The humble sleeping bag. Often overlooked, under appreciated, but a very valuable piece of kit. Get it right and you have a warm, restful night to recharge for the next day of adventures. But get it wrong, and wow! You’re in for a long cold night of shivering and discomfort, or worse.
Sleep is an essential element of good health, and when away on expeditions, adventures, or even just a family camping trip, getting a good night’s sleep can make or break your trip.
Without good sleep you are more likely to get cold or fall ill, but are also more likely to make poor decisions which may endanger you or your team. So having the right sleeping set up for the conditions you are in is vital.
There are a vast selection of sleeping bags on offer with some amazing features to make our lives more comfortable.
But where do you begin? How do you choose?
Firstly, consider WHERE you will be using the sleeping bag. Your choice will be very different if you are heading to the Arctic, compared to exploring the Brazilian Rainforests. But likewise, even here in the UK your choice needs to be carefully considered. We have a lot of wet and cold nights so don’t be fooled by our climate either. Many people get caught out here in the UK, not realising how uncomfortable our climate can be when you are in a rubbish sleeping bag!
Warmth To Weight Ratio-
You may see this term being used by some manufacturers, and it is a really handy guide to look at. It basically means if a bag is made of very high quality insulation it will be warm and light, because the insulation is effective enough that it doesn’t need huge amounts that would increase the weight.
But to achieve the same level of warmth, with poor quality insulation it would take a lot of extra insulation to achieve the same level of warmth and comfort. So both bags would be as warm, but the one with high quality insulation will be a lot lighter, so has a better “warmth to weight ratio.”
It is obvious why warmth is such an important consideration, and trust me, it is very important! And it is worth saying at this point to always over estimate how warm you need your sleeping bag to keep you, as it is easier to cool down than it is to get warm again on a cold night.
But considering weight as a factor is often overlooked. So why is it so important?
Well, if you need your sleeping bag for a family camping trip, or a trip where you are not carrying your kit far, then it will be less of a concern. But if you are heading out on an expedition, hiking, cycling adventures or canoe journeys then carry-able weight is suddenly a big consideration.
Carrying more weight than you need to be increases your energy expenditure, this in turn can lead to unnecessary fatigue, and a need for greater calorie intake. This then means that more food needs to be carried, which means more weight to carry, and so the cycle continues. So you are better off keeping your carry-able weight down to conserve your energy levels, but yet still carrying all the kit you need.
Season Rating/Warmth Rating/Comfort Rating-
Different manufacturers have their own label for this – but they are all similar in meaning. This rating indicates what the lowest level or temperature the sleeping bag can fully function at to provide you with the most comfortable night’s sleep. It is a good idea to be conservative with this, and always under estimate how effective your sleeping bag needs to be, just in case you hit unpredictable weather when away.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that we all have different perceived levels of comfort at different temperatures. This varies depending on gender, age, build, fitness and whether you have any underlying medical conditions. So if you know you are someone who “feels the cold” then take this into consideration too when selecting a sleeping bag.
There are two main options here: Down and Synthetic. Both have their good and bad points so really consider here what you are looking for in a sleeping bag.
•Better insulation quality per weight,
•Longer lifespan (if cared for),
•Usually packs down smaller.
•Generally more expensive,
•Needs extra care,
•Must be kept completely dry,
•Can’t be stored long term in a stuff sack as the down clumps together making it less effective.
•Some sources of Down aren’t ethical.
•Less care is needed,
•Can get damp, and the dries quicker than down,
•As quality and manufacturing improves, the insulation quality of weight ratio is improving.
•Lower quality synthetic filling can be very poor and ineffective.
Sleeping Bag Shape-
This often comes down to personal preference, depending on your natural sleep position and how much space you like. But there are other factors to consider too;
The most popular choice over recent years has been the Mummy Sleeping Bag. The shape of the bag is a snug fit, contoured around your body shape. This shape is designed to reduce any excess space around you, just leaving a small air gap between you and the bag to make retaining heat easier.
Mummy bags tend to pack down into a smaller stuff sack too, making them a good option when space is a premium.
The downside to the Mummy bag is that it can feel restrictive, if you are someone who likes free movement for your limbs in your sleep then this might feel like an unnatural sleeping option for you. Though if you are someone who likes to feel snug and cocooned then this might be the shape for you!
The rectangular shaped bag seems to be making a come back with more high quality insulated options available.
Many of us have bad memories of the old school rectangular bags with terrible insulation qualities and way too much space around us to even start to get warm, let alone keeping us warm throughout a whole night!
But the newer rectangular bags have been better designed. You have the benefit of extra leg space for those who find the Mummy bags too restrictive, but improved designed features from the original rectangles of icy doom!
Not only are there huge improvements in insulation quality, but better zips that don’t let the north wind blow straight through your sleeping bag! There is also the welcome addition of a hood, just like the Mummy bags, the hoods act to keep out cold drafts and help to keep your body heat in, making it a far warmer experience but still with the luxury of leg space.
The downside to the rectangular bags is that there is more space around you so there is a greater air gap to warm and get snug in. And sadly the rectangular bags take up more space when packed down, so if you are heading on a trip where space is at a premium this might not be your best choice.
Double Sleeping Bags:
These are mainly designed for couples on family camping trips. They are bulkier to carry as they are basically the equivalent of two sleeping bags together. There is more space around you and you are more open at the top of the bag so it is harder to stay warm. And so far the ones made have a poor weight to warmth ratio so that is something to consider too.
You do of course have the benefit of your partner’s body heat and direct contact and space to move around together…should you need it?
The zip, often overlooked and under appreciated – until it breaks! But there are a few zip options to consider.
Some sleeping bags have one zip that starts at the bottom and comes all the way up to your chin. This can reduce chilly drafts and keep you snug and warm, especially when they are insulated, but can be restricting.
Do you need a left or a right zip? The main aim of these is to make it easier for a right or left handed person when flat on the ground, but many people aren’t too bothered by this. Though one consideration here is whether you are a side sleeper, and whether you mainly sleep on your left or right side. If the zip is on the side that you mainly sleep on this could become uncomfortable on a longer trip. Also consider this if you have injuries or disabilities on one side of your body, would a zip on a certain side make your trip more comfortable and a little easier maybe?
A two-way zip can be another option. It can zip you all the way in so you are warm and toasty, but if you’re someone who gets hotter feet at night then you can unzip the lower part of the zip for added ventilation and cooler toes.
Depending on how often you go away on adventures, and how comfy you want to make your trips may sway you on what other added features you look for.
Some brands of sleeping bags have internal stash pockets, these are ideal for keeping valuables directly with you. This can be a good idea out on expedition to keep phones, GPS and medication directly with you in case of emergencies.
Other pocket options can be found in the hood, these are great for shuffling with clothes for the morning and making a pillow for night too, as well as another great way to keep your valuables close to hand.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news but your budget, as with many things, may limit your choices here. You might be lucky and pick up a great high quality sleeping bag in a sale, it does happen!
Though generally speaking when it comes to sleeping bags, you get what you pay for. If it’s cheap, it’s cheap for a reason! High quality insulation is expensive to produce so that adds to the price tag.
Some brands are better priced than others though, so just because it is the most expensive sleeping bag out there it doesn’t necessarily mean it is a five star luxury sleeping bag of joy. So be sure you do your research and cost up different options before making your purchase.
So there are many considerations to make, so consider your options carefully, but don’t lose sight of your needs. If it needs to withstand certain temperatures then that is a non negotiable. If you need it to be warm and light and pack down small then be led by these factors.
Do your research, ask questions, and have warm and well rested adventures!