A Backpacking Sleeping Bag Buyer’s Guide – How to Rest Well

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Imagine sleeping under the stars. The sight astonishes you and takes your breath away. You trace the lines of Orion’s belt and the handle of the Big Dipper with your eyes. It is quite spectacular. It is best completed when you have a proper sleeping bag. As such, a backpacking sleeping bag buyer’s guide is crucial to getting a good night’s rest. After reading this, you will be ready to rest easy under those stars.

The Top 5 Tips for Considering a Sleeping Bag

In a previous article, I wrote about many more tips for backpacking in addition to the ones below. With further a do, these are the top 5 tips when looking at sleeping bags.

  1. Do you prefer a low weight bag or some extra room? On my bed at home, it is quite luxurious. I have a comforter, extra pillows, and plenty of layers. Comfort is quite important to me. When backpacking, you have to consider whether you are okay with a heavier sleeping bag and more comfort or less comfort and less weight to carry.
  2. Try it before you buy it. When you sleep, you spend 8 hours, plus or minus, laying on your back. If you get improper sleep, the other 16 hours will be sure to feel the impact. There is no reason why you should not take the 5-10 extra minutes to get a feel of where you will be spending your multiple 8 hours of beauty rest. Be sure to roll around in it to get a feel for the bag’s comfort and spacing. You will get an idea of snugness.
  3. Get a sleeping bag for the temperature you’ll be in. Sleeping in the jungle is going to be quite different from resting in a desert. Their nighttime temperatures are quite unlike each other. If you are cold, you can always put on extra layers of clothing and, if you are too hot, you can always unzip the bag.
  4. You get more wiggle room in a big bag, but less warmth. Choosing a sleeping bag is all about maximizing your comfort. You will be spending a third of your day in one, so it is important that you choose one you will enjoy. If you go big, you will have more flexibility and comfort, but less warmth and it will take up more space in your backpack.
  5. A longer size provides more room and flexibility. If you are Winter backpacking or camping, this is a must. When you choose the longer size, you can store some gear in your sleeping bag with you, providing easy access to anything you might need. If it is cold out, you can always dive deeper into the bag to keep you warm.

Temperature Ratings, Staying Comfortable

When you fall asleep, your body produces a lot less heat than it would during the day. It cools down at night, so it is important to have proper covers to maintain the right temperature for your body. When looking at sleeping bags, you can expect to find 3 kinds of temperature rating.

Summer season sleeping bags are designed for 32 °F (0 °C) and higher. These are best for those backpacking during the Summer. When it is warm outside, you will want this.

3-Season sleeping bags are for when the weather is between 10 °F and 32 °F (-12 °C to 0 °C) . These kind are best for Fall, Spring, Summer, and early or late Winter.

Winter sleeping bags are designed to keep you warm. The minimum temperature each one can handle varies, but they are designed for anything below 10 °F (-12 °C).

Please be aware that these are rough guidelines. Sleeping bags are manufactured on a broad scale, so they may not be designed specifically for the environment you will backpack to. Take what the manufacturer says into account. They will know best about their bag. 

Geese, Ducks, Synthetics, and a Combination

When it comes to insulation types in sleeping bags, there are three main types—down, synthetic, and a combination. Ideal insulation will keep you at a comfortable temperature when sleeping.

Duck, Duck, Goose!

When it comes to down, you have two choices available to you, duck and goose. In general though:

Down is lightweight, compressible, and meant for cold, dry conditions.

If you are going to someplace chilly and dry, like the tundra, then this will be sure to do the trick. Whenever you need to save space and weight, this will be your go to for those conditions. Compared to synthetics, it is more expensive, but it will last longer. If you are going to be backpacking frequently, then this is a better option than a synthetic bag.

One of the key concepts to understand is fill power. It refers to a bag’s ability to hold heat and, consequently, trap heat. Because not all down is created equally by manufacturers, they had to come up with a universal measuring system to assess each other. It refers to how much 1 ounce of some down can fill a cubic area.

