If you want to get a good night’s sleep while camping, you’ve got to have the right sleeping bag. Here are the common design features to keep in mind as you shop for your sleeping bag.
Sleeping bags come in different lengths and widths to suit varying builds. For the bag to work effectively at insulating you properly, you want to avoid having too much extra room in the bag around your body. However, you still want to be able to move around to be comfortable and not feel restricted while you sleep.
The goal is to choose a bag that closely fits your body, while still providing some wiggle room for you to move in your sleep. Choose a length that matches your height, and go up a level if you are right on the upper limit. For width, ensure there is enough room for you to shift sleeping positions without it being an ordeal.
Some bags have a “men” or “women” label, but it’s really more important to look at the length and width and how that applies to your body, versus your gender. However, women’s bags may also have a slightly different shape, with more room at the hips and less at the shoulders (and vice versa for men’s bags). For best results, always try out a bag before taking it camping.
Since you may be toting your bag around on your back during your days of hiking, it’s important that it be of a weight you’re prepared to carry. You’ll see some sleeping bags advertised as “light” (2 to 3 pounds) or “ultralight” (1 pound or less) for this reason. Typically, the lighterweight the bag, the more expensive it is, but not always—as sometimes that weight comes the cost of insulation.
The temperature rating indicates in what temperatures the sleeping bag will keep you warm while you sleep.
Some sleeping bags will have both “lower limit” and “comfort ratings.” The Lower Limit will indicate the temperature at which the bag will keep you alive. The Comfort Rating may be up to 15 degrees warmer, indicating the outdoor temperature at which the sleeping bag will keep your comfortably warm. If there is no Comfort Rating listed, mentally add 10 or 15 degrees to the temperature rating to estimate.
Some sleeping bags use the European Norm (EN) rating system, which standardizes the temperature ratings for all sleeping bags.
- EN Comfort indicates the lowest temperature at which an average woman will sleep comfortably in the sleeping bag with long underwear and a hat.
- EN Lower Limit indicates the lowest temperature for a man to sleep comfortably (men typically sleep warmer than women).
- EN Upper Limit refers to the highest temperature at which a man will sleep without sweating.
- EN Extreme is lowest temperature for women to sleep in without risk of hypothermia.
Sleeping bags are insulated using either down or synthetic down.
- Sleeping bags with down insulation compress more easily, are more effective at insulation, and also tend to last longer. Unsurprisingly, they also tend to be more expensive than synthetic sleeping bags.
- Synthetic sleeping bags are cheaper, and while they can retain heat a bit better when they’re wet, they’re also much bulkier and heavier when compressed.
Down Fill Power
Ranging from 500 to 900, fill power (fp) refers to the quality of the down filler in the sleeping bag and how “fluffy” the bag is. Specifically, the higher the fill power, the less the bag will weigh, the warmer it will be, and the better it will compress. As a result, it will also cost more.
Bags with lower fill power, in the 500s to 600s, are still likely to keep you as warm – they’ll just have to weigh heavier to do so.
The down to feather ratio also indicates the quality of the down. It’s typically displayed as a fraction with the down percentage shown first (e.g. 90/10 to indicate 90% down, 10% feather). A lower feather percentage tends to indicate a better quality down.
There are two main designs to sleeping bags: quilts and mummy style.
Quilt-style sleeping bags look like a down comforter for your bed, and are used similarly. You sleep in the sleeping bag, on top of a mattress pad. There may be straps that enable you to connect the bag to your sleeping pad. Quilts are significantly lighter weight, and tend to be better at insulation in most mild environments, making them a favorite among campers.
Mummy sleeping bags, which tuck you and your head in like a mummy, are better for cold or windy environments because of the extra insulation around your head. However, they are bulkier and heavier.
Waterproof/Water Resistant Construction
Most sleeping bags feature a nylon shell on the outside that’s either water-resistant or waterproof, enabling the bag to stay in good shape whatever conditions you’re camping in.
Durable water repellent (DWR) makes water on the outside of the bag bead up, as opposed to soaking into the bag. While DWR is applied to sleeping bags during manufacturing, over time it will wear off.
Some sleeping bags advertise their ability to stay “warm when wet.” Typically, these are synthetic sleeping bags. Even if they still stay somewhat insulated, this is not going to be comfortable to sleep in, so don’t be confused by the hype. You should always try to keep your bag as dry as possible.
Sleeping bag zippers are full-length, three-quarters, or some other length. The advantage of a full-length zipper is that you can fully open up the bag for ultimate versatility, while the advantage of a non-full-length zipper is that it makes the bag weigh slightly less—but at the cost of flexibility.
There are still a few more things to consider as you shop around for your sleeping bag. Review the following questions to find the best sleeping bag for you.
How do I choose a good sleeping bag?
Your sleeping bag plays an important role of the overall success of your camping trip. Bring the wrong sleeping bag (too heavy to carry around, too big to keep you warm, or too insulated for a summer trip) and your camping adventure will be a lot less fun.
Not only is your sleeping bag important for keeping you comfortable regardless of the temperature, it’s critical for ensuring you get a good night’s sleep, which largely dictates your mood, stamina, and more during the days of your trip hiking in the cold or sun.
The general rule most campers follow is to get one sleeping bag with a temperature rating matching the lowest temperatures they plan to camp in. While it’s a hassle to carry around a slightly heavier bag, you won’t be able to sleep if you’re freezing. As your camping experience expands, you can expand your sleeping bag wardrobe as well, with a few bags to meet varying temperatures.
