Last Updated on October 14, 2020 by Derrick
When I first starting backcountry camping, I brought a wool blanket with me for my first outing. I figured if the old timers used them it would be good enough for me.
As it started getting dark I crawled into my tent rolled out my wool blanket and crawled under for the night. Shortly after, I realized I was probably going to have a miserable nights sleep. The blanket was too short, I could not wrap it properly and was unable to cover both my feet and my shoulders at the same time.
That night it got down past 32 degrees, there was frost in the morning covering everything. I froze and shivered all night, even with sleeping with all of my clothes and jacket on. Not to mention the wool blanket weight like 10
This taught me a valuable lesson:
1) Test out gear in your backyard or close to home where if something doesn’t work out you can jump into the house easily. This will give you time to work out and kinks in your gear.
2) Do not skimp on your sleep system; a good nights sleep is worth a million dollars.
When choosing your sleeping bag there are a number of things you need to consider for your sleep system, the three most important things you have to look at are what environment are you going to use the sleeping bag in, how far are you going to carry the sleeping bag (ie hiking vs car camping) and getting the proper sleeping bag for your size and shape.
There are three important measurements for fitting a sleeping bag these include:
- Shoulder Girth
- Hip Girth
- Overall Length
Shoulder girth is the circumference of the sleeping bag across the shoulders. Most sleeping bags made for men have 60″ to 64″ shoulder girth. Women’s sleeping bags are narrower usually around the 55″ to 60″ range.
It is important to get the right circumference bag because if you squeeze into a bag that is too small for your shoulders you will either be unable to zip it or you will have cold spots as you will compress the insulation within the sleeping bag.
Hip girth varies between bags, generally speaking, men’s sleeping bags have a narrower hip girth than women’s bags which are slightly wider to accommodate wider hips.
Most sleeping bags come in two different lengths regular and long. Regular sleeping bags are usually made for individuals that are up to 6ft in height with the ideal height being around 5’10” or so.
Long sleeping bags usually fit individuals from 6ft to 6′ 6″. If you are taller than this, unfortunately, you will have to look into custom bags, or a custom made quilt may be cheaper for you.
As with most things a sleeping bag is an important investment. Be prepared to spend a decent amount of money on a good quality bag. Generally speaking the lighter and more compact a bad the more expensive, it will cost. If you are doing car camping where weight and space isn’t as much of a consideration you can get a quality sleeping bag for a more affordable price.
For most people, the sleeping bag will be the largest single item in your pack and probably one of the heaviest items as well. Certain sleeping bags are lighter and more compact than others. Generally speaking down sleeping bags will be more compact and lighter weight than synthetic ones
Sleeping bags come in different temperature ratings; there is no one bag that covers all conditions. If you go out in the dead of winter, you will need a different rated bag than if you go out in the spring or fall. Many sleeping bag companies use a rating scale called the EN rating system; the goal is to have a consistent rating system to compare bags from different manufacturers. Unfortunately, not all sleeping bag companies use this scale.
When selecting a bag it is important you add roughly 10 degrees to the rating. For example, a 0 degree F bag you would survive in 0 degrees, but still feel cold. The comfort rating for the average person in this bag would be around 10 degrees. If you are a cold sleeper, you might want to buy a bag and add 15 degrees to the rating to add buffer zone. Remember this is just a rule of thumb and you may need to adjust this for your own needs.
We highly recommend testing your sleeping bag out in similar conditions you expect to use it in, but where you are close to a heated shelter incase something goes wrong. Once you are satisfied with this test run, you can use the sleeping bag in the back country with a piece of mind that it will perform well.
Down vs Synthetic
Warmth vs. Weight: When talking about down vs. synthetic insulation with sleeping bags each has advantages and disadvantages. From the perspective of warmth to weight ratio down is warmer per ounce that it weighs.
Compressibility: Down will compress smaller than synthetic insulations will.
Performance when damp (or wet): Synthetic insulation is a better choice if you are in wet conditions or very humid conditions. It will keep you warmer and will not retain water as much as down.
Price: Synthetic sleeping bags are cheaper than down sleeping bags of similar brand and quality.
How To Prolong The Life
To prolong the life of your sleeping bag there are a number of things that you can do. The two most important things is 1) Keeping it clean and 2) Storing it properly.
When you get home from a camping trip at a minimum you should air out your bag to get an slight smells time to go away and ensure that any moisture is gone from the bag.
If the bag is particularly soiled you should follow the care instructions which are usually either on the bag itself or from the manufactures website.
