How To Choose the Right Sleeping Bag

I decided I needed a new outdoors sleeping bag when I pulled my sleeping bag over my head on a chilly night and realized I could see the stars through my bag! When I started investigating what’s out there, it became a veritable rabbit hole of information, sometimes too much information! How do you choose the right sleeping bag with all the overwhelming amount of information out there and all the new developments in materials that modern sleeping bags offer?

This was the dilemma I found myself in. I did my research and found that the most important factor to choosing a sleeping bag is the environment that it will be used in. Let me take you through what I found out on my quest for a sleeping bag and hopefully give you some clarity for your choice!

Firstly, let’s take a look at the advancements in sleeping bag technology.

Sleeping Bag Tech

Sleeping bag technology, both for the outer shell and the inner stuffing has come a long way in the last few years!

Outer Shell

You will find that the outer shell of modern sleeping bag are generally constructed from ripstop nylon or polyester. Bothe these materials are durable and hardwearing and make ideal outer shells. Many manufacturers treat the outer shell material with a water repellant coating. This purpose of this coating is to reduce the amount of moisture from soaking through the outer shell and making the filling damp.

Tip: Take care to read the cleaning instructions for the bag to maintain this coating and it’s waterproofing characteristics.

When it comes down to insulating material, you essentially have two choices. Down, or synthetic material.

Down Insulation

While down filling is more durable, lighter and more compressible, a big disadvantage is a generaly higher price tag that the synthetic option. Down has better insulating properties than synthetic, except in wet conditions. When down gets wet it quickly loses much of its insulating property and it takes a long time to dry. Some manufacturers have coated their down with a waterproofing compound to protect against moisture, but this also increases the price tag.

Another aspect to consider when taking a look at down bags is that not all down is created equal. You will often see a “Fill power” specification on the bag which is a spec that indicates the quality of down used as the filler. A higher number indicates a superior quality down that will generate greater warmth for its weight. If you are looking for a down filled sleeping bag for extreme cold and ultra lightweight, choose a bag will a fill power closer to 800 than 500. Be prepared to pay substantially more for this type of bag.

Last update was on: June 4, 2020 3:59 am

Synthetic Insulation

Synthetic insulation is the more common insulation used in modern sleeping bags. As a result, the sleeping bag with synthetic filling will be easier to clean and maintain and will be significantly cheaper. The synthetic filling will perform better in wet weather than a down filling. A Sleeping bag with synthetic filling will retain around 50% of its insulating ability when wet. These reasons make a synthetic filled bag the best choice for use where conditions will be wet, damp or humid.

Last update was on: June 4, 2020 3:59 am

Environmental Conditions

Sleeping bags are rated according to their effectiveness in low temperatures. The lowest temperature recommended for a particular bag is usually marked on the packaging the bag comes in, the stuff sack or carry bag for the sleeping bag, or on a label on the bag itself.

Here are some rule of thumb guidelines for selecting the correct temperature rated sleeping bag.

Conditions Sleeping Bag Rating
Summer, indoors or RV camping 0°C (32°F) or higher
Autumn, Spring, Tent camping 0°C to -7°C (32°F to 19°F)
Winter, under the stars camping -45°C to -7°C (-49°F to 19°F) depending on the severity of your winters

The temperature rating is not a guarantee of warmth for any sleeping bag, it is a guideline. There are other factors that will determine warmth, such as a sleeping pad, type of tent, what clothes you wear and weather factors.

Tip: Choose a sleeping bag with a rating a little lower than the typical low temperatures you anticipate in the environment where you will be using the bag.

What Size Sleeping Bag To Choose

Most sleeping bags are unisex and come in regular and extended, or long sizes. The size on the bag usually indicates a “fits up to” size limit. If you are a tall person, rather select a bag where your height fits within the “fits up to” range.

Tip: Don’t select a bag that is too big for you. It will take you longer to get warm in a bag with excess airspace.

Some manufacturers produce women’s sleeping bags which are cut to fit an average woman’s contours more snugly. These bags are usually shorter than a standard bag, and are narrower at the shoulders and wider at the hips than a standard bag.

Childrens sleeping bags are just smaller versions of adult bags. The smaller size usually makes them correspondingly cheaper.

