At first glance, picking a sleeping bag might seem as easy as picking your favorite color on the rack — but if you’re going to get a bag you love for a long time, it’s going to take a little more headspace than that. There are so many sleeping bags on the market, there’s just no reason to settle for a bag that isn’t perfect for you. Let’s take a look at what’s involved in choosing a sleeping bag that you’ll love for years to come.

What Kind of Use?

Before you focus on the various features sleeping bags offer, think about what you plan on using it for. The occasional camping trip? A two-month-long backpacking excursion? Consider how often you intend to use your sleeping bag, and what kind of conditions you’ll subject it to, such as tents, truck beds, campers, sandy beaches, hard ground, etc. If you plan to use your sleeping bag often and on rough terrain, stay away from the flimsy discount bags.  You need a durable, well-insulated, and otherwise very-high-quality option. If you know your sleeping bag will only see occasional use, then there’s no need to break the bank– browse for well-made options that are a bit less spendy than their big-brand counterparts.

Temperature Rating

It’s not only the terrain that will vary as you travel– the temperature does, too.  Will yours be in use during hotter-than-hot summer months, or bitter-cold winters? What about more temperate seasons? Each bag has a rating that tells you just how cold the outside temps can get before you lose your toasty warm cozy nights in your bag.

Most bags feature a rating between +15 and +50° F. Summer season sleeping bags are generally rated at temperatures of +35 ° F and higher,, while winter season bags are rated +10°F and lower. “Three season” bags are typically rated +10 to +35.

Most people stick to the general rule to choose a bag with a temperature rating a little lower than the lowest temperature you expect to camp/hike in.  In other words, if you are going to be doing your camping in the summer months in Southern California, then a sleeping bag rated for +35°F may more than warm enough for you. But if you plan on camping in the cold Wyoming winters, then you’ll need to find a bag that easily protects you from those below freezing nights. However, no two of us are the same, and some people are sensitive sleepers, hot sleepers, cold sleepers, or fluctuating temp sleepers (you know, the “coverup-throwitoff-coverup-throwitoff” all night kind…)

So– know your own body. if you tend to sleep a little warm, or if you get icy chills at night and love the two-blanket coziness,  take that into consideration.   I personally heat up at night, so I prefer it to be on the cool, breezy side with minimal insulation.  Then, there’s my beautiful wife, who is the polar-opposite of me.  She wants to be as warm as possible even during the hottest nights of the summer, so her bag choices tend to be colder rated, cozier bags.

Insulation

Down feather used for sleeping bagSleeping bag insulation is made either of synthetic or feather down. The synthetic fill is heavier and less compressible than feather down, but it dries quickly and can stand up to moisture, keeping you warm even if it gets wet.   Feather down is longer-lasting, lighter, and more compressible than synthetic down when compared within the same temperature rating. If you go with down, get a rain cover for it too, and keep a barrier between the bag and the ground–  water is the mortal enemy of real down, as it takes an exceptionally long time to dry, and once it gets wet, you won’t be able to stay warm.

Maintenance doesn’t have to be a pain– you just need routine.  I recommend that each morning before you make your cup of camp cocoa and instant oatmeal, hang your sleeping bag out to dry.  Even if it doesn’t feel wet or moist, hang it over your tent or throw it on a makeshift clothesline, and let it air out before you enjoy a day of hiking.  You’ll sleep warmer, your bag will last longer, and most importantly, it won’t smell like … well… a wet, dirty camper.

Fill power is a term you’ll see when buying a down sleeping bag, so take a minute to understand what it means. Fill power is used to measure a down’s ability to puff up and trap heat around your body.  It’s based on how many cubic inches a single ounce of down can fill in a testing device — so, keep it simple:  the higher the fill power, the lighter, longer-lasting, and warmer it will keep.

There are some noticeable differences between goose and duck down:

  • Duck down can get fill-power any higher than 800ish, but the best goose down on the market can get up to 900 and more making it a much warmer bag (if you can afford it).
  • Goose down feathers can out last duck down by 20% according to some manufactures.
  • Duck down is known to have a “ducky” smell when you get it wet or after a wash.  I personally can’t smell it but I have gone on some boy scout camps where others could smell it (my bad for being the smelly-duck camper).

