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Choosing the Right Sleeping Bag, A Simple Guide

Written by  Katie Levy
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Get Toyota Cruisers & Trucks Magazine on the App StoreWalking into an outdoor store in search of a new sleeping bag can be overwhelming, even if you’re a seasoned camper. Between quilts, blankets, mummy bags, rectangular bags, and more, it can be tough to figure out what’s best. Whether you’re planning on driving to the trailhead and carrying everything with you, pulling into a campground, or curling up in the back of your truck for a good night’s sleep under the stars, ask yourself these questions to help you choose the right sleeping bag for you.

What Will The Sleeping Bag Be Used For?
Depending on activities you’ll be involved in, there are a few things you’ll want to consider. If you’re backpacking and plan to carrying your bag with you, you’ll want one that maximizes personal comfort while minimizing the weight and space it takes up in your pack. If you’re primarily car camping in a tent or in the back of your vehicle, weight and space might be less of a concern.
If you’re involved in a variety of activities that put you in a variety of situations, versatility is important. Consider what situations you’re in and where you’re planning on spending the night outdoors when you begin your search.

What Temperatures Will You Sleep In?
All sleeping bags come with temperature ratings. Those ratings equate to the temperature the bag is designed to handle, but buyer beware, ratings aren’t universal and should be used as guidelines. A bag rated to 30ºF may keep you comfortable in 30 degree weather, but may not be warm enough for your camping buddy. What’s comfortable for you depends on a variety of factors including metabolism, blood circulation, gender, and the surface you’re sleeping on.
In general, count on being comfortable between 30 and 40ºF temperatures in a 30ºF rated bag, but don’t expect to be comfortable in a 30ºF rated bag in warm summer months. A three season sleeping bag (+20 - +40ºF) should suffice in every season except winter. These versatile bags are likely to have a few bells and whistles, like cinchable hoods and draft collars, and are great for spring and fall trips.
Winter camping, depending on the conditions, may require a sleeping bag rated to 0ºF or lower. These types of bags are generally more expensive and likely larger than a three season bag thanks to additional insulation.
If summer camping is all you’re in for, bags rated above 40ºF are ideal. They’re generally lighter because they contain less insulation, have fewer features, and as a result, they can also be cheaper.

What Type of Insulation Do You Need?
Most sleeping bags these days are made with down or synthetic insulation. Synthetic insulation generally consists of a puffy polyester material that doesn’t absorb water, which is ideal if you get caught in the rain. Synthetic bags can be bulkier, but often cheaper than down bags and insulate more effectively when wet.  Some synthetic fill is even water repellent.
Down bags are easy to compress, making them ideal for backpacking, and right now they’re the best as far as warmth to weight goes. They’re also better at retaining loft than synthetic bags. More loft means the sleeping bag will retain its temperature rating longer; compress the insulation and the bag loses its ability to store warmth if the insulation doesn’t expand again. But if you get a down bag wet, it will lose its insulating power and will take a long time to dry. It’s also tougher to wash than a bag with synthetic insulation. New innovations brought hydrophobic down to the market a few years ago, and though it helps down retain loft when it’s wet, the down is still not waterproof.
And then, there’s cotton, a material generally used to fill cheaper rectangular sleeping bags. These types of bags shouldn’t be used in any condition where they could get wet. They’re also typically heavy and bulky, making them inappropriate for backcountry travel. Think about the climates you’ll be camping in to help you choose what type of insulation to look for.

What Shape and Style Are You Looking For?
Sleeping bags come in a variety of shapes and sizes, each with a purpose. Rectangular sleeping bags are roomy and depending on zipper configuration, they can be zipped together to create a giant cocoon. They’re less thermally efficient due to the large opening at the top, but give you plenty of space to move around. They’re ideal for backyard camping, but won’t cut it for backpacking or cold weather camping.
Mummy style bags are designed to maximize warmth and reduce weight, making them ideal for backpacking. They offer less room than rectangular bags due to their tapered shape. When they’re fully closed, your mouth and nose are the only parts of your body exposed to the air, which means you need to generate less heat to keep yourself warm than you would in a rectangular bag.
Then, there are semi-rectangular or barrel shaped bags, a happy medium between mummy and rectangular bags. They’re roomier than mummy bags, but tapered at one end. Camping blankets, and sleep systems that involve a sheet and a quilt are also options.

What Kind of Extra Features Are You Looking For?
Once you’ve decided on how you’ll use the sleeping bag, what temperatures you’ll use it in, the insulation you want, and the best shape for you, it’s time to think about additional features.
Many companies make gender-specific bags as well as bags designed for children. The differences are typically shape, size, and other seemingly minor modifications that can make all the difference in the world for the sleeper.

Some bags integrate directly with a sleeping pad, which is a highly recommended purchase if you’re sleeping on the ground in a tent. In some cases, the pad fits into a sleeve on the bottom of the bag, making it impossible to slide off the pad in the middle of the night. If you’re a backpacker who moves around in your sleep, it’s a great concept. Other bags have a pillow sleeve designed in, which can be a home for a camping pillow or a small pile of clothes.
You’ll also want to consider a sleeping bag with stash pockets. Keeping items like lip balm or earplugs within arm’s reach can be fantastic if you wake up needing them in the middle of the night.

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Overall, there’s a lot to consider, but keep these things in mind and you’re well on your way to choosing the right sleeping bag for you.

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