How To Choose a Backpacking Sleeping Bag

The attraction of being able to walk away from the busyness and noise of everyday life and into the peace and beauty of the wilderness is something people are discovering every day. Gathering up everything you need to survive, strapping it on your back, and then putting one foot in front of the other for mile after mile is the kind of hard work that brings incredible rewards.

After a day of challenging hiking, there is no better pleasure than collapsing into a deep, restful sleep. Ensuring that sleep is safe and comfortable when hiking depends a lot on which sleeping bag you choose!

How do you choose a sleeping bag for backpacking? Here are some things to keep in mind while shopping.

Warmth: Comfort and Safety First

Also known as temperature rating, this is the consideration that most affects your comfort, and in cold temperatures, it can be the thing that affects your health and well-being. When you are on the trail and far from shelter, it is vital that you can stay warm, especially at night when temperatures can take an unexpected plunge – even in summer!

Remember that sleeping bag temperature ratings are based on averages, so your personal needs might differ, especially if you tend to be chilled at night, or if you frequently feel too hot. You can always unzip a sleeping bag or sleep on top of the bag on a very hot night, but on a cold night, an insufficiently insulated sleeping bag will be frustrating!

Other factors affect how warm you stay at night, such as your sleeping pad, clothing, tent, and even your metabolism, so consider those things. Be realistic about the kinds of temperatures you will be sleeping in, and buy accordingly. It is usually a good idea to pad the numbers slightly on the lower end.

If you know that you will not be sleeping in temperatures lower than 35 degrees Fahrenheit, for example, buying a sleeping bag rated to 30 degrees will offer secure warmth for you.

Weight: A Heavy Consideration

An obvious concern backpackers have about sleeping bags is weight, because every ounce counts when you are carrying everything on your back!

Different materials insulate you and breathe differently, and so even sleeping bags rated for the same temperature can have different weights. Unfortunately for your pocketbook, the lighter and warmer a bag is, the more expensive it will tend to be. However, you should also remember that a sleeping bag is an investment worth making, because a quality bag should last many years.

The lightest bags weigh in at around one pound, but even two or three pounds of weight is worth adding to your pack if that fits your budget and meets your needs.

Loft and Fill Type: What’s Inside

Loft refers to how puffy a sleeping bag is, and is not necessarily related to its weight, although generally speaking, the more loft a bag has the warmer it is.

Since loft can be changed by packing a sleeping bag into a compression sack, it is not necessarily a requirement to avoid a very puffy sleeping bag to save space in your pack. Some sleeping bags pack down smaller than others, so if space in your pack is a major issue for you, look for sleeping bags that compress well.

Down fill offers the greatest weight-to-warmth ratio, but remember that it is not vegan, so that might be a consideration for you.

Synthetic fills dry more quickly if your sleeping bag gets wet, but they also tend to wear out more quickly than down and are bulkier. Other synthetic fills like PrimaLoft purport to offer the warmth of down with the quick-drying, water-resistant qualities that make synthetic fills attractive.

Finding the right balance between loft, fill type, and cost is something that will vary depending on your budget, but the wide variety of bags available means that chances are very good you will find one that meets your needs perfectly.

Shape: How Snug Do You Like It

Sleeping bags come in several different shapes, and some are more form-fitting than others.

  • A mummy bag has a tapered end where your feet fit and a hood where your head
    goes, so it conforms to your body. Mummy bags are generally very form-fitting, so it is important to choose a bag that fits your body type and size. For example, if you have very wide shoulders, you will want to make sure that the mummy bag has enough room for them.
  • On the other end of the shape spectrum is a rectangle sleeping bag, which is roomier when zipped up because it does not taper or have a hood. Because these bags are not tapered, they do tend to have more material in their design, so they do not pack down as small as mummy bags. However, they do offer a lot of room to stretch out, which you might really enjoy!
  • Between the mummy and the rectangle is called the semi-rectangular bag, which is sometimes referred to as a tapered, barrel, or modified mummy sleeping bag. This is a less tightly tapered style, and it may or may not have a hood. A semi-rectangular bag is a good choice if you want a roomier bag than the very contoured mummy bag, but with less bulk than a rectangular bag.
  • – Additionally, sleeping quilts are a popular choice for backpacking. These hoodless bags have open backs and attach directly to a sleeping pad. Because they lack hoods and are open in the back, they can take up less space in your pack. However, since these bags rely on the warmth rating of the sleeping pad to insulate the bottom, it is very important to have a sleeping pad with an appropriate R-value for the temperatures you are sleeping in.

Women’s sleeping bags are typically roomier in the hips and narrower in the shoulders than men’s bags. Sleeping bags also come in different lengths, so remember that your height matters, too.

If you are very tall, you will want to make sure that the bag will cover your head on cold nights. If you are shorter, you do not need a long bag, since the additional material will just take up space in your pack.

Only you know how much room you need inside your sleeping bag! Some people enjoy the feeling of having the bag fit the contour of their bodies, while other people prefer to have a roomier feel. This is an issue of personal preference, so take your time when choosing to ensure that you will be comfortable.

Water Resistance: Keep It Dry

The advent of high-tech materials has made it easier than ever to keep things dry on the trail. While your best bet for keeping your bag dry is to make sure it is always in a water-resistant compression sack or inside your tent, it is not always possible to prevent a sleeping bag from being exposed to water.

The major element to consider in selecting for water resistance is the outer shell material. Most sleeping bags offer some degree of water resistance, but some are more resistant than others.

Also, the tighter and more waterproof material is, the less it will breathe, so you might also want to look for a balance between breathability and water resistance.

Flexibility and Bonus Features: Use It More

Sleeping bag technology and design have made some incredible advancements in recent years, which means that it has never been easier to find the perfect bag for your backpacking needs, if you know what you are looking for.

If you like to sleep with a pillow, some bags have pillow pockets to keep your pillow from slipping away during the night. Stash pockets inside the bag help keep important things nearby as you sleep, like a headlamp or your contact lens case. Pad loops allow you to attach your sleeping bag directly to your sleeping bag to keep you from sliding off during the night.

Some rectangular sleeping bags and sleeping quilts also unzip fully to allow them to be used as blankets or shared with another sleeper, which allows for flexibility in a different way. Consider adding liner to your bag to increase its versatility, too. A liner can be used alone on very warm summer nights or as additional warmth for cold nights. Additionally, sleeping bag liners keep your sleeping bag clean and reduce the need to wash it, which will help extend its life.

Your Close Companion For Years To Come

Now I believe you have a better understanding of what you need and how to choose the best backpacking sleeping bag for your next trip.

A good quality sleeping bag is a big investment, but remember that it will last for many years if cared for gently. The time you spend now selecting the sleeping bag that fits your needs will be more than paid back in many years of comfortable sleeping on the trail!

Do you remember any dreams you have had while sleeping under the stars? What is the coldest temperature you have endured sleeping outside? Let us know!

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