Finding the right sleeping bag is one of the more time-consuming choices that anyone who plans to spend a good deal of time outdoors will make. There are different styles based on the activities you’ll be participating in, the weather conditions you’ll be sleeping in, and your level of comfort with sleeping outdoors.
If you will only be camping, a lightweight summer bag is probably your best choice. If you plan on backpacking, consider buying a three-season mummy bag rated for cooler weather. If you’re going alpine climbing or sleeping in cold conditions, you will want a heavy duty, packable winter-rated bag.
There are other factors to consider as well, such as the shape of the bag, the insulation material, and choosing the correct size.
Keep reading to determine which type of sleeping bag is the best fit for your needs.
The Shape of the Bag Fits the Activity
Choose a Lightweight, Rectangular Bag for Camping
If you’re planning on camping, whether in a tent or directly on the ground, you don’t need to spend a bunch of money on features you won’t need. A simple, rectangular bag allows plenty of room to lounge in, and also allows you to sleep in whatever position you find most comfortable.
These bags typically unzip completely to allow for plenty of airflow on warm nights. If you tend to get cold at night, consider opting for a “semi-rectangular” bag that better mirrors your body shape, and has a hood that can be cinched up on chilly nights.
Sleeping bags that are geared towards basic camping generally have the least amount of insulation, so they are considered “summer” bags, and are rated for temperatures above 30°F. These bags are generally inexpensive, and can be purchased at any big box retailer or outdoor gear store.
Choose a Midweight Mummy Bag for Backpacking
If you are interested in backpacking, bike packing, or camping in any type of cooler weather, plan on spending a bit more money and getting a “mummy” bag made from quality materials. Mummy bags are shaped to hug your body, and usually feature a cinchable hood, draft collars, and more robust insulation.
Many side sleepers have issues with mummy bags being too constricting to sleep comfortably. For years, they just had to live with that discomfort, but recently some outdoor brands have released mummy bags that expand around the middle to accommodate side sleepers. Although it’s a little bulky, the Nemo Forte 20 is an extremely well-made, comfortable choice designed specifically for side-sleepers, and is a great example of this new generation of mummy bags.
Select a midweight mummy bag that has a temperature rating that corresponds to the weather conditions you will predominantly be sleeping in. These bags are usually marketed as being 15°F, 20°F, or 30 °F, with the lower temperature ratings having more insulation, and thus being heavier and bulkier.
You should be aware that these ratings are somewhat subjective, however; some people sleep “hot” or “cold”, and you will likely also want to purchase an insulated sleeping pad to offset the heat loss associated with sleeping on the ground. Inquire at your local outdoors store to get an idea of what sleep setup will be best suited to your needs.
Choose a Heavy Duty Bag for Mountaineering
Sleeping bags intended for alpine climbing and mountaineering have a similar shape as the mummy bags used in backpacking, but are engineered to be warmer and more water resistant. After all, you will be relying on this bag for survival in adverse conditions. These bags have a price tag that reflects that, as well; expect to spend over $500 on an alpine bag.
Most alpine sleeping bags have warmth ratings around 0°F, with some even advertising a minimum temperature rating of -20°F! Since these bags are often still packed into backpacks, they need to be compressible and fairly light; this leads to using top-of-the-line insulation and outer shell materials, and the costs of these bags reflect that.
If you think you are ready to graduate to an alpine sleeping bag, go to a mountaineering specialty shop and have an expert fit you for one.
The Type of Insulation Affects More Than The Price
There are two types of insulation, or filling, used in sleeping bags: synthetic polyester fill, or goose down.
Synthetic Insulation is Best for the Budget-Conscious
The fluffy polyester fill that is found in most inexpensive and mid-grade sleeping bags provides a great amount of insulation for the price; in fact, there are many high-quality bag manufacturers that rely on versions of it for their products.
Synthetic fill has the advantage of retaining its loft, or “fluffiness”, even when it gets wet. This makes it a superior choice for campers and backpackers who will be sleeping in wet conditions.
I personally used only synthetic-fill sleeping bags for 20 years, and while they are a bit bulkier and heavier than their down counterparts, I found them to be extremely reliable. More importantly, they fit my budget.
Down Insulation is Best for Lightweight Warmth
If you’re in the market for some serious warmth and have a bit more money to spend, getting a down-filled sleeping bag is the best option. Be sure that the products you are shopping for are sustainably harvested by looking for the Responsible Down Standard (RDS) label.
While duck or goose down doesn’t retain warmth when wet, there are a number of things you can do to prevent that, such as packing your bag in a roll-top dry sack, using a waterproof pack liner, and only accessing your bag after you have set up a dry tent to put it in. In addition, many modern down products are treated with a hydrophobic coating, so they tend to dry out quicker if they do get exposed to moisture.
The extra warmth and compressibility of down more than make up for its poor performance in wet weather. I switched to a down-filled bag a few seasons ago, and I can’t believe it took me so long! It packs down smaller, and is much lighter, than any synthetic bag I’ve owned, and it has a much more luxurious type of warmth.
If you’re on the fence between synthetic and down and there’s a little wiggle room in your budget, take my advice and buy a down-filled sleeping bag.
Purchasing the Correct Size Bag is Key
One Size Does Not Fit All
For decades, sleeping bags were usually sold in “regular” (up to 6 feet in length) and “long” (up to 6 feet 6 inches in length) versions. If you were quite a bit shorter than 6 feet tall you just had to live with a clump of extra fabric at your feet, and if you were within an inch or two of 6 feet it was always a gamble on which bag would actually fit you.
As the market developed, the variety of sleeping bags on the market grew; now it’s common for a brand to offer the same bag in not only regular and long sizes, but also “ regular wide”, “long wide”, and even options for kids, different sides for the zipper, etc.
If you think you are between sizes, it’s best to go into a store to try out a few bags until you find the perfect fit.
Take Time to Find the Right Bag
Finding the right-sized sleeping bag can be a bit of a chore, although getting a good night’s sleep in the backcountry is well worth the time spent in finding one. If you live in or near a metropolitan area, find a retailer that will offer advice based on your sleeping preferences, and allow you to climb into several different bags until you find the one that best fits you.
If you are only able to shop online, you will probably have to read several reviews on each product before you decide. If you are a cold sleeper, look for reviews that mention a “snug fit”; this will keep you warmer at night. Likewise, if you’re a side-sleeper, or you toss and turn, look for a sleeping bag that mentions “plenty of room”. Most manufacturers are in tune with the difficulty of finding the perfect bag, so shop for features that are important to you.
If you are considering spending some quality time outdoors, investing in the right-sized sleeping bag that is designed for the activities you’ll be participating in can seem daunting at first. An easy way to narrow down the many types of sleeping bags is to focus on the temperature rating.
If you focus on the temperature ratings, there are really only three different types of sleeping bags: summer, three-season, and winter. Summer bags are best suited for temperatures above 30°F. Three-season bags are suitable for nighttime temperatures down to 20°F. Winter bags are made for 20°F and below.