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Top 5 Questions To Ask When Buying A Sleeping Bag

posted by Boundless Outdoors February 10, 2020 0 comments

Buying a sleeping bag is an important decision. Our gear guru Jason takes you through the 5 questions you’ll want to consider when buying a sleeping bag in 2020. 

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As a young kid, I had a Ninja Turtles sleeping bag. It was light, filled with lumpy cotton, and the zipper was broken. The top had all four turtles doing karate moves and yelling “COWABUNGA!”. Needless to say, it was pretty sweet. It was perfect for hot summer nights in the backyard, and sleepovers with my friends. Those were the days…

As I got older, and we started camping in much more variable weather (including late fall – often snowy – fishing trips in Canada), I had a beefcake Coleman flannel sleeping bag. You know, the one that rolls up to the size of a beer keg – and carries seemingly as heavy? I have so many fond memories in that heavy, often too hot, way too bulky monstrosity. I fell in love with being outside in that sleeping bag. It was great for cold nights car camping in Canada (alliteration for the win), but not so great for summer backpacking and canoe camping, where packability is crucial.

My first packable sleeping bag was a $35 bargain bin buy from a going-out-of-business sale at a local sporting goods store. It was packable, yes. But the shell material was chincy and the insulation became weirdly uneven after my first season using it on a handful of weekend trips. It also couldn’t quite cut it on those chilly spring and fall nights, so I always had to pack an extra blanket during those seasons. Nevertheless, I had a love/hate relationship with that awful thing and kept it longer than I probably should have, experiencing many adventures with it.

Since becoming an outdoor professional, I’ve owned over 25 sleeping bags and I’ve field tested dozens more. Sleeping bags have now lost much of their sentimentality, coming and going from my gear shed with ease.

But their importance in my gear shed is undeniable. Lack of sleep is your enemy on the trail. It leads to low energy, low immunity, and generally being no fun to be around. Sleeping bags are a critical part of your outdoor sleep system, and one of the few places I recommend saving your money to buy the best you can possibly buy. You won’t be disappointed.

With this guide, I’m hoping to help you find the perfect sleeping bag(s) for whatever type of camping you’ll be doing. Answer these questions for yourself and check out our recommended products. You’ll be well on your way to getting an amazing night’s sleep outdoors.

What will you be doing with your sleeping bag?

Matching your sleeping bag to the activities you’ll be using it for is a good place to start. For instance, if you’re planning to only go on a few car camping trips a year, you can probably get away with an inexpensive, not-so-packable sleeping bag. WalMart, Target, or any local sporting goods stores should have options.

However, if you’re planning to spend some serious time traveling or in the wilderness with your sleeping bag, you’ll want to consider a few more things.

Regular Camping or Backpacking?

In general, a regular camping sleeping bag is designed to offer more room to move in, sacrificing for more weight and size. They often have cotton insulation and either flannel or nylon interiors. Whereas a “backpacking” sleeping bag has less room inside but is intended to move with you as you sleep. Backpacking sleeping bags are also most often insulated with some sort of synthetic or down feather insulation to increase packability and weight.

Backpacking sleeping bags can be a great option if you’ll be using your sleeping bag for a variety of activities like canoe camping, bikepacking, or traveling. You’ll always appreciate the packability and weight savings of a more streamlined design.

Temperature Rating in Sleeping Bags: What Temp to buy?

Sleeping bag temperature ratings are broadly categorized into three camps: Summer, 3-season, and winter.

While there are global standards for temperature ratings, so much of how a sleeping bag will perform is based on you and your body. Do you generally “run-warm”? Do you know you get cold when you sleep? Will you be sleeping on a sleeping pad? Cot? Hammock? The Ground? Most standard temperature ratings are based on what they consider an average sleeper.

Because there are so many factors related to temp in sleeping bags, I always recommend purchasing a bag that is rated to 10 degrees cooler than the COLDEST night you plan to spend outside.

What’s in a Shape?

Advances in sleeping bag shape have really changed the game. There are even women-specific fitting bags that have a wider clearance at the hips, designed through research, to match actual women’s bodies. While a mummy bag used to feel constricting and claustrophobic (inspiring their haunting naming), mummy sleeping bags now offer ample room to be able to move at night with ease. Even the most snug fitting sleeping bags are designed to roll with you, instead of you rolling inside it.

Still, in general, you’ll want to be aware of 4 main shapes:

  1. Mummy – The snuggest of the bunch. These bags cut weight by cutting materials, especially around the feet and shoulders and are designed to move WITH your body while sleeping.
  2. Semi-rectangular – A tapered design with more room than a mummy bag. Attempts to balance weight while offering more room near the feet and shoulders.
  3. Rectangular – most “car-camping” sleeping bags will be designed as a rectangle. They offer the most room and care little about packability and weight.
  4. Double Sleeping bags – Designed for couples to sleep next to one another, these large bags are nice for getting cozy. Many individual sleeping bags are also designed to be compatible with another of the same brand/model to create a “double”. Many experienced couple travelers appreciate this for the versatility and ability to divide up the weight and bulk of two bags instead of one bigger one.

