Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Quick Guide To Sleeping Bags For The Backpacker

backpacker sleeping bag guide

While backpackers might use anything from specialized backpacking quilts to simple store-bought fleece blankets, I would guess most use the tried-and-true traditional sleeping bag to snuggle into once night falls on the trail. If you’re new to backpacking, be wary of the size and weight of the bag you choose. This is an area that can really add unneeded weight and bulk very quickly. As always with backpacking, weight and size are the key factors to consider. I would strongly consider keeping your bag weight under 3.5 pounds for most climates (which is actually pretty freaking heavy . 2 pounds or so would be better, but affordable lightweight bags can be tough to find.) Size, shape, insulation type, and temperature ratings are the most important factors to consider in addition to weight. So, let’s get into some specifics….

Down Vs. Synthetic
Most contemporary designs have a nylon shell of some sort and are stuffed with either down (usually goose but sometimes duck) or synthetic insulation (PrimaLoft is one common and respected synthetic fill brand.) Down is typically warmer, compresses smaller, and retains its loft better over time. Down, however, does not insulate well (or at all) when wet, so those backpacking in especially humid or water prone areas might consider synthetics. New designs are being manufactured, however, whereby downs are treated so that they still insulate when wet. Perhaps the distinction between down and synthetics might become moot regarding moisture in the future.  “Fill rating” or “fill power” is something you will see as you shop for down. This refers to how much loft (and, therefore, insulating power) a particular quality of down retains. The higher the number, the better the rating (and the higher the price tag.) The best downs are rated 800-900. I would be very wary of anything below 550, which is at the lower end of fill power ratings. Typically, synthetics are more affordable than down, especially those downs with higher fill power ratings. I personally use a 35 degree synthetic bag most of the time, and have been very happy with its performance thus far (despite a horrible zipper design I'll mention later.)

Size & Shape
mummy, rectangular, or semi-rectangular sleeping bags

Sleeping bags will typically come in shapes such as mummy, rectangular, or semi-rectangular (which is a middle ground between the two.) Bags will also come in differing sizes such as short, regular, long, and big/wide. Lastly, bags are often gendered as male or female and are cut to accommodate the typical differences in male and female bodies, like shoulder and hip girth. Be sure to look at the actual measurements of a bag in the specs area if buying online. A “regular” male bag might only fit someone up to 5’9” comfortably, for instance. Also, consider how much you can handle a restrictive bag if considering a mummy. The bag I use most often is a regular length mummy, and I in the winter when I'm completely locked in with the bag's hood over my head, I often wish I had opted for the "long" model. Don’t get overly seduced by modestly smaller weight if it means less rest at night. I would gladly sacrifice a few more ounces to have a bit more room. Lastly, many manufacturers are creating bag designs that have significant stretch to them, so that even a snug mummy bag allows greater range of movement.

Temperature Ratings
Any reputable sleeping bag will be marketed with a temperature rating. The temperature rating is supposed to provide the lowest temperature rating at which the average backpacker will remain comfortable. Well, the first problem here is who, exactly, is the “average” backpacker? Temperature sensitivity is highly subjective even if we choose to trust a manufacturer's marketing material (though some ratings must meet certain labeling standards.) Be sure to read reviews, ask lots of questions, and be realistic about whether you are a “cold sleeper” or a “warm sleeper” when considering the temperature ratings of a bag. Also be realistic about the temperatures in which you expect to be backpacking. Unless you only plan to camp in warm to mild weather, I would encourage you to look at bags that are rated to 35 degrees and lower. Another thing to consider is that wearing clothing inside your bag can make a huge difference in comfort level. For instance, I have a 35 degree synthetic bag and have been plenty warm in temperatures in the low 20s when I’ve worn an insulated jacket, socks, and a hat to sleep inside it. I am, however, fairly warm natured. An especially cold sleeper might be miserable in that same scenario even if the outside temps were 40 degrees.

I should offer a couple of quick thoughts about zippers. Some bags have designs that only zip 2/3 or 3/4 the length of the bag, while others zip all the way to the foot, and some can be fully unzipped to mimic a flat blanket (especially if rectangular.) Longer zipper lengths add a bit of weight, but they offer more ventilation possibilities. If you’re a warm sleeper, keep that in mind. Also, just out of annoyed spite, I should note that my Mountain Hardwear Lamina 35 bag has the most maddeningly snag-proned zipper I’ve ever encountered ( I actually love and praise the bag other than that.) If you have the opportunity to peruse bags in store, test out the zipper. If it snags at every tug, consider whether you want to deal with that when taking a bathroom break in the middle of the night.

Storage Bags and Compression Sacks


One last thing to consider when thinking of backpacking bags is storage - both at home and in your pack. Better bags will often come with a storage bag for home (usually mesh or canvas) that is large and roomy. This is because leaving a bag compressed in a stuff sack (and especially a compression sack) can lead to the bag losing its loft over time. The down or synthetic insulation needs be able to loft (expand) freely while being stored, otherwise it can become permanently compacted. While in your pack on the trail, however, most will want a tightly compressed bag to save weight (though I’ve read of some thru-hikers keeping their sleeping bags completely out of any storage device and using it to fill the “dead space” in their packs.) I use a compression stuff sack for my main bag which allows it compress down to about the size of a large cantaloupe. If using a compression sack in cold weather, be sure to get your bag out as soon as possible when setting up camp. This allows the bag some time to loft back up before hopping in for sleep. Just like we humans, your bag needs to decompress a little bit after a long hike.

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