Selecting the Right Sleeping Bag
Getting a good night’s sleep in the outdoors can make or break a trip. It’s not very fun to dog out on the trail because you weren’t able to sleep the night before. So it’s worth your time to find the right sleeping bag before you head out into the wilds. Here are some basic things to consider before purchasing that new sleeping bag.
Key Questions to Ask About Sleeping Bags
Before buying your bag, evaluate your needs. If you are a cold sleeper (meaning you can’t get warm to save your life) get a bag that is good down to temperatures 5 to 10 degrees colder than you anticipate camping in. If you are a warm sleeper (one who throws the covers off in the middle of the night), you can probably get away with a higher temperature rating.
The second question to ask yourself is what kind of climate you will encounter on most of your hikes. There is no reason to carry a heavy 20-degree bag if you are only going to camp in summer. If you hike in a dry climate, go with a down bag because the chances of getting wet are slim. For chronically wet climates, synthetic is still your best choice. And if you’re planning to tackle arctic cold, you’ll need a heavy duty bag, regardless of weight. An example is a mummy bag that provides less airspace to heat and a hood that covers your head. If you don’t want to buy multiple bags for different seasons, consider using a mid-range summer bag and adding a liner. These can easily add 10 to 20 degrees in warmth to your bag.
One caveat: a great sleeping bag on a cheap sleeping pad won’t do much for you on cold nights. Take a look at complete sleeping systems rather than just at sleeping bags, or develop your own system of combined bag and pad.
A final question is the comfort of the bag. If you are the type of person who doesn’t like to feel confined, you will probably prefer a rectangular or semi-rectangular shape of bag. These bags allow movement but weigh significantly more than a mummy. Although mummy bags are lighter weight, they can make you feel claustrophobic. Zipper lengths vary. Super ultralight bags have a half or three quarter zipper to hold down weight. But again, this can add to claustrophobic feelings for some people.
Down vs. Synthetic
Sleeping bags come in two common categories: down and synthetic. This refers to the fill material used to give the bag its insulating properties. Very simply, the differences break down like this:
Down is super light weight and highly compressible, making it ideal for the ultra lighter. Pound for pound, this is the warmest option available. The drawback to down is that it doesn’t do well when it gets wet. If weight is a primary concern for you, however, don’t worry about the down wetting out. You can find one with a waterproof, breathable shell.
Synthetic insulators like Quallofil, Polyester, or Primaloft are all good insulators but tend to be bulky and heavier than down. Monofiliment insulators are a great way to get uniform insulation throughout a bag. Synthetics also tend to insulate better than down in wet conditions, so they make a great all-around bag.
Recommended Sleeping Bag Brands
North Face is always a good choice in bags. Big Agnes makes a sleeping system that has no insulation on the underside of the bag and a Primaloft insulated air mattress inserts in a sleeve. This allows for lighter weight and voluminous size (for those restless sleepers who like to move). The only negative is you may notice cold seeping up from the bottom on those chillier nights. Western Mountaineering makes some great lightweight bags, and Montbell makes several bags that stretch with your movements.
For a unique system, you might want to check out the Nunatak down backcountry blanket. It is in essence an ultralight, rectangular sleeping bag that uses a Velcro fastening system to attach seams instead of zippers. It makes a great option for coupling bags (for couples who don’t want to sleep apart), is rated to around 20 degrees, and weighs less than 2 pounds each.
As always, there are great product reviews and comparisons for sleeping bags at http://www.backpacker.com. Taking the time to evaluate options will pay off when you awake well-rested to tackle another hard day on the trail.