Choosing a Sleeping Bag
If you have been camping a handful of times, you have probably found yourself in a tent at night wishing you had an extra jacket to put on. After that chilly experience, you have found yourself here... Don't worry, I am going to walk you through everything you need to know about buying a warm sleeping bag for camping. If you do it right and plan ahead, you will never get cold in that tent again!
Camping vs. Backpacking Sleeping Bags
When backpacking, you need a lightweight sleeping bag that you can carry with you. However, it’s crucial the material is thick enough to keep you warm, which can add weight. If you can drive to your camping spot, you can get the biggest sleeping bag you want without having to consider weight.
So, what does the perfect camping sleeping bag look like? If you hold all other variables constant, a heavier sleeping bag will keep you warmer. But it is also very possible to get a lighter weight bag with better insulation that will keep you warmer than a heavier bag with poorer insulation. After you pick your insulation type, you have to decide on the shape of your sleeping bag.
If you like more room while you sleep, a simple rectangular shape will do, but tighter bags will actually keep you warmer, so go for a modified mummy shape if possible. High denier bags with horizontal baffles are usually the best quality, but if you are only a casual camper, you may not need the top-of-the-line bag and could get a bag with vertical baffles and a lower denier rating instead. Of course, you also need an appropriate temperature rating for the weather you intend to camp in.
If you have no idea what all these terms mean, then the rest of this article is for you. Next, we will talk about all the characteristics of sleeping bags and the lingo that goes along with them so you can make an informed purchase.
Characteristics of a Sleeping Bag
So, what are the things that will influence your sleeping bag's performance? Here is a quick overview of each characteristic before we dive deeper into each of them.
- Temperature Rating - A quick rating that you can look at to compare sleeping bags between brands and price ranges.
- Insulation Type - What your sleeping bag is filled with, normally down or synthetic insulation.
- Sleeping Bag Shape - Is your bag rectangular and roomy, slim/form-fitting, or somewhere in the middle?
- Sleeping Bag Construction - How is the insulation held in place, how strong is the actual material holding everything together? This will be a significant factor in the quality of your bag.
Temperature Rating of Your Sleeping Bag
If you are standing in an aisle with dozens of sleeping bags, it is nearly impossible to tell which one will keep you the warmest if you are not an experienced camper. Companies figured that out pretty quickly, and now there is a standardized rating that most brands use. These ratings allow you to compare bags from different brands and price points, making it much easier to buy exactly what you want.
These ratings are called ISO and EN ratings. ISO is a little newer than EN, but they are pretty much the same. These ratings show up in the form of “limit” and “comfort”. The comfort rating is how low of a temperature an “average sleeper” can comfortably sleep in a particular sleeping bag. The limit rating is how low of a temperature a “warm sleeper” can comfortably sleep in a specific sleeping bag. These limit and comfort ratings are also based on a sleeper wearing only long underwear and socks.
If you see a temperature rating on a bag that does not include the terms comfort and limit, it is a brand estimate instead of an ISO or EN rating, and it is not nearly as reliable.
If you expect to sleep in temperatures of 32 degrees, I suggest getting a bag that is rated for 0 degrees. Generally, it would be best to get a bag with a lower rating than what you expect to encounter. You can always open the top if you get too warm, but if you are fully zipped up and still cold, you may be in trouble.
Picking an Insulation Type
Insulation is a defining characteristic of a sleeping bag. You basically have two options here, down or synthetic insulation. Down is an animal product. It is the under feathers of waterfowl and is commonly harvested from farmed geese in China. Down is by far the best insulating material on the market, but synthetic insulation keeps advancing year over year.
Down’s natural structure makes it incredibly good at trapping air and, therefore, heat. However, waterfowl have a waterproof outer layer of feathers before their down, so it was never designed to get wet. If your down gets wet, its structure collapses, and it loses its ability to retain heat until it dries out.
Certain types of down are marketed as hydrophobic, but they only delay the down from getting wet. To keep the down in a sleeping bag protected, the best bet is to make the outer material of the sleeping bag waterproof instead of the down.
Down also has something called fill power, which is a rating for the quality of the down. This number ranges from around 450 to 1000, and the higher the number, the better the down. It is calculated by how many cubic inches one ounce of down can fill in a testing device. So one ounce of 1000 fill power down can fill 1000 cubic inches of space. You can get the same warmth from 500 fill power down as 1000 fill power down, but it will take more down and weigh more overall.
Another great thing about down is its compressibility. You can really squeeze a down sleeping bag into a smaller storage bag, which is another reason it is preferred for backpackers. Although that is not as important for campers, so you probably do not need the highest quality down on the market, which will save you a few bucks.
Problems with Down
Down has gotten its fair share of criticism. Most down used around the world comes from China. Many suppliers in China have been busted for live plucking geese instead of harvesting the down post-slaughter. This is very painful for geese and is not ethical by any means. Nonetheless, some suppliers have done this because they can let the geese regrow their feathers and pluck them repeatedly, which makes more money per bird.