What Shape Sleeping Bag To Choose

Sleeping bags come in various shapes, from rectangular to barrel shape to mummy shape. Each shape has different functions and features.

Sleeping Bag Shapes

Rectangular Sleeping Bags

Rectangular sleeping bags usually don’t fit as snugly around the body, but provide roominess in the bag. Another feature is if you buy two rectangular bags of the same brand, they are usually compatible, allowing them to be zipped together to make a larger bag.

A feature of most rectangular bags is that they can be unzipped completely, allowing them to fold open. They can then be used as a duvet or a blanket. The temperature ratings on these sleeping bags are usually not rated very low.

These features make rectangular sleeping bags an ideal choice if you are using them indoors, car camping, or in an RV

Barrel Sleeping Bags

Barrel sleeping bags are narrower at the feet end of the bag and wider at the shoulder end, giving the bag a tapered look. These bags fit the body more snugly and you will find that you will warm up faster in a bag if this design. This is because there is less air space in the bag that your body has to heat up before you start feeling warm.

This style bag is ideal if you will be sleeping in a tent, or under the stars, but make sure you get the correct temperature rated back for the expected weather conditions.

Mummy Shape Sleeping Bags

Mummy shaped sleeping bags are normally the bag of choice for the serious hiker or adventurer! This bag is similar in shape to the barrel sleeping bag, but fits more snugly around the body. These bags usually come with a hood which can be pulled tight around your head. This is important in cold conditions, as you can lose up to 80% of your heat through your head!

What Weight Sleeping Bag To Choose

The weight criteria depends very much on how you will be using the bag. Will you be camping in an RV, using it in a cabin, or carrying it with you on a hike?

The quality of the insulation and the cut or shape of the bag are factors that contribute to the weight of the sleeping bag. A snugly sitting bag such as the mummy shape will have less material in it and will therefore be lighter and more compact.

If you are looking for a bag for hiking and weight is of great importance, you may need to invest in a down filled sleeping bag, which is much lighter than the synthetic filled variety.

Tip: When you compare weights of bags, make sure they have the same temperature rating.

Other Features To Consider

Many manufacturers add features to their bags which may be nice to have, but do not necessarily impact the performance of the bag. Here are a few things you may want to look out for as additional features.

  • Anti-snag zipper. This feature can prevent annoying snag ups when you try to open or close the bag
  • Draft tubes. These run the length of the bag behind the zipper to keep warm air from escaping.
  • Stash pocket. This is an additional pocket located on the chest near the top of the bag where you can keep small items handy, such as a headlamp, your watch, or tissues.
  • Pillow pocket. Some bags include a pocket in the hood region where you can stuff clothes or other soft items inside to create a makeshift pillow.
  • Vent Zippers. These are additional areas that you can open on the sleeping bag should you get too hot.

Some accessories you may also want to investigate before using your sleeping bag in the outdoors are as follows:

  • A Sleeping bag liner. This is a soft liner that you slip inside your bag. It can add an additional 10 – 15°C of warmth which can make your bag a bit more versatile across a wider range of temperatures. It can also help minimize wear and tear on the inside of your bag and help keep it clean.
  • Sleeping Pad. Most seasoned outdoors people would consider this item a must have! A sleeping pad acts as a barrier between the ground and your bag, adding an extra layer of insulation and waterproofing.

How Much Should I Pay For A Sleeping Bag

The correct sleeping bag for the conditions you will be experiencing can be a life-saving piece of equipment. A good sub-zero down sleeping bag can cost you around $250 US, whereas an equivalent sleeping bag with synthetic insulation will cost around $150 US.

A cost saving measure could be to buy a zero rated bag for around $50 US and invest in a sleeping bag liner for another $50 US approximately. This will give you some versatility while purchasing a cheaper sleeping bag.

That being said, my suggestion would be to buy the best sleeping bag you can afford.

I hope that my research journey into the world of sleeping bags can bring some value and insight for your choice of sleeping bag. It helps to have as much information as possible to select the right equipment for your needs!

Last update was on: June 4, 2020 3:59 am

Frank is an allround outdoorsman who has experience in homesteading, bushcraft and African wildlife, particularly snakes which he has a passion for. Frank has worked as a safari guide in well-known big 5 game reserves in South Africa and enjoys photography and knifemaking as hobbies.

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