If, for example, you are comparing a 600 fill power down sleeping bag rated +10 °F (-12 °C) with a 400 fill power down rated +10 °F (-12 °C), the former will be lighter and more expensive.

Another important aspect to know about down is that it turns soggy when soaked. You do not want this dunked into a river or else it will be a downer for the rest of your trip. It is water resistant not waterproof, so it is quite different. The latter will repel water entirely, while the former will help, but not to the extent that waterproof will.

Comparing ducks and geese

Goose down is the best of the best when it comes to down. It is lightweight and, of course, expensive. If you are going to be doing a lot of backpacking and want a high quality sleeping bag, then this is your choice. Most down you will find, though, will be duck down, less expensive and plentiful.

What is down made of?

Down is made from birds as a byproduct of the meat industry, mainly geese and ducks. Because more people eat the latter, duck down is more abundant. Do not worry fret though. From the farm to your sleeping bag, it is an ethical process. Every step of the way is monitored to maximize the humane treatment of the animals.

Synthetics

Synthetic is non-allergenic, drys quick, and insulates when wet.

Synthetic sleeping bags are less expensive than down and dry faster. If you are backpacking on a budget, this is the way you will want to go. Or if you are traveling to a damp climate or backpacking casually, this your best option. Even when soaked, a synthetic bag will still insulate.

Unfortunately, synthetic bags do have some downsides. They are a bit less warm for their weight, a bit bulky, and lose fill power each time they are stuffed in a sack.

Because these bags are synthetic, they can mimic aspects of down bags. They were created to provide the feel of anything.

The Middle Road Between Both

Synthetic and down are both imperfect. You cannot find a flawless sleeping bag in either one of them. A combination minimizes the downsides and provides the benefits of both. In a mixed sleeping bag, the two types of insulation can either be even throughout or separated.

Features to Make Your Trip Even Better

Sleeping bags come with all sorts of features, ranging from the trapezoidal foot box to the draft tube. There is a lot to know about what a sleeping bag has to offer besides just the comfort.

Zippers on many bags can be unzipped and paired with another bag, creating a two person sleeping bag. If you plan to backpack with a partner, this is something worthwhile to consider. Please note that it is not very efficient for keeping in heat.

For two sleeping bags to come together, the zipper sizes need to be the same. In other words, this means the zippers have to be the same length and a right-hand zipper has to match with a left-hand zipper.

Hoods prevent heat from escaping. Your head is a major point of heat escape. In fact, your brain burns 40% of your body’s energy, so it is important to have a hood to prevent that heat loss. Some are designed so you can stuff in a pillow or clothing to keep your head comfortable. If you go ultralight, then this won’t be there to save weight.

Draft tubes prevent heat escape along the main zipper. Because zippers are thin and lack insulation, heat escapes there, so a draft tube steps in to minimize that problem. It ensures you remain nice and toasty at night.

Stash pockets are for keeping small items. The size and location on the bag varies from model to model.

Differentiated cords are perfect on those dark nights. You will be able to tell the difference between your hood cord and your neck opening.

Draft collar (or neck baffles) and face mufflers are found on Winter sleeping bags. These are essential for the kind of conditions you will confront when Winter backpacking. They wrap around your head and neck, so that body heat is kept in and cold air is left out.

Trapezoidal foot boxes make sleeping more natural. If you are looking for more comfort when you sleep, you will want this feature. It reduces the tension on your feet and minimizes stretching on the bag, increasing the longevity of the bag.

Pad loops secure your sleeping pad to your sleeping bag, preventing you from the loss of your pad underneath you. When you have these, it makes sleep a lot more enjoyable.

Pad sleeves are great if you are trying to minimize space in your bag. With one of these, you eliminate the insulation on the bottom of your bag and replace it with an attachment for a sleeping pad. If you are an ultralight backpacker, then this is something to consider.