To ensure they do not use down from suppliers like this, large brands source their down from suppliers that are ethically certified by the Responsible Down Standard or Global Traceable Down Standard. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know how down is harvested once you get it, so there have been a few instances of “certified” suppliers selling live-plucked down, but once they are discovered, they are discredited quickly. Suppliers that are caught are certainly put out of business, so that is a strong motivation not to live pluck birds, but it does not stop everyone.
Synthetic insulation is slightly different from down. It works in a very similar way, but its construction is not quite the same. Instead, synthetic insulation is continuous fiber, meaning that the insulation is one big piece, whereas down is a whole bunch of little feathers. This is an advantage for synthetic because if you rip your bag, the insulation will not fly out like it would with down.
Synthetic insulation is not as good as down generally. It is less compressible and weighs more for the same amount of warmth. However, synthetic insulation is also cheaper, and it can get wet and still keep you warm. The weight is the main reason backpackers don't like it, but for campers who don't care as much about weight, you see that it is cheaper and doesn't fail when it gets wet, a win-win.
If you combine this with the fact that most recreational campers are not camping in below-freezing temperatures, I think synthetic insulation is the way to go for most campers.
Down vs Synthetic Insulation When Weight Isn’t a Factor
Sleeping Bag Shape
The next thing to consider is the shape of your bag. The most basic shape is a rectangle. These large roomy bags weigh the most because there is just more material. These bags have been around the longest, and it is probably what your parents used when they went camping every now and again. However, all that extra space will actually keep your insulation from doing its job effectively. So if you want to stay warmer, get a slimmer bag.
Next is the mummy bag, which fits just how it sounds. These bags are made to be slim and fit more like an article of clothing than a sleeping bag. If you roll over in this bag, it will roll with you. This will keep you warmer in the long run, and it weighs less, but it may be uncomfortable for some sleepers. Recreational campers usually do not need to go this extreme with this slim of a sleeping bag.
Instead, many campers prefer the modified mummy. The modified mummy is also called semi-rectangular. There are dozens of different designs that fall into this category, but they will generally be slimmer than a rectangular bag and roomier than a mummy bag. This design takes better advantage of your insulation and gives you a little more room to breathe.
Sleeping Bag Construction & Materials
If you buy a synthetically insulated bag, they will likely offset sheets of the insulation to ensure there are no cold spots anywhere on the bag. Although if you buy a down bag, manufacturers use a baffle system to keep the down in place.
Sewn-through baffles are the most common in down sleeping bags. They sew a thread through the interior and exterior fabrics to keep everything together. This is the simplest and cheapest way to do it, but it is also not very efficient, and these bags will not keep you as warm.
Vertical baffles run up and down a sleeping bag. These baffles keep the insulation in a column and do not allow it to move side to side. Using these kinds of baffles makes it easy for the company to construct hoods and toe boxes, and they are reasonably warm.
Horizontal baffles are the best you can get with down sleeping bags. These baffles will help give you a higher warmth-to-weight ratio and allow for some insulation adjustability. When you lay on the down on the bottom of your bag, it gets squished and does a poor job of insulating.
However, with this kind of bag, you can move the down around in the baffles with a few shakes. If it is colder out, move some down to the top, and on warmer nights, you can move it to the bottom to act as a cushion. These baffles are also the hardest to sew for manufacturers, so they are typically more expensive.
There are also several secondary baffles out there. One example would be a neck baffle, and this is essentially an extra tube of down around the neck area that provides more insulation and reduces heat loss through the top of the bag. You may also find draft tubes, which are baffles that run alongside the zipper. This reduces heat loss in that area and will keep you a little warmer.
What the sleeping bag is made out of is also essential. Denier is a measure of the linear density of fiber, AKA how strong it is. The strength of a material also has a lot to do with how it is woven together, but all other variables held constant, a higher denier material will be stronger. When you look at the denier of a bag, it will have a number followed by a D. Common denier levels are 5D, 10D, 15D, 25D, and 30D.
Typically hikers want a high denier sleeping bag because they may brush it by a limb or briar patch while on a trail. A rip in a down sleeping bag is bad news for a hiker, so strength is important. But as a camper that can drive right to a spot, you probably do not have to worry about rips like that. Lower denier materials tend to be a bit cheaper as well, so you could save a few dollars as a camper here.
The Perfect Sleeping Bag for a Recreational Camper
After reading all the information above, you should have a good idea of what is important in a sleeping bag. Regardless of materials, always get a bag with a lower temperature rating than what you expect to encounter.
For a reasonably priced but high performing camping sleeping bag, I suggest getting a modified mummy sleeping bag with synthetic insulation. This bag may weigh more than what a backpacker would use, but it will undoubtedly keep you good and warm, plus it will perform when wet, it's hypoallergenic, and will not lose insulation if you tear it. To get a good sleeping bag at a lower price, try out a rectangular bag instead.
Regardless of what kind of sleeping bag you get, you should also bring a sleeping pad with you. This will help insulate the bottom of your bag better. Otherwise, the ground is pretty much a heat sink and it does not matter how good your sleeping bag is.