How Do I Choose the Right Sleeping Bag?

5 tips to simplify the process

Oct 12, 2015
Outside Magazine

Know thyself when choosing a sleeping bag: Different fills and shapes work for different people and purposes.    Photo: Pedarilhos/iStock


Buy the wrong sleeping bag and you’ll have lots of sleepless time in a tent to regret your decision. Buy the right one and you’ll sleep better than you do at home. Here are five tips to help you choose wisely. 

Always Go Warmer 

Temperature ratings are pretty accurate, but they don’t account for human variability. Some of us run hot. Others run cold. To be safe, I suggest purchasing a bag that’s rated 10 to 15 degrees cooler than the lowest temperature you expect to encounter. It’s easy to unzip your bag to vent extra heat, but it’s hard to warm up if you’re cold.

Choose the Appropriate Fill

As a rule of thumb, down has the best warmth-to-weight ratio and packability. If you’re going someplace where weight matters (backpacking, bike packing), go with down. Synthetic is better when wet and tends to be cheaper. Go with synthetic if you car camp or plan to spend a lot of time in the rain or near the water. 

Find the Right Shape

Historically, sleeping bags have come in two shapes: mummy bags, which are warm but restrictive, and rectangular bags, which are roomy but don’t retain heat as well. Today, there are more options. Take Nemo’s Spoon bags, which provide the warmth of a mummy bag but give you more space to roll around. Or the Sierra Designs Mobile Mummy, which has slots at the top so you can sleep with your arms outside the bag. 

Be Realistic

Super-lightweight, ultra-warm bags are sexy, but they’re overkill for most of us. Plus, they can break the bank (think $600 to $800). A standard 15- to 30-degree three-season bag like the $170 North Face Cat’s Meow should be enough for the majority of us who like to backpack and car camp from spring through fall. 

Don’t Forget a Good Sleeping Pad

Sleeping pads will keep you warmer by insulating you from the cold ground. Avoid a flimsy piece of foam—go for something that elevates your body, like the two-inch-thick Therm-a-Rest Trail Pro. Even if you buy the nicest sleeping bag on the market, a lousy pad will ruin your night because you’ll feel every rock and twig underneath you.


Filed To: Sleeping Bags, Gear Guy

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