Sleeping Bag Shaping

When it comes to the shaping of sleeping bags, you will find there are three principal shapes you can expect to find: rectangular, semi-rectangular, and mummy shaped. Most backpacking sleeping bags are mummy shaped.

For less weight and more warmth, go tight. In other words, select a sleeping bag that is narrow at the shoulders and hips. It may be harder to feel comfortable, but you will be warmer. It will also be easier to store in your backpack.

If you want more comfort, get big. As I said previously, I like to be comfortable when I sleep, so I go big with my sleeping bags. When you choose this option, your bag will be bulkier and heavier, but it will mean for a better night’s rest.

On Female Sleeping Bags

Most women sleeping bags are wider at the hips and narrower at the shoulders. They tend to be shorter and have more insulation in the upper body and foot box. They are designed for someone who is under 5′ 6″ tall (1.6 m). If you are on the shorter side (less than 5 feet (1.5 m)), then it will be worthwhile to consider child sized bags. There is a lot of variety in children’s bags.

Extras You Will Want to Consider

A sleeping bag can only provide so much. When backpacking, it can be rough on the body, so be sure to look at some of these extras to make your trip more comfortable.

  • A sleeping bag liner will prolong the life of your bag. When I got my first bag, I ran it into the ground. That bag is not the same as the one it started out as. If you are considering an expensive sleeping bag, then you may want one to keep the inside clean and improve its longevity. A liner can keep you a bit warmer or used by itself in hot climates. They come in silk or cotton.
  • Roll out sleeping pad, if there is one item you should get with your bag, it is this. A sleeping pad will make your night’s rest a lot more comfortable. There is a big difference between sleeping on the ground and having some extra cushion. One of these means the difference between back pain and sleeping like a baby.
  • Inflatable sleeping pad, it is much like what was discussed previously, but one of these puppies inflates. As a result, the experience for your back is different. It is like sleeping on a thin air mattress. An inflatable sleeping pad does take up more room than a roll out, but it is more comfortable. You trade space for comfort.
  • Sleeping pillow, usually, I just stuff my clothes into a bag to make a pillow, but a pillow makes life a lot more comfortable. Personally, I would encourage you to get an inflatable pillow if you are backpacking. With one, you can save space and your head.
  • Compression sack, minimizing space and maximizing utility is key to backpacking. A compression sack will reduce the overall volume of your sleeping bag and add an extra water resistant layer, making life a lot easier.

Final Thoughts

There is a lot to consider when looking at sleeping bags. You have to understand everything from temperature ratings to the down and synthetic debate. You should be all ready now to go out and make your purchase, so you can get back to what really matters—enjoying the outdoors.

If you have any questions, think I missed anything, or just a thought, do not hesitate to comment below and please do share this article. Thank you so much and I hope you make it a great day!

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18 Comments on “A Backpacking Sleeping Bag Buyer’s Guide – How to Rest Well”

  1. Me and my wife are going on our first couples camping trip with a few friends this year. So I decided to roam the internet and soak in all the information on the subject as I possibly could and this article right here is golden.

    You covered everything I was concerned about great post. I’ll be sure to follow up and let you know how our experience goes!

    1. It is nice to hear about your plans with your wife. I hope you have a wonderful trip. It is good to know that you found this article helpful. Please do let me know how it goes. Thank you for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!

  2. Oh man there is so much to consider before purchasing a sleeping bag.

    Temperature is a major one that I didn’t think about and I guess you want to it be versatile for different seasons.

    I’m thinking a synthetic will do what I need. What’s maintenance on a synthetic sleeping bag? Do you need to wash them? Or can they be washed?

    1. Yes Vince, there is quite a lot to consider. Temperature is a very important factor when looking at sleeping bags.

      Yes, you can wash sleeping bags. When putting them in the washing machine, you want it with no heat. Cold water is ideal. Afterwards, you can put it in the dryer with some tennis balls on a minimum heat setting. I do plan to write a future article on sleeping bag maintenance. Until then though, please refer to this article from Back Country. It will answer all your questions.

      Thank you for your question and I hope you make it a great day!

