Sleeping Bags

[NOTE: this post is about proper sleeping bags, excluding liners, blanket systems, and quilts]

I’m currently in the market for a new sleeping bag. New gear! So much to consider. I’ve used the same bag for over 10 years. My current bag is a Coleman mummy that my parents bought me when I first became a Boy Scout. It’s a good 3 season bag, probably 25 or 30 degrees F. I’ve found, though, that it’s not as light or as packable as I’d like. This hasn’t been a problem so far I’ve just used my liner on long trips. But now that I want to do more 3 season backpacking, I figure it’s time to replace the bag.

There are really 5 factors that go into choosing a sleeping bag:

1) Cut – Most backpackers will opt for a mummy style since it saves on weight and volume. If you’re just car camping you might go with a rectangular or semi-rectangular cut.

2) Fill – Down or synthetic? A tough choice for some, others swear by their choice. The problem is, there are zealots on both sides. Down keeps you warmer with less filling, is lighter, more packable, and generally lasts longer than synthetic filling. It is a little amazing that we still haven’t developed a fiber that matches down feathers in these respects. That said, down doesn’t do as well as synthetic fiber in damp conditions and down bags are more expensive. Lots of things to weigh (!). But if you have a mild allergy to down feathers (like me) the choice is easy for reasons beyond such calculations.

3) Temperature Rating – When will the bag be used? Summer-only (rating 35 degrees and up), 3 season (15 to 35 degrees), or also in colder conditions (below 15 degrees)? Every bag comes with some sort of manufacturer’s temp. rating. The accuracy of these ratings will vary according to sex, body size, tent style, whether you’re sharing a tent, whether you’re using a bag liner, what style of sleeping pad you’re using, etc. For instance, I tend to sleep warm, so I can usually sleep comfortably even if it drops 10 degrees below the bag’s rating. There are also independent ratings that help keep manufacturers honest about their own ratings…because sometimes the bags don’t turn out to be as warm as advertized.

4) Weight and Packability – Some bags pack better than others, and some are lighter than others. If you want a bag for backpacking, these two factors are especially important. The differences among bags are due to either the filling type or the shell. There can even be a great deal of variation among down bags or among sythetic bags, too – some down bags are heavier than other down bags and some sythetic blends weigh more than other synthetics. So even after deciding for (or against) a down bag it’s still important to pay attention to the weight specs.

5) Price – Simple enough. The problem is this: you can have a light bag, a cheap bag, or a warm bag – pick 2. If the price is held constant, as the temperature rating goes down, the weight goes up. If you want to stick with a low weight, as the temp. rating is warmer, the price goes up. And among bags with the same temp. rating, the lighter the bag, the more expensive. So these three factors – weight, rating, and price – are indirectly proportional.

I think I’ve settled on this bag – a mummy synthetic, with a medium temperature rating able to keep me warm even if it drops into the 20s, weighing about 3 lbs, with a pricetag of only $90 bucks.

Marmot Bag

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4 thoughts on “Sleeping Bags

  1. Probably too late for this to be useful advice, but you can buy a sleeping bag liner (there’s a “cocoon” silk one that adds 10 degrees F and weighs about 4 oz) to make your bag a little warmer. In the summer, you don’t want one that can stand arctic conditions, but if you wanted to stay out one last time late in the fall, you might find yourself, like me, wondering if a warmer bag would have been a smart choice. I find the bag liner and some wool clothes mean the best of both worlds. 🙂

    • I actually own a cocoon liner and a fleece bag that I use on its own in the hot summertime! I’ve been meaning to revisit this post. Back then I needed a proven but cheap (less than $100) bag that could take me out late into November and early in March, basically into the 20s. That bag works great for that purpose, and was cheap. But it’s heavy and not very packable. I’ve been reviewing other options and I think I’m going to try out a quilt sometime soon. I’m hesitant to buy down because of the money and because of the humid and wet conditions we often experience out here (nothing like you, but still tough for down). Maybe someday I’ll pull the cash together and go for it…I would like to have the option of bringing a down bag on any given trip, but I don’t want it to be my only option.

      • Hope I’m not bothering you, I love hiking, and I also love talking gear…

        They make “hydrophobic down” now. I’m not sure if it’s a DWR treatment (which maybe you could do at home?) or something more intense. I’d love to try it out, but I’m kind of skeptical. I love the idea of how small you can get a down bag in your pack, but I don’t really love the cost of the stuff!

        Also if you ever try it, I hear people saying in the summertime they’ll leave their sleeping bag at home and take a bag liner instead. I’d love to know how well that works, but most of the places I’ve camped recently are a bit too cold for that.

      • Hey, it’s great that you’re interested in my blog and chatting up the com box. I had this site back in 2010 with Google and let it die for 3 years, and am just now resurrecting it on WordPress.com. So you’re helping me get things going!

        I’m also skeptical of the waterproof or hydrophobic down. As I understand it different companies use different treatments, but they all treat the feathers themselves as opposed to the liner/cover. Until it’s more mainstream (and cheaper!) I doubt I’ll buy one. Hell, I doubt I’ll be able to afford a down bag anytime soon anyway!

        I grew up in NC and would never take a real sleeping bag out in the summer. At camp, on the trail, on kayaking trips, everywhere I took my cheap, $12 Coleman fleece liner. I finally threw it away two years ago and replaced it (now $17 http://www.amazon.com/Coleman-Stratus-Fleece-Sleeping-Bag-Liner/dp/B0009PUQM8/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1374965363&sr=8-1&keywords=coleman+fleece+liner). It worked great for me, but that was in North Carolina, in the hottest months of the year (May-August). Only on one occasion was I cold — in Grayson Highlands State Park in Western Virginia. It’s near VA’s highest peak, Mt Rogers, and we were on an open bald. The wind blew straight through our tent and it was chilly. Other than that the fleece liner worked great.

        I would pack a 30 degree bag for the rest of the year…it rarely got below 20 degrees even in the middle of winter. Up here in PA, though, I’ve found that camping in January requires a much warmer bag. I took a 0 degree bag out 3 winters ago and it got down to negative 6. I could tell the point in the middle of the night when it got colder than my bag’s rating…I’ll never forget that night. The following night was 4 above, and I slept much warmer.

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