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.

Which Sleeping Bag Should I Buy?

1) Sleeping Bag Manufacturers

Sleeping bags are manufactured by most of the top outdoor manufacturers including: Snugpak, Cumulus Sleeping Bags, Mountain Equipment, RAB and The North Face.

2) 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. 

3) Sleeping Bag Fillings
The Filling inside the sleeping bag 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. 

There are three choices for fillings

  • Waterfowl Down
  • Synthetic; Polyester fill or Fibre-pile. 

Down Sleeping Bags
It is the best sleeping bag insulating material. They 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. 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. But it is cheaper, easier to clean and the best choice for wet conditions where it still offers reasonable insulation.

  • Synthetic fillings
    They are made up of polyester fibres of various construction. 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. 

Down Sleeping bag Vs Synthetic Sleeping Bag

  • When weight is critical, Down sleeping bags are best.
  • For shorter trips or car camping, polyester is best. 
  • Where your bag is likely to get damp, Fibre pile is best

4) Sleeping Bag 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%.

5) 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.

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.

6) 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. 

7) Sleeping Bag Hoods

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.

8) Storage

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.

Final Sleeping Bag Advice
A sleeping bag must keep you warm. The sleeping bag filling is of importance but so is design. The closer fitting a sleeping bag is, the warmer it will be. Thus, the best shape is a tapered one or mummy style sleeping bag. An adjustable sleeping bag hood is needed, since 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.


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