How to Choose the Best Sleeping Bag for Every Outdoor Adventure
Date Posted:14 August 2019
Finding a sleeping bag that matches all your needs can be quite challenging. Here you’ll see what it takes to find the right one.
Conquering the great outdoors requires a good night’s sleep. This is why it’s essential to get your hands on the best sleeping bag. It can make a world of difference to your overall experience and make sleeping under the stars feel like home. Or as close to it as possible.
Like almost all other pieces of camping gear, sleeping bags for camping have evolved quite a bit. Far from regular sleeping bags, they’ve become highly versatile and feature-rich bags that can fit every outdoor situation.
Before you get one, you’ll have to identify your personal best outdoor sleeping bag. To make the decision easier, we’ll go over the most important features that you need to take into account. So without further ado, here’s what you need to consider:
What do you need the sleeping bag for? Are you going camping or backpacking? What about mountaineering or pack-rafting? What to look for in the best outdoor sleeping bag will depend on this decision.
Here are some rules of thumb for different outdoor activities (more to come later):
Camping – The most important features that you need to consider here are comfort and temperature rating. As for the other factors, they’ll depend mostly on your own preferences.
Backpacking – The key here is to go as lightweight as possible. You don’t want to carry a heavy bag for hours on end, what with all the other cumbersome backpacking gear. The best sleeping bag for backpacking should be compact and easy to carry around without sacrificing too much comfort.
Mountaineering – The proper mountaineering sleeping bag will have all the features of a good backpacking bag except the need for a lower temperature rating. The weather can be unpredictable, and depending on where and when you’re going, you’ll want to make sure you’re ready for anything that nature throws your way.
2. Temperature Rating
The temperature rating shows the minimum outside temperature where you’ll be fine sleeping in the bag. This is the temperature that you can make do, not the comfort rating. If there’s a comfort temperature rating, it’ll be higher than the minimum rating. So if your bag’s rating is 10°C, even 8°C might make you too uncomfortable.
You’ll come across season ratings as well, so here’s a breakdown:
One-season bags – Suitable for camping in and around the summer, therefore one season. Should keep an average person warm when it’s 10°C or higher out.
Two-season bags – These should keep you warm down to 5°C. If you’re not sensitive to cold, you can use them during the spring or fall.
Three-season bags – The best sleeping bags for experienced campers. Suitable for all seasons except the winter, but they might be too warm for the summer, depending on the fill and materials. Should keep you warm down to 0°C
Four-season bags – With a rating of -10°C, these bags are suitable for non-extreme winter nights. If you plan on camping all year round, this might be your best option.
Five-season bags – Suitable for extremely low temperatures down to -40°C. Generally not intended for casual campers but rather those who brave harsh weather conditions like frost or storms.
As a general rule, going with a zippered three- or four-season bag is your safest bet. It’s also popular to get two sleeping bags, one for the summer and the other for the colder season. If you tend to go camping during a specific season, use the above rating system as a reference for finding the best outdoor sleeping bag.
3. Bag Filling
The fill type of a sleeping bag can make a lot of difference to the overall use. It can determine a sleeping bag’s price, warmth, and weight, and it’s something that you need to account for in order to find the best sleeping bag for camping.
There are two main options for you to choose from, down and synthetic:
Generally speaking, down insulation is superior to synthetic. It offers a much better weight/warmth balance, and it’s easier to pack and carry around. It’s highly compressible so it doesn’t take up a lot of space in your bag and it doesn’t lose it's loftiness after repeated compressions.
The most common choices are duck and goose plumage, which are some of nature’s finest insulators. The way plumes clump together gives the bag many air pockets for trapping heat.
To measure this ability to retain heat, manufacturers assign fill power ratings to their down sleeping bags. The higher the number, the higher the heat retention and the lighter and more compressible the bag.
For casual campers, a fill power of 550 or more will do the trick. On the other hand, those looking for a premium sleeping bag will want a fill power of 850+. Of course, this also increases the price of the sleeping bag, which is already more expensive than synthetic variants.
The biggest downside of down sleeping bags is the mediocre water resistance. While some premium sleeping bags may come with a very water-resistant shell to make up for it, most of them don’t. Down can take a while to dry, and you won’t be able to use the bag comfortably until it does.
There’s also the ethical question of using animal-sourced materials. If you’re against it, you’ll probably want to go with synthetic.
If you’re on a budget and don’t plan on carrying a sleeping bag with you a lot, a synthetic sleeping bag might work better. Synthetic bags are more affordable, but they’re also bulkier and not as convenient to pack as down.
But this doesn’t mean that synthetic bags are inferior in all aspects. For one, synthetic fill can retain heat even when wet. While you’ll want to keep your sleeping bag as dry as you can, failing to do this won’t be as big of an issue with synthetic bags. In addition, synthetic fill dries much faster than down, so these bags are more suitable for when there’s a high probability of rain.
