Not All Sleeping Bags Are Made Equal

The first thing you need to decide is whether you will get a down-filled sleeping bag or a synthetic sleeping bag. That’s the big category decision.

The next thing you need to decide is the temperature rating. What type of camping will you be doing? Many other factors will come into play here. Is it going to be rainy weather? Desert or dry camping? Each bag performs differently in either condition and is something you’ll need to seriously take into account.

Choosing the best type of sleeping bag for a trip takes some forethought but thankfully it’s not rocket science. Having the wrong bag could leave you uncomfortably cold, or hypothermic! Other factors, such as weight and compression size, play a huge role. But it all depends on the kind of trip you’re taking. Let’s dive in and talk about the pros and cons of each type of sleeping bag and the many other factors that will weigh in to making the right decision for your specific needs.

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Types of Sleeping Bags

Synthetic Vs Down

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably got a bit of experience under your belt, so you’ll no doubt know that there are two main types of bag—down and synthetic. But do you know the practical differences between them?

Down Sleeping Bags

Down is a particular kind of feather that sits underneath the feathers you typically see when you look at a duck or goose. These feathers are incredibly soft and delicate and create pockets of air that keep heat in and make them an excellent insulation medium.

In terms of insulation-to-weight ratio, downbeats synthetic hands down (pun intended). Down can also be packed away into a much smaller space than synthetic filling. But there are drawbacks. For one thing, down is considerably more expensive than synthetic.

Another disadvantage to down is that it does not handle moisture well, and loses much of its insulation properties when it gets wet. It is also worth noting that it is an animal product, which not everyone agrees with. In other words, a down-filled sleeping bag is not a Vegan” sleeping bag. So If you are a vegan then the decision is very easy for you. Synthetic all the way!

There have been efforts to create an ethical market for down, however. If you are concerned about the humane treatment of animals, be sure to do your research when buying down. PETA

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Synthetic Sleeping Bags

The two main advantages of synthetic bags, are cost and resistance to moisture. While you’ll want to keep your bag dry regardless, you won’t need to worry about inadvertently getting your synthetic bag wet. And they are much cheaper than down bags.

That’s where the advantages end, unfortunately. Of course, technology is improving all the time, and manufacturers have made great strides when it comes to things like compressibility. But presently, your average synthetic bag will be heavier, provide less insulation than a comparable down bag, and take up more space in your pack. Still, not every camping trip needs the very best.

If you’re going for a weekend away with the car will be within walking distance of your tent, there’s no reason to spend extra money on a down bag when a bulkier synthetic one will do the job.

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Sleeping Bag Season Ratings

You probably know about season ratings, but it’s important to understand what they actually mean. A common misconception among newer campers is that season ratings correspond directly to the seasons. This is not necessarily true; a winter in Minnesota is very different from a winter in California. Understanding what each season rating means will help you get the right bag for your needs.

Season One Sleeping Bag

The lowest rated sleeping bag is designed for warm Summer nights and indoor use. These are ideal for Summer festival use but offer very little in the way of real protection from the cold. If you’re expecting temperatures under 5C/41F, this is not the bag for you. Season one bags are usually inexpensive, and make a great sleeping bag for kids to play around in the garden or use for sleepovers.

sleeping bags backpacking
sleeping bags backpacking

Season Two Sleeping Bag

Two season sleeping bags offer protection for colder weather, though you still shouldn’t be heading out in the winter with one of these in your pack. They will usually keep you warm in temperatures as low as 0C/32F. They can also be useful for those warm Summer nights mentioned above if you feel the cold a little more than the average person.

Season Three Sleeping Bag

Designed for the colder weather, sleeping bag season 3 tier are rated for as low as -5C/23F, making them great for winter campers (unless you live somewhere like Canada or Russia!) or people who get cold easy.

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Season Four Sleeping Bag

Sleeping bag season 4 rated bags are ideal for winter camping in colder climates. Now, when we say cold, we’re still not talking about an expedition to the North Pole. But if you’re expecting frost, perhaps some light snow, this tier of sleeping bag should do the trick. In terms of raw numbers, expect this rating to be useful in temperatures as low as -10C/14F.

Season Four Sleeping Bag

Sleeping bag season 5 ratings are reserved for hardcore equipment. Typically suitable for temperatures as low as -40C (which is also -40F), this type of sleeping bag is what you would use for an expedition to the North Pole. Or, more likely, trekking up a substantial mountain.

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Order Up

Remember, it’s much easier to crack your sleeping bag open in the middle of the night to cool down than it is to get warm when your bag isn’t up to the task. If you’re on the fence between two season ratings, opt for the higher-rated one. Within reason, of course. There’s no sense in spending a small fortune on a season five sleeping bag if you’re only doing a bit of late Autumn camping at low altitudes.

Comfort and Extreme Ratings

The above information on season tiers is only a guide, of course. You should always check the specific temperature rating on a bag before you purchase it. There are two significant numbers to consider here; the “comfort” rating, and the “extreme” rating.

The comfort rating refers to the temperature at which you would feel most… well… comfortable. Below this temperature, you may feel a bit cold. On the other hand, the extreme rating—which could also be considered a “survival” rating—is the temperature at which this bag could keep you alive.

