How to Choose the Right Sleeping Bag
Deciding between the right sleeping bag and the wrong sleeping bag is the difference between having a wonderful experience in the backcountry and having a miserable one. Sleeping bags are a very important ingredient to any multi-day trip outdoors. Whether car camping or sleeping high on a cliff, having the right materials between you and the elements is a decision that should not be taken lightly. With all the colors, sizes, styles and materials these days, it's important to know what you are buying and how it will benefit you.
Sleeping Bag Quick Tips:
- Every sleeping bag has a different purpose, and it is important to match up the right sleeping bag to your activity of choice. The most important way to categorize a sleeping bag is by its rated temperature. Match up the bags rated temperature with the coolest temperatures that you expect to experience at night, then give yourself 10 insurance degrees to play it safe.
- When choosing a sleeping bag for an adventure, the most important choice is down or synthetic insulation. Neither choice is ideal for all situations, and both have significant drawbacks and advantages. Down filled bags are light, compactable, and easy to maintain. However, if a down sleeping bag gets wet, the bag will lose all of its insulating properties and the user will be cold. Many manufacturers now make down bags with impervious outer materials to prevent moisture from negating the down's magical insulating properties. Down bags work well in dry climates and cold winter climates where moisture isn't an issue.
- Synthetic filled sleeping bags are slightly heavier than down bags and they compress slightly less than their natural fiber relatives. If a synthetic bag gets wet, you will stay warm and the sleeping bag will maintain its insulating properties, ensuring you a safe and moderately comfortable night sleep. Synthetic bags work well in humid and wetter climates where moisture can be expected.
- Select the right size, and don't settle for a bag that doesn't fit. Most sleeping bags are sized by height. If you are 5'8" and you select a sleeping bag that is sized for someone who is 6'3", you are wasting space, energy and weight. A sleeping bag should fit close to your actual height. It is nice to have extra room at the bottom for some clothes and possibly a hot water bottle, but not too much room that you are heating extra space and being inefficient.
- Select the right shape. Mummy bags and rectangular bags are the most common shapes. Mummy bags are the most efficient for colder climates and rectangular bags are best suited for warmer climates and can be used as a blanket. Women's specific bags are cut differently than regular bags, and they sometimes have a bit more insulation because women's thermal regulation works differently than men's.
To start, ask yourself these easy questions to narrow the field.
- Where are you going?
There are an infinite number of destinations, and chances are that we carry a sleeping bag that will fit your needs. For example, a good summer sleeping bag for backpacking on the East coast would be a +40 degree F bag. A good winter sleeping bag for Alaska in the winter would be a -40 degree F bag. Be sure you know the climate that you will be primarily traveling in. If its on the west side of the Cascades, a synthetic bag may be your best bet because of all the moisture, and on the other end if you are hiking in the Nevada desert (remember, nights in the desert are cold!) a down filled bag could be a good choice. If you are a well rounded outdoor enthusiast, try to find the bag that most fits your activities. If you are a backpacker in mild climates, try to choose a bag that is compact and lightweight. If you are a mountaineer in cold climates, the temperature rating will be an important factor influencing your decision.
- How cold will it be at night?
A properly functioning sleeping bag maximizes efficiency by trapping non-moving, body-heated air inside the insulation, separating the user from the outside elements. Determine the minimum temperatures that you will experience at night in the backcountry and use that as a guide in choosing which type of sleeping bag. Do yourself a favor and give yourself some insurance by selecting a bag with a temperature rating that slightly exceeds the low end of the temperature range you expect to experience.
- What is the best fit for my body and sleeping style?
In order for a sleeping bag to accomplish its mission of keeping its user warm on a adventure, the bag needs to fit the user properly. Sleeping bags are measured in three ways; insulation type, temperature rating, and height. Select the correct fill and temperature rating with the guidelines above. For height, select the height that corresponds closest to your height. Select a bag that is at or slightly above your height; selecting a bag that is too short in order to save weight (a few grams) is not recommended. Another way to select a sleeping bag is to determine your sleeping style. If you are a mover at night or a stomach sleeper, a wider bag may be a good fit. If you are strictly a back sleeper, make sure that your bag is long enough. If you are extremely claustrophobic; a mummy-style bag may not be the best choice for you.
