If you’re planning on camping this year, make sure you’ve got the right supplies and equipment to stay comfortable and safe. One thing that can make or break your camping experience is the sleeping bag you use. Read on for some tips on how to select the right sleeping bag for your camping style.
The type of sleeping bag you choose to purchase will depend upon when, where, and how you plan to use it. Will you be in a tent, in a camper, or under the stars? If you are selecting bags for warm-weather family camping, base camping, or "car camping" (in which you don’t plan to carry the bags very far before using them), you will want to choose a bag for general comfort—something that is roomy, soft and cushy. This is also true if you expect to use them in warmed tents, cabins, or camping vehicles. However, if you’re planning to backpack and carry your bag along, or camp outdoors in cool weather, your bag’s weight and temperature ratings will become vital factors in your choice.
If you expect to be camping in areas with great temperature extremes or in different parts of the world, you may need more than one bag. There are sleeping bags designed for summer or winter use, for three seasons or four, and to fit men, women, or children. There are rectangular bags, mummy bags, and bags that can zip to each other to accommodate more than one person. They can be constructed of natural or synthetic material, each with its own set of pros and cons.
Given all of these factors, how do you choose? Here are several factors to aid in your choice:
One very important choice to make is the material that is used to fill (or insulate) your sleeping bag. One property of fill is "loft," the height the insulation achieves when the bag is open and allowed to “fluff.” The higher the loft, the warmer the bag.
- Cotton- fill bags are cozy and work well if you are sleeping in a warm tent or vehicle, but not good at all if they get wet; cotton absorbs and retains water, becoming soggy, heavy, and cold. It is not good for backpacking, as it is too heavy and doesn’t compress well to roll up or stuff in a bag. Though cotton has its place, in backpacking situations it is known as the “death cloth” because it doesn’t insulate well when wet, and it’s extremely hard to dry—so if temperatures plummet, it may kill you or lead to hypothermia.
- Wool- Wool repels water much better than cotton, and even if it absorbs some it tends to wick it away from the surface, so that you feel dryer. However, it is also very heavy and does not compress or transport well.
- Synthetic Fill- These soft polyester filaments are strong and have good heat-retention in cold temperatures, even when wet. Synthetic fill doesn’t compress well, either, so it will take up more room in your backpack. Good loft.
- Down Fill- Down is the name for the soft, tiny feathers that grow next to the skin of a goose and keep it warm. Down comforters, pillows and sleeping bags are soft and luxurious-feeling, but down does lose warmth when wet. It is the lightest type of insulation; it also compacts and stuffs well into a compression sack for packing. It is the most expensive type of fill. Because of its ability to trap and hold air, it has the best loft
The lining of the sleeping bag might be silk taffeta, flannel or fleece—again, your choice will depend upon where and how you expect the bag to be used.
- Silk- Silk is considered one of the best choices, as it is a natural, comfortable and strong fabric, and can absorb a significant amount of water without feeling wet like cotton, yet still is lightweight.
- Flannel- Flannel does tend to hold water
- Fleece- Fleece is good in extra-cold conditions. You can also buy an extra liner for your sleeping bag to add 5 to 10 more degrees of warmth. If you find yourself camping in very warm nighttime temperatures, use the liner alone, on top of a pad.
The material used for the outer shell of the bag is another factor. Some materials are water-repellent, others are classified as waterproof. Some are breathable; others are excellent at keeping out winds and drafts. Waterproof and windproof are nice, but will add to the cost. If your fill is down, a waterproof/breathable shell is best. Pay attention to the foot section—is it reinforced and extra warm? How about the hood—does it fit snugly and comfortably around the face? Examine the draft tube (the fabric that covers the zipper to prevent heat loss) to be sure it is generous enough, and constructed so that it won’t catch in the zipper.
4. Temperature Rating
The temperature rating is indicated by the degrees in Fahrenheit to which the manufacturer believes the bag will keep the average person warm. You will need to consider a few factors in this choice:
Are you a cold sleeper or a hot sleeper? Hot sleepers typically need less covering, especially as the night wears on. Partners may complain that they “make the bed too hot.” Cold sleepers wake up cold even with several layers of bedding. They have a slow nighttime metabolism and generate little body heat. Hot sleepers can always unzip the bag a bit to allow a cooling off period, but it’s more difficult for a cold sleeper to get warm, so if you fall in the cold category, adjust your temperature rating downward by 10 degrees. For instance, if the rating given says the bag will keep you warm to 30° F, look for one that says it will keep you warm down to 20° F.
