Making a good choice on a sleeping bag could be the difference between you having a tremendous night spent under the stars or a terrible, miserably uncomfortable, ‘I want my mommy’ type of experience. We’ve compiled a bit of info to help you make an educated decision about sleeping bags.
We want you to know how to choose a sleeping bag that is best suited for your personal needs, desired usage, and ultimate comfortability.
Glossary of Terms
These are terms that are commonly used to describe features, you can expect to see these when shopping around for different sleeping bags.
- Draft Collars – A tube of insulation to keep drafts off your neck
- Draft Tube – A tube of insulation running the length of the zipper to keep a draft out
- Baffle – Sewn pockets to distribute insulation evenly
- Differential Cut – A sleeping bag with a smaller inside than outside to minimize cold spots
- Side-Block Baffle – A piece of fabric sewn into the side of the bag to prevent the movement of down
First and foremost, temperature ratings are created with the assumption that you are using a sleeping pad. When you lay in a sleeping bag, you are compressing the fill material (whether it be down or synthetic), thus reducing the loft and insulating capabilities of the bag. A sleeping pad puts another couple inches of insulation between you and the cold ground, increasing the effectiveness of the bag you are in.
When looking at temperature ratings, there are a few variables to take into consideration. Ultimately it all boils down to personal needs and preferences.
When and where will you be using the sleeping bag?
What season and conditions you plan on using your sleeping bag in are the most important. A summer sleeping bag doesn’t need to be warmer than 35oF. A fall bag may not need to be warmer then 15oF. If you will be camping in the dead of winter you are going to want a 0oF or subzero bag depending on where you are.
Think about how hot or cold it will actually be on the trips you intend to take, and buy accordingly. Remember, there are two ends to this spectrum. While a 35oF bag is not going to keep you warm enough for the fall or winter, a 15oF bag is going to be too warm in the summer months. If you intend to camp all year round, be prepared to have multiple bags.
Everybody has a different sleeping metabolism, and this is a huge indicator as to what bag you will need. Nobody knows your body better then yourself. It is important to take into account whether you are a hot or cold sleeper. Understand that the temperature ratings on the bag may actually be 10oF inaccurate for you, in either direction depending on how you sleep. Think about whether you are a hot or cold sleeping before you buy a bag because this will have a big impact on your decision.
What else influences warmth?
- Sleeping bag liner: Sleeping bag liners are separate liners that fit inside your bag and can ad up to 15oF of warmth to your bag. Bag liners are available in silk and cotton. In addition to increasing warmth, they also protect your sleeping bag from the oils on your skin, reducing overall wear on the bag. Shop sleeping bag liners
- Sleeping Pad: As said before, sleeping pads add a layer of insulation between you and the ground. Different sleeping pads have higher insulating capabilities then others, so pay attention to what your sleeping pad is rated to. This figure is indicated with a R-Value, the higher the R-Value the more insulation it will provide.
- Tent: If you are sleeping in a tent there will be another zone of dead air around you to keep you warm. But if you are sleeping under the open sky, you will be subject to wind and the air around you will never warm up or retain any heat.
- Clothing: As you might have guessed, if you dress warm in your sleeping bag you are going to get a little more warmth out of it. On a nice summer night a pair of shorts and a shirt might do the trick. However, on a cold winter night you may find yourself wearing a down jacket and down pants inside your bag for that extra warmth.
- Hood: If your sleeping bag has a hood, it can be cinched up for a snug fit providing extra heat retention.
- Hydration: If you go to sleep dehydrated your body will not be able to keep itself as warm through the night. Drink plenty of water (you should be doing this anyway).
Fill Material – Down VS. Synthetic
- Down is warmer than synthetic insulation ounce for ounce. No manmade fiber matches down in it’s warmth-to-weight ratio.
- Retains its shape and loft and, with proper care, can last a lifetime. No synthetic can beat down’s longevity. Down holds up better over years of use.
- Wicks body moisture and allows it to evaporate. Moisture wicking goes a long way in keeping you dry, warm, and comfortable.
CONS of Down
- Loses its insulating properties when wet and is slow to dry. This is the Achilles Heal of down insulation. If you’re down sleeping bag gets wet, it is not going to keep you warm.
- Requires special cleaning. Cleaning down gear is labor intensive. Harsh detergents and chemicals will break down the natural loft and luster. Down gear should be gently washed with down-specific cleaning products or taken to the dry cleaner.
- May contain allergens. While it may not cause an allergic reaction itself, lower quality down can harbor dust particles and other allergens.
- Costs a pretty-penny. Down insulation is going to be more expensive than synthetics, but it is arguably is higher quality and has a longer lifetime value.
- Synthetic insulation is water resistant and will provide warmth when wet. Synthetic fills are resistant to moisture and some will actually shed the water rather then absorb it.
- Synthetic dries quickly. In the event that your bag does get wet, it dries off much quicker then down. The reason for this is because the moisture is trapped in the air pockets between the fibers rather than in the fibers themselves.
- Unless geese start lowering the prices on down, synthetic insulation will always be less expensive then its natural counterpart.
- Because synthetics are manmade, they are, for the most part, hypoallergenic.
CONS of Synthetic
- More bulky and less compact than down. Synthetic have a heavier warmth-to-weight ratio, adding pounds to your pack.
- Being heavier and bulkier per pound means they will be taking up valuable space in your pack.
- Breaks down over time. Synthetic fibers gradually break down over time, regardless of oh well you care for them. Down insulation is far more durable and will last way longer.
- May cause fit problems. Some lower end synthetics can be stiffer and not drape as well as down.
What is Down Fill Power?
Fill Power is the numerical rating system given to down to determine its “universal lofting value”. In an enclosed cylinder, one ounce of down is compressed and decompressed (to simulate stuffing), then allowed to loft for 72 hours. After this period, a one-ounce weight is placed on the sample of down. The volume that the down lofts up to in cubic centimeters represents the down’s Fill Power. For instance, 550-fill power down, the industry standard, lofts to 550 cubic centimeters of volume, and 800-fill power down lofts to 800ccs.
Is a higher fill-power down warmer? No, it isn’t warmer. Imagine two sleeping bags that look and loft identically; one has 500 fill power down and the other has 800 fill power down. Which one is warmer? Neither, they’re both the same (so long as they have the same temperature rating). But the one with 800 fill down will be lighter. If you don’t care about the weight of a sleeping bag or jacket, paying more for a higher fill power doesn’t make any sense.
Storing your sleeping bags
Every time you stuff your sleeping bag, you break down the insulation a little bit. Most insulations, down or synthetic, are elastic enough to withstand hundreds of stuffing’s, but only if they are temporary. You should never store your sleeping bag in a small stuff sack. Ideally, your sleeping bag should be hung up in a closet, or stored under a bed without anything on top of it. Realistically, a breathable pillowcase or extra-large stuff sack designed specifically for your sleeping bag is the best home. Many times, sleeping bags will come with a larger pillowcase/laundry sized sack to store your bag in when no it use. Never store your bag wet, and always keep it in a cool, dry place. If stored wet or in a damp place, mildew can develop.
Women Specific Sleeping Bags
What most manufacturers mean when they say “women’s-specific” is a bag that is shorter and wider than their usual sleeping bag designs. Sometimes extra insulation is packed into the torso and/or foot area of the sleeping bag to account for women’s different metabolic rates. Don’t let yourself get pigeonholed into any gender categories with sleeping bags. Many men will find women’s sleeping bags better fitting, and vice-versa. In the end, it’s just a matter of comfort.