The Ultimate Guide to Sleeping Bags

As we prepare for winter camping, many of us are taking old mummy bags out of storage and looking for replacements. But not all sleeping bags are created equally – a fact that most of us find when we're already out on a trip. To spare you the sleepless nights (and hard days), we wanted to create an ultimate guide to purchasing a sleeping bag.


Temperature Rating Insulation Type

Always consider the lowest temperatures forecasted during your trip. Companies create their temperature rating systems assuming that an average person will be using a camping mat and wearing extra layers while they sleep. It’s always best to choose a bag that’s rating goes several degrees lower than needed. This is especially important if you prefer not to wear extra layers when you sleep or do not have a camping mat to shield you from the cold ground. You can always unzip the bag a little bit, take your sweatshirt off, or stick a foot out if you get too warm.

  • Down insulated sleeping bags will keep your warmer at night and warm up quickly. They provide a certain cozy factor no matter what shape of bag you use. Down bags are also much lighter than synthetic ones. If you are traveling to a wet climate or expect rain on your camping trip, a down sleeping bag won’t hold up to the water. It loses effectiveness when it’s wet and will have to be dried out before it’s useful again.
  • Wet conditions aren’t always ideal for camping, but sleeping bags with synthetic insulation hold up much better when wet and is still usable to keep warm and sleep in. Synthetic bags are also cheaper and might be a better choice for beginner or infrequent campers. However, synthetic bags are heavier than their down alternative and aren’t as well suited for backpacking trips.

Size and Shape

Mummy bags are the most form-fitting bag and provide the warmest environment. With less air and space to move around, you will heat up much quicker in a mummy bag. These might be uncomfortable for taller people or those that like to move around in their sleep. The hood at the top doesn’t give much room to stretch out, and campers with wide hips might be uncomfortable in the tight bag. Mummy bags are the most lightweight and compressible as their warmth doesn’t come from thick layers. They will be the smallest and lightest to carry which is a great benefit for campers who also backpack.

Standard rectangular sleeping bags allow for extra movement, but more heat is lost in the extra space. These bags rely more on thickness to keep the warmth in, and won’t heat sleepers up as quickly. Rectangular bags are bulkier, heavier, and not easy to compress. Semi-rectangular bags offer a middle ground between mummy and rectangular. Also called barrel bags, the semi-rectangular shape allows more movement, while still being tapered to fit better and hold in heat. Most barrel bags include a hood which keeps heat from radiating but are also lighter weight and less bulky than rectangular.

Sleeping bags usually have an outer shell made of durable material to prevent rips and tears. Some bags also include a water-wicking treatment that keeps campers dryer longer. This keeps the water from soaking through the fabric and instead it beads up on the outside for easy removal in the morning. Linings on the other hand are meant to prevent body moisture from becoming a problem in the night. The lining is not waterproof but will prevent odor build up and increase the time between washes. Liners are easier and less bulky to wash than the full sleeping bag. They also take less time to dry and will increase the lifespan of your bag especially if it has a waterproof coating or outer layer. If you will be camping for an extended period of time, the lining will give you optional extra layers, or a thinner blanket for warmer nights.

Women's sleeping bags are specifically designed for the shape of women’s bodies. The bags have a wider middle with extra insulation for the feet and upper body. Children’s bags usually have a couple extra features to help them get a good night’s sleep while camping. Some might include a sleeve or loops to keep the sleeping bag and pad together all night, a pocket to keep belongings from getting lost, or a zipper pouch to prevent pillows from falling out. Many children’s bags are smaller which will keep kids warmer and might include an image of their favorite superhero to scare the bad dreams away!

Accessories and Extras to Look For

When considering sleeping bags of the same shape and temperature rating, there are several extra features that might tip the scale. When camping with a partner, zipper compatibility offers you the option of combining your bags into one larger one. Zipper durability or covers are also important to avoid ripping, splitting in the middle of the night, or getting stuck in a poorly constructed bag. Hoods with drawstrings prevent precious heat from escaping from the head and extra coziness. This can be especially important in freezing temperatures.

Other bags include pockets, sleeves, or loops to attach sleeping pads. Those of us who move around in our sleep and end up on the ground instead of our cushion will appreciate this! Something you might not consider when choosing sleeping bags - foot room. It seems insignificant but if you sleep on your back a trapezoidal footbox will give your feet more room to rest in their natural position. This releases stress on the seams and insulation of the sleeping bag, also increasing its lifespan and keeping your feet warm!

The Bottom Line

We spend about one-third of our life asleep, and we especially need a restful night after a hard day of kayaking, camping, hiking, climbing, or backpacking. Ultimately, price is an important consideration and factor for any purchase decision, but a great sleeping bag can last for years. Let us know about your favorite sleeping bag for backpacking, camping, or traveling below!

Andrew Nelsen is an avid outdoorsman, backpacker, cyclist, and freelance writer in Springfield, Missouri. You can see more of his tutorials, guides, and posts at

The Ultimate Guide to Sleeping Bags
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