Best Backpacking Sleeping Bag: What Every Hiker Should Know
There are a vast number of choices in backpacking sleeping bags. Hopefully, this hub will assist you in narrowing down your choices as well as offering you a list of the best ones out there at prices that won't break the bank.
My friends regale in telling stories about what a cheap woman I tend to be. I never feel ashamed because I find it eminently sensible and beyond reproach, but at times, I apparently cross over into what others see as unusual efforts to save fifty cents on lunch. I think these friends may simply be tired of going to the same “El Cheapo Burrito” place day after day with me, and this is confirmed when they acknowledge that if I really were the cheapest cheapwad there is, I would simply make my own lunch.
Yeah, ok, so I like to save money, but I don’t like to own junk just because it was the cheapest option. Sometimes that means a compromise between quality and cost, and other times it means I deal with a little more inconvenience as long as all my requirements for functionality are met. Sometimes there simply is no value in buying a cheaper option when in the long run the most expensive item’s quality determines the real value, and then paying that price is well worth it.
For me, this all applies to backpacking gear. There are some items that simply aren’t worth buying the most expensive, most durable or lightest available, and let’s face it, getting fully rigged for backpacking becomes an expensive prospect. What was once one of the more inexpensive activities can now cost you well over $1,000….just for yourself! What’s worth it, and what isn’t?
Aside from all the decisions about individual pieces of gear, you have the choice of what to spend on each type of gear that you decide to buy. I talk about that in a broader way in How to Save Money on Camping and Hiking Equipment. I’m going to focus on how to find the best sleeping bag here.
Things to Consider When Looking for the Best Sleeping Bag
One of the most gratifying intangibles about backpacking in my experience is making myself comfortable in the backcountry, so obviously shopping for backpacking sleeping bags is something I take seriously. There are a lot of things that contribute to comfort, from the weight of your pack to the fit of your boots. Sleeping in comfort is frequently elusive for many backpackers, and is one of the primary barriers to broader acceptance of this activity. If you set your expectations somewhere below sleeping on a piece of NASA technology memory foam, but above freezing while sleeping on the bare rocks, you know what you can provide for yourself. One of the key components of this is your backpacking sleeping bag.
Back in the old days of yesteryear, when I used to slog around in the woods with a thick, cottony roll to sleep in, I managed to find comfort at night, as long as it didn’t get too cold. I would tie that thing to my external frame pack with nylon rope. It was huge and heavy for the comfort it provided, and it was unwieldy, requiring a great deal of space to be affixed to my pack. My current sleeping bag provides greater insulation in a 5” x 11” package that weighs a small fraction of the old cotton-stuffed monster I used as a kid.
So I just hit on a couple key features of backpacking comfort that requires some analysis on your part:
- What will my environment(s) be like?
- How long and how far will I go?
- What does it take for me to have a comfortable night’s sleep?
The answers to these basic questions will determine what bag you get. Sometimes the answers will indicate multiple bags if your travels take you to hot and cold environments, and how far/long you go will determine if you need a lighter, more compressible bag. Comfort is a factor that relates to both of the environment and distance/duration questions. Obviously, if you travel in alpine regions, your bag choice will be a bag with greater insulation, requiring you to know how cold it can get at night where you will be. And yes, you can be too hot to get a comfortable night’s sleep, so being accurate about the temperature rating of a bag is very important. And do remember that you can affect your comfort by what you wear to bed, so a bag rated for higher temperatures than your environment is mitigated by wearing insulating clothes in the bag. Your tent (or lack thereof) will also contribute to this choice. Finally, a word on common sense: know your gear and your environment. Trying to push a piece of gear beyond its specifications may result in a lack of comfort. Check the weather before you go, so you can at least know you probably won’t sleep well due to overnight temperatures.
