There is one part of camping that we get asked about time and time again. That is the not so small matter of - sleep. Oftentimes it’s the part of the trip that causes the most anxiety. Without a good sleep, the day’s activities could be ruined. A few poor night’s sleep in a row and you might be eager to head to the comfort of your own bed.
Thankfully, the odds of a good night’s sleep can be tipped in your favour if you look after a few key areas. Firstly, and very importantly in our opinion, work up an appetite for sleep by jamming your day full of camping fun. An entire day spent out in the fresh air will naturally tire you. Once that is covered, it’s all about making sure you have the right set-up. The three keys of - a good tent, a good self inflating camping mattress and, a great 3 season sleeping bag.
Last time around we guided you in how to choose a camping mattress.
This time, we are going to focus on the all important matter of sleeping bags. We will look at what you need to understand, the features of modern sleeping bags and important areas to consider when choosing a sleeping bag.
So, let’s get started.
1. The Parts of a Sleeping Bag
Before you begin browsing the stores, it is beneficial to first understand the makeup of a sleeping bag, even if only at a very basic level. When shopping for a sleeping bag, there will be three areas you will hear of a lot. The shell, the lining and the insulation.
- The Shell - This is the outer coating of a sleeping bag. The shell blocks wind, repels moisture and acts as the final barrier in keeping the heat in. Something that people often look for is a ‘waterproof shell’. This is especially important if you plan on backpacking without a tent. If you are going to be outdoors, directly under the stars with only your sleeping bag to protect you from the elements. If that’s not you then maybe a waterproof shell isn’t as important. A good tent should be able to keep the rain out.
- The Lining - When you are lying in your sleeping bag. The lining is the part that comes directly in contact with your body. So, naturally, comfort and softness are important when it comes to this area. The lining should be breathable to let any moisture escape. Nylon or polyester are the most common materials used here.
- The Insulation - We will discuss insulation in more detail below. Insulation is the stuffing of the sleeping bag that is placed between the shell and lining. Getting the insulation right is important for staying warm, preventing overheating and, when it comes down to it, getting a comfortable night’s sleep.
2. Season Rating and Temperature Rating
There are two ratings systems that are important in choosing a sleeping bag. The first is Temperature Rating.
Reading temperature ratings can be a daunting task as a lot of different systems are used. However, most systems will come with a recommended temperature (for example 25°F) and that is all you need to worry about.
The temperature rating is the temperature that your sleeping bag was designed to be in. If your sleeping bag temperature rating is 25°F and you envision camping in much harsher weather, you should consider getting a bag with a lower temperature rating.
With temperature ratings, there are a few things to know. Firstly, all temperature ratings go on the assumption that you will be using a camping mattress. As explained in a previous post, a camping mattress is your last defence against the cold ground. If you do not have a camping mattress, you will feel colder no matter what sleeping bag you use.
The other thing to consider is the kind of weather you plan on camping in. If you are a fair-weather camper and won’t be camping in anything less than 40°F, then you should get a light bag designed for summer use.
Here, a good tip is to consider the coldest temperature you will be camping in for the foreseeable future and take 10°F from it. That’s the temperature rating for you. So, if the coldest conditions you plan on camping in all year is 40°F, then try get your hands on a sleeping bag with a 30°F rating. Easy as that.
Generally there are three basic categories for seasonal ratin:.
- Summer Bags - Summer sleeping bags are lightweight sleeping bags that are more for comfort and shelter than keeping you warm. They are generally very breathable and are suitable for temperatures of about 30°F and higher. Below that and you might need a more insulated sleeping bag.
- Winter Bags - Winter sleeping bags are your chief protector in the harshest of environments. Generally winter bags are required if you plan on being out in temperatures of about 20°F and below. Winter bags use a lot more insulation so are typically much heavier than other sleeping bags and not the most convenient. For the most part, winter bags are only necessary if you plan on camping in very cold conditions.
- Three Season Sleeping Bags - If you plan on only having one sleeping bag and don’t envision camping in extreme weather conditions, the three season bag is the obvious choice. Ideal for autumn and spring and should provide more than enough heat in the summertime. The three season bag is good for temperatures of about 20°F and above.
Please Note: Some season ratings go from 1-4. In this system, 1 represents a summer sleeping bag, 2 means suitable for spring, 3 is a three season sleeping bag and 4 is a winter sleeping bag.
3. Insulation - Down vs Synthetic Sleeping Bag
Insulation goes hand in hand with the above rating systems. The better insulated the bag, the lower temperatures it can handle and the more versatile the sleeping bag. When it comes to sleeping bag insulation, there are two main options. Down, which is made from the under feathers of ducks and geese. Synthetic, which is filled with man-made insulation.
Synthetic is by far the most commonly used insulation and is is less expensive than using down material. In order to get the same temperature rating, you need to fill the sleeping bag with more synthetic insulation to match down insulation. This means that down is the more effective insulator and is a lighter option.
The big disadvantage with down is its inability to handle wetter conditions. Down fabric loses a lot of its fluffiness and heat when wet, and can take very long to dry.
In all, the question of down vs synthetic is a matter of personal preference. Both are very effective insulators and really, the warmth of your sleeping bag will be judged on temperature rating. However, it is good to have some knowledge of insulation before you make your purchase.
4. Knowing Your Body and Your Own Preferences
The final area to consider is knowing your own body and personal preferences. These are things that matter specifically to the individual so it’s up to you to decide what way to go. There are a few broad areas to look at here:
- The importance of portability and convenience - If you like to keep it light when camping, then weight, fit and ease of use will hold a greater importance than insulation and other areas. In terms of weight, there are two things to remember. Firstly, down insulation is lighter than synthetic. Secondly, the lower the temperature rating, generally, the heavier the bag. If keeping your load light is more important than keeping you warm, then that is something to consider.
- The fit - This again goes back to convenience and preference. Sleeping bags are generally either rectangle or mummy shaped. A rectangle would be the more traditional shaping of a sleeping bag. However, a mummy sleeping bag will be more fitted to you. Think tighter/narrower on the head and feet but wider on the hips. This type of sleeping bag will therefore use less material and be more lightweight. Mummy shaped sleeping bags are also usually easier to stow away and carry. Worth keeping in mind for backpackers.
- Your sleeping metabolism - This is one of the most personal considerations when choosing a sleeping bag. Many people will be much warmer at night regardless of weather they are camping or in their own bed. While others find it almost impossible to warm up, no matter what the temperature. Consider what type of sleeper you normally are before getting a sleeping bag that is too light or too heavy. Depending on your sleeping metabolism and how warm a sleeper you are, you may need a lower or higher temperature rating. For warm sleepers, a useful feature in a sleeping bag is a dual zip. This type of zip means you can open up the bottom and top of the sleeping bag separately. Sometimes, letting your feet hang out in an overheated sleeping bag is all you need to get a great night’s sleep.
Purchasing camping gear can be a daunting task. As with all pieces of camping equipment, it’s the finer details that can cause the overwhelm. However, a basic understanding of season and temperature rating, insulation and the other areas mentioned above will put you in a strong position to find the perfect sleeping bag for you.
Choosing the right sleeping bag is another step towards the perfect camping adventure. When purchasing a sleeping bag our advice is to plan ahead, know your preferences, shop around and buy with the long haul in mind.