Selecting a sleeping bag (and what else will I need?)

We began car camping with cheap Walmart sleeping bags. When we started backpacking we needed lighter, more compressible sleeping bags. Our first choice of bag was a failure. Now, after several years out in the wilderness, here are our tips on buying a sleeping bag.

The scenery from our Mutha Hubba tent by Loch Bad a'Ghaill, Scotland

Ginger in her Montbell Ultra Light Super Spiral Down Hugger #3 and Gary laying on his GoLite Ultralite 800 fill 1 season quilt [no longer available] – The view from inside our tent by Loch Bad a’Ghaill, Scotland


Our first purchase of Big Agnes Encampment bags didn’t work out so well, so we returned them for a refund.

They were nice enough bags, but they were just not giving us the 15°F temperature performance that we were expecting.

We tried using them three different nights at 40°F and shivered badly each night. Thankfully, Dynamic Earth lived up to their reputation and gave us a full refund.

Ground insulation is as important as your sleeping bag

After several years of year round camping and backpacking, we now realize that the problems we had with the Big Agnes bags – and getting cold while sleeping out – is more complex, though fairly obvious once you think about it. How warm you are sleeping isn’t just dependent on air temperature. Ground temperature has a major impact too. It’s just as important to insulate yourself from the ground. The Big Agnes bags had no insulation underneath, a technique they used to minimize weight and improve compressibility. They rely on the pad to provide this. We should have purchased the Big Agnes pads to match the bags, as they have a higher ‘R’ value than the Therm-a-Rest pads we have.

January 15, 2012 Camped overlooking Long Creek Falls – Hercules Glades Wilderness. Despite the warm(ish) air temperatures, the rock shelf we were camped on remained well below freezing throughout our stay

In 2012 we added a 25″ wide Neo Air all season pad into the mix. In winter we pack fleece bags ($15 from Bass Pro) to lay under or on top of the pads. The fleece bags are dual use, they’re great for wrapping yourself up in as you while away the long dark nights sitting by the campfire. Ginger couldn’t get on with the Neo Air, she found her curvaceousness caused her to bottom out at the hips and the displaced air caused the Neo Air to pop up in other places. I didn’t have those problems, and just love the extra warmth and width the Neo Air has.

What type of Sleeping bag to buy

So what rating and type of bags to buy? The key factors are:

  • Weight. If you are car camping or even kayaking/canoe camping, weight isn’t much of a concern. If you are starting out car camping, and you have a duvet at home, just take that as a cover and some blankets to lay on. Because of the bulk, and the possibility of getting woodsmoke and dirt embedded into your bed linen, you may not want to do that too often. If you are trying camping out for the first time and don’t want to invest a lot, why not though?If you intend to go backpacking, weight is one of your major concerns. You may get away with carrying a big heavy bag on a short hike (I have a friend who almost filled an eighty liter backpack with his sleeping bag). However, I promise you’ll soon be wanting a sleeping bag that compresses small and weighs as little as possible.
  • Temperature Range. Firstly, what night-time temperatures do you expect to be using your bag? And we’d advise subtracting 10-20°F from that, for your bag’s rating.
    Generally the temperature ratings given by the manufacturers are for survival, not a comfortable night’s sleep.

    Also be warned, although there is a developing international standard for specifying sleeping bag temperature ratings, it is not yet widely adopted. The rating given to a sleeping bag just depends on what the manufacturer wants to advertise.

    You can extend the range of a bag – using a liner adds 2-5°F, wearing a good baselayer can help, as can wearing a hat. I’ve found I generally sleep warmer without clothing – but I’m strange like that.

    You also have to determine if you sleep hot or cold.

    Women tend to sleep colder, that is they need a warmer sleeping bag for a given temperature range.

    It’s true for us. I definitely sleep a lot warmer than Ginger, and often have a limb or two hanging out of my bag to cool down while Ginger is nestled up to her nose.

