Gear Guide: Backpacking Sleeping Bags

A silly sleeping bag selfie taken on a couch instead of outside. For shame!

A silly sleeping bag selfie taken on a couch instead of outside. For shame!

So you’ve decided that you want to go camping, backpacking, or some other fun activity where you’ll be sleeping outside (i.e. Woodstock). Awesome! Some of the greatest adventures you can have will involve spending nights outdoors.

In all but the hottest summer nights, you’ll need something to keep you warm while you sleep. While there are arguably many ways to do this, the best, most all-purpose way is a mummy bag made for backpacking (they’re also great for indoor slumber parties too!). A sleeping bag is a great investment, spending nights outdoors opens up many areas of the world to explore that you otherwise couldn’t get to.

Once you’ve decided you need a sleeping bag, the first thing you probably end up doing is searching “mummy bag” in your favorite search engine. When I do this, the first results I see include both a $23 bag and one that costs a whopping $1300. If you’re the type to read this blog, you likely want to spend the least amount of money possible while still getting a sleeping bag that you won’t instantly want to upgrade. When the price range is so broad, what constitutes a good value?

In short, all a sleeping bag really needs to do is keep you warm at night and be light/compact enough to carry during the day. We want one that is affordable, but not cheap or flimsy. Seems easy enough right?

TEMPERATURE RATINGS

If you will be going camping with any sort of regularity (more than just once or twice in your life), it is the most frugal option to get a sleeping bag that will keep you warm from Spring through Fall. Even if you get a quality summer weight bag ~45+ degree rated, you will eventually wish you had got something warmer. Buying one good 3-season bag right off the bat will nearly always be cheaper than paying for a flimsy or warm weather bag and upgrading.

Think of a brisk, late October night in Minnesota. If you need help, it probably is around 25 degrees. The is probably the coldest anyone would consider to still be “fall weather”, and it doesn’t hurt to get a bag that will keep warm at that temperature.

Pretty straightforward still? However, as soon as you start shopping around you see that there is a dazzling amount of variety in how sleeping bags’ temperatures are measured and rated. Why do sleeping bags have two or more different temperature ratings??

Nothing is ever easy right? Sleeping bag warmth ratings are typically measured using the European Norm (EN) system, which means an independent party has rated and evaluated the bag using a consistent set of standards*. If the bag is not rated using the EN be wary; it could mean that the rating is a bit generous, or simply different from what you may be used to.

EN rated bags will have two measures:

  • EN Lower Limit - temperature that warm sleepers (typically men) will be comfortable to

  • EN Comfort - temperature that cold sleepers (typically women) will be comfortable to

Anywhere between a 15 and 25 degree rated bag should suffice for 3 seasons of camping, depending on how warm you sleep. To be sure that you’ll be very comfortable, go 10 degrees lower than what you think you’ll need. Men, look at the “Lower Limit”. Women, look at the “comfort level”. It is simple to remember, just think that women need comfort and men push to the lower limit.

Hmm, I feel like a man probably came up with the rating names?

BAG FILL AND WEIGHT

Oh great, another thing to consider! I’ll keep this simple: there are two types of filling on the market, down and synthetic.

  • Down**: More lightweight and compressible than a synthetic bag of comparable warmth, with a luxurious feel. However, it loses it’s warming power once wet. It is also expensive, often double the price of a synthetic of similar quality.

  • Synthetic: A bit heavier and bulkier than down, though this difference is much less than it used to be. Still keeps you warm when wet, and costs much less.

Here’s a quick comparison of two good men’s sleeping bags from a reputable brand to give a visual comparison:

A cozy spot on the Superior Hiking Trail.

A cozy spot on the Superior Hiking Trail.

  • Down bag example:

    • EN Lower limit: 17 degrees

    • Weight: 1lb 15 oz

    • Price: $300

  • Synthetic bag example:

    • EN Lower limit: 20 degrees

    • Weight: 2lbs 8oz

    • Price: $160

Consider what you will be doing with this sleeping bag. If you have the cash and see yourself going on multi-day backpacking trips, needing the best warmth to carry weight ratio, go with down. If you don’t mind carrying an extra pound or so, or may be going to very wet areas, go with synthetic. Nothing beats the luxurious feel of down, but if your budget is at all limited synthetic is still great. Unless you are a very devout ultralight backpacker, I doubt you will be disappointed by a quality synthetic bag.

GENDER

When I learned that sleeping bags were divided by gender I thought it was just a marketing ploy to charge women more. Surely the difference is just color options? I was surprised to find that the differences are minor, but do go beyond color. Primarily, this means they are designed to be wider in the hip area with extra padding for extremities. I can’t speak to how much of a difference it truly makes, but it certainly couldn’t hurt if you are female to buy a women’s bag over unisex. Quality sleeping bag brands will have the option, and women’s bags don’t seem to be priced at a premium.

PRICE POINTS

Low-income / penny pinchers:

  • Car camping: I’d recommend ignoring this guide and raiding your family’s house for any sleeping bag. Weight and bulkiness doesn’t matter if you aren’t backpacking. Bring a few extra layers for backup warmth just in case.

    • Price: Free

  • Backpacking: Look for a synthetic sleeping bag that is rated about 30 degrees (adjust accordingly for your gender). It may be tough to camp early spring or late fall, but it could be done. You can find well-made and somewhat lightweight bags for around $80. Don’t go for the $20 bag from a certain online retailer, you will certainly be colder than you expect, it will be a lot bulkier to carry, and you will notice the lack of quality. Hunting for a sale could get you to the $50 - $60 range for a sleeping bag that you won't instantly want to upgrade.

    • Price: $80, or less if you wait for a sale

The frugal “enthusiast”

  • Find a synthetic bag rated around 15-25 degrees, depending on how warm a sleeper you are. Going this low ensures that you’re comfortable on the chilliest nights. Price on synthetic sleeping bags can vary quite a bit at this stage, generally in between $100 and $200. What does the extra money get you? Primarily, the expensive one will be a bit lighter and pack a bit smaller, and likely have a more durable and water resistant fabric on the outside. You may also get features such as an internal hood that goes around your neck and shoulders, an internal pocket, a better quality zipper, and a large sack for home storage.*** If backpacking is your goal, shooting for the middle will get you a warm and lightweight bag. If you won’t be carrying the bag on your back much, a lower priced option is just fine.

    • Price: $150

Those with “disposable” income

  • If money is not as big of an issue for you (congratulations!), I would advise getting a 15, or even 10 degree rated sleeping bag if weight is less of an issue to you. In warmer weather it is easy to unzip the bag, or even lie on top of it. Getting the lower temp future proofs your ambitions, so you’ll be comfortable even when you take that unexpected Alaska trip. Synthetic is still fine, especially if you are at all worried about getting wet. However, if you like to count your ounces when backpacking or love sleeping like royalty, you can spring for the down bag.

    • Price: $200 - $250 for high-end synthetic. $300 - $400+ for down.


Still have questions? Ask them below in the comments!



*For reference, these are measured with the assumption that you are wearing a base layer (no naked sleeping), have a sleeping pad, and are in a tent.

**Down fill is also measured with a fill level, such as “700-fill” or “850-fill”. To keep things simple, just know that a higher number typically means better.

***It is best to not store your sleeping bag in the small compression stuff sack, as it will cause the filling to lose its loft (and therefore heating ability) over time. Store in a larger sack, or large pillow case.