How To Choose Backpacking Sleeping Bag


A sleeping bag is one of the most important backpacking gear pieces. It provides you with a comfortable place to relax and lay your head after a long day of backpacking.

However, an ill-suited bag can turn the trip you have been planning for so long into a nightmare. The best sleeping bag for backpacking is one that allows your body to recuperate effectively and function better on the succeeding hikes. It is warm, well insulated, and easily portable.

But selecting a backpacking sleeping bag can be overwhelming especially nowadays when there are so many options and features to choose from. That’s why we have compiled a simple breakdown of things to consider while choosing a sleeping bag for your next backpacking adventure.

1. Sleeping Bag Type

How to choose a sleeping bag for backpacking depends on the time of the year you plan to take your trip. Typically, sleeping bags fall under three major categories – winter, summer, and three-season.

Winter bags are puffy and are designed with more insulation than their summer counterparts are. Most come with zipper draft tubes, hoodies, and draft collars to beef up warmth retention. If you are aiming at backpacking in the rain or areas whose temperatures are below 20˚F, you may want to invest in a winter sleeping bag. The only downside is that these types of bags are bulky, so you will need to compress them as much as you can for them to fit in the pack.

Summer bags, on the other hand, are lightweight, as they don’t come with too much insulation. They are meant to be used in temperatures of 30˚F and above. In most cases, sleeping bags for hot weather are just simple sacks that zip almost completely open to allow for ventilation when it gets muggy and sweaty during the night. They lack draft collars and hoods, as no sane backpacker would need these on a hot night.

The last category of backpacking sleeping bags is the three-season. These are suitable for fall and spring trips when the temperatures are just about or above 20˚F. Adventurers making their trip in summer to the high mountains where temperatures go below freezing point during the nights can invest in three-season sleeping bags as well. Just like winter bags, these have added features like zipper draft tubes, draft collars, and tightly fitting hoodies to withstand cold temperatures.

2. Temperature Ratings

Different sleeping bags come with different temperature ratings depending on the season or weather in which they are meant to be used. For instance, backpacking bags designed for winter will have a rating of about 20˚F and below. Three-season bags will have a rating of between 20˚F and 30˚F and summer bags will be rated at 30˚F and above.

When selecting a sleeping bag, it is important to find out more about the temperature of the area you will be visiting. Ideally, you should get a bag that has a lower rating than the lowest temperatures you will be encountering. If you are making a trip to an area where the temperature is almost at freezing point, better to pick a sleeping bag rated 15˚F instead of 30˚F. In case it gets hotter than you anticipated, just open the bag so it doesn’t overheat.

3. Shape

While many backcountry travelers may not consider the shape as a factor while selecting a backpacking sleeping bag, it is one of the things that will determine how warm or cold your nights will be.

First, let’s understand how sleeping bags work. A sleeping bag traps air and holds it close to your skin. When your body generates heat, it conducts it through the skin and warms the trapped air so you can stay warm. Now, a bag that fits your body shape and size is more efficient as it will heat the air faster and keep you warm longer. A roomy bag on the other hand will be an added weight to your backpack – something you don’t want!

Mummy bags and semi-rectangular bags, for instance, are designed such that they leave little space between your skin and the sleeping bag. They are more versatile and can be used for both hiking and car camping. If you have a bigger frame or don’t like the cocoon feeling of mummy bags, a semi-rectangular bag will be the perfect choice for you.

4. Insulation

When it comes to choosing a sleeping bag for backpacking, knowing what material is used for insulation is important. You want to make sure that your bag can keep you warm the entire night.

The backpacking sleeping bags available in the market today are made of either synthetic or down insulation. How you intend to use your bag, the atmospheric conditions of the area you will be traveling to, your experience level, and of course your budget will determine what type of insulation you will go for.

Both synthetic and down insulations have their good side and bad. Knowing their differences and characteristics will help you make an informed decision.

Synthetic Insulation

A synthetic sleeping bag is usually made of polyester. It dries quickly and can provide insulation even when wet. If you are backpacking in wet weather, a bag made of synthetic material will be your best bet.

Synthetic sleeping bags are less expensive and non-allergic. The downside? They are typically heavier and bulkier and don’t compress like down bags.

Down Insulation

Down sleeping bags are lighter and more efficient than synthetic ones. They are also more compressible, a huge advantage for hikers and backpackers who want to save some space in their packs. Down insulation is longer lasting too and retains a consistent level of heat for many years.

However, down bags are more pricey but this depends on their fill power. Fill power is the specification used to measure the quality of down. The most expensive down sleeping bags will have a higher number indicated on them, and mostly these will be winter bags. The higher the number, the warmer the bag is.