Sleeping Bag Shape

Sleeping bags come in tons of different shapes and sizes, including the classic rectangular shape. Most camping bags are rectangular, which offers optimal room and may be zipped together with another bag to create a double bed. Double-wide sleeping bags are available, too,  to comfortably fit two cozy spooners.

Barrel-shaped, or semi-rectangular, sleeping bags are another option, and have a more tapered design. This gives you maximum warmth, and is usually the choice for extended camping trips during colder weather.

The last sleeping bag shape option is the mummy shape. Easily the most debated of sleeping bag shapes, the design may remind you of the Egyptian mummy casket from ancient times once you zip up inside. If you’re the least bit claustrophobic, you’ll probably feel like you’re going to *become* one of those mummies, as it wraps snugly around your body with minimal extra room. The idea behind this design shape is to maximize warmth and reduce bulk/weight which is why it’s the most popular backpacking design you’ll find.  For those who probably need a mummy bag but just can’t bring themselves to climb into the tomb,  you can find a modified mummy bag, like the  Nemo Nocturne 15 Degree Sleeping Bag (-  review coming soon), or check out my review on the three season bag I personally use.

Still haven’t found the perfect bag?  Just browse for bags weighing no more than 5 pounds. Ideally, your sleeping bag should account for 10 to 20 percent of your backpack weight.

**Sleeping bags made for children and women are generally smaller, with women’s sleeping bags narrower in the shoulders and wider in the hips. Women’s sleeping bags also provide extra insulation in the feet and upper body areas.

Weight and Bulk

Sleeping bag weight is important if you’re planning a backpacking trip. When I pack my backpack for a hike, I always throw my sleeping bag into a compression sack, make it as small as possible, then put it at the very bottom of my pack with my pillow and clothes, clean socks or underwear – or basically any item I won’t be needing until night time or when I am unpacking and setting up camp.

If you’re just doing some car camping, weight doesn’t matter.  You can be all about that bass.

Waterproof – Keep it dry

Ok, when you’re backpacking, you can’t always plan on whether you are going to stay dry or not, right?  What’s the Boy Scout motto that I ingrain in the very souls of each of my scouts?
Be Prepared!
I base my sleeping bag purchase off of quality, warmth, and comfort.   It’s not hard to protect my bag while hiking, so owning a waterproof sleeping bag isn’t my highest priority. For those times when I fall into the river, my sleeping bag is packed in a “Sea to Summit eVent Compression Dry Sack” which I LOVE.  I got the medium sized one which was a perfect fit for my Nemo Nocturne 15 Degree Sleeping Bag.  When packed and compressed, the bag is the size of a small volleyball, and completely water proof.  What more could I want?

Waking up in a wet bag is never fun, so take the time to take care of your bag, and she’ll take care of you.  Protect it, air it out every morning and when you get home, don’t store it compressed. Hang it out to air and allow the down to breathe.

Additional Features

Sleeping bags have lots of features to consider:

  • Stash Pocket: A stash pocket is used to–wait for it–stash things. Think pocket knives and other small items.
  • Pillow Pocket: If you are like me and can’t sleep without a pillow, consider purchasing a camping pillow like this amazing gem, the Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow Premium – or find sleeping bag made with a pillow pocket. These pockets allow you to use your “clean” clothing to create a pillow, just don’t use your dirty underwear.  (What? Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
  • Sleeping Pad Sleeve: Do you prefer to place your bags on sleeping pads? A sleeping bag sleeve allows you to easily add a pad to your bag so you don’t startle yourself awake after rolling off of it.

Other things to look for:  Sleeping bags can come with detachable hoods! (and you don’t even need your gun under your pillow to sleep in this kind of hood)    Most sleeping bags often come with stuff sacks as well, so you can roll up and store your bag when not in use.

Wrap-Up

There’s a lot to consider when choosing a sleeping bag.  Resist the temptation to just snap up the clearance bag, or order the first 5-star bag that comes up on your Amazon feed.  A good investment and a nice item to have regardless of how much you camp or hike, it’s important to get to know each bag you’re considering to determine if it’s the right option for you. A good night’s rest is important no matter what surface you’re snoozing on, so be sure your sleeping bag lets you sleep like a king, whether you’re under the wilderness stars or in the back of a friend’s truck.

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