Down, mummy-shaped bags, two-way zippers, draft collars... Walk into any outdoor goods store and you'll be met by a dizzying array of sleeping bags. Which one is best? Not surprisingly, the answer depends on your outdoor needs. While there is no single perfect bag for all, keep the following guidelines in mind to ensure that you walk out with a sleeping bag that works for your lifestyle.
The key difference in sleeping bags is whether it has down or synthetic insulation. Down has a higher weight-to-warmth ratio, and thus is more compact. However, only synthetic fills such as PolarGuard 3D, Lite Loft, Hollofil, or Quallofil will maintain loft and warmth when wet. Determining which one better suits your outdoor activities is the first step.
Then, focus on the shape of the bag. Mummy-shaped bags are the most efficient at keeping you warm. However, some people find them constricting, so keep that in mind. The other choices of shape are semi-rectangular and rectangular (see Figure 1). For sleepers who toss and turn, a semi-rectangular cut is ideal- mummy bags are better for people who stay put. Also, some campers choose to buy two bags to zip together for more ventilation and flexibility. In this case, make sure the zippers are compatible and you purchase both a left and a right zipper.
There are a myriad of materials used to construct sleeping bags. Most bags are constructed out of nylon, polyester, or nylon blends. Not surprisingly, sleeping bags with cotton insides, quilted rectangular shapes, or Pokémon or other entertaining figures printed on them are not recommended for backpacking or remotely serious outdoor use.
When you shop for a sleeping bag, take the time to “kick the tires.” Climb inside each one, roll around, zip it up, stuff it, un-stuff it, compare lofts, and then choose the one that seems to best meet your needs for space, warmth, and features.
Since there are so many options, it can be difficult to narrow them down. Here are some tips to ensure you pick the best sleeping bag for your needs:
If you are just starting out and hope to maximize the versatility of your bag, a three-season mummy with a temperature/comfort rating of around 10 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit is generally a fantastic choice. A good three-season bag should see you through a frosty evening in spring or fall and not overheat you during a warm night in July.
But, if your inclination is more towards winter camping, there are some more factors to keep in mind.
Sleeping bag designers agree that a cold weather bag must have the following features to keep the occupant warm: zipper draft tubes, shoulder collars, hoods that cup and insulate the head without being claustrophobic, and a temperature rating of 0 Fahrenheit or below. In the winter it is far better to err on the side of warmth, so temperature ratings of minus 15 to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit are ideal.
In terms of insulation, down, with a 650-power fill rating or above, offers the highest weight-to-warmth ratio and longevity. The fill power of down indicates the amount of actual downy feather and quill. The lower the fill number, the more quill and less feather. The higher the number, the less quill and more feather.
Buy a winter bag long. Most mountaineers recommend against regular-sized bags and opt for bags that offer at least an extra 8 to 10 inches of space at the foot after you are nestled comfortably inside. Those extra inches provide adequate space to store cameras, water, boots, and other items that you don’t want to freeze. In addition, bags with a wider cut can offer more warmth because they give you room to layer clothing without feeling constricted.
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