How To Choose A Sleeping Bag For Backpacking (Essential Guide)

How To Choose A Sleeping Bag For Backpacking (Essential Guide)

When hitting the trail for a couple days, or thru-hiking for much longer, choosing the right backpacking sleeping bag will be one of the most important factors in staying comfortable and warm. There’s much more than its weight to keep in mind. Read on to learn about the different bag types, temperature ratings and other crucial information.

Types of Sleeping Bags

Notwithstanding your usual inclination to be a hot or cold sleeper, it is important to consider the climate and season involved with your choice of backpacking and hiking destinations. Other factors affecting your decision might include what you wear when you sleep, your metabolism and whether or not you’ll be sleeping in a tent.

There are a variety of types – ranging from the cheap and light versions you might find online or at a department store or specialized types such as military modular systems. These have three layers: from light insulation to intermediate and heavy, encased in a waterproof bivy shell – but they are weighty and quite warm.

Cold weather sleeping bags

The two most important factors include comfort, which means keeping warm and dry. Whether or not you choose down or synthetic sleeping bags, you’ll need to remember to aim for a bag that is designed for temperatures below 10 degrees (Fahrenheit.)

If the climate you’ve chosen includes the elements of ice and snow, then look for a sleeping bag designed with a range of -40 to +4 degrees. It’s most likely that these bags will be insulated with down and have features that deal with drafts – such as collars and zipper baffles.

Warm weather sleeping bag

A range of +30 to +55 degrees is good for summer backpacking, due to not needing as much insulation. They are usually lighter in weight which makes them easier to carry and you won’t have to worry about overheating (unless there are other factors or circumstances, such as illness, etc.)

3 Season sleeping bag

Three season bags are for the warmer times of the year, so you’ll want to choose a range of +5 to +29 degrees, which makes them the more versatile category. Don’t forget to be prepared for cold snaps or heat waves, especially if you’re backpacking in a location known for temperature variations. Synthetic bags are suitable for 3 seasons.

Sleeping Bag Temperature Ratings

There are a few factors affecting the temperature ratings, such as the use of a bivy sack or tent – which add around 10 degrees of warmth. What you wear while sleeping also impacts the rating, as some people like to bulk up their clothing or wear long underwear, hats etc. Also keep in mind the insulation from your sleeping pad.

When using the temperature ratings as a guide, it’s probably a good idea to add 10 degrees in your calculations just to be safe, as you can always unzip your sleeping bag if you get too hot. This will also make sleeping more comfortable – so you won’t have to sleep with too many clothes on.

The recommended temperature ratings of sleeping bags deal with the ranges they’re suitable for, in terms of lowest to highest degrees. Depending on the particular location you choose and the climate, here’s a general guideline:

  • Summer – +32 degrees and higher
  • 3 Season – +10 to +32 degrees
  • Winter – +10 degrees and lower

How sleeping bags are rated:

Usually the manufacturers will determine their own ratings, even though a relatively recent development involves the “EN (European Norm) tested protocol” listing on several 3 season types of sleeping bags. The EN rating takes into consideration a sleeper wearing long underwear and a hat as well as using a sleeping mattress.

This is based on the lowest temperature a sleeping bag can keep a cold sleeper or an average woman comfortable (seeing as women need a slightly higher level of warmth) as well as the lowest temperature needed to keep a man or warm sleeper comfortable – although you need to remember that this is just a guide.

Sleeping Bag Insulation Types

An important thing to note when choosing a backpacking sleeping bag is that all insulation types are affected by the weight of the sleeper, due to the fact that the insulation is compressed during sleep, which decreases the fullness of the insulation.

The two major types of insulation are synthetic (man-made) or down (from birds – the fluffy part of the feathers.) Synthetic insulation dries quicker if wet, springs back better after being compressed and is cheaper than down. Synthetics also keep you warm – even when wet.

There are, however, some advantages to choosing down, including the fact that it’s light-weight and lasts longer. They have a higher warmth-to-weight ratio and compress better. It is important to not leave the down bags compressed when not in use. Remember to keep them fluffed up until your next trip.

If you decide to use down, there are other options to consider – like hydrophobic materials that improve water resistance and whether or not the down comes from a duck or a goose. Goose down is generally considered better quality, but that doesn’t automatically mean that duck down is always lesser quality.

