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Choose a sleeping bag [HOW-TO]

The backpacking market is heaving with products that claim to give you the best nights sleep you’ve ever had under the stars. It’s very easy to become overwhelmed and confused by it all, and end up buying a sleeping bag that isn’t right for you. Of course, in order to make an educated purchase there are a few things to know about and hopefully this article will explain the main factors and options to help you make the best purchase for You.

Let’s start with the four major considerations to this choice:

Overview of down and synthetic,

What season(s) will you use it,

Sizes shapes and styles, and

Are you better off stretching the budget just a little further?

Down or synthetic filling

This is probably the biggest consideration you will make, and there is actually no wrong choice here; you just need to be aware of the advantages and disadvantages each medium brings. A down bag will offer a much better warmth to weight ratio compared to all synthetic materials. That means the packed bulk and weight of the item will be a lot less for the synthetic equivilent. The significant trade off of down for most people is price. Down will put a much bigger dint in your bank account, even for a low quality down, such as 650 fill power duck down.

Another potential disadvantage regarding down is if it gets wet – even just damp – the feathers will begin to lose insulating ability. And if you accidentally spill your evening bevy all over it, insulation will be gone completely. Realistically this is only important to consider if you are sleeping in damp environments, particularly for consecutive nights where you may not have a chance to dry it off.

That said, if treated gently and cared for correctly, the life of a down bag is longer than a synthetic bag. But I wouldn’t advise you travel rough and ready – a synthetic bag is much harder wearing and requires little TLC. It will tolerate neglect and can be washed over and over again so perhaps it will keep a little fresher smelling!

Down advantages: packability, longer lasting, lightweight

Synthetic advantages: price, durability, washability, maintains insulation when damp or wet

Summer or winter

The next thing to decide is what temperature are you intending to use the sleeping bag. Sleeping bags come with – usually – three advisory temperature ratings which indicate how warm the bag will keep you in adverse conditions. These rating are sometimes specified by the manufacturers and sometimes by an independent tester for example a bag with ‘EN ratings’ is one that has been standardised by all participating manufacturers, therefore more reliable.

The warmest and primary guiding temperature is Comfort – the lowest temperature a person can sleep all night in a relaxed position. In the middle is Limit of Comfort – that which someone can achieve intermittent sleep in a survival position. Lastly, Extreme – the point at which the bag will assist in extending life by six hourd in a life or death situation. (Don’t want to go by that one!)

Choose the bag based on the Comfort rating, but beware these are still only guides as every person differs according to a lot of other factors such as; are they a male or female (females should definitely choose a bag based on the Comfort, whereas males might be able to use the Limit of comfort as a more accurate guide), are they a cold sleeper, are they wearing a baselayer or using a liner, how protective is their shelter, have they just eaten or cold going to bed.

Sizes options

Generally sleeping bags are cut to a mummy shape of varying closeness, as this helps retain warmth and saves on weight. They usually have a hood which helps rate the bag to a lower temperature, but sometimes not which can be nice if your think it might become annoying (like me). Sometimes the bag will be rectangular which is an advantage for those who do not like the mummy shape as it can feel slightly claustrophobic, depending on how closely cut it is.

A standard length bag fits people usually from 5’7 to 6′. All models come in a long option for taller people and usually there is an option for smaller people, although some makers specify this as a women’s size and also adjust the bag to better suit a woman by more filling around the torso and a rounder cut to suit wider hips. Certain manufacturers offer wide options as well but it depends if you actually require this in order to fit the bag, or you prefer extra space, for whether or not it is a good idea. It’ll also make the bag heavier and bulkier to carry. More space also means more air to heat so in colder conditions you may wish it wasn’t there, but in summer you might be thankful for it!

High end quality or budget

When browsing a range of sleeping bags, it sometimes looks like the same bag is being suggested to you over and over again… But on close inspection, the reason for this is the quality of materials used to build the bag. Lets take as an example, a Rab Ascent versus a Rab Neutrino versus Rab Alpine. All these are down sleeping bags but one is filled with a basic quality of down (cheaper but bulkier) while another is constructed with a waterproof fabric (pricier) and another, ultralightweight fabric (light and costly). The same theory can be applied to synthetic filling as there are many different kinds used. The best one is currently Apex Climashield, but Primaloft or Thinsulate are also good considerations. Some companies design their own insulation which may not last as long.

When you’re finally chosen the one you think is going to be right for you, you might get a thought in your head, ‘it’s only a little bit extra for the more warmer bag, and it means I’ll be able to use it most of the year’. This is true. My advice would be if you are just looking for a three-season bag, and not making a heavy investment then it may be a good choice to leave things as they are – after all, remember the rating of the bag can always be influenced by an adding an insulating liner or using a bivy bag on the outside. Sometimes you can get away with bulking up a three-season bag this way for much of winter.

In short, a preference towards a budget friendly sleeping bag means you will be facing other unfavourable aspects such as bulk and weight, with questionable longevity and durability which eventually questions the reliability.

Nitty gritties

After you’ve decided on the main aspects, is it worth also considering things such as other customisation benefits. If you want a down sleeping bag does the down fill power or hydrophobic treatment of down or responsibly sourced down important? Do you prefer the concept behind lightweight materials and want a lightweight nylon or plush Pertex cover. Shoulder baffles, are they important to you? Left or right hand zip? These factors don’t always play a huge role In the performance of the sleeping bag and it’s possible you won’t know what you like until you get a few nights under your belt.

And for something a little different, brands such as Sierra Designs, Zenbivy, or Big Agnes also offer a never ending variety of hybrid sleeping bags to make the camping experience even closer to your bed at home.

Other quality recommended brands

Mountain Equipment, Snugpak, Nemo, Sea to Summit, Thermarest, Cumulus, Mountain Hardwear, Marmot, Mont, Patagonia.

Other budget brand suggestions

Kelty, Paria, Station Thirteen, Mountain Warehouse, Agismax, military surplus.


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