Choosing the right sleeping bag or quilt is of utmost importance for the proper sleep and recovery when spending the night outdoors, no matter the weather or the season.
In this article, we will list the most important characteristics of a sleeping bag taking in consideration the different budgets, weather conditions, length of trip and expertise of the mountaineer.
The right sleeping bag for different temperature amplitudes
The most common factor on which people choose what sleeping bag to get is the temperature diapason. It takes into consideration the temperature you’re used to sleeping at and the average night temperature of the place you’ll be sleeping outdoors.
For example, a sleeping bag you intend to use at a sea camp during the summer will have much higher temperature diapason than the one you’ll use in an iglu during the summer.
In 2005, the European Standardization Committee has accepted a framework for the temperature diapasons of sleeping bags. It sets standards for the manufacturers which help consumers to easily choose the right sleeping bag for their needs. This standard is called EN 13537 and all sleeping bags in the EU should follow its framework.
Of course, these parameters should only suit as general guidance as different people are used to sleeping at different temperatures. I myself like to sleep in colder temperature and even without socks, even if the temperature is -20° Celsius outside.
Other factors which affect the type of sleeping bag we’ll choose are:
- What clothes we sleep in;
- Do we sleep in a tent or under the stars;
- What type of sleeping pad you use under your sleeping bag/quilt.
- How many drinks you had last night (just joking!)
Our advice is to always choose a sleeping bag with a temperature diapason a bit lower than the temperature you’ll be in.
Temperature diapason is always marked using three levels: minimum temperature rating, comfort zone and extreme.
Comfort zone shows the temperature of the surroundings at which a person can comfortably sleep for 8 hours without feeling neither cold or hot with a closed sleeping bag and with normal sleepwear. When a sleeping bag is used in temperatures below the ‘Comfort zone’ you may feel cold. ‘Comfort zone’ is set differently for men and women as women are more sensitive to cold.
Lower limit (zone limit) shows the outside temperature limit where you’ll feel cold and won’t have a healthy sleep. The Extreme shows the temperature at which the specific sleeping bag can save your life from freezing and hypertonia. This is the limit at which this sleeping bag can only save your life, and surely isn’t the temperature at which you can have normal sleep.
Seasonality of the sleeping bag
Sleeping bags are separated into three groups depending on the seasons of the year during which you can use them. There are:
- Summer sleeping bags
- Two-seasonal sleeping bags
- Three seasonal sleeping bags
- Winter sleeping bags.
There are no one-seasonal or four-seasonal sleeping bags because the summer sleeping bag cannot be used during winter and vice versa.
Two-seasonal sleeping bags can be used from late spring to early autumn, three-seasonal – from early spring to late autumn and in the colder winter nights, for example when you camp high in the mountains. Three-seasonal sleeping bags can also be used as a cover (without fully zipping it up) during the warm summer nights.
Which one is better – synthetic or down sleeping bag?
The isolation layer of sleeping bags can be two types – made from synthetic fibres or down (from duck or goose feathers).
The synthetic isolation layer is more common, cheaper and somewhat more practical when choosing a sleeping bag. Such sleeping bags are easier to maintain and clean and require less special conditions for storage. Moreover, they keep their shape and properties when wet, making them a better choice for a humid climate.
Apart from the above-mentioned benefits of synthetic sleeping bags, they are no match to down ones when it comes to heat retention during sleep. Synthetic ones are also bigger as they require more material to accomplish the same isolation properties, making them less desirable when size and weight are of importance when going into the great outdoors.
Down sleeping bags, being made of feathers, create millions of small air pockets which hold the air warmed by the human body and don’t let it go out of the sleeping bag easily, keeping the body warm for longer. The ratio of heat-weight of the down sleeping bags is simply optimal and any type of synthetic sleeping bag created so far has been no match.
Yet, when it comes to humidity and getting a sleeping bag wet for whatever reason, down bags get easily matted, drastically reducing the number of microscopic air pockets which in its turn reduces their heat retention capabilities. The time for it to dry takes longer as well.
Another thing to have in mind about down sleeping bags is that you need to store it unfolded in order to protect the air pockets.
A quick tip: get your down sleeping bag professionally cleaned in order to preserve a balanced distribution of fluff.
