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Sleepy Time Choices: How to Find the Right Sleeping Bag

By Valerie Farabee

Is there anything cozier than snuggling into a warm, comfy sleeping bag after a long day’s hike and setting up camp? While there are certainly arguments for other, cozier activities, a pleasant sleeping bag ranks right up there! For harder core backpackers and climbers, a sleeping bag goes beyond comfy and into a life-saving sleep sack in sub-zero temperatures. Whether you’re a car camper going out for the weekend or a hardcore mountain climber, there is a sleeping bag for you, and Priceonomics will help you find it!

The first step in figuring out the best sleeping bag for your needs is to drill down how and where you’ll be using it. Are you hauling a pack through rough terrain? Camping in below zero temperatures? Driving up to the nearest campsite and staying overnight? These are the questions you need to answer before you begin your search.

‘Tis the Season

Sleeping bags fall into three basic categories: Summer, Three-season, and Winter.

Summer sleeping bags are lightweight, simple sacks without too many bells and whistles. They are generally rated for temperatures of 30°F and higher, and commonly feature a zipper that goes all the way around the bag to open it for ventilation on warmer nights. These are the cheapest bags, starting at around $20.

Three-season sleeping bags are great for spring and fall trips and suitable for temperatures of 20°F and higher. Pick a three-season bag that has added features like a cinchable hood, a draft collar and zipper-draft tubes. These add protection against the cold for nights that dip below freezing, like you might find while summer camping in the high mountains. You can find an inexpensive good one for $150.

Winter sleeping bags are puffy, beefed up bags that have all of the added features found in a three-season bag. These bags are rated for below 20°F to keep you warm and safe when you are winter camping. The added insulation for warmth makes these bags bulkier than their above zero counterparts, so if you are planning extended backpacking trips it’s important to grab a good compression sack to store it in. Because of the added insulation and high tech materials used for these to protect you from hypothermia, winter bags are generally more expensive, starting at around $300.

I Can Get Down With That – Choosing the Right Type of Insulation

Sleeping bags keep you warm by trapping a layer of air between your body and the bag. Your body heat warms the air up and forms a cocoon to keep you nice and snug! The less air there is to heat, the warmer you will you be. The type of insulation you choose depends on what (and where) you’ll be using the sleeping bag for and if you have any allergies that might force you to choose synthetic insulation vs. down.

Synthetic insulation is water resistant, keeps you warm even when its wet, and provides a less expensive, hypo-allergenic option to down. These bags are usually machine washable, a plus for easy cleaning. These bags top out at around $350, and are great if you are doing any sort of wet weather camping. At the low end, you can find a good synthetically insulated bag for about $50.

Down insulation is the lightest, most efficient insulation you can get. It’s also the most compressible, which makes it a great choice for backpackers looking to save weight and room. Down keeps well over time, but is difficult to wash, be warned! These are more expensive than synthetic bags and will cost anywhere between $90 – $700 depending on material used for the shell and the amount of down used in the bag. A $700 bag includes waterproof and breathable fabric, a whole bunch of extra down to keep you warm, a temperature rating of -20°F, and is super lightweight for multi-day backpacking trips.

The Shapeliest of Sizes

The right size of sleeping bag will be the most comfortable and keep you the warmest. Choose a bag that is big enough so that you can sleep comfortably, but not so big that it will weigh you down if you are on a multi-day trip. A bag that is too large will create pockets of dead air that are difficult to keep warm and will reduce the overall effectiveness of the bag. A bag that is too small ends up compressing the insulation and not keeping you nearly as warm as a bag that fits your body.

Sleeping bags come in different shapes, each designed to appeal to a different type of camper.

Mummy shaped bags are tapered through the legs and feet for maximum thermal efficiency. Because the interior of this type of bag is smaller, it is more heat efficient. If you are a restless sleeper or slightly claustrophobic, you might choose a larger bag for comfort. Because mummy bags use less material and insulation, they are lighter and easier to pack – important to backpackers! The price of these is largely dependent on the materials used, so keep in mind that down will always cost more than synthetic insulation!

Rectangular bags are not tapered through the legs thus not as thermally efficient. These are best suited to car and campground camping, rather than long term backpacking. Great for the casual camper and for those who like extra roominess in their bags! Basic synthetic rectangular bags from Wal-Mart that are suitable for basement and backyard camping will run about $20, although you can buy a slightly higher end one for around $75.

Semi-rectangular bags are the happy medium between mummy bags and rectangular bags! They offer the added warmth of the mummy shape and the extra room for restless sleepers or claustrophobes! While there is a little added bulk and weight to what you will find in a mummy bag, the trade off is worth it if you need the room to sleep.

Try before you buy!

Crawl in and out of the sample sleeping bags at the store, roll around in them, take a nap! This will give you an overall impression of the different styles and types of sleeping bags on the market. Zip and unzip all the closures, check out how the bag feels with a sleeping pad, and ask as many questions as you have to the helpful, knowledgeable salesperson at the store! Remember that a basement sleepover will require a different style and weight of bag than you would use for a multi-day backpacking trip, and purchase accordingly.

Happy sleeping!