Manufacturers are also assuming that you will be using a pad with a factor of 5 or greater under your sleeping bag, which provides for greater insulating power than a lightweight pad. If you’re sleeping right on the ground, you’ll be cold no matter the rating of your bag. Tents add an average of 10° to the air temperature—less if there’s a fierce wind blowing.
The rating also assumes that you will be using the hood, drawn up tightly around your face. About 40 to 50% of body heat is lost through the top of the head. If you have little or no hair, wear a good fleece hat and use your hood as well!
Manufacturers assume that you will buy a bag that fits snugly around you and that you are using it fully zipped. Buy a bag that fits your height. If it’s too long there will be a pocket of cold air around your feet all night long. Choose a mummy bag if you’re camping in cold weather and if you can tolerate less wiggle-room. If you can’t, and are a “tosser and turner,” select a less-tapered bag with a 10° lower temperature rating to compensate for the bellows effect your moving will create.
Manufacturers also assume that you will be sleeping in your underwear. Sleeping in clothes (especially cotton items) can actually keep you cold; sleeping bags often make you perspire, and cotton will absorb that water and hold it next to your skin all night, with a chilling effect. And if you’re damp, you’ll be miserable all night and extra cold when you emerge from your cocoon in the morning.
It is recommended that you buy a bag that will give you 15 to 20 extra degrees of temperature rating below that which you think you will need—just in case you need that extra warmth. If you’re thinking of mountain-terrain camping in cold weather, for example, go ahead and pay for a bag rated down to -40° F. A -20° F rating sounds great until that -40° blast comes through!
If you are a cold sleeper, or need to temporarily add some extra warmth to a general-use bag, there is a technique to adding an extra liner to a sleeping bag. First, select a liner that is slightly smaller than your bag. Unzip your bag as far as it will go. Step into your liner and pull it up around you, then insert your liner-clad feet into the sleeping bag, wiggling your feet to make sure you reach the bottom of the bag. Push the corners of the liner tightly into the corners of the bag. Zip your sleeping bag about halfway up, and then ease yourself out.
5. Pillow Pocket
Is there a pillow pocket into which you can either slip a camping pillow or stuff clothing to make a pillow? Having the world’s most comfortable sleeping bag won’t do you a lot of good if you need a pillow and don’t have space for one.
Examine the baffles—seams that run across the length of the bag to compartmentalize the insulation. Are they securely sewn? This can affect the warmth and life-span of your bag, because the baffles prevent the fill from shifting around and creating cold spots while you sleep.
7. Transporting your Bag
How are you going to transport your bag? Many come with their own compression sack that will squish them into the smallest possible package, but if not, compression sacks are available, priced at $10 to $45. These allow you to stuff bags, clothing, towels, etc. into a smaller, compact bundle that will be much easier to pack. These bags ideally should be waterproof or water-repellent. Many have buckles and straps which would allow them to be attached to the outside of your backpack if they can’t fit inside. There is a technique in stuffing a sleeping bag into a compression sack: Do not roll the sleeping bag first! Hold the mouth of the sack open in your non-dominant hand and grab the closed end of the sleeping bag with your dominant hand, stuffing the bag as far into the sack as possible. Repeat twice more, then rotate the sack to create a more even distribution of the sleeping bag and continue stuffing. Rotate after every two or three handfuls, always reaching as far into the sack as possible. Continue until the entire bag is inside the sack. Set the sack on its end and fold the flap over. Pull drawstring tightly and secure.
Bonus Tip: Caring for your sleeping bag
Read the cleaning label before purchasing and cleaning your bag. Down or synthetic fill may usually be washed in cold water in front-loading machines, or hand-washed in the bathtub. Rinse well (all cool water) and dry on no-heat dryer setting with two or three clean tennis balls to help keep the fill evenly distributed and not packed-down. Or spread your bag outdoors to dry on a clean surface or on a clothesline, fluffing frequently. Caring for your bag properly is almost as important as selecting the right bag in the first place.
A good sleeping bag that fits your needs can make all the difference between a miserable and a memorable camping experience. If you aren’t sleeping well, you compromise your energy and health, as well as your mood. Now that you know the factors to look for in selecting your sleeping bag, you can have fun and comfortable camping trips. Enjoy your summer camping adventures, and stay safe!