Camping is such a fulfilling activity that, when done correctly, can give you a sense of pride in yourself for braving the elements and surviving out in nature. One of the fastest ways to ruin a camping trip is when you don’t sleep well at night. Your sleeping bag plays a considerable role in how rested you’ll be in the morning, not to mention if you’ll have aches and pains the next day. But how to choose a sleeping bag?
So how do you choose the perfect sleeping bag?
When choosing a sleeping bag, you need to know all the factors such as size, temperatures, and materials to make the right choice. For cold, wet conditions, you will need to choose a sleeping bag with synthetic fill, and for cold, dry conditions, you will need to choose a bag with down fill.
There are other factors to look at, so let’s get to it.
Here’s what we will cover to help you choose the perfect sleeping bag for your trip.
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What’s the Temperature?
One of the factors you’ll see again and again when it comes to different bags is the temperature rating. This is an indicator of the lowest temperature the bag can keep you warm in.
So where will you be camping? Think of the camping location you’ll be using the bag in for the majority of the time.
What seasons will you be camping in? Do a quick search to find the average low temperatures in that area. Don’t forget to factor in elevation, which means temperatures ten degrees colder with every one thousand feed.
Then use that temperature to look at some bags. Although many bags do have manufacturer’s testing, there’s no guarantee that the bag will keep you warm at that exact temperature, so take the rating with a grain of salt.
Still, temperature ratings can help you get a general idea of the warmth level of the bag and start moving you in the right direction. One rule of thumb is to take the lowest temperature you think you’ll be camping at and then subtract ten degrees from that, just to be on the safe side.
One of the reasons to do this is that it is far easier to cool off than it is to get warmer. You can always wear fewer layers inside the bag or unzip it if you’re overheating. But if you’re already wearing your down jacket and are still shivering, then you’re sure to pass a very restless night.
The temperature ratings are also based on an average sleeper and may not apply to you if you’re a person who runs hot or cold. There are also many factors that can affect how you’ll actually feel in the bag, such as what you wear, humidity, your sleeping pad, etc.
If you’ll be camping in frigid temperatures, one tip is to layer sleeping bags or get a warm liner to put inside. Also, look for the material of the bag to make sure it is made with a high Denier rating which tells the thickness of the fabric.
The higher the number, the more durable and usually warmer the fabric will be although it may add extra weight.
What Should My Bag Be Filled With?
Most sleeping bags are filled with either synthetic or down. There are pros and cons to each filling, and the decision will depend on your budget and how you plan to camp.
Sleeping bags with synthetic filling are cheaper but can also be heavy or bulky and don’t last as long. Synthetic bags also dry quite fast. Their down-filled counterparts are lighter but can be expensive and don’t provide a bunch of insulation if they get wet.
However, they are great for cold, dry weather and are very durable so last well if you take good care of them.
Down sleeping bags are great for backpacking because they are light and compress easily so won’t take up a lot of room in your backpack. Also, when it comes to down, make sure to check the concentration of feathers with the higher, the better.
Bags filled with down are usually either goose or duck feathers. Goose down is generally better because the down has a higher volume, is easier to find, and typically lasts longer.
Synthetic sleeping bags are great for casual campers and those on a budget. They also can’t be beaten if you know you’ll be sleeping in wet conditions.
We have an excellent article for you- Are down sleeping bags better than synthetic? Click here to read it
Sleeping Bag Shapes
There are three common shapes for a sleeping bag: rectangular, semi-rectangular (or tapered rectangular), and mummy. These names are pretty self-explanatory, but you may be wondering why the shape matters and how you choose the best one.
The mummy-shaped bag does indeed look a bit like an Egyptian sarcophagus but don’t let the claustrophobic appearance throw you off. A mummy bag is one of the most efficient shapes because of its snug fit, which increases warmth.
Because it is wider at the top and narrower near the feet, less air is needed to be heated, and you will feel toastier.
However, if you are indeed someone who likes to toss and turn and would like a little more room to stretch out, the mummy bag might not be ideal. You won’t be able to roll around inside the bag, and instead, the bag will roll over with you.