Fill power ranges between 500 and 800. So if you are traveling to an area with extremely cold temperatures, you may want to consider a bag with a fill power closer to 800.

To prevent loss of insulation when wet, most down sleeping bags are coated with a water-repellent treatment. This enables you to stay warm and dry even in the dampest conditions. Some sleeping bags come with a down filling on top so they can loft better and a synthetic filling on the bottom to compress less.

5. Weight

Truth be told, no one wants to carry a heavy sleeping bag, as this would mean added weight on your back and shoulders, which can lower your pace on the trail. Because you will be carrying the bag on your back, go for something that has the least weight but still keeps you warm and comfortable.

A sleeping bag requires an insulation fill to keep you warm and the more the insulation, the more the warmth, and the more the weight. However, the overall weight of the sleeping bag is what matters and it’s what you should consider when deciding what to buy. Ideally, the best sleeping bag will weigh less than 5 pounds or 20% of the backpack weight.

6. Features


Apart from temperature ratings, weight, and insulation, there are several other things you should look at when purchasing your backpacking sleeping bag. These include:

Hood: A huge amount of heat is lost from our bodies through the head so you must keep this part of your body covered throughout the night. A sleeping bag hoodie will provide additional warmth. If you are backpacking in winter, secure this firmly around your head to minimize heat loss.

Draft tubes: These are found behind the zipper and are meant to prevent warm air from leaving the bag. At the top section of your bag just around the neck are the draft collars that retain heat and keep warm air trapped inside.

Zipper guard: Sometimes a zipper can jam when you try to close or open your sleeping bag. Constant zipper snags can cause wear on its fabric and if you don’t know how to fix a sleeping bag zipper, your bag may not be able to serve the purpose it is intended for. However, this problem can be solved by investing in a bag that has an anti-snag zipper feature. It can be either a guard that runs along the full length of the zipper or a zipper cover.

Side zips: If you will be bringing your spouse along and want the two of you to spend the night next to each other, you may consider sleeping bags with side zippers. One bag needs to have a right-hand zip and the other one a left-hand zip. Just make sure that the two have similar zippers so that they can fit snuggly together. But if you think you will be doing this often, it would be wise, to get a double sleeping bag instead. This one will be much cheaper than having to buy two sleeping bags, will keep you warmer, and of course, add a little romance to the air.

Pockets: Where will you put your phone, watch, and other important small items while you sleep? Chances are good that you want these to be as close at hand as possible. A sleeping bag with pockets to stash small items will be ideal any day. In most cases, pockets will be located close to the top of the sleeping bag where you can reach with just an inch stretch of your hand.

Sleeping pad loops: If you will be hiking in cold and wet weather, you may want to add a sleeping pad to the setup. Sleeping pads offer added insulation but these are sold separately. You want to make sure that the bag you get for your adventure has loops where you can strap your sleeping pad.

Pillow casing: Contrary to the ordinary pillowcases, a sleeping bag pillowcase comes in form of a pocket where you can tuck some clothes to form a pillow. Most bags with this feature are a little pricey but this should not be a cause for worry. You can always get a bag without a pillow pocket and purchase a pillow separately or bring one from home. Easy peasy!

Stuff sack: This can be a sleeping bag feature or accessory. A stuff sack is what allows you to compress your bag easily into something small that can be packed with ease. If your bag doesn’t come with a stuff sack, you can buy it separately.

Sleeping bag storage: If you know how to properly store a sleeping bag, then you must know how important a storage sack is. Get a bag with large cotton or mesh storage sack. You don’t want to leave your sleeping bag compressed in the stuff sack for a long time, as this can damage the loft and reduce the insulation efficiency of the bag.

Liner: You want your sleeping bag to last as long as possible and keep you warm. One way to do this is to buy sleeping bag accessories that make it more durable. Sleeping bag liners, for instance, should be the first thing to think about after you have purchased your bag. These keep the bag clean, reduce wear and tear, and provide additional warmth.

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Apart from the tent, your sleeping bag is the second important piece of equipment in backpacking. Nevertheless, you have to buy the right one to reap the maximum benefits of sleeping bags. A backpacking sleeping bag should be of the right shape, have proper insulation and temperature settings, and most importantly, it must be suited for the weather.

Hopefully, the above guide will help you make the most informed decision on your buy. There are many sleeping bag options to consider based on the information laid out here. Just make sure your choice has all the features you like, get you sleeping comfortably, and keeps you warm.

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My name is David Hamburg. I am an avid water sports fan who enjoys paddle boarding, surfing, scuba diving, and kite surfing. Anything with a board or chance I can get in the water I love! I am such a big fan I decided to start this website to review all my favorite products and some others. Hope you enjoy!