You can’t sleep. It’s freezing, so you try to crawl inside your sleeping bag as deep as you can — leaving only a little opening for your mouth to breathe. Or maybe it’s kind of warm out. You’re too toasty inside the bag but too cold without it.
The trick to foolproof camp z-z-z’s is picking the right sleeping bag for the weather conditions. So we asked Terry Schocke for some help. This man knows his sleeping bags. As director of programs at the BSA’s Northern Tier National High Adventure Bases in northern Minnesota, Schocke helps Scouts prepare for sticky summers, bitter to-the-bone winters and everything in between.
Here’s what he says to consider when buying your next bag:
There’s a wide range. Quality backpacking bags can be found for $75 to $150. Double that price if you’re looking for a down-filled bag. In the $30 to $60 range you’ll find bags that are heavier and won’t pack down quite as well.
“A good rule of thumb is, the more you spend, the more compressible and lightweight the sleeping bag will be,” Schocke says.
DOWN VS. SYNTHETIC
The stuff inside a sleeping bag that keeps you warm is called insulation. There are two main types: down (as in goose down) and synthetic, which is man-made insulation with brand names like Quallofil, PrimaLoft and Fiberfill.
“Compared with synthetic bags, down is more compressible, durable and lighter for the same warmth,” Schocke says. “But it doesn’t handle moisture well and is tougher to care for.”
Schocke recommends that Scouts stick with synthetic bags because they work well, are simple to care for (machine washable) and are much less expensive.
Most bags have a temperature rating on the tag. It’ll say something like: +30° or -20°. This tells you, roughly, the minimum temperature that will be comfortable while in that bag.
“It’s important to know there’s no industry standard about how they determine temperature ratings,” Schocke says. “Those are just generic guidelines.”
Also, keep in mind how you sleep — temperature-wise, that is. Are you a hot sleeper? Or do you always seem to be colder than your friends? If you’re a cold sleeper, for example, go with a bag that’s rated for colder temperatures.
Sleeping bags come in two main shapes: rectangle and mummy. Rectangular bags are roomier, giving you more room to roll around and are best for summer camping. They also weigh more and don’t pack down as well. Mummy bags are best for colder conditions. They hug your body, and most come with a hood you can cinch down over your head.
“The tighter it fits, the warmer it’s going to be,” Schocke says. “It’s best to get the smallest bag you can feel comfortable in.”
That way your body doesn’t waste energy trying to heat up a lot of extra space. However, you don’t want it so tight that it restricts circulation or compressibility. And in winter you may want a little extra space in the foot area to keep boots warm, dry out gloves or to keep a water bottle from freezing.
WEIGHT & COMPRESSIBILITY
If you’re backpacking, it’s important to find a bag that’s lightweight and compressible. The most compressible bags can be stuffed until slightly larger than a volleyball. Sleeping bags can be made to take up less space in your pack by using a compression stuff sack.