Buyer's Guide to Sleeping Bags for Camping and Backpacking
How to Pick the Right Sleeping Bag for Your Style of Camping
Backpacking in Point Reyes, California - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain
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Buying a new sleeping bag for camping adventures is no small decision; in fact, your sleeping bag can very well make or break your entire camping experience. Few things are worse than shivering through the night because your gear wasn’t up to the task.
Don’t sacrifice camping coziness on your next trip by being unprepared: here is everything you need to know when deciding on the best sleeping bag for you.
Sleeping Bags for Camping vs. Backpacking
Knowing whether you will be camping in close proximity to your car or carrying your gear on your back for miles is the first factor to consider when picking a sleeping bag.
Backpacking sleeping bags are made to be lightweight and packable, which requires pricier materials and slimmer designs. Sleeping bags for car camping are not subject to the same limitations, so they tend to be more spacious and affordable than backpacking-specific bags.
However, if you plan to take your bag both backpacking and car camping, it makes sense to spend a little more and invest in a dedicated backpacking sleeping bag, allowing you to do it all with a single bag.
Setting up Camp on the Tahoe Rim Trail - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain
Sleeping Bag Temperature Ratings
There is more to sleeping bag temperature ratings than you might think. In the past, brands created their own ratings based on internal testing methods and standards, and they were notoriously inconsistent and unreliable. It made comparing sleeping bags from different brands nearly impossible.
Fortunately, most manufacturers now adhere to the European Norm International Standardization Organization (EN/ISO) testing standard. Sleeping bag tests are conducted by a certified third party, offering a more reliable and standardized indicator of temperature ranges across brands. This standard assigns three ratings to every sleeping bag:
EN/ISO Comfort Range: The lowest temperature at which the average woman will sleep comfortably with the sleeping bag.
EN/ISO Transition Range: The temperature at which the average man will begin feeling cold, but not shivering. This is considered the performance limit of the sleeping bag.
EN/ISO Extreme Range: The temperature where a sleeping bag may help you stay alive in an emergency, but it will be far from comfortable: you will experience extreme cold and risk hypothermia.
Sleeping bags typically fit into one of three categories based on their comfort range rating:
Summer Sleeping Bags: +30 F and higher
3-Season Sleeping Bags: +15 F to +30 F
Winter Sleeping Bags: +15 F and lower
Depending on the location of the manufacturer, ratings may be presented in either Celsius or Fahrenheit, so always double check the temperature scale before buying a new bag!
Sunset Setup in Arches National Park: Moab, UT - Photo Credit: Jack Sloop
Since the “average sleeper” is an abstraction, always take sleeping bag temperature ratings with a grain of salt. A comfort rating of 15 F does not mean you will be comfortable at 15 F. Seasons are also not always an accurate way to define a sleeping bag’s potential—summer in the Colorado Rockies can be very different from summer on the Oregon Coast. At higher altitudes, 3-season bags are the way to go, even if you only camp during the summer months.
Wherever you camp, whenever you camp, be conservative and go for a sleeping bag with a comfort temperature range lower than you will likely need. Bags can always be unzipped if you’re overheating, and being too hot is certainly preferable to cold, sleepless nights in your tent because you put too much faith in your sleeping bag’s temperature rating for your individual comfort level.
Backpacking in the Himalayas - Photo Credit: Martin Jernberg
Picking Your Sleeping Bag Shape and Style
Whether you run cold or hot, sleep on your side or back, prefer to be cocooned in cozy down or have space to stretch out, there are a few sleeping bag shapes and styles to consider:
Rectangular: A popular design in sleeping bags for car camping, a rectangular bag provides plenty of room to stretch out your arms and legs. They can also be fully unzipped and used as a blanket.
Barrel: Also classified as “semi-rectangular”, barrel sleeping bags taper toward the feet and often feature a hood. They are lighter than rectangular sleeping bags, striking a balance between space and coziness.
Mummy: Most backpacking sleeping bags come in a mummy style. They are very warm but tend to be very snug—you won’t have much room to roll over or stretch out while inside.
Quilt: Backpackers looking to shed as much pack weight as possible sometimes opt for quilts—insulated blankets that secure to a sleeping pad. Unlike sleeping bags, quilts provide no insulated materials underneath you and use straps or buckles to secure to the underside of your sleeping pad. With no zippers and fewer materials these quilts are ultralight, but offer less protection from drafty conditions or extreme cold. They work best for 3-season use.
Double: Great for couples and far less constraining than typical sleeping bags, double bags are the snuggle-friendly way to camp in comfort.
Most sleeping bags come in different lengths. Choose one that is about two or three inches longer than you are tall. Any shorter, and you will press up against the head and toe box. Any longer creates unused space that fills with cold air, making the sleeping bag less insulating and efficient.
Quilt-Style Camping on Huntington Lake, California - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain
Synthetic vs. Down Insulation
The last big decision to make when buying a sleeping bag for camping is whether you want down or synthetic insulation.
Down—sourced from goose or duck feathers—is lightweight, compressible, and durable. Unfortunately, down loses much of its insulating potential when wet, so it is not the best choice for extended trips where wet and/or humid conditions are expected. The down industry is also mired in serious animal welfare issues. Prioritize buying ethical down by getting a sleeping bag featuring RDS (Responsible Down Standard) or TDS (Global Traceable Down Standard) labels.
Synthetic down is made from polyester spun into filaments. Sleeping bags with synthetic insulation are less packable and durable than down bags. Down has better fill power, so more synthetic material is required to achieve equivalent loft and heat-trapping capabilities. The loft of synthetic filaments degrades with compression, so synthetic bags generally have a shorter life span than down bags. However, synthetics are cheaper and perform better than down in wet conditions.
Camping in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming - Photo Credit: Brett Stanton
Deciding on Your Sleeping Bag for Camping
Committing to outdoor gear is a big deal, and it can get expensive quickly. Though we would all love to have a top-of-the-line, ultralight, ultra-warm, and ultra-comfortable sleeping bag, for most of us this isn't realistic, and usually not necessary.
To gauge how much you really need to invest in a sleeping bag for camping, consider these questions:
How many times a year will you go camping?
Will you only be car camping? If so, maybe an expensive, highly insulated, lightweight sleeping bag is excessive. You can save money by packing extra blankets in the trunk for chillier nights.
What sort of lifespan do you expect from a sleeping bag? Spending more for a high-quality, durable sleeping bag makes sense if you plan to use it often for many years.
Can you rent or buy second-hand? If you are testing the camping waters for the first time, keep your financial commitment low. Many outdoor stores rent sleeping bags and other camping gear, or you can buy second-hand from consignment shops or online gear marketplaces.
Your sleeping bag doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive, as long as it keeps you safe, warm, and comfortable. What really matters is getting outside as much as possible, with the resources available to you now.
Getting people outside as much as possible is our goal at Pathloom. We are dedicated to making outdoor adventures easy to access—for everyone. Explore our outdoor trip planning app to find even more ways to make your next camping trip even better!
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