  • Size. Two elements to consider here, the rolled up / compressed size, and the usable size of the bag. For backpacking the compressed size of a bag is almost as important as the weight, as you’ve got to find room to carry it. Synthetic bags don’t compress as well as down bags. As to the usable size, there’s mummy, rectangular and quilts.
    • Mummy bags have less material making them smaller, lighter and they eliminate internal cold spots. However, some people just don’t like how claustrophobic they can feel.
    • Rectangular bags are bigger and heavier, and a lot of dead space in them that your body has to heat.
    • Quilts are just covers, making them very light and small. Their ability to perform is heavily dependent on the insulating properties of the pad you use.
  • Fill. Two key things here. The material, synthetic or down, and the ‘loft’.
    • Loft is a measure of how ‘fluffy’ and more importantly, insulating the filling is. Loft is measured in cubic inches, and tells you how many cubic inches one ounce of the fill material will expand to fill. This is key to the weight of a bag, as the higher the loft, the less fill and therefore weight is required to keep you warm at a given temperature.Unfortunately also the higher the loft the more expensive the bag is. As an example, our 0°F bags have a 600 fill. Our 30/40°F bags have an 800 fill. That sound’s like it’s the wrong way around, but there’s a lot more fill in a 0°F bag, making a 0°F 800 fill bag a lot more expensive.
    • The choice of materials is between synthetic and down. Synthetic fill has a much lower loft making it more heavy and it’s less compressible, making the pack size larger. On the other hand, a down bag will completely lose it’s insulating properties if it gets wet, while a synthetic bag will still keep you warm(ish). Some people who backpack without a tent (yes there are people who don’t carry tents) prefer synthetic bags for this very reason. Of course the other major concern is cost. Synthetic bags are less expensive.
I’ve already said it, but I’m going to say it again. In the cold, your choice of sleeping pad is very important.

Loft depends on air space, the fill underneath you gets compressed by your weight and so loses it’s insulating properties. If, like us, being cold underneath is critical to your comfort, you cannot ignore this factor.

Camping and backpacking in the Ozarks, we’ve found that our two sets of bags cover us for four season camping. We have no intention of going out camping when the temperatures are due to drop below 20°F. But in the Ozarks we are blessed with those magical warm winter days in the sixties, ideal for backpacking. However, the night time temperatures drop to 25°F, and the ground temperature can be a lot colder still. The last couple of years we’ve picked our days and backpacked in November through March, no problem, and we are wimps. I’ve even waded in Table Rock lake in my shorts on December 31.

Photograph of Gary Allman looking at table Rock lake - December 2011

With good gear you can camp out all year round. Gary in his shorts taking in the view of Table Rock lake. Piney Creek Wilderness, December 31, 2011

After our experience with the Big Agnes bags, we drew the conclusion that we ‘sleep cold’ and need warmer bags. We were advised to get 0°F rated bags made of down. I was very wary of down bags. My main concern was that the bags would get damp in the humid conditions of the Ozarks and lose their insulating effect. My second concern was the increased cost.

After reading lots of sleeping bag reviews, concerns over the effects of the Ozark’s high humidity were dispelled. The advantages of down bags – low weight, high insulation, and high compressiblity, giving a small pack size, tipped the balance in their favor.

Comfort and practicality out-weighed the cost concerns. And that’s the key. There are areas where it’s not worth cutting financial corners, and we’d suggest those are the items that impinge on your personal comfort and overall enjoyment of the outdoors life: shelter, sleeping bags and pads. If you are wet, cold, and can’t get a decent night’s sleep, no matter what the scenery is like it’s going to be a miserable experience. Don’t scrimp on these items, believe me.

Which bag to buy?

There are a bewildering number of bags on the market, and the costs vary hugely.

Decide what you want to use your bag for, and what the lowest temperature you’ll be out in, subtracting 10-20°F for safety. That is, if you plan to only be out at 40°F, get a bag rated at 30-20°F.

If you are car camping a good quality synthetic bag will probably be all that you need.

When we only had the cheap Walmart sleeping bags we successfully car camped in sub-freezing conditions by taking along extra blankets and a comforter.

If you are planning to use the sleeping bags for backpacking, then it’s going to get expensive, because you don’t want to be carrying a huge heavy lump around. And that means, you’ll probably opt for down.

The best advice we have is to study the reviews, negative and positive (with a healthy level of skepticism as there seems to be a lot of people that really just don’t quite get it). Go and try them out in the store. Check out how they cinch down around your neck and face, look at how well the zippers run. If you’re going backpacking take a compression sack – how well does the sleeping bag compress? Climb in them how do they feel?

