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How To Choose A Sleeping Bag

Here's To Sleeping Soundly In The Wild

A good sleeping bag means waking up well-rested with the sun, surrounded by the great outdoors. You might even sleep better than you do at home. But the best news? Finding the right sleeping bag for your sleep habits, temperature comforts, and outdoor activity is very manageable. There are three main criteria you can use to help determine which bag will be best for you: temperature rating, fill type, and shape. After that, simply choose which accessories you need, and voila, great sleep outdoors awaits.

That said, all the gear required to camp can be a little daunting, and the cost can add up quickly. Though sleeping bags aren’t the item to skimp on if you want to be well-rested, there are plenty of bags that can suit your needs without breaking the bank. For example, sleeping bags in the Stoic camp collection were designed and tested with input from gearheads and offer high performance at a great value.

Understand Temperature Ratings

You’ll often find a sleeping bag’s temperature rating in its product title, like with this The North Face Wasatch Sleeping Bag: 20F Synthetic. This 20F call-out means that this bag is designed for the average sleeper down to 20 degrees Fahrenheit—the key here is “average”. These ratings are designed to help you compare one bag to another and factors such as a sleeping pad, humidity, wind, what you wear to bed will ultimately affect what temperature rating you end up going for.

A good rule of thumb? Always go warmer. You can dump excess heat by unzipping a bit if needed. In other words, when you’re deciding how to choose a sleeping bag, pick one that has a lower temperature rating than you expect to encounter while camping.

Generally speaking, your summer season sleeping bags will have a rating of 30F and higher. 3-season bags will be between 15F and 30F, and bags you can use for winter camping will have a rating of 15F and lower. When deciding which temperature rating will work best for you and your trip, be sure to look at the lowest projected temperatures you can expect to encounter, then pick a bag that’s designed for colder.

Know Your Fill Types

There are two types of insulation for sleeping bags: down and synthetic. Each has its own pros and cons. For instance, synthetic insulation is often more affordable, can keep you warmer in wet conditions, and dries quickly. If you’re car camping or spending nights in damp environments, synthetic sleeping bags are a good way to go. On the other hand, down has the best weight-to-warmth ratio, generally speaking. It’s also more packable. On trips where weight and space matter (like backpacking, mountaineering, or bike-packing), down bags, are your ideal sleeping companion.

Once you’ve chosen your fill type, you can break it down even further. Some bags are stuffed with down that’s been certified by the Responsible Down Stand, down that’s traceable through the supply chain to ensure the well-being of the animals. You can also find recycled materials in synthetic bags. In some technical sleeping bags, insulation (down too!) is often water repellent to help keep you comfortable in damp conditions.

Find Your Bag Shape

There are three main shapes you’ll come across when choosing your sleeping bag: rectangular, semi-rectangular, and mummy. How you sleep and how much you move around can help determine the shape you’ll want, but conditions have an impact as well. Generally speaking, mummy bags will provide you with a warmer sleep due to their form-hugging design. On the flip side, rectangular bags are perfect for camping in the summer if you move a lot in your sleep. For each bag shape, there are a few pros and cons to keep in mind.

  • Rectangular: If you like to stretch out and move around a lot in your sleep, rectangular bags are a great option. Some of them can even be unzipped all the way to make a large comforter on warmer nights—perfect for when sleeping with a partner.
  • Semi-rectangular: Sometimes referred to as “modified mummies”, semi-rectangular sleeping bags strike a balance between roominess and warmth. You can still move around in them (though not as much as you can in a rectangular bag), but they hug your body just a little closer to help preserve some warmth.
  • Mummy: These bags minimize bulk and weight while enhancing warmth—the ideal shape for backpacking, bike packing, mountaineering, and winter camping. Because this bag is more form-fitting, moving around in your sleep can be more cumbersome. However, bags like the Big Agnes Sidewinder SL Sleeping Bag are made for comfortably sleeping on your side without sacrificing weight and warmth.
  • Double (bonus): Sleeping bags made for two are a great option for camping with your partner. Sharing a bag can help keep you warmer, you get to snuggle, and you only have to pack one bag instead of two.

Extra Features & Accessories

There’s more to sleeping bags than their temperature ratings, fill types and shapes. Brands are always looking for ways to enhance their sleeping bags to make them more comfortable for you to use. Keep an eye out for zipper placements. If you’re left-handed, getting in and out of your bag will be a lot more intuitive on those groggy mornings if your zipper is on the right-hand side of the bag where your dominant hand can reach it. Zippers can also have guards or covers to help prevent snagging and can run the full length of the bag, around the foot box, or only halfway down the bag.

Fabric strength is another feature to look out for. If you’re planning on taking your sleeping bag to rough and wild areas, you’ll want to make sure it’s strong enough to withstand the rigors you’re about to put it through. These face fabrics can also be treated with DWR in some instances which can give you some extra confidence when heading out into damp conditions.

As far as accessories go, you can find sleeping bags with cinchable hoods, pockets for headlamps (or late-night snacks), loops for attaching liners, ventable foot boxes, and more. These accessories can vary widely from bag to bag. However, you’ll pretty much find hoods on all mummy bags and loops for liners on many technical bags.

Rachel Jorgensen is a freelance writer based in Michigan, but doesn’t stay put for long. She’s lived in three countries, four states, and is always after the next adventure. When settled, you’ll find her climbing, skiing, or trail running with Scuba, her Thai rescue dog. Follow along @rjorgie