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There seems to be a trend in not giving much attention when choosing a sleeping bag. That’s too bad, as a hiker spends as much time in his bag than on the paths, and this time must be used to have a good sleep and to recover from the efforts of the day.
It is therefore imperative that a sleeping bag plays its role well, especially if the temperature is low, or the climate is humid.
This article answers a set of questions to help you choose sleeping bags in the following categories: ultra-lightweight sleeping bags, bags for extreme temperatures, down insulation, or just comfortable bags.
You will need to choose your sleeping bag following various criteria, such as:
- whether you will sleep in a tent or in a refuge,
- what temperature rating of a sleeping bag you need,
- whether you should choose a down insulated sleeping bag or consider a synthetic insulated sleeping bag,
- and finally, what are the best solutions in terms of efficiency/weight because in the end, it is always a matter of what you will carry.
Comparison Table of the Best Backpacking Sleeping Bags
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Sleeping bag and temperature
The industry uses a system of temperature rating for sleeping bags that is supposed to guide consumers in their purchase. It is the European Standard EN 13537, which has been adopted by most manufacturers in which the goal is to assess objectively the actual performance of sleeping bags. In the framework of this standard, the manufacturer of the sleeping bag must submit 4 temperature values on its bag if it wants to be compliant with these rules.
- The upper limit temperature: it is the highest temperature to which an adult man can sleep without being excessively warm (to the point of sweating).
- The comfort temperature: it is the temperature to which a woman will sleep comfortably.
- The lower limit temperature: this is the lowest temperature at which a man adult can sleep without the sensation of cold.
- The extreme temperature: below this temperature, survival is at risk for an adult woman.
The choice of a sleeping bag will in no case rely on the values of extreme temperature, because the sensations of cold, the risk of hypothermia, are real below the lower limit temperature.
Good measurement will be somewhere between the comfort and the lower limit temperatures and these are, in general, the values communicated by the manufacturers and the stores.
Sleeping bag in a refuge
On the most frequented mountain hiking paths, we can often find shelters or cabins which offer beds. You just have to take your sleeping bag. Most of the time, hikers will take an over-calibrated sleeping bag thinking they will be too cold. It is rarely the case.
In summer, do not make the mistake of taking a sleeping bag that is too hot because it will probably not be less than 50°F (10°C) in the dormitory. Except if you plan on sleeping in a bivouac one or two nights during your hike, a light sleeping bag is sufficient, let’s say rated for 50°F (10°C).
Sleeping bag in the outdoors
Outside a refuge where the temperature is very temperate, a sleeping bag will protect you from the cold at night. You will also have to consider various elements that may influence the effectiveness of your sleeping bag:
- The outside temperature at night;
- The quality of the tent, if you have one;
- The climate, dry or humid;
- The quality of your floor mat;
- Extra clothing;
- A sleeping bag liner.
The European standard of temperature rating is quite a limited method that does not take into account the actual conditions in hiking. If you have a good tent, one that will effectively protect from the wind, a floor mat of quality, if there are two of you in the tent and if you preheat the inside of the tent before sleeping, you will easily gain 37°F to 39°F (3°C to 4°C) of temperature on the performance of the sleeping bag.
However, if you sleep without a tent, under a tarp for example, and with the addition of wind, you can easily lower the limit temperature by 40°F (5°C). If the weather is humid, even more. You will need to take into account the outside elements and anticipate the situation that you will encounter based upon your common sense.
You must also have in mind that the information concerning the thermal properties of a sleeping bag are values from the laboratory; in practice, the sensitivity to hot and cold varies among individuals and may in all cases be influenced by factors such as the level of fatigue, hunger, the mental state or the quality of the gear in general. And so when the night comes, for equivalent sleeping bags, we will be less tolerant if we were cold all day long than with good insulation clothing.
Down or synthetic sleeping bag?
One of the important questions that usually arises when it comes to choosing is: should I take a sleeping bag with down insulation or a synthetic sleeping bag? Each option has its advantages and disadvantages.
- Advantage: better thermal performance for usually less weight. Compressibility;
- Disadvantage: loss of its capabilities in a humid environment, and higher price.
- Advantage: some materials remain very efficient in wet weather;
- Disadvantage: greater weight, larger volume, even if the differences with the down insulation tend to diminish.
The conclusion is simple. If financially possible, choose a down sleeping bag unless you know that the climate will be wet (really wet), or if you focus on some new technology of water-resistant down insulation that some top manufacturers are working on in the last few years.
For example, a destination like Iceland which is not known for its dry climate will not pose any problem if you sleep in a good tent.
If you are a bivouac or tarp fan, you should lean towards a synthetic insulation sleeping bag.
If you are looking for the in-between solution, like a hybrid down/synthetic insulation, keep in mind that this technology is still under development right now.
Weight of the sleeping bag
As with everything, you will need to carry your sleeping bag. As much as it is possible to spare important weight on the tent or the backpack, the differences in weight between two sleeping bags, a light and a heavy one, rarely exceed 500g (for comparison purposes). For a comfort temperature of 32°F (0°C), the weight of a sleeping bag will be between 800g to 1.3kg.
The thermal capacity of a sleeping bag is so important, and knowing that you will spend long hours in it, it is not wise to want to spare a few grams on this item from your hiking gear list.
However, if you want to emphasize the lightness, you can consider taking a sleeping bag that will be under-rated, 40°F (5°C) for example, but then complement it with a down jacket.
The jacket will then have 2 functions: keep you warm at the end of the day, at dinner time, or before bedtime, but also complement the sleeping bag for the night. With equivalent thermal capacity, the combination of the clothing/sleeping functions can save you a few hundred grams.
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