The bag with the most wiggle room is the rectangular bag. If you aren’t worried about weight or size, this would be a good pick. There is plenty of room inside to stretch out, and some of them can be fully unzipped and turned into a sort of blanket.
The semi-rectangular or tapered rectangular bag is between the rectangular and mummy. It does taper down at the end toward the feed but not as much as a mummy bag. The bag is a nice compromise between warmth and having enough room to move around without being restricted.
Another consideration is the fit of the bag. Just as there are many shapes to choose from, there are also sizes of the bag to consider. If you’re tall, then you’ll definitely need a longer bag. Then again, if you’re on the shorter side, be sure to get a smaller bag, so you don’t have to carry additional unnecessary weight.
Occasionally you will also find bags that are gender-specific with extra width around the hips for women, for example. One test also found that women tend to get colder when they sleep, so there are bags that provide additional insulation to combat this.
However, not all bags may have this consideration, and you really will not won’t know how a bag fits your specific body until you try it out.
While not technically a bag shape, there is also the option of a wearable bag. This allows you to stay in your bag once you wake up and start moving around your camp and making breakfast or coffee, for example. They can also double as a jacket depending on the size and warmth factor.
Sleeping With a Partner
If you’re camping with a significant other and don’t want to spend the night apart, consider a double sleeping bag. These are great for couples who want to snuggle together and do provide the added benefit of additional body heat and warmth.
Some double bags are even big enough that kids can also join you or even a beloved pet such as a dog. If you don’t want to purchase a double bag, you can get two rectangular bags that are designed to be combined by zipping them together.
Just make sure they are the same model and brand, and that one has a right-hand zip and the other a left-hand.
One of the drawbacks to a double bag isn’t the bag itself but more the fact of being enclosed with another person. Anytime you sleep in close proximity to another person, there is always the risk of dealing with snoring or while camping without showers, body odor.
How Big Is Your Tent?
Before you buy a bag, check the dimensions of your tent. You’ll want to be able to lay your sleeping bag flat and have enough room to sleep comfortably without anything getting in the way.
Even if your bag will fit perfectly inside the tent, you should still allow a little bit of extra wiggle room for setting up your bed. You’ll also need little wiggle room in case you roll over in the night, so your tent doesn’t tip over. Not to mention space to get out of your sleeping bag when morning comes.
If you have a tent already, set it up and put down some masking tape using the dimensions of the sleeping bag you are considering purchasing. Then lie down and try it out. You can also put down some blankets folded into the same space and see how comfortable it is.
Sleeping Bag Features to Look For
Most bags will have a hood on them that will keep you warm and cozy inside. There should be some kind of cord or other closure that allows you to secure the hood so your head will stay covered. However, hoods can make you feel claustrophobic and are not necessary for warmer weather, so hoodless sleeping bags are another option.
A good bag should also have a draft tube and draft collar (also called a neck baffle) to insulate the zipper portion near the face so cold air can’t enter while you’re asleep. They should be big enough to fill the space between the neck and shoulders without being too big. Look for one that is asymmetrical and has pull cords so you can adjust it to your liking.
If you are sleeping on a pad, make sure the bag also has a pad sleeve or loops to keep the bag from slipping off the pad. Stash pockets on the outside of the bag are also convenient for storing things or keeping valuables nearby.
A pillow pocket allows you to secure your pillow if you choose to use one, so it doesn’t move around while you’re sleeping. For those whose feet get hot at night, the foot box portion of the bag should have proper ventilation.
Sleeping Bag Accessories
In addition to the sleeping bag itself, you may want to invest in some additional accessories to customize your bag and make it that much more comfortable. While the bag itself is the most significant component of your purchase, you may have special requirements to make sleeping in a bag ideal for you and your lifestyle or body.
After you’ve purchased your bag, you’ll probably need to buy a sleeping pad to put underneath it. Unless you’re lucky enough to find that perfect camping site with a soft cushion underneath, you’ll otherwise be sleeping on hard and, potentially rocky or bumpy ground.
