How to Choose a Sleeping Bag
It doesn’t matter whether you’re planning on a summer camping trip or a winter outdoor adventure in the UK; you need the right sleeping bag to keep you warm and comfortable.
Sleeping bags are not cheap to buy, so you want to purchase the right one first time.
In this guide, I’ll show you how to choose the perfect sleeping bag for your requirements.
What types of sleeping bags are there?
There are three basic styles of sleeping bag:
- Rectangular sleeping bags
- Mummy sleeping bags
- Sleeping pods
Rectangular sleeping bags
Rectangular sleeping bags are designed like an envelope with a zip around two sides.
This sleeping bag style is roomy and can be fully opened out by unfastening the zips, so it can double-up as an extra blanket.
Rectangular sleeping bags are most suitable for summer camping, indoor use, and caravanning.
Mummy sleeping bags
Mummy sleeping bags are tapered at the bottom like an Egyptian sarcophagus. This design feature helps to retain warm air inside the bag, close to your body.
You can choose from lightweight summer-use mummy sleeping bags through to thicker, expedition models that are intended for use in extreme conditions.
If you choose a mummy bag, you’ll want to buy a stuff sack to go with it. Rather than folding a mummy bag for storage, you simply stuff it into the sack. Compression straps squash the bag to reduce the size of the pack.
Sleeping pods are half the width of their length, enabling the user to move around freely inside the pod. That makes this sleeping bag design perfect for sleepers who fidget, so pods are a popular choice for kids, sleepovers, and summer use when the nights are warm.
Sleeping bag fillings
Sleeping bags can be filled with natural down or synthetic material, both of which have advantages and disadvantages.
Down-filled sleeping bags
Down sleeping bags are filled with the fine under-feathers or “down” of geese or ducks.
Down keeps ducks and geese warm by creating thousands of tiny air pockets that trap warm air and effectively retain heat, and the same principle applies to down-filled sleeping bags.
Unlike bulky synthetic sleeping bags, down bags can be compressed into a much smaller, lighter package, making them easier and less unwieldy to carry in a backpack.
The main disadvantage of down is that it readily soaks up moisture. When the feathers become damp, they get waterlogged, and all their insulating properties are lost. Once wet, down takes much longer to dry than polyester fibre, making down sleeping bags most suitable for camping in very cold but dry conditions.
Like most natural materials, down lasts much longer than synthetic, as long as it’s properly cared for.
Synthetic-filled sleeping bags
Synthetic fillings are man-made, mostly from polyester fibre, which is the most common form of insulation used when making sleeping bags.
Synthetic sleeping bags are cheaper, easier to keep clean, and need less maintenance than the down-filled equivalent. Also, synthetic fillings retain around half their insulating capacity when wet, unlike down-filled sleeping bags, which don’t perform as well.
The main downside to synthetic fillings is that they don’t retain heat as well as natural duck or goose down. A synthetic sleeping bag is not the best choice if you want to travel light, as they tend to be bulkier and heavier than down-filled bags. That’s because polyester fibre doesn’t work as efficiently as down in a similar temperature range, so more filling is required.
Finally, although cheaper to buy, synthetic sleeping bags tend not to last as well as down bags. So, you may find that you need to replace your synthetic sleeping bag more frequently than you would if you spent more on a down bag.
Sleeping bag season ratings
When choosing a sleeping bag, two important considerations are the time of the year that you’re planning on taking a camping trip and how susceptible you are to the cold.
Sleeping bags have different season and comfort ratings to give you an idea of when each bag is best suited for use and in what kind of temperatures the bag will perform most effectively.
Season 1 sleeping bags
Season 1 sleeping bags are designed for use in hot weather or when you’re camping overseas in warmer climates.
These are lightweight bags that are compact and easy to transport.
Season 2 sleeping bags
Season 2 sleeping bags are designed to be used in the late spring to early autumn months of the year and are usually bought as general camping sleeping bags.
Season 3 sleeping bags
Season 3 sleeping bags are intended to be used in the early spring to late autumn months and are also popular for mild winter camping.
These sleeping bags are typically bought for use on school camping expeditions and Duke of Edinburgh trips.
