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Sleeping Bag Advice - Which Sleeping Bag Should I Buy?

By: Ben McKay
About Sleeping Bags

Being comfortable and warm at night is crucial for enjoyment of the outdoors, so a good sleeping bag is a vital piece of camping equipment. It's hard to appreciate a beautiful dawn when you've spent most of the night shivering in an inadequate bag. So here's some advice on helping to choose a sleeping bag.

First and foremost, a sleeping bag must keep you warm. The sleeping bag filling is of importance here, but so is design. The closer fitting a sleeping bag, the warmer it will be so the best shape is a tapered one (or mummy style sleeping bag). An adjustable sleeping bag hood is needed too, as much heat is lost through the head. However, for comfort, you also need a sleeping bag you can stretch out and curl up in rather than one that feels like a strait-jacket. The big decision to be reached is about the filling. There are three choices: waterfowl down, polyester fill and fibre-pile. Each has advantages and disadvantages.

Down Sleeping Bags Vs Synthetic Sleeping Bags

Down sleeping bags have the best warmth for weight ratio, packs up smallest and is long lasting, but loses all warmth when soaked, is slow to dry, hard to clean and is quite expensive. Polyester sleeping bags using materials such as Hollowfil, Quallofil and Polarguard are quick drying, resistant to damp and reasonably priced but bulkier and heavier than down for equivalent warmth and are shorter lived. Fibre-pile is warm when wet, quick drying, long lasting and inexpensive, but again bulkier and heavier than down for equivalent warmth.

Where weight is critical, down is the best choice, For shorter trips or car camping, polyester is suitable, whilst for bivouacing or snowholing where your bag is likely to get damp, pile is worth considering. Whatever the fill, sleeping bags come in various weights with season or temperature ratings. Be warned, these are guidelines only. Cold sleepers may need an extra 'season' to ensure a warm night, whilst warm ones may be able to get away with a lighter bag than that suggested for the time of year. You can of course 'stretch' the warmth of a bag by wearing clothes in it, using a sleeping bag liner, and all sleeping bags will perform better if used with an insulating mat underneath. Sleeping bags are manufactured by most of the top outdoor manufacturers including: Snugpak, Cumulus Sleeping Bags, Mountain Equipment, RAB and The North Face.

Sleeping Bag Season Rating

This tells you, roughly, at what time of the year the sleeping bag can be used comfortably. However, the season rating cannot be too specific as toleration of cold varies from person to person.

1 season sleeping bag - use in summer

2 season sleeping bag - use from late spring to early autumn

3 season sleeping bag - use through spring, summer and autumn

4 season sleeping bag - low level use all year round

The above refers to general use, not high level mountain use, i.e. 4 season sleeping bags are sometimes not suitable for winter expeditions. Please call 01925 411 385 to speak with a member of the's expert team for more information on which sleeping bag is most suited for your needs if you have any doubt.

Sleeping Bag Materials

The Filling: Its purpose is to trap air and prevent its circulation. The air is heated by your body and because it is retained around you, provides the warmth necessary to keep you comfortable whilst you sleep.

Down Sleeping Bags: Nature's own is still the best sleeping bag insulating material. It is lightweight with excellent loft (fluffs up well to trap air) and is extremely compressible to give a small pack size. Down has excellent "drape" properties, settling around the body and eliminating the drafty gaps sometimes left by stiffer synthetics. However, down is a poor performer when wet, unlike some polyester fibres which resist moisture well. Down sleeping bags also tend to be more expensive.

Synthetic Sleeping Bags: Heavier, bulkier and with a much shorter life-span than down, yet cheaper, easier to clean and the best choice for wet conditions where it still offers reasonable insulation. Synthetic fillings are made up of polyester fibres of various construction. The most common is 'hollowfibre' where short tubular fibres have a hollow centre for trapping air, giving good insulating properties and reducing weight.

'Kontrol', from the UK manufacturer John Cotton is a latest innovation giving small pack size but high loft capabilities for sleeping bags. NB: The weight of filling in a sleeping bag is not an accurate indicator of its thermal performance as the quality of fillings vary. A high-quality sleeping bag filling may cost a bit more but gives a better warmth to weight ratio.

Shell Fabrics: These hold the sleeping bags filling in place. A close weave on the outer helps repel water/wind penetration as well as keeping the filling in. Probably the most common fabric used today is a lightweight nylon which also offers low bulk. In some instances this will be Ripstop on the outer. This means it incorporates a reinforced, fiber mesh to prevent tearing and, because of the increased strength gained, an even lighter material can be used. Some nylon sleeping bag shells are coated to make them more water resistant, yet still allow the body to 'breath'. 'Pertex' fabric also does this. In addition it wicks moisture away from the body to keep you dry.

Occasionally cotton is used as a lining, as this is very comfortable to sleep in but the penalty is extra bulk and weight and it is slower to dry. In some bags, a metalised layer is incorporated between the filling and shell to reflect back body heat. This can improve the performance of a bag by up to 15%.

Sleeping Bag Construction

There are various methods of keeping the filling in place.

Stitched Through Sleeping Bags: Quilting holds the filling in channels or baffles. However, you get cold spots along the stitch lines so this method is unsuitable for cold weather bags.

Double Layer Offset: As above but using 2 layers. Offsetting the quilting helps eliminate the problem of cold spots in your sleeping bag.

Profile: A 'no stitch through' construction which produces 30% extra loft. Special resins enable the insulating fibres to support themselves inside the sleeping bag, without the need for any quilting. This means no stitch lines, and hence, no cold spots.

Sleeping Bag Features

Sleeping Bag Zips: Allow for easy access and, as all our zips are of the '2-way' type, there is an option to open the foot of the bag for ventilation on warm nights giving more flexibility to the upper temperature rating. As a zip creates a cold spot, all of them have a zip baffle - a tube of insulation that backs the zip and ensures you stay warm inside. All of our zipped bags are available with either left or right hand zips. If you wish to zip 2 bags together, get one of each. Otherwise, we recommend a left hand zip for right hand users and a right hand zip for left hand users. Our zips have an anti-snagging feature to prevent them 'catching' either the baffle or the bag edges.

Sleeping Bag Hoods: All our sleeping bags have tailored hoods adjusted by drawcord.

Neck Baffles: This insulated collar is to be found on most of our sleeping bags. A drawcord brings this snugly around you ensuring no cold drafts down the back of the neck.

Box Foot: Here, the foot section is created by a circular piece of insulated fabric, creating a 'mummy' shape which gives plenty of room for the feet.

Sleeping Bag Stuff Sacks: Most sleeping bags come with a stuff sac for easy transport. Most incorporate compression straps to reduce pack size.


When not in use, your sleeping bag should be stored loose. Continual compression is bad for the filling and will reduce the life of your sleeping bag. Cumulus down sleeping bags are sold with a storage sack as well as a compression sack.

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About The Author, Ben McKay - Camping Equipment Shop
Ben McKay, Marketing Dept.
Tel: (UK) 01925 411 385, Email:

Online Camping Equipment Shop, selling tents, rucksacks, outdoor clothing, sleeping bags, walking boots, climbing equipment, and providing advice to outdoor sports and camping enthusiasts for almost 20 years.

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