A sleeping pad will cushion you a little more and make your sleeping bag much more comfortable to sleep in. There are many different types of sleeping pads to choose from, including air, self-inflating, and closed-cell foam.
Air-pads are lightweight and great for backpacking with most newer ones having insulation to increase warmth. They are comfortable and best used in warmer condition but can be quite expensive and difficult to repair if ripped.
Self-inflating pads inflate by opening the pad’s valve and letting the air fill it automatically. Some of them can be rolled up or folded for travel or backpacking, and this type of pad offers the warmest and most affordable style.
However, they are on the heavier side and can be more expensive than a basic foam pad.
The cheapest and most basic option is a closed-cell pad that can be folded up for ease of use and are great for backpacking because they are incredibly lightweight. They do have pretty good insulation, but they aren’t as comfortable because they are a little stiffer than their counterparts.
You’ll need to take into consideration the type of camping you’re doing, the temperature, and also the size of your sleeping bag when purchasing a pad to make sure they fit well together. If you have an air-pad or self-inflating pad, you may also need to bring along a repair kit in case of damage to the pad.
Another accessory that is sure to make your sleeping bag more comfortable is a pillow. Camping-specific pillows come in many shapes, sizes, and varieties. Many of the same factors, such as weight, size, shape, and comfort, go into choosing the best one for you.
You may also want to select a sleeping bag with a hood that will make your bag even warmer and allow you to ditch your hat at night. And if you want additional protection against water, make sure the shell of the bag is treated with a water-repellent finish to protect the interior insulation.
To add more warmth, you can invest in a liner to not only keep your bag cleaner inside but add extra heat.
Two other tinier features to consider are the zipper and a stash pocket. A bag with multiple zippers will help if you need to cool off and the zipper should also glide easily so you can open or close it in the middle of the night. A stash pocket can be useful if you want to store some personal items close by such as a phone, flashlight, or chapstick.
How to Store a Sleeping Bag
Now that you’ve got your bag and all the fancy features and accessories that come along with it, you’ll need to store it properly to extend its life. This means keeping it clean, dry, and away from the elements.
Although many campers love sleeping bags that compress easily and don’t take up a lot of room, don’t store your bag that way long term. If the bag is compressed too much and for too long, the insulation inside will be damaged, and the bag won’t keep you as warm in future.
Before you put your sleeping back into storage, make sure it is completely dry, so no mold or mildew grows inside. To properly dry it, unzip it and hang it outside for about 8 hours. Make sure not to put it in the sun though because the UV rays could damage the fabric.
If you don’t have a place to hang it outside, you can also hang it in a dry area indoors and use a fan. Alternately, toss it in the drying machine but always use a low setting and check it often to make sure it doesn’t get damaged.
After it is dry, pack it loosely into its bag. Ideally, the storage sack should be made from a breathable material. Then store it somewhere cool and dry until you’re ready to go camping again.
For day to day storage during your camping trip, you will probably be using a compression bag. This will squeeze the bag up as small as possible, so it takes up less room while traveling or backpacking.
Compressing the bag is fine for short-term storage, but the bag should never be stored this way long-term.
If you aren’t backpacking and have a campsite that remains in one place and is perpetually set up for the duration of your trip, then you can just leave your sleeping bag open and in your tent. Just remember to air it out from time to time, and it should be fine.
For more depth information on storing your sleeping bag, be sure to read our article-
How should sleeping bags be stored? Click here to read.
Taking Good Care of Your Sleeping Bag
To extend the life of your sleeping bag and get the most out of your investment, you’ll need to know how to properly care for your bag. The most important thing is to keep the bag clean and dry so it will continue to keep you warm on every camping excursion.
While you are camping and using the bag, make sure to sleep in clean clothes as much as possible. Also wash your face and neck of any sunscreen, mosquito spray, dirt, or other oils that can dirty the inside of the bag.
It’s not always possible to stay perfectly clean while camping. So purchasing a sleeping bag liner can be another way to protect your bag. Liners are a great accessory for your bag because they come in many different materials depending on your warmth needs and can add several degrees to the bag’s temperature rating.
