Western Traveler

Sleeping Bags

Of all the equipment that you’ll need to purchase for your camping experience the choice of a sleeping bag is critical.  There are three basic factors to take into consideration; weight, pack space and insulation material.

When backpacking or kayaking, you’ll want to get the lightest and smallest bag you can afford, and prices will vary considerably.  In a low-end sleeping bag you can get by for under $50.  On the other side of the coin, a high-end, cold-weather bag can run into the hundreds of dollars.  For summer camping, the cheaper bags are fine.

In considering a sleeping bag, ask yourself a couple of questions, “How cold will it be when I go camping?” and “How heavy can this bag be for what I’m doing?”  Once both questions have been answered then you’re ready to go shopping.

In the way of a basic introduction, there are as many types, weights, and temperature-range bags as you can imagine.  You can find everything from ultra-light and warm to heavy & modest temperature capability.

Let’s look at the characteristics of a sleeping bag.  First there is the basic configuration.  There are: rectangular, semi-rectangular and mummy bags. 

Rectangular bags are larger and as the name describes, rectangular in shape.  They are larger and more comfortable; however with the extra space comes the need to heat more area once inside.  Secondly, they don’t have “collars” or hoods which allow you to prevent heat loss through the large opening at the head.  While these are usually okay for warm weather camping, they can be miserable in the cold.  Also, these bags tend to be very large and hard to get into a backpack or kayak cargo area.  Lastly, most come with synthetic filler material, which is not nearly as warm as down.

Semi-rectangular bags are exactly what the name implies.  They’re somewhat better at heat retention, but can still let a lot of body heat out, something you want to avoid if possible.  They too are somewhat large and not very heat efficient.

If you’re serious about all-season camping, the best bet is to go ahead and invest in a down-filled, mummy bag.  These bags are expensive, but like most outdoor gear, you pay for what you get.    I use my mummy bag for three seasons, Fall, Winter & Spring.  Consider this, if your sleeping bag is too warm you can un-zip it let in cooler air.  If your bag is too cold, there’s nothing you can do about it, except wish that you’d bought a warmer bag.

I do suggest that you spend a few more dollars and purchase a “warm weather” bag.  The rating should be somewhere around the 50° Fahrenheit range.  Most of these bags are very light, easy to compress down for packing and inexpensive.  An alternative to a sleeping bag in warm weather is the old standard of a blanket.  I’ve been know to just carry in an Army blanket, or a fleece throw.  In very warm weather, a flannel bed sheet can be enough.

One factor to consider when purchasing a down bag is that if the bag gets wet, you’ve lost virtually all insulation capability.  While dry, down is amazing, when wet it’s a disaster.  If you do purchase a down bag, make sure to carry it inside your backpack inside a waterproof bag of some sort.  I carry mine inside a trash bag.  My down bag of choice is made by The North Face and is called the Long-Lite.  It’s rated to 0° and is fantastic.  I’ve put this bag to the test in some of the coldest conditions Utah and Wyoming had to offer.  In every instance, I slept soundly and warmly.

Synthetic fill bags don’t suffer the same fate as down in wet conditions, but they do tend to weight a lot more.

Last modified on: March 1st 2012.
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