There are also kid-sized sleeping bags, bags for giants, bags designed for a customized sleeping pad, and more. It might feel silly, but go to your local outdoor gear supplier and lay down inside a couple. If it’s a good gear shop, they’ll be used to it, and might even offer you a demo sleeping pad to try a few sleeping bags out. Just don’t fall asleep in the store!

If you happen to be in the area of one of their 11 stores, we recommend our friends at Moosejaw. They’re total nerds about this stuff…in a good way.

Up to 30% Off Gear for Summer

What Insulation Should I Get?

Down Insulation

Down feathers from geese or ducks have been used to insulate garments and blankets for hundreds of years. This is because down feathers have tons of insulation and loft compared to their weight, making them perfect for cold and dry (more on this in a second) adventures.

Because of their loft, down sleeping bags will most likely be the most packable in their temperature categories. Many average temperature down bags can pack down to the size of a water bottle.

Due to their warmth-to-weight-and-packability ratio, and longevity, down sleeping bags are typically the most pricey on the market.

Best Down Sleeping Bag On A Budget:
Marmot Radium 20 Sleeping Bag

Marmot Radium 20 Sleeping Bag
Best Down Sleeping Bag On The Market:
Western Mountaineering MegaLite 30 Degree Sleeping Bag

Western Mountaineering MegaLite 30 Degree Sleeping Bag

Pause for the Environment:

If caring for our planet is important to you (and it should be), be wary of “inexpensive” down sleeping bags. This is often an indicator that the down is cheap and/or from unsustainable sources. This will also almost guarantee poky low-quality feathers and your sleeping bag degrading quicker over time.

Look for manufacturers who use either RDS (Responsible Down Standard) or TDS (global Traceable Down Standard) to measure the sustainability of their down and the proper treatment of the geese and ducks that provide it.

Down sleeping bags are meant to be an investment. If you take proper care of (high-quality) down items they have the ability to maintain much of their insulation power for life – rarely needing to be replaced.

Water: Down’s Kryptonite

One serious downfall to down sleeping bags is if they get wet they get seriously damaged. The feathers lose their loft, and therefore their warmth. If a down sleeping bag isn’t properly repaired after getting wet, it will be worthless on the trail and it could be ruined indefinitely. And trust me when I say: properly caring for a wet down sleeping bag while on the trail or river is next to impossible.

Many manufacturers have worked to minimize this issue by waterproofing the outside materials of the sleeping bags. In my experience, however, I find sleeping bags that claim to be FULLY waterproof to be less breathable than their non-waterproof counterparts and often less waterproof than they claim. Other experts swear by waterproof bags and claim that waterproof down is one of the best innovations in the outdoor industry in decades.

Nevertheless, almost all high-quality down sleeping bags are treated with a waterproof coating to help resist the down getting damp.

If you’re doing a lot of wet weather travel or paddling with your sleeping bag, you may want to hesitate to invest in a down sleeping bag. Or at least pack it in a serious drybag – yes, even a “waterproof” down sleeping bag – just to be safe.

Synthetic Insulation

Synthetic insulations started to be designed years ago to try to synthetically mimic more natural insulators like down feathers and wool. Now, synthetic insulations have taken on a life of their own – seemingly getting better and better with each passing season.

Synthetically insulated sleeping bags are affordable, non-allergenic, dry quickly, and maintain much of their insulation when wet. Only two minor weaknesses:

  • Longevity: While manufacturers have done amazing things to increase the longevity of synthetic insulations, even the best will degrade (more quickly than down) over time, reducing their actual temperature rating significantly over the years. This isn’t to say they’re not durable – a properly cared for synthetic sleeping bag could last you for decades. Just don’t expect a 20 degree synthetic sleeping bag to keep you warm in 20 degree weather 10 years after you buy it.
  • Warmth-to-weight-and-packability: Unnecessarily lengthy hyphenation aside, the fact is, synthetics will never be able to match the “WWP” ratio of high-quality down. Temperature rating the same – a down sleeping bag will always pack up smaller and weigh less than a synthetic one.

Best Synthetic Sleeping Bag on a Budget:

Mountain Hardwear Lamina 30F/-1C Sleeping Bag

Mountain Hardwear Lamina 30F/-1C Sleeping Bag
Best Synthetic Sleeping Bag on the Market:
Sierra Designs Cloud 20 Degree Sleeping Bag

Sierra Designs Cloud 20 Degree Sleeping Bag

I’m sure you could still find cotton Ninja Turtle sleeping bags out there – but you’ll want to stay away from those (even for the kiddos) if you plan on doing anything more than backyard camping. Cotton insulation degrades heavily, quickly – and they usually have no true temp rating. In addition, if cotton gets wet, it stays wet – and loses much of its insulation power by retaining the temperature of the saturation and air.

In general, unless you’re sure of clear skies and sun, you want to stay away from cotton for everything you do outdoors. We won’t even get into the awful ways in which commercial cotton farms are treating the planet. Cotton is an outdoor no-no.

Sweet Dreams…

I can’t overemphasize the importance of a GOOD sleeping bag. Good sleep is TOO critical to being a happy camper. Purchase the best sleeping bag you can afford. You’ll be happy you did.

If you have questions or you’re looking for personalized gear recommendations, don’t hesitate to leave a comment or contact us.

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