  3. Camping is a fun adventure, I have done hiking but never camping yet! but love to do it one day. There are a lot of sleeping bags to choose from. You have clearly explained very well, and I would prefer Synthetic bag. Where do you think is the best camping spot in Eastern U.S? I would surely go on road trip than camp somewhere.

    1. Yes Tabish, camping is quite fun. There is a lot of sleeping bags to choose from. When it comes to camping on the East Coast, I would say the best place to camp is in Acadia National Park, located in Maine. While there, you can climb Cadillac Mountain and smell stunning pine trees.

      Thank you for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!

  4. That was really interesting about the different fillings and how they fit different climates. Due to allergies, I’m pretty much synthetic no matter what, but it was interesting to see that down is actually a better choice in some climates.

    Great point about nighttime temperatures, too. Anyone who thinks they’ll be hot in the desert at night is in for a rude awakening!

    1. Yes, there is quite a lot to know about sleeping bags. The down versus synthetic debate will never end. Nighttime temperature is especially important because that is when you will be using your sleeping bag. Thank you for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!

  5. Hi Alex. This information is perfect for me as I’m just about to buy some new sleeping bags for my family. We are not really extreme hikers or campers but we do love sleeping in a tent and communing with nature when we can. I don’t particularly like the sleeping bags that are narrow at the bottom as I feel like I’m in a coffin(!) so I tend to go for the wider ones and I feel better with those.

    What do you suggest for children? Mine are aged 10 and 11 – would you go for adult sizes or is there any advantage for having children’s sizes. Obviously they are not going to get any smaller so is an adult size best – and on average, how long do sleeping bags last?

    1. It is good to know you found this article helpful Gail. Narrow sleeping bags can feel like a coffin if you think about it that way.

      When it comes to choosing a sleeping bag for your children, you play the growth spurt game. “How tall are they going to get?” is the question. If you get a child sized one, it will be sure to fit them, but it may not be the case in a year. For this reason, you want to always get one a bit bigger than them. This can be as little as an inch or even 6 inches.

      In regards to the lifespan of a bag, it depends on the quality how often you use it, how hard you are on it, and how you store it. I have heard of down bags lasting over 20 years. For a synthetic bag with once a month use as an example though, I would say they last 5 years. There is no exact life span for a sleeping bag.

      Thank you for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!

  6. I really appreciate your expertise in this area~while manufacturer info about their products are good, their goal is to sell.

    It’s nice to get a no-nonsense overview of the ins-and-outs of sleeping bags! Gives me a lot to think about when we get ready for our camping trip this coming summer.

    1. It is good to know you found this article helpful Kim. There is quite a lot to think about when it comes to sleeping bags. Thank you for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!

  7. Hi Alex. Thanks so much for the detailed post. My husband and I are needing new sleeping bags. The ones we have are getting old and not nearly as effective any more. I wish I could do down, but my allergies prevent this. I wonder if they’ll ever come up with one that I could use?

    We also like to zip ours together. I know you say it doesn’t retain the heat as well, but my husband is a furnace, so I have no issues there lol.

    Cheers,
    Suzanne

    1. Hello Suzanne, it is good to know you found this article helpful. Unfortunately, many people cannot use down because of allergies. It is nice to hear you like to zip your sleeping bag together with your husband’s. Thank you for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!

  8. I never realized there were so many things about sleeping bags I didn’t know! And I was just going to buy one based on price alone. I definitely would have to go with synthetic due to allergies, and down sounds a little warm. The biggest issue I run into is getting overheated and sweating a lot. The idea of using a liner (duh) is brilliant! No different than needing a bed sheet, right? Thanks for giving me lots to think about with my sleeping bag shopping.

    1. Yes Jaime, there is quite a lot to know about sleeping bags. Many factors go into the price of a sleeping bag. Liners are a good option to consider. Thank you for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!

    1. That is wonderful to hear Tamarra. There is quite a lot to think about before making your final decision. Thank you for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!

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