Choosing a Sleeping Bag
A sleeping bag is one of the most important camping equipment purchases an outdoors person makes.
Many types of sleeping bags are available. The best bag for you depends on your sleeping habits, what you like to have next to your skin, the temperature and climate where you camp and whether you'll be carrying the bag on your back, in a canoe or in the trunk of your car.
As important as a sleeping bag is, the ground pad beneath you is just as important to your night's sleep. Your body weight compresses the sleeping bag, reducing the air space and its insulating capabilities. Ground pads, with a core of foam and air, provide extra layers of insulation against the ground's chill.
Sleeping bags come in two basic shapes, mummy and rectangular. The best choice for you depends on your sleeping style and how you intend to use the bag.
"If you like to sleep with your legs and arms all sprawled out, then a rectangular bag may be best for you," advises Mary Yeo, a mountaineer and L.L.Bean sporting goods sales representative.
But if you sleep curled in a fetal position, the mummy-shaped bag is your best choice.
Many wilderness backpackers prefer the mummy-shaped bag. The narrow cut can decrease a bag's weight by up to a half-pound, which is critical to backpackers who measure every ounce. The mummy's smaller size also requires less energy to heat up at night than the larger rectangular bag, which has more air space.
While the rectangular bags end abruptly just above the shoulders, the mummy bags have a hood that can be pulled tight around your head.Most rectangular bags can be zipped together to create a double bag. To zip two mummy bags together, one needs to have a left zipper and the other must have a right. Most long mummy bags have a left zipper, while regular-sized mummy bags have a right zipper. Even when you zip two mummy bags together, your feet will remain separate because the zipper does not extend around the toe of the bag.
Sleeping bags come in different sizes. Some bags are made in junior or youth sizes, as well as women's, which offer extra warmth around the torso and feet where women tend to get cold first. Most are available in regular and extra-long. Some also come in extra-wide sizes.
Backpackers often buy longer sleeping bags for their winter treks because they store so much gear (such as boots, drinking water, flashlight and batteries) in their bag at night.
A sleeping bag acts as an insulator to slow the loss of body heat. How well a bag insulates depends on its insulating material, construction and amount of loft.
Choose a temperature rating based on the conditions you plan to camp in most often. A bag's temperature rating indicates the lowest temperature at which an occupant would be comfortable. But what is comfortable for one sleeper may not be for another. There is no industry standard for temperature ratings and they vary from manufacturer to manufacturer.
Some things to consider before choosing the right temperature rating for you:
- Temperature ratings always assume that the bag will be used with a ground pad.
- Your metabolic rate, levels of fatigue and hunger and the quality of your tent and ground pad also impact your sleeping comfort. Some people are colder than others when sleeping and might want a warmer, or lower-rated, sleeping bag.
- Many traditional camp bags are comfortable to about 40°F, assuming a ground pad is used.
- A bag rated to 20°F, with ground pad, is considered a versatile three-season bag, usable in New England from early spring to late fall.
- A bag rated to 0°F, with ground pad, is used for cold-weather and some winter camping.
- Bags rated from minus 15°F to minus 30°F, with ground pad, are suitable for most winter camping conditions.
Sleeping bags are filled with either goose or duck down or with synthetic fibers.
Down is the best natural insulator known. It is light and compressible. It packs small and its loft can be fluffed back with just a couple quick shakes. It also lasts longer than synthetic insulation if it's properly cared for. Down bags are the best choice when you're traveling light in drier conditions.
Down costs more than synthetic fill, and if it becomes wet it loses about 80% of its insulating abilities and takes a long time to dry. Keeping your down bag dry is essential (see Storage and Care section for useful tips).
A well-cared-for down sleeping bag will keep you warm and comfortable through several years of outdoor adventures.
The best synthetic insulations come close to down's efficiency. Synthetic fill is made from small fibers that are sometimes treated with silicon to help enhance their loft. The fibers also have chambers in them to help trap air.
Synthetic-filled bags cost less and are great for people who are allergic to down. They also continue to insulate when wet and they dry quickly, making them a good choice for camping in wet conditions and for canoe and kayak trips. For backpackers, synthetic bags weigh a little more and usually take up more space in your pack.
