What to Look for in a Sleeping Bag: A Sleeping Bag Buying Guide

As a significant source of comfort when camping, finding an appropriate sleeping bag is a key piece of sleeping equipment.  As such, there are several styles, brands, and features involved in choosing a sleeping bag, and sorting through the many options can be difficult work.

Below is a list of many different aspects to consider in a bag, and requirements will differ based on its intended use.  Folks looking for a sleeping bag used for casual warm weather car camping will probably have an easier time deciding on a bag than those looking for a multi-season backpacking bag.  However, having the information and an understanding of what goes into the construction and design of a quality sleeping bag can take a lot of guesswork out of your decision.

Down vs. Synthetic 

There are two main types of sleeping bags, down and synthetic, that are named so for their fill material.   Generally, down sleeping bags are

  • lightweight
  • compressible
  • breathable
  • more expensive

while synthetic bags tend to be

  • cheaper
  • warmer in wet conditions
  • hypoallergenic
  • heavier
  • easier to clean

There can be some combination of the two, as both have their pros and cons and many companies are realizing the benefit of using both materials in one sleeping bag.  Certain manufacturers also offer water-resistant down sleeping bags, which repel water but are not completely waterproof and, unfortunately, still provide little to no insulation when soaked.

When deciding between synthetic vs. down sleeping bags, it is important to consider purpose, location and weather patterns where it will be used, and the user itself.  Depending on the intended style of camping (casual car camping vs. backpacking vs. mountaineering), a down bag may be a better fit due to its lightweight and compactable nature. However, for individuals who will be camping in wetter climates, a synthetic sleeping bag is not only made for continued insulation when wet, but is typically more durable.

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Most sleeping bags are either designated as mummy or rectangular styles.  Mummy styles are more common to backpacking, as they taper to the body’s shape in order to cut down extra weight and materials.  Mummy style bags generally have a wider hip space and narrow foot box, so those who like to stretch out may be uncomfortable.  As the body loses heat the fastest through the head, armpits, groin, hands, and feet, almost all mummy bags—especially those rated for colder temperatures—are also equipped with a hood that can be cinched around the head.  This can be bothersome and feel claustrophobic to some and might also make turning within the sleeping bag difficult.

Rectangular bags are much more comfortable in comparison and allow campers to stretch out for a more relaxed sleep.  However, due to the increased use of materials from this wider design, the bags also tend to weigh more and are not as warm as mummy style bags. They tend to be used more when car camping for this reason.

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Temperature Rating 

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Most sleeping bags are assigned at least two temperature ratings: a survival rating and a comfort rating. There is a European standard called EN 13537 that was established to standardize how companies rate their sleeping bags in Europe (some American companies are also adopting this standard).  In a “thermal manikin test”, mannequins are given heating sensors and are measured to see how well specific bags insulate in designated temperatures.  These tests can produce additional information, including an upper limit which determines the warmest temperature an individual can endure in the bag without perspiring, and a lower limit/ extreme rating for a  man vs. woman (as men can usually withstand colder temperatures).

If you are one who typically gets cold at night, it might be advantageous to choose a bag based on its comfort rating rather than its survival rating.  However, for those who sleep warmer or who have  a tendency to sweat when sleeping, it may be best to determine the optimal temperature rating based on the appointed survival rating, as bags tend to insulate significantly less when wet, especially when filled with down.

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Season Rating 

A season rating is very similar to a temperature rating and is a general recommendation by the manufacturer for which seasons the bag work best in.  Examples of season ratings vs. temperature ratings are:

  • 1 season (Summer): 41 degrees F +
  • 2 season (Spring and Summer): 32 degrees F +
  • 3 season (Spring, Summer and Fall): 10 degrees- 32 degrees F
  • 4 season (Year-round): 10 degrees F and lower
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Weight is the next most important feature to assess when searching for the optimal sleeping bag.  This becomes less of an issue when car camping, as the distance the bag will be carried is minimal; with backpacking, however, a lightweight sleeping bag is essential to keeping the overall weight of the backpack low.  While one or two pounds may not seem like a lot of weight to debate over, it is amazing at how pounds and even ounces will add up to make a trip more strenuous.

The lightest weight option will typically consist of:

  • Down fill—typically a lighter material than synthetic insulation. Down fill works by trapping air to insulate, while synthetic materials are densely compressed to keep an individual insulated
  • A higher fill rating—see below for clarification, but typically higher fill ratings (700+) provide greater insulation with fewer materials
  • A higher temperature rating (to be used in warmer weather) –higher temperature ratings mean that the camper requires less insulation to keep warm. For this reason, a 50 degree sleeping bag for summer use will be much lighter than a 0 degree sleeping bag for late fall/winter/mountaineering purposes

When reviewing bags online, weight is typically found in the “specifications” or “specs” category of an ad.

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Fill is most commonly associated with down or hybrid sleeping bags. It coincides with the term “loft”, which is used to describe the fluffiness or thickness of an item insulated with down.  Loft also tends to describe how a fill rating affects a product.  Typically, higher fill ratings will have increased loft and improved temperature ratings overall.  Higher fill and loft also allow the bag to be compressed into a smaller space for packing as well.