Quality down sleeping bags are sewn in sections in order to keep the fluff all-around equally as well as to preserve the shape of the bag. Some even have more fluff on specific areas of the body, in order to keep it warmer.
To sum up, down sleeping bags are a bit more expensive, heavier and take more space, but are better for cold climates with little humidity.
Here are a few sleeping bags which we recommend:
What to choose: forms, sizes and weight of the sleeping bag
When it comes to the shape of the sleeping back, there are mainly two types – rectangular and ‘mummy’. The most simple sleeping bags (those with just the basic features) are rectangular in shape. They take more space than the ‘mummy’ and can be unzipped completely and sued as a blanket (that is why another name for this type is – the ‘sheet’). Rectangular sleeping bags are less effective when it comes to heat retention. Most of the rectangular sleeping bags are designed for use in huts, mountain lodges, caravans as well as summer camping. They are not suitable for harsher weather and lower temperatures.
Rectangular sleeping bags can be double and single sizes. Double-sized ones are suitable for two adults or an adult and a child so that the heat from two people helps preserve the temperature in the sleeping bag.
As to the ‘mummy’ sleeping bag, its shape gets narrower towards the feet. This shape, closer to the body, needs less temperature released in order to keep the sleeping bag warm and therefore its isolation properties are better. ‘Mummies’ have a hood which additionally prevents heat loss through the opening around your head. Due to the more compact shape, it is also lighter than rectangular sleeping bags. ‘Mummies’ are usually single-sized, however, if you purchase two ‘mummies’ with right and left zipper, you can combine them into one single sleeping bag. Isn’t that awesome?
When you’re choosing a sleeping bags, apart from the shape, seasonality and temperature diapason, pay attention to the size when folded and the weight. This is especially important if you’re planning to carry around the sleeping bag in a backpack.
Here are a few more features you may want to consider when choosing the right sleeping bag for your needs:
- Sections – sections are the sewn compartments of the sleeping bag thanks to which the isolation material inside doesn’t randomly shuffle.
- Inside fabric – the inside insulation material of some sleeping bags is made of natural materials such as cotton and fringe, whereas others are made of synthetic materials such as polyester and nylon. Synthetics are more commonly used. Natural materials provide better feel during sleep, however, remember that these materials hold humidity for longer which is an undesired feature for colder climates.
- Outside fabric – the outside fabric is usually made of ripstop polyester. Ripstop are woven fabrics, often made of materials such as nylon and are sewn through a special technique which makes it much harder to tear. The outside fabric is also recommended to be waterproof as well as breathable.
- Left or right zipper – choose the zipper location that is close to your strong arm.
- Two-way zipper – it is useful when you need extra ventilation, for example during summer. These sleeping bags can be opened toward the feet for extra fresh air circulation.
- Collar – it is important so that the heat in between your body and the sleeping bag does not ‘sneak’ out. The collar of the sleeping bag circles all around the opening of the bag. Some collars have a tightening elastic line to help close the opening around your head.
- Zipper cover – the zipper cover is a piece of cloth which covers the zipper and has a similar purpose to the collar and usually has a velcro tape.
- Inside pockets – usually situated near your chest area and is useful to put small objects when you’ve already closed the sleeping bag – wallets, headlamps, phone.
- Sleeping bag sack – ‘mummy’ sleeping bag always comes with a sack to carry and storage. ‘Mummies’ can be stuffed in the carry sack while rectangular sleeping bags should be rolled first. Carry sacks usually have an elastic line to close them as well as tapes to compress them.
Sleeping bag FAQ
Q: Are there other options instead of backpack or quilt during summer?
A: Another option that has become very popular among backpackers is to use a top quilt made for hammock camping. It’s like a mummy bag with no zipper. You’ll need a good insulating pad under you, but you’ll save a great deal of weight because there’s no zipper and the quilt is not made to wrap all the way around you, but cover you like a blanket. The foot box is usually sewn closed similar to a mummy bag, but otherwise, it’s an open design. This gives you all the room you want to move around, and sacrifices very little warmth, as the insulation under you when you are sleeping in a mummy bag is compressed and not providing much warmth anyway. In very cold conditions, it may not be the best option, because some cold air will come in around the sides.
We hope this guide helped you even a little. If there is anything we’ve missed or you have any questions, please feel free to write to us in the comment section below and we’ll reply as soon as possible.
Stay safe and enjoy the great outdoors!