Caring For Your Sleeping Bag In Camp
The most important step to prolonging the life of your sleeping bag is how you treat your sleeping bag once you hit your camping spot. When you stop hiking for the day or arrive at your destination setup your tent, inflate your sleeping pad and unstuff your sleeping bag so it fluffs up, the longer over your sleeping bag’s lifespan that you keep it compressed the the quicker it will lose its loft.
Once it is time to go to sleep you should change into clean clothes, I often bring a dedicated pair of poly pros or thin fleece pants and a t shirt to sleep in. This helps keep general trail dirt and/or oils or sweat from your body getting on the inside of the sleeping bag
Another option that I use in my more expensive sleeping bags is a sleeping bag liner. Sleeping bag liners come in various material from cotton, fleece or silk, they are fairly compact and light weight and can help keep you sleeping bag clean while also adding a little warmth.
The next morning you should air out you sleeping bag, I simply turn the sleeping bag inside out and keep it in my tent. If it is especially damp from sweat or condensation (say near the foot end), then you can turn it inside out and put it outside but do not leave it in the sun for prolonged periods of time as the UV rays from the sun can impact the sleeping bag.
Storing your sleeping bag properly will ensure you have years of use out of a quality bag you purchase. Store it improperly and you will have frustrating results as it will lose loft and the temperature ratings will be inaccurate.
With that said even the most meticulous care regime any sleeping bag will progressively over the years break down and show it’s age.
But the old saying is true, a bit of standard upkeep and care can go a long way.
To store your sleeping bag you should it has been properly dried if on a damp outing (or from condensation in the winter) and free of any smells.
You should then follow one of the below methods:
1) Hand the sleeping bag in a mesh or cotton laundry bag that is larger than the sleeping bag (so it does not get compressed)
2) Another option is to lay the sleeping bag flat, some people wrap the bag in a cotton bed sheet and place it under a spare bed in the house
Sleeping Bags Vs Quilts
Sleeping bags vs. quilts is an age old debate. Many of the classic hikers and campers prefer sleeping bags because they are time tested. Many ultra light hikers are starting to use quilts, as well as individuals who sleeping in hammocks.
Sleeping bags are easy to find online and anywhere where outdoors goods are sold, while quilts are harder to find and pretty much need to be purchased from small mom and pop online manufacturers.
The main benefit of a quilt is it does away with zippers, so they are easy to enter and exit. But they can be hard to keep from having cold spots if you move around a lot or are unable to adjust it just right.
Ultimately it is a personal preference, I have had a good nights sleeping using both, but personally prefer sleeping bags for most instances.
For Big Men
Big guys have a unique situation to deal with. If you buy a sleeping bag that is too tight even if you can zip it up, you risk compressing the insulation and lessening the effectiveness of the insulation. Likewise, if you buy a sleeping bag that is too loose you could have cold pockets that your body heat cannot heat up.
It can be a frustrating buying search to purchase the right sleeping bag, fear not,there are some options for you.
Most sleeping bags come in standard and tall variants, if you are over six foot tall you should consider a tall sleeping bag.
If you carry a few extra pounds sometimes it can be harder to find a sleeping bag. You have to understand as a larger person the sleeping bag is going to weigh more. It has to have more insulation and material to accommodate the larger size.
If you are car camping or not hauling the sleeping bag for long distances consider the US Military Modular Sleep System:
If you are looking for a down sleeping bag Montbell makes a spiral super stretch sleeping bag that is specially designed to move with your body. It works fairly well for larger individuals.
Sleeping Bags For Bushcraft
Bushcraft is a popular term for wilderness survival skills. It involves learning the skills required to thrive in the natural environment. Practitioners of bushcraft study firecraft, shelter building, foraging and constructing things out of natural materials.
While sleeping in a natural shelter with a pine bough bed is great for ones knowledge you are not going to want to build a shelter/bed every time you visit the forest. Having a proper sleep system of a sleeping bag, pad and shelter are necessary for outings when you want to focus on things other than shelter craft.
Bushcraft does not have a single type of trip. If you are going on a long distance hike and camp, you need a different type of sleeping bag than if you are at a drive-up campsite where you are just taking a relaxing weekend to practice some skills.
For lightweight bushcraft sleeping bags, I would look above light weight section for hiking or best ultra light sleeping bags. These bags will work just find for bushcraft.
Another value option is the US Military Sleep System (MSS). This is a whole system that comprises of a Gortex bivy bag, a heavy weight black bag and a summer weight green bag. They all nest and snap together so you can combine everything and you have a really warm sleep system for cold weather/winter conditions.
The downside of the MSS Sleep System is it is bulky and heavy; it often won’t fit in most packs. With that said I have one and I use it for winter camp outs and parts of the system year round.