Choosing the correct sleeping bag for the time of year and location that you will be camping at is vital to make sure that you have a comfortable and restful night’s sleep and to make sure that you wake up feeling refreshed and energised.
There are literally hundreds of brands of sleeping bags, but they all broadly fall into a few categories and that’s what I’m going to be discussing today.
Hopefully, by the end of this sleeping bag buyers guide, you should have a fair understanding of the main categories and this should enable you to pick the right one for the right occasion.
Sleeping bags fall into three main season ratings – summer, three-season and winter (four-season and five-season).
Summer sleeping bags, as the name suggests, are for warm weather camping – generally, suitable for 0°C and above.
You may be wondering why you would need it to go down to 0°C in the summer, but this is the limit of its temperature range and it actually can get quite chilly in the middle of the night out in the open…
Summer bags are usually fairly light and can pack down to a very small size.
They can normally be opened fully to enable them to be used as a blanket or just to be able to lie-down on them if the night is very hot.
These are best suited for camping in the spring or autumn, or if you will be camping at higher altitudes in the summer (when it can get quite cold at night).
They are generally suitable for temperatures down to about -6°C and normally have extra features, such as draft collars and hoods that can be tightened using draw cords to reduce heat getting out and cold getting in.
Winter (Four and Five-Season)
Four-season sleeping bags are for cold winter weather, generally -6°C and below.
They have similar features to the three-season bags (draft collars, hoods that can be tightened etc…), but they have more insulation to cater for the colder weather.
Five-season bags are not that common and are for extreme cold weather, suitable for temperatures down to about -40°C.
Which ever season category the sleeping bag falls under, they will normally have a temperature rating too.
The temperature rating is probably more useful to know, as it will indicate the temperature range that the sleeping bag is suitable for (winter in Southern Europe isn’t the same as winter in Norway…)
The rating has several temperatures as explained below:
This is the highest temperature at which the average man can sleep comfortably without too much sweating.
This the lowest temperature at which the average woman can sleep comfortably.
This is the lowest temperature at which the average adult male can expect to have a good night’s sleep in a curled position.
The lowest temperature at which the average adult woman can survive for six hours – obviously this is not a practical use, but is there for knowledge of what the bag is capable of in an emergency.
Sleeping bags come in several shapes and each has certain advantages.
These bags fit closely to your shape and allow for maximum heat retention and are often used for winter sleeping bags.
However, they don’t allow for much movement inside – so if you are the type of sleeper who is quite restless, then a mummy bag may not be for you.
They are often lighter and smaller to pack than other types.
These tend to have a lot of space inside, allowing you to stretch out or roll over.
Because they have more internal space, they don’t retain heat as much as other types – and are, therefore, more commonly used for summer bags.
They can be opened fully to enable them to be used as a blanket or just to be able to lie-down on them if the night is very hot.
These are similar in shape to a mummy bag, but they have more room to move about in.
Ideal for those who find a mummy bag too claustrophobic.
Suitable for when it’s cold, but not freezing.
There are two main types of insulation for sleeping bags – down and synthetic, both have pros and cons.
Down is the layer of fine feathers found on birds under the tougher exterior feathers.
It traps heat very well, making it an excellent insulator and is also very light and easily compressed.
This means that down sleeping bags can be packed into a very small volume and are an excellent insulator in cold, dry weather.
Down’s main disadvantage is that it absorbs water easily, if this happens it will lose its insulating properties very quickly until it is dry again, which can take quite a bit of time.
Many modern down sleeping bags are treated to make the down hydrophobic and allow them to perform better in wet conditions – however, they still don’t perform as well as synthetic materials in the wet.
There are two other factors to take into account with down sleeping bags – the fill weight and the fill power.
- This is the main factor in determining the warmth of a down sleeping bag.
- It refers to the total amount of down used in the sleeping bag and is normally measured in grams.
- The higher the fill weight, the more insulating the bag will be.
- This is a measure of the loft of the down – ratings range from 600 to 900.
- It refers to the amount of air a certain weight of the down can trap, and thus the more insulating ability the down will have.
- Therefore, the higher the fill power the more insulating the down will be.
There are a number of different materials used for synthetic insulation, but essentially they are all made of a ‘fluffy’ polyester material that is water resistant.
This allows synthetic sleeping bags to keep their insulating properties even while wet.
They are generally cheaper than down sleeping bags, but on the minus side they tend to be heavier and slightly more bulky than their down counterparts.
Sizes And Measurements
Obviously we all come in different shapes and sizes and so making sure that you’ll fit in the sleeping bag is quite important…
A properly fitting sleeping bag will fit you quite snugly, but no so tight so as to be uncomfortable.
The less ‘free’ space there is in the sleeping bag, the less air there is to warm up.
For fitted sleeping bags, there are three main measurements that you should look for to make sure the bag will fit properly – length, shoulder girth and hip girth.
You should choose a bag that is a few inches longer than your height to give yourself enough room to be comfortable, equally you don’t want it to be too long as this will mean a lot of extra space at the bottom, resulting in cold feet!
Some manufacturer’s take this into account and so a 6-foot bag will actually be 6 feet and few inches long…
This is the circumference around your shoulders – you can measure this using a tape measure.
This is the circumference around your hips – again this can be measured with a tape measure.
Everyone’s preference is different in terms of the ideal shoulder and hip girth relative to their actual measurements.
For the majority of males of a standard build – a 62-63 inch shoulder girth would be a nice fit and for females a few inches less.
If in doubt, try the sleeping bag out – you can always return it if the fit isn’t right… in time, you’ll know your ideal measurements.
If you’re backpacking, then the weight of the sleeping bag is going to be very important – down bags are normally lighter, but remember they don’t perform as well in the wet.
The zips can often be an area where cold can get in, good quality sleeping bags will have draft tubes that run behind the zip to prevent this from happening.
Many designs will also have some type of anti-snag feature to allow the zip to run smoothly.
Two way zips are another feature that allow ventilation in at the bottom if required.
A lot of sleeping bags will have extra pockets, where you can store valuables such as mobile phones.
Choosing the right type of sleeping bag for the time of year, weather and location you will be camping at is vital to make sure you have a good night’s sleep.
For most people who go camping at regular campsites – a decent summer bag and a decent four-season bag should cover the majority of situations and that’s what I have.
Have a look at this review of the Mountain Hardwear Lamina 0 Sleeping Bag – a very good winter bag.
I hope you’ve found this post useful.
If you have any questions or comments, then please leave them below and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.