Geartrade: The sleeping bag buyer’s guide
Hooray, you get to sleep outside! Now that we got our happy dance out of the way, let’s chat sleeping bags, since (if you’re reading this article) you’re probably in the market for one.There are a few steps and questions to take into consideration. Stick with us, and we’ll walk you through your options.
What activities do you plan on using your bag for, and what climate?
This is a biggie. And it helps determine if you need to buy more than one bag for your arsenal or not.
Think about your upcoming plans or most likely plans: if you’re car camping in the desert in the summer, you can get away with a simple, lightly insulated bag. If you’re backpacking, suddenly it becomes important that the bag is lightweight and compressible. If you’re backpacking in cold alpine conditions, it also becomes important that the bag is rated warm enough for the nighttime lows. And if you’re on a full-on winter expedition in near-zero or sub-zero temps, you’re going to want a super-warm bag that’s still as lightweight as possible because you’re carrying it.
Think about (and learn about) temperature ratings.
You’ll notice that bags are all rated for a certain temperature—30 degrees, 20 degrees, 0 degrees, and the like.
Since these ratings are determined by the brand and not regulated by a governing body, there’s a little variation in what they actually mean. Some brands mean that a 20-degree bag would technically keep you from dying in 20-degree weather. Others label a 20-degree bag as one that would keep you comfy on a 20 degree night. Obviously there’s a huge difference between comfort and not dying, so visit that brand’s website (and even call their customer service) to learn more about what they mean. Heat preferences also vary by gender and by person: do you sleep hot or cold? Someone who’s never warm enough at night might want to go for a burlier temperature rating to make sure they aren’t shivering. After all, if you’re too warm, just unzip the side zipper for a little free A/C. Keep in mind that if you have a poor sleeping pad (or, egad, none at all!), your bag is definitely going to feel cold. This is important especially in colder climates: you need a sleeping pad with a high insulation rating in order for you sleeping bag to do its job properly.
Think about weight and compressibility.
As you narrow down on what your bag’s purpose and temperature rating should be, you should start thinking about what else matters, like weight and packability. If you’re simply car-camping, you don’t have to worry about your bag being kinda heavy or bulky—it’s not like you’re carrying it 30 miles, but rather just from the car to the tent and back. But, conversely, if you’re backpacking, every ounce you can shave off that sucker will make your life better. Ideally, your bag should be a few pounds or less and pack to the size of a bread loaf. Many brands shave weight by tailoring the shape of the bag to your body. A mummy-shaped bag contours your body and leaves no unused material, which leads to a sleeker and lighter bag. Women can usually get away with a women-specific bag, which is shorter and a bit smaller than the men’s bags. (Or, if you’re a man who isn’t particularly tall, you might consider a shorter bag to shave weight.)
Weigh the merits of down insulation vs. synthetic insulation.
Down insulation is blessedly lightweight and effective, yet it’s ruined if it gets wet. This can be a mega bummer if you’re backpacking in the rain, going on a river trip, trekking to a yurt in a snowstorm, or any of the myriad of activities that can lead to a wet pack or wet pack contents. Your life will be a misery if you’re trying to dry a soggy down sleeping bag hanging over a campfire while you shiver. (We hate to say it, but firsthand experience suggests that sleeping bags take an awfully long amount of time to dry.)
Also, it’s worth noting that down feathers come from geese, and different brands have varying track records when it comes to humane treatment of the animals. Many vegetarians and vegans don’t find down suitably sourced, so do your homework. A few brands, such as Patagonia, have in recent years gone out of their way to ensure decent treatment of the animals producing the down feathers.
Your second option, synthetic insulation, typically costs less and is still fairly warm if it gets wet. This can be a godsend on many outdoor adventures. Many brands have invested extensive time into developing synthetic insulation that closely mimics the warmth ratings and compressibility of down, too. So weigh your options—rather literally—and come to a conclusion that feels good.
Plan your “sleeping system’—i.e., your pad, pillow, and any extras.
Seasoned campers will tell you that your sleeping “system” is as important as your sleeping bag choice. By this, they mean that you should choose a good sleeping pad, possibly a good camp pillow, and maybe even a sleep sack sheet that fits inside your bag to boost its warmth.
Evaluate your sleeping pad: is it light and compressible enough for your purposes? Does it have a good warmth rating (which is crucial if you’re sleeping in chilly temps)? No amount of down insulation will save you if your sleeping pad is thin and cheap.
There are also a number of excellent, lightweight camp pillows on the market—including backpacking pillows that inflate and deflate for packability. These cram down to just a few ounces in a tiny stuff sack and are often worth carrying the smidge of extra weight.
You can also accessorize your sleeping setup by adding a sleep sack (or sleep sheet), which adds 10-20 degrees of warmth to any sleeping bag. This can help make your main sleeping bag more adaptable to slightly cooler nights, so you get more bang for your buck.
Are there any bells or whistles that feel important?
Yes, sleeping bags come with features. Your bag may have a little stash pocket that’s amazing at holding your contact lens case so the liquid solution doesn’t get uncomfortably frozen overnight. Perhaps, you get a bag that has a pillow-compatible hood that lovingly cradles your pillow in a comfy position that doesn’t slip around.You can even choose between right-zip and left-zip bags, and the option comes in handy if you have a romantic partner you’d like to snuggle up close to. If you both buy the same brand of sleeping bag, and one of you has a right zipper and the other has a left zipper, it can be a match made in heaven: just zip them together and spoon to your heart’s content.
As you weigh your options for your sleeping bag purchase, you might realize you need more than one bag—perhaps one for colder conditions and one for warmer, or one for backpacking and another for car-camping. The good news is that you’re in easy reach of many a high-quality, UnNew Outdoor™ bag here on Geartrade. So scope ‘em out, and build your sleeping bag quiver.
Beth Lopez is a seasoned writer and creative director who loves to tell tales of adventure and discovery—and finds writing a powerful way to give a voice to people, causes, and places. Beth runs amok in the Wasatch mountains when untethered from her computer. She believes there’s no such thing as a bad ski day and considers animals her favorite people. Don’t tell her mother about her Instagram mountaineering photos.