zip apart to create two individual bags.
It’s important to consider the packed size and weight of your sleeping bag, especially if you’re going to be fitting it into a backpack or carrying it long distances. If you’re going to be hiking or traveling, then a lightweight sleeping bag would be a great choice, as they usually weigh just over a pound.
However, if you’re expecting extreme conditions, there is no point in buying an ultralight sleeping bag and compromising on warmth, as these aren’t usually suitable for very low temperatures.
Down vs. Synthetic Insulation
Sleeping bags are available with either down (made from goose or duck plumage) or synthetic insulation. Both have clear advantages and disadvantages, but when it comes to providing warmth and durability, down sleeping bags will usually be the best option.
Down Insulation Pros
- Ounce per ounce, down offers more warmth than synthetic insulation. There is no man-made fiber which matches down in a warmth-to-weight ratio.
- It offers great longevity and retains its shape and loft. With proper care, a down sleeping bag can hold up well over years of use, and can even last a lifetime.
- Down absorbs body moisture and allows it to evaporate, which helps keep you dry, comfortable, and warm.
Down Insulation Cons
- The biggest disadvantage to using down is that if it gets wet, it loses its insulating capabilities, and unfortunately, it takes a long time to dry.
- Harsh detergents and chemicals can break down the natural loft and luster of down, so it requires special cleaning which can be labor intensive.
- Allergens can be a problem, as lower-quality down can harbor dust particles and other allergens.
- It is more expensive than synthetic insulation.
Synthetic Insulation Pros
- This type of material is water resistant, so it can provide warmth even if your sleeping bag gets wet.
- It dries much quicker than down. In the event your sleeping bag does get wet, the moisture is trapped in air pockets between the fibers rather than in the fibers themselves.
- It’s a cheaper option than natural down.
- As it is a manmade fiber, it is for the most part hypoallergenic.
Synthetic Insulation Cons
- It is bulky and less compact. With a heavier warmth-to-weight ratio than down, it can add pounds to your pack and can take up valuable space.
- Synthetic insulation breaks down over time.
Lower-end synthetic sleeping bags can be stiffer, so they don’t drape as well as down and can cause fit problems.
If you’re not going to be sleeping inside a tent or think you’ll be exposed to water in any way, then a waterproof sleeping bag is a great option. There are many bags available with water-resistant fabrics aimed to keep down and synthetic insulation dry.
However, proofed outer layers aren’t perfect and can let water in at the stitch. Sleeping bags with a completely taped outer shell should provide proof against almost any weather situation, but carry a considerable weight penalty.
Different linings provide different levels of comfort, so it’s important to consider this too.
Nylon / Polyester / Taffeta
These are some of the most popular lining fabrics used in sleeping bags, as they’re soft, smooth, breathable, and comfortable. Cheap sleeping bags tend to use Nylon or Polyester, whilst Taffeta is slightly more expensive.
A fleece sleeping bag can help you feel warmer when the temperature starts to drop. This material feels soft on the skin, but as it traps heat it can get uncomfortable if you’re sleeping in the same spot for a longer period of time.
Cotton or Flannel
Mostly found in rectangular sleeping bags, these natural materials are breathable, durable, lightweight, and easy to repair.
Silk is soft, supple, and breathable, and won’t cause overheating from trapping body warmth. You’ll often find silk lining in more expensive mummy sleeping bags, however, it can tear easily and is difficult to repair.
Your need for waterproofing will depend on the season you intend on using your bag, and whether you’re sleeping in a tent or under an open sky. RipStop is nylon or polyester with heavier threads to reinforce the shell, making it stronger and resistant to tears and moisture.
DryClime, MicroFiber, and Gossamer Micro provide a softer material than Ripstop and make the shell strong and moisture-resistant.
DryLoft has great water-resistant abilities, is breathable and very comfortable. This is a great choice for keeping you warm and dry on the inside, leaving the wet and dampness on the outside.
Benefits to Look Out For
Choosing the right sleeping bag for your needs will keep you at the right temperature and provide enough room for you to sleep well. Rectangle bags are better suited for comfort, whilst mummy sleeping bags provide a better heating efficiency.
Consider the conditions you’ll be using your sleeping bag in. If you’re going to be exposed to extreme temperatures, then a zero degree sleeping bag will be a good idea. However, if you’ll mainly be camping in the spring and summer, a lightweight model will probably suit you better.
This is a numerical rating system given to down to determine its “universal lofting value”. A higher number doesn’t mean it will keep you warmer, but it does mean it will be lighter. Paying more for higher fill power is only necessary if you’re looking for a lightweight bag.
If you’re going to be carrying your bag in a backpack, it’s essential to consider a compact sleeping bag. You can use a sleeping bag compression sack to pack it even smaller and gain a little more valuable space.
With a few small additions, you can increase your comfort and improve your night’s sleep.
Travel Pillow: Smaller and lighter than standard pillows, these are ideal for
improving comfort even in areas where space is limited.
Liners: These can be inserted inside your sleeping bag to add an extra
layer of warmth, help keep it clean, and extend the life of your
Sleeping Mats: Placing a mat under your bag provides insulation from the ground
and helps keep you warm.
Air Beds: Perfect for adding comfort to your sleeping bag setup.
The right care will help preserve quality and considerably lengthen the life of your sleeping bag.
How to Wash a Sleeping Bag
Most people prefer to have their sleeping bags professionally cleaned, but if you want to wash it yourself, be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
Washing your bag in a laundromat will be easier, as it may not fit in your washer or dryer at home. You’ll need to use a gentle, non-detergent soap made for washing down and synthetically filled items. Never use bleach or fabric softener.
Bear in mind it can take at least two to three hours to dry completely. It’s worth hanging up overnight once you take it out of the dryer, to ensure it isn’t still damp when you store it.
How to Store a Sleeping Bag
Although sleeping bags are designed to withstand stuffing for short periods of time, storing your bag in a small stuff bag can end up breaking down the insulation. Ideally, you should hang it up in a closet or store it under the bed with nothing on top.
If you’re short on space, you can also use a large, breathable pillowcase or extra large stuff bag to store your sleeping bag when it’s not in use.
To avoid your bag developing mildew, make sure you never store your bag if it’s wet, don’t place it in a watertight storage bag, and always keep it in a cool, dry place.
Choosing the right sleeping bag will depend greatly on your personal needs. This guide should help you understand more about the different types of sleeping bags available and the comfort they provide, but you can also find useful information by reading sleeping bag reviews.