Sleeping bags are one of the top three most important pieces of equipment for overnight back country adventures, next to your tent and your backpack.
Choosing the right sleeping bag can be a confusing process due to the multitude of companies making them and the way each brand markets them. Deciphering which material is best, misleading temperature ratings, mummy vs. rectangular, and weight - all while staying within your budget.
There are, however, a few ways to narrow down your search in choosing the right one. Here, we explain what those specifications mean to you when choosing the right sleeping bag for your adventure, to ensure you have a comfortable and safe experience.
Mummy vs. Rectangular
The first thing to consider when choosing a sleeping bag is the style that fits your adventure best. There are two basic styles when it comes to sleeping bags- mummy and rectangular.
The rectangle style is shaped just as the name implies. Rectangle sleeping bags are designed to give you basic features at a basic price. Better suited for moderate climates, sleepovers, and car camping, rectangle sleeping bags don’t generally have very low temperature ratings and are open-top with no hood. One great feature of rectangle sleeping bags is they can be zipped together to make a large blanket, or a large sleeping bag for multiple people. There is now a hybrid design called, semi-rectangular. Semi-rectangular sleeping bags offer a bit more of a ‘fitted’ look and feel than a standard rectangular sleeping bag and is an upgrade to consider.
If you are mountaineering to the highest altitudes, weathering arctic conditions, or just plain get cold easily, a mummy sleeping bag is your best choice. Mummy sleeping bags are fitted and tapered to better keep you snug and warm. An integrated hood cinches around your head and the body widens at the shoulders then tapers to your feet, creating a cocoon of warmth in the coldest of temperatures. Mummy sleeping bags are available in a wide range of temperature ratings, from summer warmth to blistering sub-zero, lung-crystalizing cold. The coldest rated (most warm and protective) mummy sleeping bag made is the Red Fox TOP 15 SL. With a survival rating of −132.0 °F, it’ll withstand the lowest recorded temperature on Earth of −128.6 °F and beyond. Now that’s a sleeping bag! There are also mummy sleeping bags that feature adjustable baffling systems to let the user regulate temperature, and even toe warmers with fleece at the bottom.
Materials Make the Difference
There is a wide range of materials used to make a sleeping bag and, depending on where and how you plan on using it, those materials will make the difference in your comfort.
The shell of a sleeping bag is usually made of a nylon/poly blend. There are many grades of quality in the shell construction. Find something with rip-stop technology so if you get a tiny snag it doesn’t ruin your trip. Some also have inner linings made of fleece or silk for added comfort. You will come across models that have a cotton or flannel shell, but those are mostly cheap rectangle bags that won’t keep you very warm and are incredibly heavy to lug around.
As for the fill, or insulation, you will find two basic types: synthetic insulation, or down-fill. Choosing one over the other depends on the where and how.
If you are slogging through humid and rainy conditions, a synthetic insulation sleeping bag may be right for you. They tend to be a bit heavier, but will perform against wet weather well and keep you dry and warm. An example where synthetic insulation sleeping bags will perform best is Olympic National Park.
For drier climates that may drop to low temperatures at night, down filled sleeping bags work incredibly well. Utilizing animal plumage from various bird families, the fill traps pockets of air that retain body heat efficiently. The result is warmer regulated temperatures, overall superior comfort, and a lightweight sleeping bag. Some down filled sleeping bags have a waterproof shell, similar to rain jackets, to protect them from moisture. This is a great option for those who want the functions of a lightweight down sleeping bag without the risk of getting wet from the elements. Examples of where to use a down filled sleeping bag is the Colorado Rocky Mountains or Glacier National Park.
Think of down vs synthetic in a manner of what makes you comfortable in your bedroom at home. If you have owned a down comforter, you know the difference in comfort level over a synthetic blanket. You don’t tend to get overheated under a down comforter and the ‘feather weight’ pressure of the comforter provides a good night’s rest.
Temperature Ratings Explained
Sleeping bags have a wide variety of temperature ratings to ensure you stay warm and comfortable in inclement conditions. Traditionally this has been the most confusing part of selecting a sleeping bag. So, exactly what is that number and what the heck does it mean? Let’s dive into that now.
The temperature ratings on sleeping bags are quite simple once you know what you are looking at. Most major sleeping bag manufacturers have now adopted the European Norm (EN) temperature rating. These are two simple numbers that tell you two things- at what temperature will you be comfortable at while snoozing the night away under the stars, and at what temperature will the sleeping bag protect you before digits start falling off. For example, you see a rating that says -40F to +14F. That tells you that if it is +14F outside, you will be cozy and comfortable while snuggled inside that sleeping bag. At the other end of the spectrum, if sh*t gets crazy and the weather turns to -40F in a flash, you can hunker down in there and survive. The last rating is what most manufacturers use to market a sleeping bag.
6 Tips for Choosing a Sleeping Bag
- Seek an expert. Don’t just grab one off the shelf of a big-box store. Go to a specialty outdoor equipment store where they have experts to help you in choosing the right sleeping bag for your adventure.
- Do some research. Know your destination and find a sleeping bag that has all the features you need to stay comfortable in any weather conditions you may encounter.
- Go cold. Choose a temperature rating a bit lower than the coldest weather you think you will encounter. You can always unzip the sleeping bag if you get a little warm, but it’s impossible to add more fill on the fly if an unexpected storm rolls in.
- Think of it as an investment. Make sure the sleeping bag you choose is made of quality materials so it will last you through many years of journeys.
- Try it on for size. This may be surprising, but some stores have an area where you can get inside a sleeping bag and try it out for comfort and size.
- Check the warranty and guarantee. The top manufacturers and retailers offer a life-time warranty against failure, as well as a guarantee of performance.
Now you are armed with the knowledge you need in choosing the right sleeping bag for your adventure. So, get out there and enjoy the great outdoors - in comfort; and, don’t forget to grab a quality sleeping mat to keep the rocks from digging into your hips and ribs.