A Word About Gender
It is now known that men and women are different. If this is news to you, you
are probably not married, nor are you yet ready for that big step. One of the
differences that you may see is that women’s bodies are shaped differently from
men’s. Again, if this is news, refer to the line above. Women also tend to
sleep colder, and you can be forgiven for not knowing that. If you happen to be
a man or a woman, you will be happy to learn that there is a bag designed just
for your special body type. Women’s sleeping bags are narrower at the shoulders
and wider at the hips. In some models, there is additional insulation at the
hips and sometimes at the feet. Bear in mind that these are considered
“specialized” bags, and may sometimes carry a higher price.
Lightweight Sleeping Bag
Insulation is a key factor in the price of backpacking sleeping bags, and it comes in down and synthetic. Many of us search high and low for a lightweight sleeping bag. Your bag’s insulating abilities is caused by loft (the number of cubic inches an ounce of material will displace). A bag with greater loft will retain your body’s heat better than one with lesser loft.
Backpacking Sleeping Bags
Best Down Backpacking Sleeping Bags
Down Backpacking Sleeping Bags
Down comes from the underplumage of ducks and geese. Goose down has greater loft. Down has significant loft, and is generally better than synthetic. Therefore, down is a better insulator per given weight than synthetic materials. Down is also harder to come by than synthetic material, so be prepared for higher prices for down-filled backpacking sleeping bags.
Down is also highly compressible, which allows you to often stuff your sleeping bag in the main compartment of your backpack, rather than attaching it to the outside.
Over time and repeated use, down will also maintain its loft better than synthetic materials, which may allow it to be a better value over time than its synthetic counterpart. I challenge this point a little as I have not observed a loss in loft of the premium synthetic materials filling some of the bags I’ve used.
So far, down sounds great, and may be worth the greater prices, but there’s another factor to consider, which is what happens when it gets wet. In most backpacking environments, moisture is the bane of your existence. You need water to stay hydrated, yet exposure of your gear to water can have negative results. Down-filled gear loses its loft when wet, and takes a long time to dry, so if your travels expose you to rain and/or high humidity, you run the risk of reducing the ability of your down-filled gear to keep you warm. Also bear in mind that moisture can collect in your tent as you sleep, and, in some cases, it can “rain” in your tent. Manufacturers of down-filled bags know this, and have now made the shell of the down-filled sleeping bag water resistant, such that water will bead on the outside of your sleeping bag for a while before seeping in and affecting loft. This raises another concern: maintenance. Since the shells of down-filled bags are water treated, they need to be re-treated over time.
Finally, I suggest avoiding down if you have any sort of allergy to goose down.
Synthetic Backpacking Sleeping Bags
In wet regions, synthetic-filled backpacking sleeping bags are a better choice. Their insulation is not affected by moderate moisture. Beyond that, the synthetics are almost as light as down, less expensive and hypoallergenic. The downside comes in when you consider compressibility, and what happens as a result of compressing it. Synthetic materials simply cannot be compressed as much as down, and each time you do, you begin to reduce its loft. As I mentioned, I have seen little effect of repeated compressions of high quality synthetic bags, and I also take care to store my synthetic bags unstuffed when not in use. Paying for the higher quality fill and leaving the bags unstuffed (uncompressed) while in storage in between trips seems to have fully mitigated this problem. But how do you know what kind of synthetic fill you’re getting?
If the bag with synthetic feels really soft and flexible to the point of feeling like down, it is likely the bag is filled with shorter fibers that are more likely to lose loft over time, but are more compressible. If the bag has a stiffer feel to it, it is likely to have a long filament fill that will probably last as long as you want it to, but will be less compressible.
What do I use?
Experience and my environment has guided me to buy long-filament synthetic backpacking sleeping bags with a temperature rating a little above what I will be exposed to. I sleep in insulating clothes and with a hot water bottle, if the temperature indicates it. You’d be absolutely amazed at how much comfort you can get out of a hot water bottle in your sleeping bag, and wearing insulating clothes to bed is only what you are already wearing when you go to bed. Just don’t take it off.
If you have any comments or information you'd like to share about your own experience with backpacking sleeping bags, please do so below!