Choosing the Right Sleeping Bag
Choosing the right sleeping bag can be a bit confusing. There are a great many of them, with a wide variance of price, weight, construction and temperature rating. In order to make a wise choice, you’ll need to consider and prioritize which attributes are most important to you and appropriate for your type of camping. For example, a technical bag for high altitude use would be overkill for a week at summer camp.
A temperature rating should be thought of as a guide, not an absolute. Temp ratings are usually based on the lowest temperature in which an average person, wearing sleepwear, would be comfortable. You’ll need to add a little Kentucky Windage to this number based on your tendency to sleep warmer or cooler than average, whether or not you’ll be in a tent (a tent could add 5˚ or 10˚), and the possibility of a unexpectedly cold night while you’re out, among other things. Clean sleepwear (long underwear) and socks will add to your warmth and help keep your bag clean. Adequate hydration and nutrition will also help your body thermo-regulate at night.
Weight and Insulation
Backpackers, more than anyone else, place a high priority on these two factors. An extra pound or two may not be a big deal when you’re traveling by vehicle, horse or boat, but when that extra weight has to be carried on your back, it quickly becomes a very big deal. Serious backpackers often favor down-filled, mummy style bags that provide the most warmth in the smallest package.
Almost all high performance, super compact sleeping bags use down for insulation. Although newer synthetic materials have narrowed the gap in terms of weight and performance, down still has the advantage. It’s remarkable how small and light a 20˚ down bag can be (2 lbs., 6 oz.) Down bags generally cost more than synthetic bags and won’t insulate as well if they become wet.
Bags with synthetic insulation are bulkier than down bags for the equivalent temperature rating. However, synthetic bags are the best choice for damp conditions and are easier on the budget. Synthetic bags are also hypoallergenic and dry faster if they do become wet.
Sleeping bags hold a layer of dead air around your body that helps retain body heat. Mummy bags, because of their conforming shape, reduce the amount of surrounding air that your body has to heat and are therefore more efficient. But there’s a drawback-wiggle room. Active sleepers can feel cramped in a mummy bag. Rectangular bags are inherently less efficient and bulkier, but offer room to roam and work quite well for base camping, cabins and lodges. Hybrid designs, like the Kelty Coromell, bridge the gap between extra elbowroom and performance.
When shopping for a sleeping bag, you’ll likely come across some unusual terminology. Terms like differential cut, off-set quilt construction, and box baffle construction to name a few. All of these terms refer to the way the insulation is held in place between the liner and the shell. Your bag needs to have some sort of inner construction to hold the insulation in place or else it clumps up and the bag loses much of its ability to hold in your heat.
Differential cut simply means that the inner layer of the bag is cut smaller than the outer layer, creating a constant thickness of insulation throughout.
Off-set quilt construction means that the seams that quilt the insulation to the liner are off-set from the seams that quilt the insulation to the shell, thus preventing cold spots.
Box, slant and trapezoidal baffle construction (down bags) keep the down insulation contained in small “boxes” which preventing it from migrating and producing consistent thermal performance.
Other important design features include draft tubes that prevent heat from escaping through the zipper, baffle collars that keep heat from escaping around your neck, a hood, a foot vent, liner loops and sleeping pad loops.
Sleeping bags come in several lengths. Regular lengths vary from 75” to 84”, depending on the style, and fit people less than six feet tall. Long sizes range from 86” to 90” and fit people up to 6’ 6” tall. Women’s bags have a slightly different cut, wider at the hips, narrower at the shoulders and have extra insulation in the chest and foot areas.
Sleeping pads prevent heat loss from the cold ground and provide extra comfort. The lightest (with the exception of the new NeoAir by Therm-A-Rest) are made from closed-cell foam, while the self-inflating mattresses offer a bit more comfort and warmth.
Sleeping bag liners can add 5˚ - 15˚ of warmth to your bag and, importantly, help keep it clean. While a liner can usually be machine washed, a bag cannot be so easily cleaned. A clean bag performs better and lasts longer than a neglected one.
Pillows are a luxury when you’re backpacking, but for those other times it hard to beat the Kelty Luxury Pillow. With a brushed nylon face and two types of insulation, the Luxury Pillow keeps your head and neck cozy and comfortable.
Care and Maintenance
Keep your bag clean by wearing clean sleepwear or using a liner. Dirt, grime and body oils reduce the breathability and thermal performance. Remember to air out your bag each morning before you stuff it and when you return from your trip to allow any moisture to evaporate.
Store your bag loosely rolled in a breathable storage sack, loosely folded or hang it. Do not store compressed as this will compromise the insulation and shorten the bag’s lifespan. Washing should be performed as infrequently as possible. Check with the manufacturer for specific washing recommendations.
Consider quality. A quality bag is an investment that will last many years with proper care. Look for a bag from an experienced and reputable manufacturer with a lifetime warranty. You’ll likely spend a third of your camping trip in your sleeping bag and it’s your primary form of shelter during cold nights. At the end of a long and challenging day, you’ll be thankful for a warm, hassle-free night’s rest.