Here is a short video discussing the differences between down and synthetic sleeping bags by backpacking expert, Dan Nash:

Sleeping Bag Weight and Shape Basics

The two basic shapes of sleeping bags are rectangular (sometimes called square) and Mummy (rounded at the top and/or bottom.) The weight depends on a variety of different factors, including the type of insulation and the materials used in their construction.

Traditional Sleeping Bags

The traditional sleeping bag is like a sheath which encloses from the foot area to the head, accessible via a zipper and usually with a hood (which can be adjustable.) Sometimes called “Mummy Bags”, their insulation covers the whole body. They adapt well to different environments, but you need to take their size and weight into consideration.

When shopping for a traditional sleeping bag, check for good draft tubes over the zipper areas to keep the warm air in. Figure out whether or not you’ll need the hood – especially if you’re hiking in warm weather. The traditional bag is a good choice for the three season period.

One thing to think about is that you might want to choose a larger, looser bag for the ease of movement, but this extra room will make it harder to keep the cold air out. As long as you’re comfortable and warm – including the sleepwear – your sleeping bag should fit nicely without restraining you too much.

Traditional bags can also be bottomless, meaning that they don’t have a zipper and the foot area is covered with material that’s not insulated. This is to save the weight. Other versions are also hoodless, with more fill down the bottom for those who sleep with a hooded jacket or for summer camping.

What about Quilts?

Great for three season backpacking, quilts are light and comfortable, don’t have hoods, zippers or insulation at the bottom. They are warm for their weight and considered more versatile. They can be used as blankets, they dry faster than the traditional types and are adjustable for different body types.

Keep in mind that being adjustable can lead to being too big, which reduces the ability to retain heat, although you have the added advantage of being able to wear more clothes – if that’s what you are looking for. Quilts also require more set up and are not usually a viable choice in colder weather or if you toss and turn in your sleep.

Hood-less Sleeping Bags

These offer advantages such as ease of movement and improved comfort; they’re lighter than the traditional bags and seeing as most people go camping and backpacking in the warmer seasons, you can easily wear hooded jackets and/or a hat if need be.

Wearable Sleeping Bags

When it comes to weight, especially if you decide not to bring a jacket, the wearable bag could be an option for you. When sitting around the campfire, the wearable bag might not be as good as a jacket when it comes to movement, but that depends on each individual’s personal tastes.

Good for those who want to save weight when wanting to travel light, it all comes down to whether or not you prefer to have a jacket and/or a sleeping bag.

Bed Style Sleeping Bags

This styles offers the combination of the quilt and the hooded version of a traditional bag. These have a built-in quilt which makes them adaptable, they’re great in different climates and usually more comfortable. Again, it all depends on individual circumstances.

Common Sleeping Bag Features

The Baffles

Baffles are channels – especially in down sleeping bags – which secure the down in place. These include continuous baffles for easy relocation of the down to other sections in the bag; vertical baffles to move the down from the head to the foot and side block baffles to keep the down in place for retention of heat.

Neck baffles are also called draft collars and they are insulated tubes which stop heat from being released from around the neck and shoulders. These are especially important for winter backpacking but make sure they’re not too big. Look for neck baffles with elasticized drawstrings for easy movement.

The Hoods

Some traditional bags have a hood which is great for cold weather, unless you prefer to wear a hat. Like most purchases, test them out before you buy them and make sure that breathing is not inhibited when moving about in the bag, as well as other things that might restrict you or cause discomfort.

The Foot Boxes

The shapes of foot boxes are usually flared or trapezoidal, in order to ensure easy movement of your feet during sleep – as well as the provision of good air flow if you have a problem with hot feet, condensation etc.

Advice on Sleeping Bag Zippers

There are certain things to be mindful of when checking the zipper, such as large enough teeth for smooth operation and preventing catching on material or your skin as well as reinforced strips. Test the strength of the zipper by trying to pull the seams apart by giving them a firm tug. If they’re sturdy, they won’t shift when you’re turning around during sleep, etc.

What are the Draft Tubes on a sleeping bag for?

