No summer camping adventure is complete without at least one night tucked into a sleeping bag under the stars. Of course, nothing ruins a hike the next day like a sleepless night from trying to escape the heat as well. In recent years, the number of choices for determining what you want your sleeping bag to be insulated with, how it should be shaped, and how comfortable it is, has increased substantially. While all of this added choice usually means that you end up with a bag that better fits your needs, the number of choices you must consider, when choosing it, can make the whole process quite confusing.
Know Your Campgrounds
An important part of picking the right summer sleeping bag is knowing in advance where you’ll be camping, and how you will be using your bag. Having a basic idea of the weather conditions, available shelters, and rough idea of amount of time you will be sleeping outside are good places to start. Also make sure you consider things like altitude and wind. Just because you think you will be hot at the bottom of a mountain doesn’t mean setting up camp near the top will be the same!
Most bags available on the market today come marked with some form of temperature rating. A summer sleeping bag is usually marked with a temperature rating of +35 degrees Fahrenheit and higher. It is usually a good rule of thumb to buy a bag that is rated to temperatures a bit lower than the lowest temperature you plan on experiencing. It is much easier to unzip a bag on a hot night than it is to warm up a bag that isn’t keeping you warm enough on a cold one.
That being said, the nice thing about summer bags is that you can add a liner to increase the warmth a bit, in a pinch. Liners can add a level of useful versatility to summer sleeping bags that heavier bags aren’t capable of. Liners can be great if you are planning to hike or camp in places where the climate varies substantially. Liners are indispensable in places like the Andes where campsites vary a great deal in temperature and altitude. You can find liners in shapes to fit most sleeping bags, and in a wide range of fabrics, like silk, cotton, wicking synthetics and fleece. They’re indispensable for nights at youth hostels or for anywhere where you might encounter questionable bedding.
The fibers used in synthetics come in a variety of shapes and textures that allow for a better warmth-to-weight ratio, but with greater softness, compressibility, and other features important to backpackers. The major practical benefit of synthetic insulation is that it retains its insulative qualities, even when wet. However, synthetic bags also tend to weigh more and are bulkier than traditional down insulation. Generally they don’t last as long as down insulated bags, but are usually considered a good bang for your buck.
Goose down is a naturally fantastic insulator and is the insulator that all synthetics aim to copy. Goose down-insulated bags also have an exceptionally long life expectancy. If properly cared for, a goose down sleeping bag will last a lifetime. Goose down is also easily compressed, making it easier to squeeze into a tight corner in your backpack. The primary negative of down insulation is that it loses its insulating power, if it gets wet. However, this concern has been mitigated, somewhat, with some manufacturers using waterproof shell fabrics in their construction. Additionally, while on the trail, storing your down-insulated sleeping bag in a waterproof stuff sack or plastic garbage bag is also prudent. As you may expect, down sleeping bags are substantially more expensive than synthetic ones.
These bags are designed to fit the sleeper snugly. Some mummies provide the option of having the head tucked into an insulated hood. The user can then draw the opening closed, keeping in the maximum amount of heat. Mummy bags will be the lightest of the summer weight bags. As long as you are not claustrophobic, you can reduce your pack size and carry weight with a summer weight mummy bag. For cooler summer temperatures, a mummy bag will retain heat better than a rectangular bag.
The most common sleeping bag shape is rectangular and for good reason. Rectangular bags leave room for movement, which most people find more comfortable. The extra space in a rectangular bag does not hold heat as well as a mummy bag and for summer temperatures that is a plus. Most rectangular bags have double zippers, which allows you to turn the bag into a flat blanket, for warm nights. The double zippers are also useful in putting two bags together when you are camping with someone who you don’t mind sharing body heat with.
Semi rectangular bags are a newer type of bag designed as a compromise between rectangular and mummy bags. The trade off is basically a reduction in space for more heat retention. A lot of people who find mummy bags too constricting will opt for a semi-rectangular style. For people who often feel cold when they sleep, a semi rectangular bag may help.
Other things to consider
Bags are loaded with extra features like pockets or sleeping pad clips and pillow sleeves. Deciding whether or not to consider any of these options can be left up to personal preference and budget constraints.