Fill is measured in cubic inches per ounce, starting at 300 in³/oz, and going up to 800-1000 in³/oz.  This means that a lower rated fill, say 300 in³/oz, would cover 300 cubic inches with the same amount of weight as an 800 in³/oz would require to cover 800 cubic inches.  Putting it in simpler terms, think of it as low vs. high quality lotion (or anything that needs to be spread over an area).  The lower quality lotion (300), requires more product to spread over a greater surface area because it lacks the necessary ingredients to properly hydrate.  However, the higher quality product (800) requires less lotion to get the same amount of hydration, giving you an overall better run for your money. This higher quality, higher loft material can also be compressed more for this reason.

Fill is often marketed on the bag itself, or can be found in the “specifications” or “specs” section of an ad.

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After narrowing down the list of possible sleeping bags, it is also important to look at the specifications of the bag to determine how long and wide the bag will be.  To ensure a proper fit, it might be best to find the bag in a store that allows bags to be laid out and tested prior to purchasing (many outdoor/ sporting goods stores have no issue with this).  Most bags have multiple options including “long” or “wide” versions of the regular bag, which will be more accommodating to larger individuals.

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With the essentials of finding a suitable sleeping bag out of the way, it is still important to consider additional attributes that may be provided.  For example, certain features that may be helpful are:

  • The ability to zip two sleeping bags together—this can actually increase the temperature rating, as you essentially have two human space heaters trapped in one big sack.
  • Straps or a section for a sleeping pad—this feature is pretty unique, but incredibly convenient. Some sleeping bags are designed to fit a sleeping pad underneath while the insulation is located on top. Generally compressing a sleeping bag (especially down) will reduce its ability to insulate.  With this outline, campers are still insulated from the ground by the sleeping pad, and have double the loft to insulate lying on top of them.
  • Inner pocket—for a spot to hold phone, keys, wallet, headlamp or (my favorite) hand warmers in case it gets even chillier during the night. This small pocket also reduces the need to unzip the bag to grab essentials.
  • Glow in the dark zipper pulls—it may not seem like a big deal, but being in the middle of the woods with no light and having to blindly feel your way up and down a zipper in order to shut yourself in for bed is a hassle—and having glow in the dark zipper pulls is not a difficult feature to add.
  • Full zipper—this is another design favorite, mostly for those who opt for mummy bags. Many bags come with a ¾ zipper, which prevents 1) being able to zip two sleeping bags together comfortably (especially if they are different designs), and 2) being able to use the bag as a blanket if it gets too warm. Since bags are expensive, many campers purchase only one bag to use for all of their needs.  Having a bag that can be fully unzipped can also be used in the hot summer months in addition to colder excursions.
  • Warranty—whether it is from the manufacturer of the bag or the seller, having at least a limited warranty is a huge benefit for any camping gear, not just in a bag. It will protect against any faults from the manufacturer and allows an individual the opportunity of trying a bag without worrying about wasted money.
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Sleeping Bag Buying Guide

Overall, there are many options to consider when buying a sleeping bag, be it style, weight, fill, or additional features that can make or break a bag.  With these elements in mind, the best way to find a product is to test it out ahead of time.  Many sporting goods stores will have a camping section and will even encourage laying out a sleeping bag to determine the fit and allow you to explore the loft or features of the bag.

It is also a good idea to lay the bag out to inspect the zipper, seams, and quality of the materials ahead of time.  The truly best method is to sleep in it at least once before going on a camping trip to determine if it is comfortable and will keep you sufficiently warm in a situation where the bag is not paramount to your survival.  This can also help you determine a strategy for how you are going to sleep; for instance, will a 30 degree sleeping bag keep you warm enough on its own in the fall, or will you require additional jackets or a hat to maintain comfort? Will you fall asleep easily but wake up in the middle of the night sweating? (This is particularly bad news, especially because moisture=cold and also a decrease in the bag’s ability to insulate you.)

Also know if you might want to purchase a liner for your sleeping bag. Liners will extend the life of the bag and are easier to clean than a sleeping bag itself.  It is also a good idea for someone who might be sharing their gear frequently, as it enables you to keep your germs to yourself.  Some sleeping bag liners are also fabricated with reflective technology, much like an emergency blanket, which adds more insulation to a bag and boosts the temperature rating.

Finding a bag itself can be a difficult task, but can be made easier with the help of a little social interaction.  Asking friends or family with similar hobbies who might have some insight can be helpful, markedly so if the individual is close to your size and weight, meaning they most likely have the same challenges of staying warm/overheating when sleeping.   Reading reviews online can also open up a wealth of knowledge on a specific bag, and even on what to look for when purchasing bags as a whole.  Many outdoor or sporting goods stores train their employees specifically to assist with helping customers choose a sleeping bag that will best suit them.

Finally, know what you are looking for and remember why it is important.  It is easy to review this list and decide that you are going to buy an 800-fill 0 degree down bag for all of your camping needs, and then be scared off when you take a look at the price tag.  Know your budget and stick to it, but remember that you must be willing to pay more for a higher quality item that will be more suited to your needs.  Also, remember that you do not have to make a significant purchase all at once.  If you are new to backpacking or camping and plan on going in fair weather, having a 4 season sleeping bag is unnecessary and probably overkill.  If, later on, you plan to expand your camping experiences to other seasons, a bag liner might boost your temperature rating enough until you can afford a warmer bag.

Remember: at its most basic, the importance of a sleeping bag is to keep you from freezing.  The components listed above are what determines this goal will be completed. It is up to you to stay comfortable and make the right decision for you.