Some sleeping bags have an insulated flap or tube running along the zipper to reduce the loss of warmth. These should be sewn to the inner liner material to prevent holes or leaks and the top zipper so they hang down while you sleep. The draft tube needs to be large enough to cover the whole zipper.

Do you need pockets?

A fun feature of some sleeping bags is the inclusion of stash pockets, which can be used to store important tools like a flashlight or phone.

The Shell Materials

The covering of the sleeping bag needs to be consistent with the type – such as waterproof and/or breathable materials for bags needed in cold weather backpacking and camping, which are good for protecting against snow and frost. For other seasons, lightweight materials are best.

Sleeping Bag Construction

Fabrics used

Usually lightweight, some exterior fabrics called ripstop are used. The cheaper alternatives consist of heavier fabrics, but the lighter ones are more comfortable. If you’re going on a 3 season trip, you might not need to worry about waterproofing, but the footbox might need this feature with breathability taken into consideration.

An important element of the fabric is the denier, which is the ratio of thickness. It affects the strength and weight of particular types of nylon used. In most cases, the higher denier count means more strength, but it all depends on the weight of the fabric. Try to opt for at least 10D to 50D – depending on the trip and sleeping bag required.

Build-quality and type, what’d the difference?

As mentioned in the Common Sleeping Bag Features section, there are different types of baffles. If you choose a down sleeping bag, there are three types: sewn-through seams which are good for being lightweight, but they are the cheapest and coldest type.

Vertical baffles which run from the head to the toe mostly have mesh walls to stop the down from moving and horizontal baffles have the highest warmth-to-weight ratio. They allow for easy movement of the down depending on the climate. These are good for winter and three season trips.

For synthetic sleeping bags, the construction is similar, with the sewn-through option or alternated seams for maximum temperature flow. In any sleeping bag, shell durability is important. If moving against rocks or sharp objects, you want to ensure that the material can take the rough treatment.

Of course, this depends on how careful you are and the circumstances of your trip. You might go for a lower denier because you’re not planning on coming into contact with rough surfaces.

Do you need Water Resistance?

Again, this depends on what kind of terrain and climate you’ll be backpacking in. If you’re planning to camp in the wet season or near a body of water, you might want to take the bag’s water resistance into consideration. A good shell and quality material is important as well as the synthetic option.

Sleeping Bag Accessories and Care

Two different sacks assist with packing your bag, known as stuff and compression sacks. There’s also a storage sack for when your sleeping bag is not in use, to allow for the insulation to maintain loft (fullness). For travelling, choose a lightweight, small compression sack that can be used at least a few hundred times.

There are also a variety of different bags or sacks available – such as the storage bag – as well as webbing straps to secure your bag and other items, which may or not be useful, depending on your personal preferences and needs.

Warranty

Some sleeping bags come with a lifetime warranty while others do not. Check for the ability to get repairs done when you damage your bags, and weigh up the cost versus what you can do yourself.

Storage and Cleaning

It’s important to take good care of your bag and its accessories if you want to get your money’s worth. If you opt for a down bag, make sure you take care of it by keeping it dry and loft – which means hanging it up and not leaving it compressed while in storage. If you need to, wash them in very mild soap.

With down sleeping bags, don’t pull the down out if you see a feathery fiber poking out. Press your thumb on the inside of the seam and stuff it back in. You’ll make bigger holes if you pull the down out, making way for more leakage.

With synthetic bags, the more they are compressed, the more the fibers wear down, so try to keep them in a position where compression is limited. You can wash them easy enough but they can still be an issue if kept moist or damp – so make sure they’re dried before rolling them back into storage, unless you plan to keep them flat and/or folded.

Here is a video where different sleeping systems are discussed, with a focus on choosing lighter weights in sleeping gear:

So, now you should have a good idea about what goes into choosing the right backpacking sleeping bag for your trip. You might have even decided that you need more than one, depending on the season and the trip. Remember that the most expensive selection might not necessarily mean the best, if it’s mismatched with your destination or needs.

Staying warm, dry and comfortable should be your goal – along with considerations such as the weight it contributes to your pack and how easy it is to store and clean. With a few extra accessories – such as a compression sack – you’ll be well on your way to having a wonderful experience without coming home with frostbite or worse.