Buying a New Sleeping Bag

Making the decision about purchasing the right sleeping bag shouldn’t keep you up at night. Understandably, when you look at all the different sleeping bags available today, it’s enough to make anyone confused. The key to selecting the right sleeping bag is picking one that suits the outdoor environment as well as your personal needs.

Temperature and Camping

New Sleeping BagsA big consideration when picking a sleeping bag is the bag’s temperature rating. A temperature rating on a sleeping bag is a good indicator of the lowest temperature at which the bag will keep you warm. So a 20 degree bag will keep you warm in air temperatures of 20 degrees and above. It’s a good idea to select a bag that is rated for temperatures a little bit colder than what you are expecting, but if you’re sleeping in a tent with a sleeping pad and wearing insulated clothing to sleep, then you may not need a bag that is rated for weather that cold.

Sleeping Bag Construction

When looking at a sleeping bag’s construction, there are a couple of things to consider, including the shell, the lining and the insulation. The insulation can be made of a synthetic material or down, both of which are durable and light. Down is very lightweight and offers some of the best weight-to-warmth ratings. However, if the down gets wet, it will lose up to 70% of its insulation properties. Down bags are typically more expensive than synthetically insulated bags and synthetic bags are a lot more forgiving to getting wet. A synthetic bag will be a lot warmer if it gets wet than a down bag would be. Sleeping bag shells are typically nylon or polyester fabric for durability and quick drying properties. The lining of a sleeping bag can be made of cotton or cotton flannel for car camping to give you the comfort of flannel sheets, or nylon and polyester to reduce moisture absorption common to natural fibers like cotton.

Consider your Camping Style

Because there are different types of camping, there are various sleeping bags designed for each camping style. When choosing a sleeping bag, consider how it will be used most often. Please see below for some of the scenarios you may find yourself in when camping.

Backpacking

RV or Car Camping

Sleeping Bags for Backpacking Sleeping Bags for RV Car Camping
Weight and size is a primary concern. Remember, whatever bag you choose, you’ll be carrying it on your back. The last thing you need is a heavy, bulky sleeping bag to tote around. Look for a warm, lightweight, compact bag. Since you won’t be carrying your sleeping bag, weight isn’t a major factor. Concentrate on warmth, comfort, and leg room.

Canoe Camping

Extreme or Deep Winter Camping Conditions

Canoe Camping Sleeping Bags Sleeping Bags for Extreme Camping
Since you know you’re going to be in a wet environment, a warm, moisture-resistant, quick-drying bag is essential. Remember, waterproof stuff sacks and travel bags can leak. For hard-core campers, weight, warmth, compactness, and moisture-resistance are all critical considerations.

There are a few other considerations when picking a sleeping bag, such as shape, fit, size, zippers, pockets, etc. but these are basically individual preference-based options. The best way to determine what sleeping bag is right for you is to evaluate how you’ll use it and find the bag to match your needs.

Let us know what sleeping bag suits you best in the comments below!

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  • archeologist

    I choose a bag designed for women when preparing for camping at an archeological dig site. My tent mate on the dig had the same bag, but hers was not the women’s version. I was comfortable and she was cold. I had obviously thought that the women’s version might be better for me, and this just confirmed it. My cold weather bags will always be ones designed for women.

  • JAB

    This information is seriously lacking. Do your own research on temperature ratings to get an understanding of what they mean. Do not think that you can buy a 20 degree bag and be comfortable without a pad. If you are planning a trip that requires you sleep in 20 degree temps, buy a bag rated to 10 or zero and always use a pad. Manufactures rate bags in several ways: comfort for a man, comfort for a women, and extreme. Most manufactures use the extreme rating – meaning you won’t die at the temps listed, but don’t expect a good nights sleep at the extreme rating. Good manufactures show all three ratings. It is dissapointing to read the “experts” advice in the info above. Come on Campmor, you can do better than this.

    • JAB:
      Thank you for your response and helpful additional information. While it is correct that a sleeping pad is required to reach the advertized temperature rating whether EN or non EN, many people use sleeping bags in hostels on mattresses, on air beds car camping in camp grounds or cots in a hunting camp. For purposes of back country use a sleeping bag needs a sleeping pad to function at the advertised temperature rating. The EN 13537 standard is a definite improvement on the temperature rating of sleeping bags. This rating system has the following ratings:

      Upper Limit: the temperature above which the bag would be too warm

      Comfort rating: the temperature all people will be comfortable in

      Lower limit: the temperature most people will sleep comfortably. If you are a cold sleeper you may be uncomfortable without additional insulation like a liner or heavier sleep clothing.