In other words, sleeping in temperatures below your bag’s comfort rating will make for a lousy night, but sleeping in temperatures below your bag’s extreme rating could make for a fatal one.

It should be stated that there are no universal standards for measuring the exact temperature rating, so take the numbers listed on the bag with a grain of salt. Some manufacturers like to embellish a little.

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Every Camping Trip is Unique

It’s vital to take the type of trip you are going on into account when deciding which bag is best for you. It’s not just the expected temperatures you’ll be facing, but also the stability of the environment, the kind of weather, how you’re getting there, etc

For example, if you’re heading out for a weekend of glamping, you’re probably not hiking up a mountain to get there. And if you’re driving to the campsite, you don’t need to worry about saving space and weight in your pack.

Furthermore, you’ll be sleeping in a relatively secure shelter, so wind and rain aren’t a concern. In other words, you only need to concern yourself with making sure your bag is insulated enough to keep you warm.

Alternatively, if you are heading into the wild intending to kayak down a river, water-resistance should be high on your list of desirable features.

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Sleeping Bag for Backpacking

Backpacking brings with it a specific set of concerns when choosing a bag. Firstly, the weight and compressible size of the bag plays a considerable role in what makes a suitable sleeping bag for backpacking. If you’re going to be hiking long distances, you want to be carrying as little unnecessary weight as possible, and not be giving up valuable space to bulky bags.

These factors may seem to indicate a down sleeping bag would be best, but you should also factor the weather. If you’re backpacking in an area prone to the occasional (or frequent) rainfall, it will be harder to keep your bag dry. Still, the improved insulation, compressibility, and weight of a down bag make it perfect for backpacking. Just be sure to keep it protected from the elements. Waterproof compression sacks are great for this.

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Survival Camping

Contrary to the name, survival camping doesn’t necessarily have to be an extreme experience. Sure, if you’re heading out into the Canadian wilderness with nothing but some essential bushcraft tools, things could get pretty hairy. But many survival camping trips take place in more sedate climates, with warmer temperatures and fewer bears.

If you intend to sleep in a bushcraft shelter—or even under the stars—you will need a synthetic bag. You can store down in a waterproof compression sack while it’s in your pack, but you can’t sleep in the compression sack, so you want a bag that will not lose its insulation if it encounters a bit of rain.

RV and Van Camping

When it comes to heading out in your camper, the world is your oyster as far as sleeping bags go. You don’t have to worry about weight or pack space, you don’t have to worry about keeping it dry (unless your RV has some serious issues), and you probably don’t have to worry too much about the temperature.

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sleeping bags down

Winter Camping

Ultimately, with any sleeping bag choice, your primary concern should be to make sure your bag will keep you warm enough. However, an insufficiently rated sleeping bag on a chilly summer night shouldn’t mean anything worse than an uncomfortable night’s sleep. In winter camping, however, it could be fatal.

Make sure your bag’s temperature rating is up to the job, and don’t be afraid of overkill in this department. You should probably opt for a synthetic bag, also, as it will be hard to keep a down bag completely dry in a potentially snowy environment.

Other Types of Camping

When it comes to camping, the list of different types is long and diverse, and giving each one its own section would make this post far too long. But we wanted to touch on a few more types that lend themselves well to specific kinds of sleeping bags.

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Ultralight Backpacking

For example, ultralight backpacking, as the name suggests, will place a heavy emphasis on the weight and packed size of your bag. Of course, it is still vital to ensure that any bag you choose will offer sufficient protection. If the choice is between a slightly heavier pack and freezing to death at night, it’s worth the sore shoulders.

Adventure Camping

Somewhat contrary to what the name suggests, sleeping conditions on a typical adventure camp are not that extreme. While you may be spending your days climbing rock walls so you can zipline back down again, your campsite will usually be well set up, perhaps even sheltered. It’s probably worth investing in a washable bag, however. If you’re going to be running assault courses, it might be challenging to keep you—and your bag—clean.

Car Camping

Car camping means different things to different people. Whether you are camping with or in your car, the impact on your choice of bag is the same. Ensure your choice is rated highly enough for your destination, certainly. But you can disregard any concerns about pack size and weight, as your gear will all be in the car.

Dry Camping

Dry camping (also known as boondocking) is an unusual one in this list. This is the practice of living off the grid in a vehicle, such as an RV, or truck. This is more a way of life than a one-off trip.

For this kind of camping, your bag will probably very rarely be packed away, and if it is, it will probably live in the vehicle. For this reason, moisture shouldn’t be too much of a concern. Unlike RV camping, however, dry campers tend to move around a lot. Consider getting a higher rated sleeping bag than you think you need. You never know where fate might take you, and you can always open it up a bit to let some cooler air in.

sleeping bags cold weather

Final Thoughts

It’s always better to over-prepare when it comes to camping, and choosing the best type of sleeping bag is no exception. This is particularly the case for more extreme climates, such as winter camping trips. If you can’t afford an adequately rated sleeping bag for the trip, do not go on the trip.

Ultimately, how warm a bag will keep you is the most critical factor, but don’t neglect things like weight and compressed size, especially if you expect to be hiking for long distances with a pack on your back.