Our choices

We have two bags each to cover four season backpacking and camping. Our summer bags are rated at 40-30°F. Even on 100°F days in the middle of the night your metabolism slows right down and it can feel quite chilly. I also use my bag liner as my sleeping bag when it’s really hot. Our winter bags are rated at 0°F giving us a 20°F buffer with our planned coldest nights of 20°F. We always use water resistant stuff sacks in the summer, and full on waterproof Sea to Summit eVent compression sacks with our 0°F bags.

Go-Lite 1+ season quilt, Sea to Summit sleeping bag liner and NeoAir All Season Sleeping Pad

Gary’s three season (spring, summer, fall) Go-Lite 1+ season quilt, Sea to Summit sleeping bag liner and NeoAir All season Sleeping pad all put away ready to go in Gary’s backpack. Small eh?

Photograph of Gary Allman snuggled up in a Montbell Super Spiral Down Hugger sleeping bag.

Gary, all snuggled up in his MontBell Super Spiral Down Hugger #0 sleeping bag. We decided to leave the fly sheet off the tent and wrap up warm in our bags. The bit of blue is his bag liner which is stretchy enough to wrap around your head, keeping greasy backpacking hair away from the bag. March 2011, Berryman Tail

  • Winter. We both use MontBell Super Spiral Down Hugger #0 bags 3 lbs. 11 oz, with a 600 fill for winter and late season. We had a specific reason for selecting the MontBell Super Spiral Down Hugger bags. They stretch, in fact they stretch so well you can sit cross legged in them, no problem. They are an excellent under recognized bag. Read our review of the mont·bell Super Spiral Down Hugger #0 bags.
  • Summer
    • Ginger: has a MontBell Ultra Light Super Spiral Down Hugger #3 bag, 1 lb. 6oz, with an 800 fill. We both love the MontBell bags – they are so comfortable and stretchy, but I couldn’t justify the cost of one for summer camping. It’s ideal for Ginger though as it offers that extra 10°F of rating she needs to keep warm at night.
    • Gary: has a GoLite Ultralite 800 fill 1 season quilt bag 1 lb. 3oz with an 800 fill. The GoLite quilt was less than half the price of the Mont·Bell bag, has a full footbox, tapes to hold it on place on your pad and a drawstring around the neck too. It also features extra waterproof nylon around the footbox and at the shoulder where your breath condenses in cold weather. When I bought it they called it a 1+ season quilt and I can see why. With the right pad I think I’d be cozy down to 30°F. It’s an excellent bag for the price.
Go-Lite 1+ season quilt, Sea to Summit sleeping bag liner and NeoAir All season pad

Gary’s three season (spring, summer, fall) sleeping gear. Go-Lite 1+ season quilt, Sea to Summit sleeping bag liner and NeoAir All season pad

Cooking breakfast in the dorrway of a Mutha Hubba tent.

Ginger with her Montbell Ultra Light Super Spiral Down Hugger #3 sleeping bag. Bell Mountain Trail, Missouri

I’ve got a sleeping bag, what else?

Compression stuff sacks

Bags typically come with stuff sacks and storage sacks, the latter because you don’t want to store your bag compressed as it squashes and over time damages the fill. To make the best use of your pack space I’d recommend a waterproof (or resistant) compression sack. Water resistant because you don’t want a leaky hydration bladder, sudden down pour or a slip up crossing a creek to ruin your night’s sleep. We keep our pads in water resistant stuff sacks too. We use Sea to Summit waterproof eVent compression sacks for our winter bags.

Sleeping pads

As I’ve already said (twice), if you are going out where the ground is going to be cold an insulating pad is an absolute must. Piling dead leaves under the tent can help a lot, but if you’re camped on a frozen rock shelf, it’s just your pad between you and the sub freezing ground, no matter what the air temperature happens to be.

As for comfort, light weight youngsters can easily get away with the $5 blue foam ‘crash mats’. As you get older (and heavier) a thicker pad is needed for a comfortable night’s rest. I love my Therm-a-Rest ProLite Plus pad, Ginger wishes she hadn’t been talked out of buying a woman’s version, as she misses the slightly higher R value and better padding at the hips – Ladies and male salesmen take heed, there are women’s versions of the pads for a reason, don’t be talked out of buying one.