      Extreme rating: This is the temperature you will survive at, by no means will you get any sleep.
      For instance the North Face Aleutian 0 has an EN rating of upper limit 15 F -9C a lower limit of 1 F -17 C and an Extreme -38 F -39 C.

      Not all manufacturers of sleeping bags participate in this standard. This said, all of the higher end sleeping bag manufactures do. The way that the EN standard is attained is through a standardized heated mannequin. The transition zone between comfort and lower limit is the best spot to evaluate the sleeping bag temperature rating. This is due to the balance between weight bulk and comfort. One does not want to carry more bag than one needs. A good compromise between weight bulk and comfort is key for light travel and comfortable nights.

  • HellaZella

    I agree with JAB. Pad is key to real warmth, as a lot of heat is lost to the ground when it is cold.
    Another tip is to consider buying a long bag even if you’d normally fit into a standard length. The longer bags offer more hip, and shoulder room (a plus if you sleep on your side or belly) and the added space at the bottome is a great place to keep clothes warm in winter or even for boots. Keep boots in the bottom of the bag in winter to keep them warm or thawed and avoid having to put on cold or frozen boots in the am. The worst part of a winter hike is waking up warm, eating warm, only to struggle putting on frozen boots or hiking in cold ones!

  • lewrod

    If one can afford it, buy more than one sleeping bag. For about 80% of camping, my 20 degree rated Cat’s Meow is great. But I’ve also got a down bag rated to 10 degrees, one rated to minus 15 and one rated for 40. The minus 15 bag almost never gets used anymore now that I’m an old guy. The 40 degree one also sees little use. But both have been wonderful on certain trips. That little 40 degree Marmot Atom was perfect for hiking the Grand Canyon in the spring.

  • Ralph Powers

    Some of the most important things I learned about “the right kind of sleeping bag” I learned from personal experience and from other avid campers/back-packers.
    One of the best things I learned for cold/winter camping was to buy a bivvy sack and the best quality you can get your hands on because it pays off in the long run. If you’re tent camping then a bivvy isn’t necessarily needed, but back-packing these things are indeed life-savers.
    I used to camp in high altitude areas (8-10,000 feet above sea-level) and used to get pretty nippy until a friend told me about this combination.
    Just as with clothing, you layer your sleeping spot. First, a 20 degree mummy bag (not -20). Second, inside you have as close to 100% wool blanket to slip into, a polypropylene liner works just as good. Third, a good air mattress (with a non-slip mat) to put some space between you and the ground. Fourth, all of that (including the mattress) goes inside the bivvy and you’re good to go. Even without a tent.
    Keep in mind that your clothing is another key factor in keeping you warm. Wool/polypro blend of socks and long underwear and (if possible wool pants (found at Army/Navy stores). The wool and polypro will absorb the moisture your body produces. Wool also loses less heat when wet. found Pack-boot liners also are good for protecting your feet. A flannel shirt and wool sweater. Finally a full face baklava for your head.
    This may sound like you’ll sweat off 40 pounds but when you’re in -10 to -15 degree temperatures… you’ll be grateful for it all. The air-mattress is crucial for winter-camping as it keeps you off from the heat sucking ground/snow/ice.
    I’d rather sweat than freeze to death or end up with frost-bite.
    Remember also DO NOT consume caffine prior to sleeping. Hot chocolate or coffee may sound like just the ticket but they speed up your heart rate and you lose more heat.
    You want to be calm, breathing slowly so your body can rest and conserve energy to stay warm. Non-caffinated hot tea is good and a high protein candy bar will serve as fuel to keep the body furnace going.
    Summer camping, the 20 degree bag will suffice and you can leave it unzipped to stay cool, but depending where you are, summer nights can dip down to the 40’s and even 30’s.
    I always look for compact-ability with my bags, the smaller I can get it, the better, takes up less space in my pack while backpacking.

    One final caution. Bedding down beside the camp-fire may sound like a romantic/cool thing to do, and it is… provided your bag and anything else is fire-retardant. Be 100% sure that the wood is dried to prevent pops and flying embers. If not, then distance yourself enough and ensure that the campfire is not going to flare up later in the evening.