Best Sleeping Bags For Hiking and Backpacking

Finding the best sleeping bags for the right temperatures and trail conditions is very important. Don’t know what to look for? Well, this guide should help you make that decision.

Selection: (Is it Fluffy Enough?)

Sleeping bags are measured in loft. Loft is basically how “fluffy” the bag is. How high is it when it is laying on the ground. The taller it is, the more air “pockets” or dead airspace there is and the warmer it will keep you.

Because of inconsistencies in the past of the temperature measurement of the best sleeping bags, there have been recent testing changes in the sleeping bag industry in America. The Europeans for a while have had a testing scheme that has proven to be consistent in how it determines a sleeping bag’s temperature range. It also gives more information by recognizing the fact that men and women have different opinions to what is a comfortable sleeping temperature. Some U.S. manufacturers of backpacking sleeping bags have adopted the European Norm (EN 13537) method of temperature testing. Without going into too much detail about how they arrive at these numbers, basically they test the best sleeping bags under strict guidelines using a clothed dummy wearing long underwear and a hat. Sensors on the dummy record temperature readings.

The New Tag: A tag using this new testing method shows:

  • EN Comfort Rating for Women: This is an outside air temperature that a typical women would stay comfortably warm.
  • EN Lower Limit Rating for Men: This is an outside air temperature that a typical man would stay comfortably warm.
  • EN “Extreme” Rating: This is an outside air temperature that the sleeping bag would still keep a woman alive. These ratings should not be taken too literally.

Take note that these numbers are based on the fact that you are wearing one layer of clothing and have a sleeping pad underneath the sleeping bag.

Don’t Remove This Tag Under Penalty of the Sleeping Bag Police:

If the sleeping bags you are looking at have not adopted the EN standard, don’t freak out. You can go by their temperature measurement. The only difference is that these measurements are to be used as a guide only and do not take into account the male/female difference. If you are like me and are always cold when you sleep, then get a sleeping bag with more loft and a lower temperature number. The lower the number, the colder the outside ambient temperature can be where the bag will keep you warm.

How Low Can You Go:

In either case, with the old measurement or the new EN, when choosing a bag, determine what type of climate and what time of year you will be using it the most. If you are in the mountains and only plan to hike Spring, Summer and Fall, then get a three season sleeping bag. Find the average lows for the coldest time of year that you will be backpacking and subtract 10 to 20 degrees and select a bag in that range. (Example: say that the average low in the mountains during the spring is 20 degrees Fahrenheit, then subtract 20 degrees and find a sleeping bag that is rated at 0 degrees. Here is a guideline chart to help:

Bag Type Temperature Rating (Fahrenheit)
Summer +40 to +60
Three Season Bag +10 to +40
Cold Weather -10 to + 10
Winter -10 and Below

Shapes/Styles:

There are three basic shapes of the best sleeping bags for hiking and backpacking:

  • Mummy: Mummy sleeping bags are cut wider at the shoulders and more narrow at the feet. These bags are the most “snug” fitting bags and thus are more efficient in keeping you warmer, because of the lack of airspace between your body and the bag. Because of their design, they are also the most lightweight. These bags also come with a hood with a drawstring which helps maintain heat around your head. BTW, up to 50% of heat loss from the body can come from the head.
  • Rectangular: These are just like the name implies. A big rectangle. Because of their shape, they tend to be the least efficient style of sleeping bag. There is a lot of space inside the bag for the body to heat up. Because of their heavy weight, they can be better suited for a “Car Camping” experience rather than a backpacking adventure. They do have the advantage of two bags being able to be zipped together and become a sleeping bag for a couple rather than one person. With this arrangement, a full or queen air mattress underneath really adds to a comfortable night sleep. (Again not recommended for the back country).

  • Semi-Rectangular: I call this the hybrid. This backpacking sleeping bag is rectangular at the head and then tapers down to the feet. With this shape, you get a bit more room, but not as much weight as a true rectangular sleeping bag. For those of us who are claustrophobic, like me. We can sleep a little better in a bag with more room in it and still get some benefit from the shape.

There are also some other shapes designed specifically for body types:

  • Woman’s: These tend to be more narrow at the shoulders. Wider at the hips as well as extra insulation in the upper body and foot box.
  • Kids’: These basically have “Kid Friendly” features such as: pockets for their “stuff”, a pocket to stuff and make a pillow at their head and a sleeping pad restraint system so that the pad stays in place all night.

