The 3 most vital elements to a successful backpacking trip include food, water, and shelter. Part of having a decent shelter is picking a great sleeping bag. Sleeping bags come in all shapes and sizes at many different price points. Check out this guide on how to pick the right sleeping bag at the right price for your specific backpacking trip.
Three steps to picking a great sleeping bag:
Step 1: Check temperature ratings
Step 2: Check insulation
Step 3: Picking the right size and weight
Step 1: Checking Temperature RatingsOne of the main purposes of a sleeping bag is to protect you from the harsh elements you may face in the wild. This is why before you go on any trip you must know the weather conditions and average climate of the region you intend to hike. Don’t march blindly into a backpacking trip.
Temperature ratings show the absolute minimum temp any sleeping bag can handle. Choosing the right sleeping bag really depends upon the location and timing of your trip. There are 3 types of sleeping bags for the different climates you may face:
3-Season (+10° - +32°)
Winter (+10° & below)
Temperature ratings are guidelines and no industry standard currently exists in the United States. Some bags use the European Norm test to calculate 2 different elements:
Comfort rating: Lowest temperature the bag would keep the average woman warm
Lower limit rating: Lowest temperate the bag would keep the average man warm
These ratings are more general guidelines than hard and fast rules. Know your own preferred sleeping temperature before spending a huge chunk of change on a sleeping bag.
Step 2: Check InsulationThe main purpose of sleeping bag insulation is not to provide warmth but retain the massive amount of body heat you generate during sleep. 2 common types of insulation exist:
DownThe major benefit of down insulation is that it tends to be much lighter than any other type of insulation. It is also easier to compress, which makes it easier to pack away into any backpack. It also retains its ability to trap heat for much longer than synthetic. With that said down insulation tends to be more expensive than synthetic insulation.
Original down insulation soaked up water like a sponge. Newer sleeping bags contain water resistant feathers to help keep moisture away from the bag. The fill power rating (600-900) measures the sleeping bag’s ability to trap body heat. The higher the number, the warmer the bag will be.
SyntheticAdvantages to synthetic include a lower price tag, quick dry, and insulation even in wet climates. They are the perfect choice for backpackers looking to save money and protect themselves from wet or humid climates.
Some disadvantages include bulkier bags when compressed, reduced ability to trap body heat, and a stiffer outer shell when compared to down insulation. Newer bags combine down and synthetic insulation to try and get the best of both materials.
Step 3: Sleeping Bag Size & WeightMost backpacking bags come in a mummy shape. Other options include rectangular and semi-rectangular sleeping bags.
Mummy bags: Almost always the most expensive option for a reason. The shape of this style literally cuts out dead air and space, making it the best choice to trap or retain body heat over time. Additionally, mummy bags come with less material than any other type of bag. Less material means lighter weight. Hoods offer more protection from the elements. A disadvantage is that mummy bags tend to be more restrictive.
Semi-rectangular sleeping bags: These bags are a mix of both mummy and rectangular sleeping bag styles. While they don’t have the hood of a mummy bag, they do offer wider shoulder room that gradually narrows as you move towards the feet.
Rectangular sleeping bags: Easily the least expensive sleeping bag option. Not a good choice for cold weather backpacking. While they don’t retain heat nearly as well as the mummy bag, they certainly offer much more space to move around in.
Bags come in different lengths including regular, long, and extra long. Pick the length that most nearly matches your body height to ensure your toes don’t get too cold on long winter nights.
Sleeping Bag LingoShell: The shell consists of the outer material that shapes the exterior of the sleeping bag. Shells can be water resistant or waterproof.
Hood: Top part of a mummy bag that opens to allow backpackers to crawl into their bag. Look for mummy bags with adjustable hoods that cinch shut tight to protect from cold weather.
Lining: The lining consists of the interior fabric of your mummy bag. This is usually the most comfortable, soft area of the sleeping bag designed to help you sleep well.
Draft collar: The insulated collar that surrounds and protects the hood. Typically adjustable by drawstring or Velcro, the draft collar traps heat inside the sleeping bag and keeps you warmer.
Pillow Pocket: A small hidden pocket located inside the hood where the hiker can store clothes or other materials to create a makeshift pillow.
Side pockets: Some bags contain small pockets in the chest, shoulder, or hood area to stash small items like rings or a watch.
Baffle: Ever wonder why sleeping bags have so many horizontal seams? The seams create baffles, or pockets of insulation to retain the most amount of heat over time.
Footbox: The footbox is simply the area of the sleeping bag where your feet will rest for the night. Some backpacking sleeping bags provide extra space in the footbox for space to keep foot warmers.
Hanging loops: The loops at the bottom of the sleeping bag are designed so that the user can hang the sleeping bag out to dry after especially wet trips.
Now you’re the expert on how to pick a good backpacking sleeping bag. Be sure to check out this great article on how to pick a great tent next.
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SourcesReeves, E. (2017, June 6). What's a Baffle? Sleeping bag technology explained. In Sierra Trading Post. Retrieved December 13, 2017.
Hostetter, K. (n.d.). Sleeping Bag Buying Guide. In Backpacker. Retrieved December 13, 2017.
Stapleton, V. L. (n.d.). How to Choose the Best Sleeping Bags for Backpacking. In REI. Retrieved December 13, 2017.