Is it time for you to get a new sleeping bag?

Maybe your current sleeping bag is showing the signs of wear and tear?   Or you want to upgrade to a warmer or lighter sort of sleeping bag?  Possibly, this could be your first ever purchase of a sleeping bag (which means you could be a little amazed by the variety on the market).

Before purchasing a sleeping bag what are some things you should consider?  Read on as I will help answer some of your buying questions.  Here are some tips you should consider.

Temperature Rating

Sleeping bag in cold weather

So what is a sleeping bag temperature rating? A sleeping bag temperature rating is the “best guess” of the manufacturer as to how warm the bag is for the “average person.”   No rating can be 100% accurate as consideration must be given to the users age, metabolism, weight, and how each person deals with differing temperatures.

When shopping for a sleeping bag, a simple “rule of thumb” is to add 10-15° degrees to the actual temperature rating. What this means is that if you buy a sleeping bag that is rated to 20° degrees, you should assume the bag only works to temperatures of 30-35° degrees.

While this rule of thumb isn’t applicable to everyone, or every sleeping bag, it is still a good rule to follow. The reason this is a good rule is because a sleeping bag that is a “bit too warm” is easy to cool off (just unzip the bag a bit). In contrast, there’s nothing you can effectively do to warm a sleeping bag that is simply “too cold.”

Seasonal based Sleeping Bags Ratings

There is one very important personal consideration you should make before even looking at the temperature rating on your prospective sleeping bag. Do you typically experience the temperature as hotter, colder, or the same as those around you? Needless to say, heating and cooling our house becomes a very interesting task and we often choose diametrically different sleeping bags for the same camping trip.

In considering your own “heat rating”, think back on your life and ask yourself, “Do I usually need more clothes and blankets than everyone else or am I running around in shorts when other people are wearing winter coats?” If you exist somewhere in the middle, the typical temperature ratings on a sleeping bag should aptly apply to you and your needs. If, however, you are one of those extreme people, you may want to alter your interpretation of these ratings slightly.

sleeping bag - temperature scale

Summer Ratings – If you are planning to camp predominantly in summer months or in warm climates, you will want to find a sleeping bag with a summer rating. A three-season bag may be a little too warm for your needs and a winter bag will just be ridiculously hot.

Humidity is a very special environmental consideration to make here. If you are camping somewhere hot and humid, the summer sleeping bag should be best for your needs. However, places without humidity can actually get very cold in the overnight hours. Places like these may require you to bring a three-season sleeping bag.

Typically speaking, a summer sleeping bag is one which has been rated for 35+ degrees Celsius or 95+ degrees Fahrenheit.

Three-Season Ratings – Three-season sleeping bags are best suited for use in late spring, summer, and early autumn. Again, location is very important here. A summer night in the Arctic is very different from a summer night in Arizona and both are very different from a summer night in Brazil.

Typically speaking, a three-season bag is rated for comfort and safety in the range of 10 to 35 degrees Celsius or 50 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. If you are planning to camp in spring, summer, and fall, but will do some of your summer camping in 35+ degrees Celsius you should consider purchasing a secondary, summer-rated bag.

Winter Rating – Though you may be able to use a three-season sleeping bag on a sultry summer night by opening up its zippers to keep you cool, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to safely use a three-season bag for winter camping. If you are camping in the winter, it is very important that you get the right kind of sleeping bag for the temperature you will be experiencing. Safety is actually at stake in these situations, as hypothermia can set in when you are asleep and you may never be aware that it is happening.

A proper winter sleeping bag will be rated as useful for less than 10 degrees Celsius or 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Levels of Sleeping Bags 

sleeping bags - levels

You might see on a sleeping bag, 3 levels of comfort rating and this is based on the EN 13537 rating, which means it’s the official European standard for the labeling of sleeping bags.

Comfort – that’s what a standard night sleep would be like for a ‘standard’ woman, because women need more insulation than men. It’s the warmth level that women would like for a comfortable night’s sleep.

Limit of comfort – This is the lowest temperature that a ‘standard’ man would need for a comfortable night’s sleep. I am not sure what constitutes a ‘standard’ man, or woman (as above mentions) but it assumes you are not sleeping naked and have some insulation underneath you.

Extreme – This is the coldest temperature you can survive in, in this particular bag without freezing to death.  Now under the standard EN13537 for sleeping bag ratings, they classify this ‘extreme’ rating as follows, “a strong sensation of cold has to be expected and there is a risk of health damage due to hypothermia”. Of course, you shouldn’t be relying on any sleeping bag to save you from hypothermia, and use this as a guide only.

Which Sleeping Bag to Choose?

sleeping bag - which to chose?