Features:

  • Hood: as mentioned above with the Mummy Sleeping Bag, a hood with a drawstring can help retain body heat
  • Draft Tube/Draft Flap: This is a flap or tube that runs along side the zipper. This flap helps prevent heat loss. When selecting a hiking sleeping bag, verify that the flap is only sewn to the lining and not through the bag. Always test the zipper before purchasing to verify that the flap/tube does not interfere or get caught in the zipper path.
  • Draft Collar: This is a tube at the base of the hood. It “closes” off the area at the neck so that air does not escape. When trying out a bag, make sure that this tube is comfortable.
  • Foot Box: This is, as the name states, the area around the feet. Some sleeping bags have extra room in the foot box to hold your boots or water bottles.
  • Zipper: The zipper should have large teeth and should run smoothly. They should also not catch the fabric during use.
  • Pockets: Pockets can be an asset or a pain. If your bag comes with pockets, be careful with what you put in them. Also, before purchasing the bag, take note of the pockets locations. Do you want to roll over onto your keys or MP3 player in the middle of the night?
  • Length: If you are taller than the “average bear”, there are backpacking sleeping bags that come in longer lengths.

Materials:

Fill: There are two basic types of sleeping bag fills; Synthetic (polyester) and Down (insulating feathers of geese or ducks).

  • Goose Down Sleeping Bag: There is nothing with a better weight to warmth ratio than down. A Goose Down sleeping bag is extremely lightweight. The problem with down is if it ever gets wet, it loses its thermal capturing feature. Also, the drying time for down is extremely long. If your down sleeping bag gets wet on the trail late in the day, you are in for a cold night. Down is only for those most diligent in keeping their sleeping bag dry.
  • Synthetic: The best sleeping bags have been getting lighter and more efficient every year. They do weigh more than down bags, but if they do get wet, they retain more of their warming capabilities. In addition, they dry a lot faster than down. So, the trade-offs are weight, warmth and drying faster.

Additional Considerations:

  • Bivy (Bivouac) Sack: This is a waterproof/breathable outer shell for your sleeping bag. It can add 10 to 15 degrees rating to your sleeping bag. These are great if you like to sleep under the stars, because it keeps your bag dry.
    • Sleeping Bag Liner: These can also add 10 to 15 degrees rating to your bag. They can be a nice addition for a colder hike and are very lightweight.
    • Sleeping Pad: An imperative addition to your equipment. Sleeping pads are not just for cushioning and comfort, they are to give you insulation from the cold ground. Look for a closed cell construction. Besides cushioned pads there are also inflatable pads. These tend to be heavier than the cushion pad, but can be more comfortable.

      It is really a personal preference on which style you select. Remember to carry some type of a patch kit if you select the inflatable type. (This can be as simple as duct tape) A 3/8” thick pad is good for a three season hike, 1/2” thick for a winter or colder hike. Pads come in different lengths as well. If you are trying to save weight and it’s not a cold hike, select a 1/2 or 3/4 length pad instead of a full length.

    Tips:

    • If you drink a warm drink before you go to bed, this can aid in sleeping. Also, proper hydration is very important to a good nights sleep.
    • If you are sleeping inside a tent, this adds an additional layer of “insulation air” around you. This can add up to 10 degrees F. to your warmth.

    Taking Care of Your Sleeping Bag:

    Before getting into your backpacking sleeping bag, always shake it out a couple of times. This will help “fluff” it up and increase the airspace.

    When packing up your bag, always stuff the bag into your stuff bag. (Is that redundant?) Just don’t roll up and fold the sleeping bag, this will reduce the insulating properties faster.

    When not using your sleeping bag, do not leave it in a stuff bag, always hang it up or store it in a loose storage bag. If you leave it stored in a small bag, it can permanently compress the insulation.

    Remember that over time, from normal use, a hiking sleeping bag will lose it’s warming effectiveness. This is due to the fill becoming more compact. This causes the “air pockets” to diminish.

    Lastly, read and follow the care instructions from the Manufacturer. They make the best sleeping bags for hiking and backpacking and they know how to keep it in good shape.

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