When you are choosing a sleeping bag, it's all too easy to snatch the first bag you see on the shelf, or to let the price of the bag make your choice for you. However, as countless backpackers have learned the hard way, a good backpacking sleeping bag is one of the most important pieces of gear that you'll carry. Choose it wisely, and you're all but guaranteed to sleep like a baby. Choose poorly, and you may find yourself sleepwalking through Day 2 on the trail.
How can you ensure that you're getting a good bag for your money? The first and most important step is to make sure that you are buying a sleeping bag that is suitable for the conditions you expect to encounter on the trail. This is especially important if you plan to do any winter camping at all. If you do a little bit of research, you should be able to find out what the normal highs and lows are for the areas you visit the most. Use this information to choose a bag, and remember to err on the low side. Your bag should be 5-10 degrees warmer than the lowest temperature you expect to spend the night in.
Weight and size are only slightly less important than temperature rating. When selecting among backpacking sleeping bags, keep in mind you have to carry it to your destination without breaking your back. Really, there's no need for a backpacking sleeping bag to weigh more than 5 pounds. Many ultralight bags are much lighter. For example, the Velocity 35 by Eastern Mountain Sports is rated at 35 degrees Fahrenheit and only weighs one and a half pounds!
Also, consider a top bag, which saves weight by relying on a sleeping pad to insulate the bottom of the bag. Big Agnes carries a wide selection of excellent top bags. Look for a top bag with a pad sleeve to make sure your sleeping pad stays put!
By the way, you may also come across bags called "bivy sacks" or overbags. They are supplements to a regular sleeping bag. A bivy sack is a waterproof or water-resistant shell (often also breathable, as with Gore-Tex material) that you slip your sleeping bag into. People often use a bivi for sleeping under the stars, in wet conditions or for winter camping. Climbers, hikers, fast-packers and others sometimes carry a bivy in a daypack in case of an unplanned overnight stay. An overbag is simply a light outer bag for added insulation.
The next factor to consider is materials. Good materials make a good sleeping bag. The outside material, called the shell, is usually made of some type of nylon or polyester. Ideally, the shell should be water-resistant yet breathable (like Gore-Tex), so that you don't end up drowning in your own sweat. For the liner, taffeta, brushed fleece, or silk are all good choices.
The technical term for the stuffing in between the shell and the liner is fill. There are two categories of fill: down and synthetics. Down is prized for being lightweight yet warm. Many ultralight backpacking sleeping bags use down as a fill. The major drawbacks are that good quality down bags are expensive, and they lose insulating power when they get wet. They are also hard to clean. However, used with care, down bags are excellent choices and very popular among backpackers. Synthetic bags are usually heavier, but they can keep you warm even if they get damp, and are usually machine-washable. Whatever type of fill you choose, make sure that it is lofty, without thin patches that can create cold spots (pick a well-known brand and you'll be fine). Also, make sure it compresses well so that it will easily squeeze into a stuff sack. Online reviews will tell the story.
The way the sleeping bag fits your body is another key to sleeping comfortably. In order for the bag to trap your body heat effectively, it needs to wrap around the contours of your body without leaving too much empty space. For this reason, mummy bags are best for cold weather camping. However, if you can't stand being swaddled like an infant, try a semi-rectangular bag, such as the Big Agnes Crystal.%uFFFD These are narrower at the foot to conserve heat, but give you a little bit more room around the shoulders. Rectangular bags are best for warm-weather camping. If you are a woman, look for a sleeping bag cut to fit your curves, such as the Eureka Casper, a lightweight backpacking bag rated to 15 degrees.
Price is the final consideration in choosing a backpacking sleeping bag. A sleeping bag is an investment, and sometimes investing a little bit more money makes sense in the long run. However, if you are on a budget, a good used bag could be just the ticket. Look for bargains on auction sites like eBay or outlet sites such Overstock.com. Sierra Trading Post is another great place to look for bargains. If you take the time to look, you can often find an excellent bag for an excellent price.
When shopping for a sleeping bag, take your time and do your research to find a bag that's right for you. You will be rewarded by an excellent, refreshing night's sleep, no matter what kind of weather Mother Nature throws at you!Back