- How can I maximize the performance of my bag?
Sleeping bags, if well cared for, can last for 10 years or more. Both down and synthetic are made to last, but many factors are involved in the lifespan of your equipment. Start taking care of your bag even before you set out for your adventure. Make sure that your sleeping bag; be it down or synthetic, is not stored in a stuff sack. At home, make a place to hang your sleeping bags in a cool, dry place. If sleeping bags are stored in a compressed stuff sack, the insulation will be affected and compressed greatly over time. When in the field, make sure to keep you sleeping bag aired out; when you have a few moments lay out your bag in a dry place in order to evaporate some of the moisture that it absorbs from your body at night, especially in winter. Keep in mind that prolonged exposure to the sun will damage the materials. If the temperatures are below freezing, be sure to air out your sleeping bag. The frozen water molecules inside the insulation will change from solid to vapor without becoming a liquid through a transition called sublimation. On a week long winter climbing trip, a sleeping bag can end up gaining pounds in frozen moisture!
Caring for the bag once back home after a trip is an integral part of the life cycle of your sleeping bag. We don't recommend that you wash your sleeping bag after each weekend outing (unless you need to), but a good washing will help maintain the loft of both a down and synthetic bag. Make sure that you wash the bag with specific down wash soap that you can purchase at Altrec.com. Other soaps can leave residue behind and hinder the life of the bag. Wash the bag on gentle cycle in a front loading washing machine only. Don't be afraid to put your sleeping bag in a drier, just be sure that you select and run the drier on LOW heat. Throw some clean tennis balls into the drier to create funky beats as well as give the down an opportunity to separate, thus drying faster. If the drier doesn't fully dry the down after once cycle, don't put the sleeping bag through another dry cycle; simply let the bag air dry completely. If the bag is not dried completely and then stored, it will mold and be virtually useless and smellier than before.
Down vs. Synthetic
As long as the world keeps spinning, someone will continue the battle of "Down vs. Synthetic. We have done our best to separate the two and give you the pros and cons of each. Which will work best for you? Most likely either will work; one just may work "better".
- It has a stupendous "weight to warmth" ratio, meaning that it is extremely efficient in terms of insulating for as light as it is.
- It lasts longer than synthetic; depending on care, possibly years longer.
- It is lighter than synthetic, and it compresses very small to save pack space.
- It's a natural fiber.
- If it gets wet, you get wet and cold. It takes days to thoroughly dry out down insulation.
- It is more expensive up front at the time of purchase, but it will last longer, so you are getting your money's worth.
- It dries quickly.
- You will stay somewhat warm even if it gets wet.
- It is non-allergenic.
- It is less expensive up front at the time of purchase.
- It doesn't last as long as down.
- It is slightly heavier than down.
- It is not as compactable as down.
Before checking out for the night, be sure that your "sleep system" is in full effect.
"The Sleep System"
Make sure that you have all of the ingredients for a comfortable night.
- Before heading to sleep, be sure that you've eaten a good meal and are hydrated. Digestion generates heat and will help you maintain an uninterrupted sleep.
- Your sleeping pad is almost as important as the sleeping bag itself. Without a sleeping pad, the sleeping bag can't work its magic. By the power of conduction the cold ground - even in summer - will rob you and your sleeping bag of heat. Different sleeping pads have different temperature ratings, but that is not as important as having a sleeping pad in the first place. Many options are available; just make sure it gets you off the ground.
- The clothing you wear inside the bag should be dry and can provide some type of insulation depending on the conditions; the wives tales about having to sleep naked for the bag to work are farce; sleep in whatever is comfortable for the conditions.
- A tent will add about 10 degrees of warmth onto your system; a bivy sack will add about half that.
- Try your best to not breathe into the sleeping bag or sweat too heavily; water, even in the form of vapor, can negate the warming properties of the bag.