We recently purchased a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir All Season for Ginger. After a few nights trying it out she’s found it just doesn’t suit her (so much for her birthday present then). Fortunately we bought it well below the manufacturer’s usual price, and even better I’ve tried it, and I think it’s great, it’s obviously warmer than the ProLite Plus, and it’s thicker and softer too. I’ve got a new pad!

20″ Therm-a-Rest Prolite Sleeping Pad and a 25″ Therm-a-Rest NeoAir All Season

Term-a-Rest ProLite and NeoAir All season sleeping pads compared

The compressed NeoAir 25″ All Season sleeping pad compresses down smaller than a standard size (20″) Term-a-Rest ProLite sleeping pad, and has a higher ‘R’ value. The only problems I’ve noted on the NeoAir are that it’s a lot harder to inflate. We’ve found the amazing Instaflators are really inexpensive and work very well. If the NeoAir gets a leak you’ll have no pad at all. The Prolite Plus on the other hand will still give you some padding if it has a leak because of the foam filling. Just in case, we carry ‘puncture repair kits’ in with our emergency supplies.

Setting up camp off the Trail near Lower Pilot Knob, Hercules Gl

Gary uses the Instaflator to put air into his NeoAir all season sleeping pad. It’s much more effective than the supplied storage bag/pump which can be seen on the ground by the pad. Setting up camp off the Trail near Lower Pilot Knob, Hercules Glades Wilderness – September 2012.

When you’re carrying your gear on your back ‘double use’ is excellent to get value from the weight you’re carrying. The Therm-a-Rest pads double up as chairs with an 8 oz. chair kit. Fantastic, not only do I get to go backpacking, but I can take a chair too!

Looking forward to two days leisurely backpacking around Busiek. Yes that is a chair I’m sitting on.

Sleeping bag liners

If you’ve spent a lot of money on a good quality sleeping bag, the last thing you want is to get it all messed up. We bought Sea to Summit Sleeping Bag Liners, which in very hot weather are a good alternative to a sleeping bag in themselves. However, if we were to do it again, we’d probably save our money and make our own. A liner is essential, but if you are practical we’d recommend making one.

Sea to Summit Co0l Max sleeping bag liner

Sea to Summit Co0l Max sleeping bag liner and its stuff sack

Pillows

Ginger absolutley swears by her large Exped inflatable pillow. We also have a smaller one which 13yo Lanie uses. The Exped is expensive, but only weighs a few ounces. Gary is quite happy using the top pouch of his backpack wrapped in a fleece, or a pile of clothes. As the top pouch of his backpack is also the emergency go-bag, it’s very useful having it ready to hand under one’s head. A pillow is vital to a good night’s sleep. We can only advise that you try out a few things and see what works for you.

Storage and maintenance

Just a couple of points. We air our bags out whenever we get the chance. Washing bags will over time reduce their effectiveness, which is why we always use a bag liner to keep body oils of them and air them out to keep them dry of moisture. We store the bags in the provided storage bags so the filling is not kept compressed – again hopefully this will extend the life of the bags.

Airing out our sleeping bags

Gear is expensive. We’re never afraid to use it, but we try to treat it well. We always air out our bags.

Mont-Bell Super Spiral 0° Bag and Go Lite 1+ Season Quilt in

To extend the life of your bags you should hang them to store them. We don’t have enough room so we keep ours loosely stuffed in the manufacturer’s provided storage sacks.

A good sleeping bag can be expected to last 10-20 years.

Updated: January 2016.

3 thoughts on “Selecting a sleeping bag (and what else will I need?)

  1. Pingback: Gear Review: Montbell Super Spiral Sleeping Bags | Ozarks Walkabout

  2. Idol Chan

    Thank for the detail.

    I am looking for new sleeping bags for me and my girlfriend. Your article is extremely useful.
    We live in Hong Kong and just worry about a #3 montbell will be too hot for us. However in the past campings we never get warm enough due to a wrong choice of sleeping bags.

    Reply
    1. Gary Post author

      Thanks for visiting! I’d recommend a sleeping bag liner – make one or buy one. If you get too hot use the sleeping bag as a quilt – just drape it over you. If the weather is really hot just use the liner. The MontBell #3 is very light, compresses down very small and is a nice sleeping bag.

      If you are having trouble with being cold, it may not be your sleeping bag that is the problem. You lose heat through your sleeping pad into the ground – so a good quality insulating sleeping pad is essential, especially if the ground is cold. I hope that helps you.

      Reply

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