Most technical bags come with a nylon taffeta or silk lining. You can also buy a fleece liner, which adds extra softness and about 15 to 20 additional degrees of warmth.
Storage and Care
On the trail it is essential to keep your sleeping bag dry. We recommend placing a large plastic bag or a sleeping bag stuff sack in the bottom of the sleeping bag compartment of your pack. If you expect rain when you're in the backcountry, you can wrap your stuffed sleeping bag in the plastic bag for extra protection.
After a trip be sure to allow your bag to dry out thoroughly. All sleeping bags should be hung or stored in a dry area. A large storage sack allows your bag to breathe, helping to retain its loft when not in use. Sleeping bags should be stored in dry rooms, away from mildew and dampness.
You can wash a synthetic sleeping bag in a large commercial front-loading washer. Use a mild detergent and wash on a gentle cycle with warm water. Dry the bag in a clothes dryer set below 140°F or outdoors on a clothesline. Some campers put tennis balls in the dryer to help "fluff" the bag.
You can wash a down bag in a commercial washing machine with a mild detergent or have it cleaned by an experienced cleaner who specializes in down garment care.
If you would like any additional information about sleeping bags, please call our Outdoor Hotline at 800-226-7552, any day between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. EST.
- Pack your water bottle deep inside your backpack so it will not freeze. Make sure the lid is screwed on tight and pack it upside-down. Water freezes from the top, so if it is stored upside down, the mouth of the bottle remains free of ice. Water bottle insulators also help to keep water from freezing. If possible, fill your bottles with hot water.
- Eat often and carry plenty of food. You can burn up to 8,000 calories per day when winter camping.
- Drink plenty of hot soup and beverages during your winter camping trip. You need to replace water lost both through physical exertion and also from the dry, cold air drawing moisture from your face and skin. Try instant cocoa, decaffeinated coffee or tea, fruit-flavored drinks and instant breakfast drinks. Caffeinated drinks are not recommended. They contain diuretics that cause you to lose fluids.
- As you gain altitude, food takes longer to cook. Plan meals that do not require a lot of boiling.
- Consider taking an extra stove and plenty of stove fuel, up to one-half cup per person per day. It takes a lot of fuel to melt snow for drinking water.
- If you have room to carry them, take two sleeping bag pads, a self-inflating one and a lightweight closed-cell foam pad, for additional insulation when camping in cold climates.
- Before you get into your sleeping bag at night, fill your water bottle with hot water for use as a hot-water bottle.
- Take a metal tube that is a bit wider than your tent pole with you. If a tent pole breaks, slide the tube over the broken area to act as a splint and secure the tube to the poles with duct tape. Store your duct tape around your ski pole or water bottle.
- If you stop to take a water or snack break, store the outer shell of your mittens or gloves in your pack or attach them to your jacket with a clip. Sticking them under your arm makes it easier to have them blow away with a gust of wind. If you lose a mitten, use a spare sock as a substitute.
- Winter is not the time to go solo, always camp with others. Leave your itinerary with a friend or family member and check in with them on your return.
- Watch for signs of hypothermia among your camping group: uncontrolled shivering, poor motor coordination, mental confusion and mumbling. If someone exhibits these symptoms, get him or her into dry clothes or a sleeping bag. Have him or her huddle close to a warm, dry person and give him or her a warm beverage.
- Check for signs of frostbite and pay attention to cold feet. Protected skin, as well as exposed skin, are all susceptible to freezing and toes are the most vulnerable. The first sign of frostbite is white patches on the skin surface. If the skin does not return to its normal color after applying gentle pressure, you should seek medical attention as soon as possible.
- Pack a colorful bandana in your pack. In the rare event you need to signal rescue workers, you can attach the bandana to your ski pole and use it as a flag.
- If you are backcountry skiing in hilly terrain, climbing skins help you ascend hills with less effort. Skins are slightly narrower than the width of a ski. They attach to a ski by straps or an adhesive backing. The skins have synthetic hairs or scales that flow from front to back so they grip snow and keep you from sliding backwards on hills.
If you would like any additional information about winter camping, or have questions about any of the procedures or terminology used here, please call our Outdoor Hotline at 800-226-7552, any day between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. EST.