How to Choose a Sleeping Bag for Camping (Complete Guide)

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A sleeping bag is an essential piece of gear for camping. In this post, we’ll go over all the things you need to know when choosing a sleeping bag for camping or backpacking!

showing sleeping bags for camping and backpacking

In this sleeping bag guide we’ll cover:

  • sleeping bag temperature ratings
  • the different styles of sleeping bags
  • the difference between synthetic vs down

Since sleeping bags can be expensive and you don’t want to be cold at night, it’s worth thinking through all the options before you buy so you can choose a sleeping bag that’s going to work for your adventures and last you a long time!

What to Consider When Choosing a Sleeping Bag

1. Sleeping Bag Temperature Rating

Sleeping bags come with temperature ratings.

The temperature rating identifies the lowest temperature at which the bag was designed to keep the average sleeper warm.

An important thing to note here are the words “average sleeper”.

I’m not an average sleeper. I sleep a lot colder than average and I need to consider that when I choose a sleeping bag temperature. Women tend to sleep colder than men.

In general, you want a sleeping bag with a temperature rating that’s lower than the lowest temperature you expect to encounter.

BUT, a temperature rating does not guarantee warmth.

For example, I have a 10°F bag which means 10°F is the lowest temperature that the bag was designed to keep the average sleeper warm.

As I mentioned above, I’m not an average sleeper, so I should not expect to camp at 10°F and be warm.

If you’re hot, you can always open your sleeping bag to avoid overheating. If you’re cold, there’s not a lot you can do. It can be uncomfortable at best, and dangerous at worst.

Key Takeaway: What is the lowest temperature you expect to camp in? For me, I tend to camp in weather no colder than 20°F to 30°F, so my 10°F bag is sufficient.

Other factors, such as what you’re wearing, the weather, your tent, and your sleeping pad will also affect your warmth, so this temperature rating is not set in stone and will work with your other gear.

RELATED >> Learn all about sleeping pads for campers

2. Sleeping Bag Shape and Weight

The next thing to consider when buying a sleeping bag is the weight.

The warmer your bag (lower temperature rating), the more insulation it will need, and therefore, the heavier it will be.

When comparing bag weights, make sure you’re comparing bags with the same temperature rating. The other thing that will affect the sleeping bag’s weight is the shape of your sleeping bag.

There are a few different shapes – mummy bags, rectangular-shaped bags, and modified mummy bags.

Mummy bags are a slim cut and they have a hood that can be cinched down at night to increase warmth.

On the other end of the spectrum is a rectangular-shaped bag, which is the classic camping bag that you’re probably familiar with. This is the most roomie style, but also probably the heaviest.

Right in the middle of the mummy bags and the rectangular bags, there are modified mummy bags, which are just a little more roomie than a mummy bag, but not as big as the rectangle-shaped bags.

I use a mummy bag to maximize warmth and minimize weight.

A hood is an absolute must on a sleeping bag for me. Having a hood makes a huge difference if you’re cold. This is the sleeping bag I currently use.

3. Type of Insulation

The next thing to consider is the type of insulation in your sleeping bag.

There are two types of sleeping bags – synthetic and down. Of course, there are pros and cons to both.

Down sleeping bags are lighter and more compressible than synthetic ones. They’re also more durable, so they’ll likely outlast a synthetic sleeping bag.

But not all down is the same. The quality of the down is important.

To gauge the quality of the down, you can look for the fill power spec (sometimes called the insulation spec). The higher the number, the higher the down lofts, creating greater warmth for its weight.

The main con to down sleeping bags is that they do not insulate when wet, and some people can be allergic to them.

Which leads us to synthetic sleeping bags.

Synthetic sleeping bags are often cheaper than down sleeping bags and they do insulate when wet, so they’re a great choice for damp climates.

The cons are that they don’t compress as well as down sleeping bags making them bulkier and they might also be heavier.

In addition, some people are allergic to down sleeping bags in which case a synthetic is the only option.

*Further Reading >> How to Clean a Down Sleeping Bag (step-by-step tutorial)

How to Choose a Sleeping Bag for Camping

The three things to consider when looking for a sleeping bag are temperature ratings, weight, and the type of insulation.

A lot of sleeping bag brands try and differentiated themselves with additional sleeping bag features that might help you make a decision. Just remember that the main purpose of a sleeping bag is to keep you warm, so I would prioritize that.

Sleeping Bags for Car Camping:

When you are driving a vehicle up to a campsite, the weight and bulkiness probably don’t matter as much compared to when you’re backpacking.

Sleeping Bags for Backpacking:

When you’re backpacking and you need to store all your gear in a backpack and hike to a destination to camp, then the weight and packability of your sleeping bag become really important.

I have a 10°F down sleeping bag that I use for both backpacking and car camping. It is warm enough for just about all the camping that I do, and it’s lightweight and packable for when I take it backpacking.

In terms of style, I prefer a mummy sleeping bag. The shape keeps the size down and the hood is an absolute must for me. I hood can make or break a night in the tent and can really make a huge difference, so for me, that’s a feature that I really prioritize.

How to Choose a Sleeping Bag for Backpacking

If you have any questions, chat with me in the comments below!

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