A good sleeping bag is worth its weight in gold. It only takes one bad night out, freezing your derriere off at 2am, to swear by everything that’s holy that you’re buying adequate sleeping quarters with your next paycheck. But don’t break the piggy bank just yet; with today’s ever-lighter synthetic fills and a decent sleeping bag liner, having a one-quiver bag is quite affordable.
How to find the right sleeping bag?
If you can afford down—and you’re not an animal rights activist—there’s nothing better to sleep on than a fluffy down sleeping bag. They can weigh up to a third less than it’s synthetic counterparts and they take up less space in your backpack. On the other hand, down requires special care, its almost useless if it gets soaked, and requires more maintenance than your high school sweet heart. Whichever way you go, remember to invest in a good and sturdy liner. There’s many out there. I personally prefer Sea to Summit’s silk liners; they’re warm enough to use by themselves on a hammock on a summer night, or they can add 15 degrees of extra comfort to your bag when you’re winter camping.
That being said, besides down or synthetic fills, other important options to keep in mind when looking for your next bag are: length (for obvious reasons); side of zipper (many manufacturers make bags for left-handed campers); gender (there’s many high quality bags now designed just for the ladies), and of course the most important—temperature. There are some industry standards used to determine how sleeping bags are rated, but temperatures should still be taken with a grain of salt; “sleeping comfort” is a very subjective concept to measure. In my experience, I’ve frozen my feet and spent a miserable night sleeping in a +20 bag on a cold ledge with temperatures in the low 40’s. So if you’re making the investment on a good bag, you want to get something that’s at least rated to +25 Fahrenheit, ideally less, especially if you want to do some sporadic winter camping. If you plan on spending more than a week sleeping on a glacier, you want to get a 4 season and negative rated sleeping bag for sure.
Currently it’s hard to argue that some of the most innovative sleeping bags are coming from Swiss-based Mammut. This year their Kompakt and Alpine line of bags are possibly the lightest synthetic bags you can buy out there. These are definitely the top of the line, no corners cuts, Swiss precisions kind of gear, which also come with the expected price tag.
In the mid price range though, its hard to beat the dependability and affordability of Big Agnes bags. They’re well known for down sleeping bags (and tents), but lately they’ve also been innovating with synthetic fill materials. And they also have one of the widest selections of sleeping bags. Because they’re based in Steamboat Springs, CO, they offer a customer service and a warranty that is second to none. This is especially true if you live anywhere near the Rockies.
If you are on a tight budget, with less than $100 to spend, there is a way to make every penny count. If you can only afford a bag rated to +30 or higher there is really one-way to go: REI. You won’t be paying the big R&D and advertising bucks that major brands demand and you can still get a high quality product. Case in hand their Polar Pod synthetic bag is rated to +30 degrees, but it is only $79 for the small version and $99 for the long.
Overnight bivouacs are over rated. If you spend any amount of time camping you know that after a day breaking a sweat in the great outdoors, there is nothing better than passing out in a warm and cozy sleeping bag, followed by a long night of solid sleep. So save the hard-core adventures for daylight and invest in a good night sleep, or spend a cold night damning yourself wishing you had.