Sweet Dreams on the Trail Part I: Sleeping Bag Selection

Posted: Thursday, May 16, 2013

Getting a good night's sleep is right up there with eating well in the backcountry.  It would be a contest to see which of those would get #1 billing.  To get a good night's sleep you need to have a sleeping bag that fits you and is the right temperature rating and a sleep pad that allows you a comfort level you can handle. This blog is part one of two. In part one, we will give recommendations about how to select a sleeping bag and in part two we will focus on sleeping pads.

Sleeping Bags

There are a number of variables to consider when choosing your bag. It can be quite overwhelming, especially when ‘sticker shock’ takes over.  You really don't need to have an unlimited budget to get a quality backpacking sleeping bag, but you do need to understand what you are looking for. 

Top 3 considerations:  
1.      Temperature rating:   Consider what season you are anticipating using this particular sleeping bag for and choose a bag rated for the coldest temperature you expect to encounter.  Often the rating in incorporated into the name of the product ---for example, Marmot Plasma +15 which tells you right of the bat that this bag is rated to a inimun temperature of +15.  Other brands that do not incorporate the rating system into the name will have the  rating on the tag and/or in the specs if looking online

2.      Weight vs. roominess: When backpacking, you want to keep weight low without jeopardizing comfort or safety. For some, low weight overrides all other concerns (comfort, durability, convenience, price). For others, weight is less important than having a roomy bag for a good night's sleep. Most bags try to strike a balance between these extremes.

3.      Type of insulation: Your main purchasing decision is between the types of fill: down, synthetic and the new DriDown™.  Each of these fills have advantages and disadvantages and your personal choice will take into consideration where and when you are planning on using the bag.  

  • Goose-down fills are very light, compressible, durable and breathable. While initially more expensive, they offer great long-term value. The ‘down’ side of down is that you must be more careful regarding moisture.  Down does not dry easily after it gets wet and also loses its warmth value when wet.  So—this is probably not a good choice for use in an area of high humidity and frequent showers/storms.   
  • Synthetic fills excel in damp, cold conditions and have less sticker shock up front, these bags also retain their ability to keep you warm even when wet.  The ‘down’ side of synthetic fills is that they are significantly heavier and less compressible than down a comparable down bag.
  •  A new product on the market is DriDown.  This is goose down treated to resist moisture – a wonderful advancement for down bags!


If you happened to take an independent survey at one of your local outfitters in the sleeping bag department regarding what was the most confusing about buying a sleeping bag you would likely hear ‘the ratings’!  In the past sleeping bag companies all had their own independent rating systems so there was no way to compare or to be sure that the rating on the bag matched what you were looking for.  For years the European companies have used the European Norm (EN) 13537 testing methodology which allows for easier comparision.  Beginning in 2009 many of the U.S. based companies have also begun to follow this system. 
The EN methodology produces temperature ratings you can trust and compare head-to-head with the EN ratings on other brands' bags. If you know the temperature range you'll encounter on your overnight trip, you can compare EN-rated bags and confidently choose the one that will best ensure a comfortable night's sleep. 
Here's an example of the EN tag you'll find on all REI-brand 3-season backpacking bags:

It is well know that women tend to sleep colder than men when comparing the same sleeping bag and the same conditions.  The EN 13537 testing reflects this fact, so you'll see separate temperature ratings and terms used for men and women on the product tag. 

Please note:  EN ratings are based on a sleeper wearing one base layer and a hat, and using an insulating sleeping pad under the bag. 

So---what to look for regarding rating?  For women, look for the EN "Comfort" rating to decide if the bag will meet your needs. The lowest EN rating is their ‘Extreme” rating.  This essentially describes a survival situation.  At this temperature the bag will not keep you warm and toasty but is designed to keep a woman alive.  

What Temperature Rating Should I Choose?
Sleeping bags that display EN ratings can be expected to provide comfort to the temperature stated on the bag, keeping in mind the variables described above. 
For non-EN-rated bags, select a bag with a comfort rating that is a bit lower than the lowest temperature you expect to experience. For example, if near-freezing temperatures can be expected, then choose a 20°F bag instead of a 35°F bag. 
For any sleeping bag, you can always vent it on warmer nights by using the double-zipper to open the area by your legs. Or, simply drape the unzipped bag over you. 
Here's a general rule of thumb on how sleeping bags are categorized:

Bag Type Temperature Rating (°F)
Summer Season +35° and higher
3-Season Bag +10° to +35°
Cold Weather -10° to +10°
Winter/Extreme -10° and lower

Non-EN rated sleeping bags: 

For non-EN-rated bags, select a bag with a comfort rating that is a bit lower than the lowest temperature you expect to experience. For example, if near-freezing temperatures can be expected, then choose a 20°F bag instead of a 35°F bag.

Women's Bags:

With the increase in recognition that women are indeed built differently than me we have seen a increase in equipment designed for women.  Female specific backpacks are pretty common place at this time and now---women specific sleeping pads. These bags are specifically designed and engineered to match a woman's contours. When compared to men's bags, women-specific bags usually have the following characteristics:

  • Shorter in length
  • Narrower at the shoulders
  • Wider proportionally at the hips
  • Occasionally, extra insulation in the upper body and/or footbox

Sleeping bag lingo: 
When shopping for a sleeping bag, you may read/hear some of the terms below. 
1.  Names of the parts of a sleeping bag: 
·         shell 
·         lining 
·         fill 
2.  Sleeping bag styles: 
·         mummy 
·         rectangular 
·         sleep quilts or bottomless sleeping bags 
3.  Features to consider: 
·         hood or no hood---that is the quesiton 
·         zippers—right, left, full and ½ 
·         Stash pocket 
·         Pad loops 
·         Trapezoidal footbox 

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