Living in Seattle, there’s no shortage of outdoors enthusiasts; they’re everywhere. So it always amazes me when I run into someone claiming to be an avid backpacker who’s never moved beyond his $20 Walmart bag. While that type of “value bag” may work for someone who does the bulk of his camping in his backyard, these bags tend to be bulky, heavy, and provide insufficient insulation when the nights get cold. I just can’t imagine what it must be like to hike a mountain with a 6 lb bag hanging off the back of your pack. If you’re into backpacking, I can’t stress enough the importance of having a good, quality sleeping bag; there’s really no substitution.
So, if you’ve made the decision to upgrade your bag, it’s important to consider the following factors when choosing your bag:
Down vs. Synthetic
The insulation will make the biggest difference in your sleeping experience, so you’ll first want to decide if you want a down or synthetic bag. There are pros and cons to each, but it’s generally believed a down bag is better in most cases. The biggest drawback to down is the price; it will be more expensive. The other major con is that it can’t get wet. Sleeping bags keep you warm because the insulation lofts once it’s taken out of the stuff sack; the more loft a sleeping bag has, the warmer it will be. When down gets wet, the feathers clump together, which prevents them from lofting, and therefore, your insulation is gone. So, if you’ll be doing most of your camping in areas where water could potentially be a problem (i.e. very rainy areas), a down bag might not be your best choice. If, however, price and camping conditions aren’t an issue, there are several reasons to go with a down bag; mainly, it will be lighter in weight.
Down is assigned a fill rating typically somewhere between 600-800. 800 fill down, like in the Big Agnes Zirkel, is the best (and typically most expensive) because not only does it provide the most loft; it also packs down the smallest and weighs the least. That said, 600 fill down, the Sierra Designs Arrow Rock 15, is still lighter in weight than most synthetic bags of a comparable temperature rating.
Down bags aren’t for everyone, though. If you have budget constraints or have concerns about your bag getting wet, there are plenty of great synthetic bags out there to accommodate you without sacrificing too much space or weight. There are many different types of synthetic insulation, but you’ll want to watch out for cheap insulators like polyester. Climashield (Encampment), HeatSync (Big Dog & Dragonfly), Primaloft (Deja Vu), Polarguard, and Thermolite are all excellent synthetic insulators, so try to opt for a bag featuring one of these if you go the synthetic route.
Another reason many people choose synthetic over down is it’s easier to care for. While down bags require special cleaning solutions to wash, synthetic bags can almost always be washed in a standard washing machine with normal household detergent. While the maintenance may be easier, though, most synthetic fibers will break down more quickly than down, so if you’re looking for a good long-term option, you may want to reconsider a down bag.
Once you’ve determined the type of bag you want, you’ll want to think about the temperature rating you’ll need. While you may think the lower the temperature rating of the bag, the better it will be, that’s really not true. If you do all of your camping during Spring and Summer, you’re unlikely to see temperatures below 30 degrees, so a 30 degree bag should be more than sufficient. Having a bag with a temperature rating lower than the temperatures you’ll actually be camping in will not only be a waste of money; it’ll also be less comfortable. While you surely don’t want to freeze in the middle of the night, you certainly don’t want to feel like you’re cooking in an oven, either, so pick a bag with an appropriate temperature rating for your needs.
Sleeping bags are typically sold in 3 different sizes: long, regular, and short. In most cases, long bags measure about 78″, regular bags 72″, and short bags 66″. While the best way to determine if the bag is a good size for you is to physically try it out, that’s not always possible or convenient, so pick a bag big enough to fit you without having too much extra room. For example, if you’re 5’11″, a regular bag should be sufficient; there’s no need to get a long. If you’re 6’2″, you’re too big for a regular and should opt for the long. As a rule of thumb, always go for the smallest bag you can comfortably fit in.
A good zipper will zip up and down smoothly without getting snagged. While this may not seem like a huge deal, it’s much nicer when you’re crawling into bed after a long day on the trail if you don’t have to fight with your zipper for 5 minutes to close the bag.
Mummy vs. Rectangular
One of the last things to consider in your decision should be the style of bag you want to go with. Some people have restless legs and prefer the extra room rectangular shaped bags allow, like the Little Red 15 youth sleeping bag. Others view rectangular bags as a waste of space and weight and strongly prefer the mummy shape, like the Big Agnes Pitchpine. This all really boils down to preference, so go with whichever style you think will be most comfortable for you. If you want a roomier bag, go with the rectangular shape. If you want a snugger fit, go with the mummy.
Full vs. Partial Insulation
Finally, while traditional sleeping bags have an equal amount of insulation throughout the entire bag, some manufacturers, such as Big Agnes, make their bags with little or no insulation on the back portion. The reason is that since sleeping pads provide insulation already, there’s no need for the additional insulation; it’s simply excessive from their point of view. Instead, these bags feature a sleeve in the back of the bag to slide your sleeping pad into, which not only insulates that portion of the bag; it also securely fastens the pad to the bag, which ensures you won’t roll off in the middle of the night. Not everyone subscribes to this philosophy, though. If you’re a side sleeper who prefers to turn the bag with your body when rolling over, don’t opt for this type of bag, as the only option for side sleepers with this style is to roll inside of the bag. This, much like mummy vs. rectangular, mainly boils down to a matter of preference; the important thing is that you’re comfortable, so think about how you’ll most likely be sleeping in your bag and base your decision on that.
Follow this guide when making your decision and you can rest assured (no pun intended) your experience on the trail will be a happy, and most importantly, a comfortable one.