How much does a sleeping bag cost?
Depending on the brand, style, and materials, sleeping bags can vary widely in cost. Your sleeping bag is one of your most critical pieces of gear, and it may also be more expensive. While there is a wide range, you can usually find a good-quality sleeping bag between $50 and $500.
Should I choose a down or synthetic sleeping bag?
The filler of your sleeping bag is an important decision, and your budget, camping environment, and personal preferences must all be weighed.
Synthetic bags are cheaper, and generally sufficient to insulate campers in moderate climates during the spring, summer, and fall. They’re also more water-resistant, making them a better fit for humid or damp environments. But because they’re made of materials which are less effective at insulation, they tend to be bulkier and heavier, which can be a drag for backpackers to carry around along with the rest of their gear.
Down sleeping bags are usually more lightweight and suitable for backpacking. They are also better at insulation, an important consideration for cold sleepers or those who camp in more extreme conditions. However, they are more expensive.
Synthetic bags are made from polyester and nylon, while down bags have more bed-like materials, which may also play a factor in how comfortable you feel sleeping in the bag at night.
What temperature rating should I choose?
Start by choosing a sleeping bag with a Comfort Rating that matches the lowest temperature the outdoors may potentially get. Bags between 20 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit tend to be sufficient for most spring, summer, and fall conditions, while winter campers will need a bag with a Temperature Rating somewhere between 20 to -20 degrees and below. If there is no comfort rating, add 10 to 15 degrees to the lower limit rating.
Beyond that, it’s up to your personal preference. If you tend to sleep hot, you may want a slightly lower temperature rating, while if you tend to sleep cold, you’ll want a bag that’s slightly warmer. Remember that additional things can factor in to the perceived temperature of your sleeping bag, such as the insulation of your tent, outdoor humidity or wind, how well you’ve been eating and drinking, and other items in the tent (such as your pajamas, sleeping partner’s body heat, bedding, and more).
To avoid packing a too-hot, too-heavy bag, you can bring a jacket with a hood to wear inside your bag at night if it gets cold. You can always drink a warm cup of bedtime tea before you go to bed, too.
Should I get a mummy or quilt sleeping bag?
This is more a question of personal preference, but objectively, mummy sleeping bags are recommended for below-freezing temperatures. However, a mummy shape can feel claustrophobic for some sleepers or for those who like to move around in their sleep.
In that case a quilt or semi-rectangular bag may be a better option. You can sleep in a quilt like a regular sleeping bag, but you can also unzip it fully to into a blanket if it’s warmer outside. Semi-rectangular sleeping bags are less restrictive than mummy bags but still good at retaining heat.
What’s the best sleeping bag for car-camping or backpacking?
Sleeping bags may also be designed according to their camper’s intended purpose. Backpacking sleeping bags are designed to be light in weight and highly compressible, so that they’re easier to carry around during the day. They‘re more likely to be mummy-shaped and down-filled, and are very effective at retaining body heat.
Because there is less of a pressing need for portability with car-camping sleeping bags, they tend to be larger, wider, and available in both synthetic and down. They may be less effective at retaining body heat, though, due to their wider shape. They’re better suited for those camping in more moderate climates who won’t have to worry about carrying around a heavy bag during the day.
How do I choose the best sleeping bag/sleeping pad combo?
Your sleeping bag insulation is also affected by your sleeping pad, especially for those using a quilt.
The R-value of your sleeping pad indicates the quality of the sleeping pad insulation. A lower R-value indicates lower insulation, and the extent to which you may feel the ground temperature. For summer conditions, a R-value below 3 is fine, while a hardcore winter camper will want at least a R-value of 5.
How should I store my sleeping bag when not in use?
Contrary to what you see when you purchase your bag, sleeping bags should actually not be stored compressed. This can damage your bag’s insulation. Plus, if you store it before it’s fully dried, mold can develop on the bag.
Instead, take your sleeping bag out of its carrying pack and store it full-length, either hung up or in a laundry bag.
How long will my sleeping bag last?
A high-quality sleeping bag that’s maintained well can last up to 20 years. To extend the life of your sleeping bag, sleep in clean clothes when you’re inside your bag to prevent your body sweat, oil, and dirt gunking up the sleeping bag.
You can also get a sleeping bag liner to sleep inside of, which is easier to clean. If you’ll be returning to the same campsite, hang your sleeping bag like you would at home to help air it out.
How do I clean my sleeping bag?
Experts recommend washing your sleeping bag once every year or every other year, depending how dirty it is. Try to keep it as clean as possible without having to wash it. You can also spot clean the bag using mild spot and water with a sponge or cloth.
Always check the bag’s washing instructions before cleaning (you’ll usually find these on the tag). Typically, you should use a front load machine, or dry clean the bag. Afterwards, fully dry the bag. Let it run for a few hours in the dryer to ensure there is absolutely no moisture in the bag.
Can I return my sleeping bag?
Always check the store or online seller’s Return Policy before purchasing a sleeping bag. Usually, you can return it as long as it hasn’t been used, even if it’s been opened. Ensure before buying that the Return Policy allows you to open it up, lay down inside to make sure it fits, and return it if it doesn’t.
Additional Tuck Resources for Campers