How to Choose the Right Sleeping Bag for Your Camping Needs

Posted by  Monday, May 20 2013 4:00 pm
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There's more to buying a sleeping bag than picking a color you like in a style that fits. Sleeping bags come in a variety of materials and styles and are intended for a range of conditions and uses. Selecting a bag involves some understanding of shell and fill materials, construction methods, special bag features, season and temperature ratings, size, shape, and a realistic assessment of the conditions in which a bag will be used. All of these factors should be considered and weighed against your financial commitment to buying the best bag you can afford.

Shape: Mummy vs. Rectangular

Sleepingbag Ascend40Mummy
The mummy bag's hood and contoured shape is designed to trap in body heat while you're sleeping and are the best choice for cold-weather camping.

One of the first decisions to make when buying a sleeping bag is whether you want a mummy or a rectangular shaped bag. There are some distinctions between the two.

Mummy bags are tapered and come with hoods, making them more of a snug fit when you're sleeping. They get their name because their shape resembles a wrapped mummy.

The bag's hood and contoured shape are designed to trap in body heat while you're sleeping. These bags are the best choice if you'll be in cool or cold environments, like fall or winter camping. The downside to them is they can seem constrictive, especially if you move a lot when sleeping.

Some quality mummy style bags include Bass Pro Shops Big Outdoorsman -20-degree Mummy Sleeping Bag, Ascend -20-degree Mummy Sleeping Bag, Coleman Taos 25-degree Mummy Sleeping Bag and The North Face Aleutian 2S BX 40-degree Mummy Sleeping Bag. Mummy bags for ladies are available and shaped for a woman's shoulders and hips for a more comfortable sleep. Examples include the Ascend 25-degree Women's Mummy Sleeping Bag or The North Face Cat's Meow Bx 20 Mummy Sleeping Bag for Ladies.

Rectangular sleeping bags are your second option. These bags are great for warm to cool weather camping. They are quite versatile too; you can use them for family tent camping or unzip them to make a spare blanket. Another benefit of rectangular-shaped bags is that you can often zipper two similar bags together to create a large cozy bag that fits two people.

Rectangle bags offer plenty of leg and shoulder room, allowing you to shift around while sleeping. Most rectangular bags don't have built-in hoods like mummy bags do, although some have fabric extending beyond the upper top of the bag. Rectangular bags let more body heat escape through the upper opening than mummy bags. However, the wide opening lets you adjust how high the bag rests on your body, which can be handy on hot nights.

Some good choices for rectangular bags are Bass Pro Shops 0-degree Oversized Duckcloth Sleeping Bag, Coleman Clear Lake 40-degree Sleeping Bag, Coleman Lassen 20-degree Sleeping Bag and the North Face Dolemite 3S Bx 20-degree Rectangular Sleeping Bag.

Temperature Rating

Temperature ratings (found in the product name, such as Bass Pro's 0-degree Oversized Duckcloth Sleeping Bag) provide a rough idea of the bag's insulation performance. The temperature rating is an estimate of the coolest temperature at which a bag will maintain your body heat. These ratings are guidelines only. If you sleep cold and need plenty of blankets at home, pick a bag rated for a colder temperature than you plan to sleep in on your travels to ensure you'll stay warm.

Sleepingbag Oxford
Best for warm and cool-weather camping, rectangular bags offer plenty of leg and shoulder room, allowing you to shift around while sleeping.

Other terms you may encounter to qualify bags are three-season and four-season. Unless you plan to camp in cold weather, a three-season bag will serve you well from spring to fall for both indoor and outdoor sleeping. Keep in mind that you can always wear a layer of clothes and a hat while sleeping to stay warm if the temperature unexpectedly drops when camping.

Fill Types: Down vs. Synthetic

Fill is the insulation in a sleeping bag. It can be made of natural or synthetic materials.

Down is a natural fill. Duck and goose feathers are the two main types of down available. Down insulates extremely well. It can be tightly compressed when stored in a stuff sack during transport. Like a duvet, a down sleeping bag is extremely comfortable and warm.

An unfortunate characteristic of down is that it's a poor insulator when wet. It is also more expensive than synthetic materials. These two traits are why many individuals opt for synthetic fills.

There are plenty of synthetic fills on the market. Many manufacturers make their own brand. Polyester and nylon are the main synthetic materials used in bags. Compared to down-filled bags, synthetics are less expensive, non-allergenic and provide better insulation when wet.

To keep insulation in place, a quality sleeping bag will be quilted. An offset quilt is one of the more common construction types. Securing the insulating material in place prevents cold spots from forming. These occur in inferior quality bags where the fill becomes thin, letting heat escape. Most reputable manufacturers quilt bags properly.

Other Considerations

Some other things to keep in mind when purchasing a sleeping bag include:

  • Only buy a bag with a quality zipper. Zippers get a lot of use during a bag's lifespan. Models designed to keep material away from the zipper's teeth are worth investing in as snags are frustrating and sometimes tear the material.
  • Zipper flaps are another important feature. Zipper flaps rest against the zipper to trap in heat.
  • The lining in a bag keeps you cozy when sleeping. Choose a material that's right for you by considering what you'd like against your skin while sleeping.
  • Bags allowing you to zip in a lining offer a bit more functionality. Adding a Sleeping Bag Liner boosts the temperature rating of a bag. Then you can remove the lining when the temperature warms later in the season. Liners are also handy for keeping bags clean. Take out the liner and give it a wash instead of laundering the entire bag.
  • Loops at the end of the bag let you easily hang your bag to dry or air out the bag.
  • Stuff sacks come with most bags for compact transport. You should also consider purchasing a waterproof bag to carry the stuffed bag to ensure it stays dry on your trips.
  • A draft collar will help keep heat around your shoulders and your neck.
  • Some mummy bags come with a chest-level adjustable draw cord or a baffle. Both are designed to retain body heat in the bag.
  • Some bags come with storage pockets. These can be handy to tuck in important items like a mini flashlight or your wallet. Just keep in mind you might roll over on these things when sleeping; be careful with fragile items such as eyeglasses.
  • Pillows are a good accessory to consider when buying a sleeping bag. You can purchase flannel lined pillows, like the Bass Pro Shops Camp Pillow. They usually come with a stuff sack and take up minimal space once compressed. Alternatively, you can purchase expanding models.
  • Having a quality cot, mattress or sleeping pad will help keep you comfortable and off the cold ground when sleeping outdoors.

When purchasing a bag in a store, climb inside it to ensure it's the right size for you. Don't forget to keep your own sleeping needs in mind. Consider shape, temperature rating and fill, and you'll be well insulated and cozy in your new sleeping bag.

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Last modified on Tuesday, July 22 2014 5:31 pm
Tim Allard
expert

Tim Allard hails from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. He's a full-time outdoor journalist and author and photographer of the multi-award winning book, "Ice Fishing - The Ultimate Guide" (2010), which is also available in French under the title, "Pêche sur glace". Tim regularly contributs to numerous North American print and online publications. For more information visit www.timallard.ca.

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