How To Buy Sleeping Bags
Like all outdoor equipment, sleeping bags come in a variety of shapes, sizes, materials, brands, and costs. You can buy very inexpensive, slumber-party type bags at mega-stores or high-end, custom sleeping bags from an outdoor manufacturer. Some things to consider are weight, insulation, weather, sleeping arrangements, and types of bags. This article will also cover a few features that might make a difference in your decision on what sleeping bag to buy.
Counting ounces and pounds is a worthwhile activity if you are going on a long wilderness excursion (backpacking, sea kayaking, climbing) and are looking to minimize weight. Otherwise, it's not such an issue. Many activities such as rafting, car camping, short backpacking trips, yurt ski trips, or mule-assisted backpacking trips don't require you to pay so much attention to weight. In general, down has a better warmth to weight ratio than synthetic and the warmer your bag the heavier it will be. This is because warmer bags have more insulation. Narrow and shorter bags are also lighter so if you are a smaller person, get a shorter bag! Many women prefer to buy women's specific sleeping bags because they are cut narrower and come in 5'6" and 5'10" sizes.
The most important things to know about down is that if properly cared for, it lasts much longer than synthetic insulation. It also takes less down insulation to keep you warm at the same temperatures. If you're looking to save weight and find a highly compressible sleeping bag, down is the way to go. Synthetic insulation, however, is the best option if you are going to be in a wet climate because a synthetic sleeping bag will keep you dry even if it gets wet. It will also dry out much more quickly than a down sleeping bag. The best bag for a river trip, rain forests excursion (think Pacific Northwest or any equatorial region), or sea kayaking adventure would be a synthetic bag. To learn more about down vs. synthetic insulation, see the article on winter sleeping bags.
Weather and Today's Low Temperature:
A bag that is too hot can be almost as miserable as a bag that is not warm enough, although getting yourself cooler is often easier than making your body warmer, so if you're looking for an all-purpose, 4 season bag, stick to something warm. The temperature rating of a bag is a general guideline but they are not specific. If you are generally cold when you sleep (ie. use a down comforter in the summer), then get a warmer bag. If you are always hot when you go to bed you can probably get a cooler bag. In general, warmer bags are heavier, so if you don't need the extra insulation, don't carry it. Keep in mind that desert locations and high mountain elevations can get very warm during the day and still drop below freezing at night. Make sure to look at the weather for both the high and low temperatures of the days and evenings.
One of the greatest things about sleeping next to someone you're close to, a boyfriend, girlfriend, or just close friend, is that you can use each other's body heat to keep warm! If you are looking for sleeping bags that will zip together, make sure you have zippers on the opposite sides (left and right zippers should be labeled on any sleeping bag's tags) and that your zippers are compatible. If you are a cold sleeper, you will definitely enjoy these warmer sleeping arrangements.
Mummy bags vs. Rectangle bags:
Mummy bags (smaller at the feet, bigger at the shoulders and head area) take up quite a bit less space, therefore less material. Consequently, they weigh less, and stuff into a backpack much better. Rectangle bags have more room allowing for more movement while you sleep. Do you toss and turn at night? Buy a sleeping bag with a little extra room for you to do so. If you are going car camping in a warm location in the summer, an inexpensive rectangular bag might do the job just fine but if you are trying to minimize weight or going somewhere chillier, make sure to get a mummy bag.
There are so many "extras" you can have with your sleeping bag these days it's overwhelming. Here are a few you might want to consider:
- Zippered pocket to put lip balm and a headlamp in.
- 2-way zipper so you can poke your feet through if your legs get too warm. Sometimes a mummy bag can feel constricting, so it's nice to have an "escape" for your legs and feet.
- A compression stuff sack. If it's lined with fleece, that's a bonus, because you can use it as a pillow.
- Water proof, or wind-proof sleeping bag shell. The more technical outer layer materials tend to cost more, but if you are planning on sleeping outside of a tent in cold or wet conditions, water or wind-proof materials are a feature to consider investing in.
- Draw cord around the insulated head and neck area. On a really cold night, it's nice to be able to pull the cord and close off all outside air except around your nose and eyes.
Brands: So many brands, so little time. Here's a little help to direct you. For custom, specialty sleeping bags, Feathered Friends and Western Mountaineering both make excellent down bags. For lightweight, simple, highly durable bags, Go-Lite is one of the industry leaders. Many outdoor stores carry reputable brands such as Marmot, The North Face, Kelty, Mountain Hardwear, Big Agnes, and Sierra Designs. If you are looking for a less expensive sleeping bag, both REI and Eureka are good brands with a wide selection.