Sleeping on a pad or in a tent will keep your bag from coming into direct contact with the ground and any dirt, mud, rocks, or sticks that can dirty and damage the exterior. If you don’t have a tent, put down a tarp or other barrier and try to seek out a soft and smooth piece of ground to sleep on.
In the morning, air out your bag to make sure moisture doesn’t build up inside. Like drying it before storage, make sure it doesn’t get too much direct sunlight. If you have a strict itinerary and don’t have time for this, make sure to dry the bag fully after your trip.
Down bags will almost always start leaking at some point no matter the quality. However, if you see a feather poking out, resist the urge to pull it out. This will only make the hole bigger and allow even more feathers to come out. Instead, try to pull it back inside the bag or pinch it from within to massage it back inside.
Washing a Dirty Sleeping Bag
Let’s say you’ve followed all the tips above and your sleeping bag got dirty anyway. Or perhaps you just want to give it a good clean every now and then. What’s the best way to do that?
The answer depends on the type of bag you have. Down bags can easily be damaged if they aren’t washed properly. You may even want to consider taking it to a professional, so it doesn’t get ruined.
Alternately, no matter what kind of bag you have, you can just spot treat any dirt with a towel and some gentle soap. Or use a toothbrush or sponge to scrub at any stubborn areas. Just make sure to hold the external liner away from the insulation, so it doesn’t soak through.
Before giving your bag a thorough wash, check the instructions on the tags of your bag. If the tag has fallen off or the print has rubbed off, you can go online to the manufacturer’s website and try to get more information.
If you wash it yourself instead of hiring a professional, use a gentle soap that is made specifically for whatever your bag is filled with. If your washer and dryer at home aren’t big enough, try out the bigger commercial-sized machines that are often offered at laundromats. And prepare for drying time, which can take several hours.
Note that having your bag cleaned professionally does not mean dry cleaning. You should never dry clean a sleeping bag because the solvents used in the process can damage the bag and make it lose its insulating power.
Also never use any kind of bleach or fabric softener when washing a sleeping bag. If your washing machine is a top-loader with an agitator, don’t use it because it can rip the bag.
Another option is to hand wash the bag yourself at home in the bathtub. Follow the same instructions as before when it comes to washing certain types of fill and use a gentle soap. Then rub the soiled areas to clean them and let the bag soak before rinsing and drying it.
Sleeping Bag Repairs
If you get a tear or hole in the fabric of the bag, it can be sewn up using a simple repair kit of needle and thread. A temporary fix would be to use a patch or make your own out of tape or whatever adhesive you have on hand.
When the bag is damaged further or if the zipper breaks, you may want to get it professionally repaired or consult the manufacturer. If the bag has a warranty that is still good, you might be able to get it replaced.
Basic Rules to Remember
While all this information may be overwhelming, there really are just a few key factors to think of when purchasing a sleeping bag. If this is your first bag, a synthetic-filled option is probably your best bet.
Choose the warmest option you can afford or, if you only camp during warmer months, then get a slightly cooler version. Get a liner to go with it for added warmth and cleanliness. If it gets really hot, you can always just sleep in the liner itself as well.
The shape depends on the kind of sleeper you are and how much room you like to have. So get the shape that will work best for you and then climb inside and try it out.
Once you have your sleeping bag, get out, and go camping! Try to keep the bag as clean as possible and don’t let it get ripped or too dirty. Then you won’t have to worry about cleaning or repairs.
When you finish camping, dry your bag and store it loosely so it will be good to go for the next trip. These are just the basics you’ll need to know to get started. If you get an affordable starter sleeping bag to gain experience, you can dive deeper into the different features when it comes time to upgrade to your next bag.
If you take good care of your bag, it will last you several years and many campy trips. By that time you will have a better idea of your own likes and dislikes. You may also have built up more confidence as a camper and decided to explore new locales. All these factors will affect the purchase of your next sleeping bag, and you will be more than ready to choose a new bag.