Which sleeping bag you choose depends entirely on what type of camping you do. But below are some suggestions to follow:

  • For general three-season camping in the mountains of the Western US, most people will want a synthetic sleeping bag with a temperature rating of 20 degrees, or less. Synthetic bags provide simpler cleaning and don’t become useless when wet.
  • For ultra-light backpacking and other activities where every ounce and cubic inch matters, get a three-season goose down sleeping bag (rated to 20 degrees or less) and a waterproof stuff sack.
  • Lightweight sleeping bags are ideal for bikers and anyone who camps in warm weather climates where chilly nights are infrequent to non-existent.
  • For winter camping, there’s only one choice. Buy a high-quality goose down sleeping bag with a temperature rating of at least -20 degrees. For those winter camping in the Northern US or the mountains, get a -40 degree bag for both comfort and safety reasons. 

Synthetic or Down filled?

sleeping bag - down or synthetic

Another big choice will be the filling for the bag.   Do you choose synthetic or down? What is the difference?

Down Filled Sleeping Bag

  • Lighter
  • Longer lasting than any synthetic when cared for
  • Expensive
  • No insulation when wet
  • Highly compressible so takes up very little room
  • Warmer than any synthetic available
  • More difficult to care for
  • Not hypoallergenic

Synthetic Filled Sleeping Bag

  • Cheaper than its same rated down counterpart
  • Heavier and bulky
  • Has insulation properties when wet
  • Easy care
  • Hypoallergenic
  • Not as long lasting – will deteriorate over time

Sleeping bags with Zippers

sleeping bag - zippers

Zippers may not seem like that big of a consideration, but they are. If you are looking at a summer or a three-season sleeping bag be sure to find one which features a zipper that can open at the top or the bottom. This will allow you to create ventilation pockets which allow air to move through without your having to open your sleeping bag completely.

If you are looking for a winter sleeping bag or plan to use your three-season bag in slightly cool conditions, you should try to find one which features an insulated draft tube on one or both sides of the zipper. This small ribbing of insulated fabric serves to stop air from moving through the zipper and into your sleeping bag.

Finally, left-handed individuals may want to take great care in selecting their sleeping bags. You may be surprised to know that many companies offer the same sleeping bags in two different styles – those with zippers on the right hand side and those with zippers on the left hand side.

The Shape of Your Sleeping Bag

For me, aside from temperature rating, the shape of my sleeping bag is the most important consideration. The shape of your bag will not only determine your relative comfort level, but also your warmth. I am someone who is usually very cold, which makes it very important that I am able to preserve my body heat in cool conditions.

Mummy Shape

sleeping bag - mummy shape

Conventional Shape

sleeping bag - conventional shape

Sleeping bags are, generally, rectangular or mummy-shaped (other options exist but they are outside of the norm so we will not be exploring them here). Rectangular sleeping bags allow you much more room to move around in the night. These are best for people who just cannot sleep in one position. Someone with a bad back, can appreciate the importance of being able to effortlessly move from their back to their side in the middle of the night.

Mummy-shaped bags are much more difficult to move around in. In essence, they are formed to the general shape of a human body. These are not ideal for people with other-than-average body shapes or those who need to move around a lot in the night. However, they do a much better job of trapping your body heat inside of them, making them perfect for winter camping.

Individual Fit

This goes together with the shape.  It’s about finding the bag that suits you. Not only do bags come in different shapes, but different sizes too. Some bags are different lengths to cater for tall or short people.

Other bags are based on gender – some female bags might be narrow at the top, but a little wider at the hips. Typically (but not always), women are considered “cold sleepers” and some bags cater for women. Some woman sleeping bags include extra insulation. A pink colored sleeping bag doesn’t make it a women’s sleeping bag.

With other bags, regardless of gender, the fit of the bag will depend on the individual, so trying the bag out in a store is a good idea (if that is possible).

How to Care for a Sleeping Bag

After you purchase a sleeping bag, you will want to preserve your investment by caring and cleaning your sleeping bag.  Cleaning and caring for a sleeping bag is fairly simple. Here is a quick summary.

  • Never store a wet sleeping bag. Always make sure it is dry before storing it.
  • For goose down bags, never store it in a stuff sack. Store it in a larger bag, such as a laundry bag. Synthetic bags are more forgiving, and can be stored – at least for a while – inside a stuff sack. But synthetic sleeping bags are still best stored in larger bags to prevent insulation compression.
  • If you need to wash your sleeping bag, use a front-load washing machine, with little soap and cold water. Tumble dry low.
  • Never dry clean a sleeping bag, especially a bag filled with goose down.