How (and Where) to Buy a Sleeping Bag

August 21, 2018

How (and Where) to Buy a Sleeping Bag

How (and Where) to Buy a Sleeping Bag
By James Ryan

Whenever I'm asked about sleeping bags from would-be campers, I'm often reminded of a time in my life when I knew very little about wilderness camping. One memory in particular that comes to mind would be from late-August of 2007 when I decided to take my 10-year old son up to Algonquin Provincial Park on what would’ve been our second annual father-son canoe trip. All I can say is that it was without a doubt one of the most uncomfortable, albeit memorable, experiences of my entire life.

[I even lost part of my finger on that trip, but that's another story for another time.]

Despite being warm and sunny throughout the day, the evening temperatures had dropped down to near freezing, which was surprisingly uncharacteristic for that time of year. Unfortunately, it hadn't even occurred to me to check the weather forecast for the over-nights or to even bring what I would consider to be cold-weather clothing. The day predictions were so hot, that that’s all I really paid attention to – rookie mistake!

Another unpleasant revelation that evening was that our cheap, department-store sleeping bags were clearly no match for the cold night air, so we were forced to wear all of our available clothing (even the dirty stuff) which we packed for the entire trip, but it still wasn’t good enough. As it turns out, cotton is not a very good heat insulator, especially if you’ve been sweating in it all day long. We got very little sleep on that trip, and by the end of it all, I had the worst sore back imaginable.

Being a young dad with two athletic kids to look after, I didn't have a lot of disposable income at the time to spend on quality camping gear, so I did what most people would have probably done in my situation and cheaped out, figuring that all camping gear was pretty much the same. Well, I figured wrong.

In hindsight, if there was one piece of camping equipment that could have easily transformed our entire adventure and made things far more enjoyable for the both of us, it would have been to have high-quality sleeping bags. Back-country camping is most certainly a working vacation, therefore, getting a good night’s sleep is always a top priority.

So what should you look for in a quality bag? For starters, it's good to ask yourself the following questions:

•    What style of bag are you looking for?
•    What time of year do you plan to go camping?
•    What type of insulation do you want?

The style of bag you choose can make a huge difference in terms of overall warmth. The rectangular bag for example, is exactly as it sounds – a big 'ol rectangle. It provides a lot of extra room (less restrictive), particularly in the footbox area, which personally I prefer. And if you plan on zipping two bags together for snuggle-time with your significant other, then you can't beat a rectangle, which also turns into a much larger square, with the zippers all located on the outside edges. Next to freezing your butt off, there's nothing more annoying than sleeping on a zipper.

The mummy bags on the other hand, are the most thermally efficient bags on the market, as their snug-fitting design creates less dead-air space, and provides an insulated hood area for added warmth. They also typically pack smaller and lighter when compared to an equivalent rectangular bag. Some mummy bags can also be zipped together, but due to their shape, only connect in the middle sections, leaving the footboxes separate from each other, and the zipper running down the centre between two would-be snugglers.

The second most important consideration when buying a sleeping bag would be the time of year that you plan on going camping. In Canada, for example, where we deal with fairly drastic weather changes between the summer and winter months, it's important to decide WHEN you plan on spending most of your time outdoors.

 

  • If you only plan on winter camping, then you definitely want a warmer-rated bag (-10°/-30°).
  • If you only plan on summer camping, then you definitely want something that's better suited for the warmer climates (+7°/0°).
  • If you plan on camping anytime during the year from spring thru fall, then you may want to consider something a little warmer, with the idea that if it gets too warm during the summer months, you can always kick it off a little bit (+1°/-7°).
  • If you plan on camping all year-round, then I highly suggest buying two separate bags or you'll run the risk of either over-heating in the warmer months, or freezing to death (literally) in the colder ones. Please also note that some companies (Marmot, for example) also make lady-specific sleeping bags, which provide added insulation around the common cold spots, such as the footbox and the torso area. They also fit a bit shorter than the guy’s version, so that's just something to be aware of.

Please note: The temperature (EN) ratings presume that the user will be sleeping on a minimum 1-inch thick sleeping pad with an R-rating of 3 or more. Sleeping bag ratings can also be influenced by the following factors:

  • gender
  • body fat percentage
  • muscle mass
  • circulation
  • metabolism
  • shelter
  • wind
  • exhaustion
  • clothing
  • nutrition

The final most important consideration when buying a sleeping bag is the fill. For the longest time, down insulation had been the preferred choice for many campers because of its heat-insulating properties. Synthetics on the other hand, have come a long way in the past few years, and many would argue, do just as good a job as down-filled sleeping bags. For me, the biggest difference between them relates to damp conditions. If a synthetic bag gets wet for any reason, it will still retain its warmth, and it will also dry a lot quicker than down will, which tends to stay soggy for a longer period of time.

When purchasing a new sleeping bag, keep in mind that you generally get what you pay for. Bags that are cheaply made for example, will not provide the same level of warmth or durability as a quality sleeping bag from a reputable brand found mainly at specialty outdoor shops. By comparison, better quality sleeping bags typically have baffled construction to keep the insulation from shifting or clumping, which ultimately helps to keep any potential heat loss to a minimum.

Additional Sleeping Bag Terminology

  • Anatomical Hood: Insulated, prevent heat loss, increased comfort and thermal efficiency.
  • Baffle: Seems in the shell to keep insulation from shifting or clumping, keep heat loss to a minimum.
  • Draft Collar: Aka “Headgasket” is an insulated collar around the hood, stops heat from escaping.
  • Draft Tube: Insulated tube runs along and behind the zipper to stop cold drafts from getting in and warm air from getting out.
  • Drawcord Collar: Tightens and loosens the hood to prevent heat loss.
  • Footbox: A trapezoidal or flared footbox allows for more space.
  • Lining: Interior, soft and comfortable, moisture-wicking technology.
  • Shell: Exterior, more durable than interior, water-resistant.
  • Stash Pockets: Chest pocket for phone/music.

To check out our selection of quality sleeping bags click HERE