Season 4 sleeping bags
These are thick sleeping bags, typically insulated with down.
You can use season 4 sleeping at any time of the year, but especially in the winter months when the temperature falls below freezing.
Season 5 sleeping bags
Season 5 sleeping bags are also referred to as expedition bags and are intended for use in the high mountains and when extreme conditions are expected.
Sleeping bag comfort ratings
Of course, you must be warm enough when you’re sleeping under canvas or in a caravan, but it’s also important that you’re comfortable too. As well as a season rating, you’ll find that sleeping bags usually have a comfort rating and an extreme rating too.
Comfort ratings are intended to give you a good chance of choosing a bag that suits your body temperature. So, if you’re especially susceptible to the cold, go for a bag with a higher comfort rating.
Extreme ratings are intended to give you a measure of survival temperature in very harsh conditions.
Weight and packed size
If you intend to simply pack your kit in your car or camper van, the sleeping bag’s weight and pack size is probably not that important to you. However, if you want to go backpacking or prefer to travel light, it’s well worth looking at the sleeping bag’s weight and size once it’s packed.
Note that if you need a thick sleeping bag, a compression sack can considerably reduce the bag’s size once it’s packed.
Women’s sleeping bags
Believe it or not, you can buy gender-specific sleeping bags!
Generally, women’s sleeping bags tend to be more technical in design and are styled to provide a snug fit with better insulation for the female figure. Women’s sleeping bags are usually narrow at the shoulders so that they trap warm air, and they also offer more space for a curvier body shape.
Children’s sleeping bags
Kids’ sleeping bags are generally shorter in length than adult bags so that the bag is well insulated and warm.
Right-hand or left-hand zip?
A detail that might at first appear minor is on what side the sleeping bag’s zip is situated. However, it can be very awkward to fasten a zip if it’s on the wrong side for you.
Remember: a left-hand zip is for right-handed people, whereas a right-hand zip is for left-handed people.
You may find that you can take two single sleeping bags with opposing zips on some square (envelope) sleeping bags and fasten them together to create a double sleeping bag.
An insulated zip baffle prevents heat from escaping through the zip and reduces heat loss.
A zip cover covers the zip and fastens with Velcro to prevent the zip from coming undone when you’re asleep.
Sleeping bag liners
If you want to extend your sleeping bag’s life, a sleeping bag liner is a handy addition to your kit. Liners come in cotton or silk.
The liner is designed to keep the inside of the bag clean so that you don’t need to clean it frequently. A sleeping bag liner can also keep you extra cosy in cold climates or be used in isolation in very warm weather when your sleeping bag would make you too hot.
A sleeping bag is a pretty bulky, space-sapping item of camping gear, especially if you want to travel light or you’re backpacking.
So, a compression sack can be used to squash the bag into a much smaller pack, often reducing the volume of the sleeping bag by as much as a third.
Compression sacks are also water-resistant, helping to keep the bag nice and dry if you’re carrying it hung from your rucksack.
A few features to look out for …
When choosing your sleeping bag, there are a few important features to look out for:
- Baffles: Baffles are compartments that hold the bag’s filling so that it’s evenly distributed.
- Inner lining: Nylon and polyester are better than cotton because they don’t trap moisture.
- Outer shell: Outer shells are usually made of rip-stop nylon, which is highly durable. You may also find Dryloft used, which is a breathable, water-resistant fabric.
- Hood: During cold nights, much of your body heat is lost through the top of your head. A sleeping bag with a hood-shaped top with a drawstring closure allows you to pull the hood tightly around your face for extra warmth.
- Draft collar: An insulated draft collar fitted to the hood’s base helps prevent body heat from escaping and keeps the cold out around your shoulders and neck. Most draft collars have a drawstring, too.
- Inside pockets: Inner pockets are often included near the top of the sleeping bag and are useful for safely storing your valuables.
There’s a lot to consider when choosing a sleeping bag, but it’s important to get it right.
Use my guide to help make sure that you pick the right sleeping bag for your needs and look forward to a warm and comfortable camping experience.
If you have any other tips on choosing a great sleeping bag, please share them with us in the comments box below.
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