On the flipside, the weight/warmth ratio is much higher, and carrying a heavy-duty synthetic bag with you will probably be very challenging. It will also require more space than an average down bag, so it’s not the best option in terms of convenience.
Ultimately, it will depend on your budget and personal preferences. Modern synthetic sleeping bags have closed the gap some.
This is where you’ll have to do a bit more thinking. Comfort is easily one of the most important factors for the majority of people, so the best outdoor sleeping bag needs to offer the right fit. There are multiple options available in this regard, which can be a blessing or a curse.
To help you out, here are the most common sleeping bag shapes and their features:
Rectangular – The top choice for occasional campers who focus on comfort. They’re spacious enough to leave you some wiggle room, so they’re suitable for those who toss and turn or change their sleeping positions through the night. On the downside, they’re generally heavier and bulkier.
Double – If you want to snuggle with your partner and share your body heat, a double sleeping bag is a great option. With the extra body heat, you can go for a more lightweight bag if you have to carry it with you. Double bags are the bulkiest but one of them is often smaller than two single sleeping bags.
Mummy – The lightest of all, mummy bags are suitable for those who want to fully cover up in a form-fitting sleeping bag. Unless you’re claustrophobic, they are the best in terms of weight-to-warmth ratio.
Custom – There are other custom-shaped sleeping bags to meet specific comfort needs. For example, semi-rectangular bags offer more room than mummy bags without being as bulky as rectangular bags. In addition, made for women bags are wider in the hip area and narrower across the shoulders.
Quilts – This is a fairly new style of sleeping that gets rid of the bottom filling with the assumption that it will compress to nothing anyway when you’re in the bag. Therefore, you might as well lie on your sleeping pad and wrap a quilt around you. It’s a highly versatile option that offers an excellent weight-to-warmth ratio.
5. Shell and Lining Fabric
The best sleeping bag needs to ensure durability and comfort on the outside as well as the inside. You’ll want a fabric that can survive different settings and allow the insulation to loft properly.
In most cases, your bag will feature a DWR-treated nylon shell. It’s comfortable, lightweight, and conducive to the filling’s proper lofting even after hundreds of compresses. Of course, the best outdoor sleeping bag will come with a nylon shell that’s as thin as possible.
The textile measurement that you’ll want to look at is the denier. The lower the denier the better, and you’ll ideally go with a fabric that you can almost see through.
Aside from nylon, you might stumble upon a bag with cotton or flannel shell and lining. These are suitable for cooler temperatures but don’t perform as well as nylon in warm and humid surroundings.
All of the above apply to casual campers who stay away from extreme conditions. If you’re among the more adventurous souls, you’ll want to go with a bag that’s equipped with a waterproof/breathable membrane. This will help to protect against frost and condensation. For most campers, there’s no reason to go beyond the standard DWR nylon shell and lining unless they want to.
6. Construction Features
Now that we’ve gone over the most impactful features, let’s take a look at the other features that can make a difference. These are nice to have but not deal-breakers when choosing the best sleeping bag for camping.
The last thing you want is for your sleeping bag’s delicate fabric to get caught in the zipper. This is why you should steer away from dainty little zippers. Go with those that have larger teeth, as they’re far less likely to snag the fabric.
In addition, you might want to consider your dominant hand with respect to the location of the zipper. If you’re right-handed and armed with a particularly clumsy left hand, it might be very uncomfortable to reach a zipper to your right.
Lastly, consider zippers that have draft tubes if you’re going out in cold weather. Generally speaking, the zipper is a vulnerable point for heat to escape and cold air to come in, and draft tubes can solve this issue.
Speaking of heat, you need to take a look at your bag’s baffle design and configuration. This applies to down sleeping bags where you have to prevent the down filling from moving to the edges of the bag. Synthetic bags don’t need them and the baffles are there just for aesthetic reasons.
Ideally, you’ll want to go with continuous horizontal baffles. These give you the option to move the insulation around and ensure the right warmth balance.
Unless you plan on connecting with nature only during the summer, you’ll probably benefit from a hooded sleeping bag. The best sleeping bag should have a high-quality hood that fits over your head without too much wiggling around.
Without the right fit, it will be quite uncomfortable to get a good night's sleep. Worse yet, your breath might dampen the whole bag and make it much colder.
Choose Your Sleeping Bag Wisely
Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of what it takes to find the best sleeping bag for camping, hiking, or any other outdoor activity. While you don’t have to put equal weight on each of these features, it’s important to take all of them into account.
Also, if you plan on making camping a habit, you’ll want to think carefully before you buy. It also pays to invest in a high-quality sleeping bag that you won’t need to replace for at least a couple of years.
So take some time to choose the features that you need the most, and you’ll be able to see the best outdoor sleeping bag that checks all the boxes. The easiest way to see all the options that are available to you would be to visit the sleeping bag page of our online shop.