Choosing a sleeping bag requires one to make a choice in a couple of different areas. The two primary considerations are whether you will be packing your bag via a backpack, and secondly, what temperature conditions will bag need to cover you against. We will cover these factors in detail, and then we will also discuss factors like fill material preference, shell material preference, shape (mummy or rectangular), and dimensions of the sleeping bag.
We will start with a little history of sleeping bags. To the best of my efforts, I have been unable to find evidence of the manufacture of sleeping bags pre- Civil War era. In fact, it appears that the first commercial best sleeping bag manufacturer may have started operation in the 1890’s. All of this began in Europe. Prior to the use of sleeping bags, bedrolls were the order of the day.
The first big usage of sleeping bags was by mountaineers. Their sleeping bags were very crude compared to today’s. Obviously the purpose of their sleeping bags was to be light enough to carry and to keep them warm. These kind of considerations are where your choice of a sleeping bag should begin.
Is Weight a Consideration?
I do not want to oversimplify things here, but a good starting point to narrow down choices, is whether or not you need to rule out sleeping bag choices that are too heavy to pack on a backpack. Sleeping bags that weigh as little as two pounds are available, but at a price. The lighter the bag, the harder (and more expensive) it becomes to purchase one with a low temperature rating. If weight is not a factor because you will not be backpacking, your choices expand greatly.
What Temperatures Will Your Bag be Used In?
The purpose of a sleeping bag is to keep you warm. The purpose of camping is to have fun. It is difficult to have a fun and enjoyable time when freezing through the night. I suggest not wasting your money on any sleeping bag that will not keep you warm. So how do you know if sleeping bag will keep you warm?
The problem with ratings used to be that there was no set standard. Recently this has changed. There is now an EN (European Norm) rating system that has made an attempt, and a pretty good one at that, to establish a better and more consistent rating system.. No rating system is without flaws, but this one gets close.
The temperature rating you should look for is the minimum you expect to encounter on the trips you will take. For example a 20 degree bag should keep you comfortable down to that temperature.
- Mummy Bag or Rectangular Bag
Mummy bags are generally the ones that are available for a colder conditions and made in lighter weights for backpacking. They also tend to be more expensive and also can be difficult to fit into for larger people. Make sure that when considering a mummy bag, if you are larger, read the bags’ dimensions. Mummy bags are made in a variety of lengths and widths.
- Fill Materials
I wish we had time to cover more on this one. Here are the basics. Down fill used to be the only way you could get the warmth you needed for extreme temperatures. The sacrifice you made with down, was that if it got wet, its thermal insulation capacity is almost non-existent. So, now there are synthetics where you get both temperature protection and water-resistance. This time, the sacrifice you will make is in cost. The best synthetic materials are quite expensive, at least by my standards. The best advice I can leave you with, is to accurately gauge your needs and make your decision on fill material with them in mind.
- Shell Material
Typically, any good sleeping bag will have a shell made of polyester or rip-stop nylon. One additional feature that can be important is water repellency. While there are bags on the market made with gore-tex and similar breathable water -repellent fabric, the reviews I have read have not been so great. At this stage, I would stick with the water-repellent materials.
In better sleeping bags, men’s and women’s cut bags are available. As you may have noticed, men and women are shaped differently. These bags represent those differences.
Also, length is a consideration. Get a bag that fits you. In men’s bags, the lengths are generally in short (up to 5’6″), regular (5’7″-6′), and long (6’1″-6’6″). If you are taller, there are bag manufacturers out there for you. Look around.