Sleeping Bag Guide

Illustration of a girl in a sleeping bag

A sleeping bag is a crucial element of camping, but with so much choice out there it can be confusing as to which one if the best for you. A sleeping bag is one of the essentials needed for camping.

There isn’t one perfect sleeping bag for every occasion, you need to think about what and when you’re going to use the bag.

Style:

Mummy:

This is by far the most common type of sleeping bag and is designed to help keep you warm. The bag narrows at the bottom and expands towards the top, the bags come with a hood to help keep your head warm during the night.

Square:

Due to their design flaws, while they might seem more comfortable to sleep in, they don’t keep the heat in and are therefore used mainly during the warm summer months.

They tend to have a rating on Season 1 (we will come onto seasons later) and tend to be used more in caravans and around the home for guests than for camping.

Pods:

These are more of a recent design style and try and combine the benefits of both, they have more room than the traditional mummy style bag and more warmth than a square style bag. That said they don’t have the same warmth as a mummy style bag.

Seasons:

As we covered earlier sleeping bags are usually grouped by Seasons.

1 Season:

These are usually the lowest rating sleeping bags are usually for the warm period during the summer months. These tend to be used more indoors in either caravans or homes.

2 Seasons:

These are warmer than 1 season bags and are the most common sleeping bag sold, ideal for summer weather as well as warmer nights during late spring and early autumn.

3 Seasons:

These are designed to keep you warm throughout all spring, summer and Autumn allowing you to experience more nights under canvas.

4 Seasons:

These sleeping bags are designed to be used all year round allowing you to go camping when you want.

5 Seasons:

These bags are designed for more extreme conditions, especially up mountains and on cold expeditions. These bags are usually overkill in Britain and aren’t needed, but if you’re doing something a little bit tougher than this bag could be needed.

Understanding the seasons is crucial, getting it wrong and it can mean you have a cold night’s sleep or worse.

Advice: Everyone is different and just because it says it suitable for 2 seasons, if you are a person who feels cold, go safe and add an extra season. It’s far easier to cool down by unzipping the bag slightly than trying to warm up.

Temperature Ratings

As well as listing the seasons, the bags list a temperature rating. In 2005 EU regulators made manufacturers standardise the ratings making it easier for you to compare. While these can be useful they are really only a guide.

Extreme Ratings:

Personally, I would recommend you ignore these, they are usually tested on extreme survival experts and military who are a lot tougher and used to the conditions.

Yes they are technically accurate and under certain conditions can be used down to the temperatures but I wouldn’t rely upon for continual use. Spend the little bit extra and go a season higher than you planned.

Insulation:

This is the stuff that the bag is made from. There are two main types of insulation:

Down:

Down sleeping bags are made with the fine under feathers from ducks or geese. This means the loft of down creates thousands of little air pockets which means that down sleeping bags are much more effective at trapping warm air and retaining the heat, keeping you warm.

Because of the material, they tend to be much lighter than synthetics bags and can compress to a smaller size, meaning they are a favourite of long-distance hikers where weight and space are at a premium. The warmth-to-weight ratio cannot be beaten by a synthetic bag.

Another clever little feature of a down bag is that the bag is broken down into compartments to help keep the bag shape and even warmth around you. Without these compartments, the feathers could gather in one area giving you super warmth there but little warmth elsewhere.

It’s not all good though, there are some downsides to down, firstly the price. They tend to be more expensive than synthetic sleeping bags, but more importantly, they easily absorb moisture when damp. The wet feathers lose their fluffiness and heat insulating properties and can take a lot longer to try. These types are bags are ideal for cold but dry conditions.

Due to the costs, it’s unlikely you would purchase these for family camping, but it’s not recommended anyway due to the fact young children are prone to accidents and getting sleeping bags wet.

Synthetic:

This is the most common type of insulations used in sleeping bags. Synthetic sleeping bags are much cheaper, easier to clean, dries quickly and requires less care than a down sleeping bag. The key difference is when they get wet – they are able to keep around 50% of their insulating ability, so they are a great choice if you’re going to be using it in damp, humid and wet conditions.

That said they aren’t perfect – down has a better weight to warmth ratio and synthetic bags tend to be heavier and bulkier – fine if you’re just throwing it in the boot of your car and finding a campsite, not so great if you’re doing the Hadrian’s Wall. They need more filling to get a similar temperature range as a down bag.

Advice – whichever type you do pick, we would recommend you take the sleeping bag and purchase a separate dry liner bag to store it in. This will help to keep the bag dry allowing you to get a warm night’s sleep.

 

Weight:

This all depends on what you plan on doing with the sleeping bag, if your going away for a week’s camping with the family and taking everything in the car, weight isn’t going to be an issue, whereas if you’re trekking up the mountains in Scotland, every gram is going to make a difference especially on long hikes.

Down bags tend to be lighter than synthetic bags and pack a lot smaller, however, they can cost considerably more.

Advice: If weight really is an issue for your trip and you’re trying to lose as much as possible, get rid of your pillow (we will cover accessories at the end), instead use the clothes you plan on wearing the next day. Two advantages you get a makeshift pillow without the additional weight and your clothes for the next day will be nice and warm when you put them.

Pack Size:

Again this is very similar to weight – it really depends on the circumstances you are wanting to use the bag in. If you’re trekking through Africa and you have to carry everything – pack size will be crucial, you will want it nice and compact.

If you’re just going to your local Haven site for a weekend camping, then size isn’t too much of an issue, especially if you’re driving.

This is another example of where you need to consider when and where you will be using the bag.

Advice: Weight and size don’t always mean warmer, it’s to do with the materials used and the way it’s constructed.

Zips:

Most sleeping bags come with both a right and left side zip and some allow you to zip together a left and right hand sleeping to create a double sleeping bag.

If you’re buying in store, usually on the bag it has a little “L” or “R” label indicating which side the zip is on. Most online stores give you the option, but some don’t.

Advice: Right handed people often find a left-hand zip easier and left-handed people prefer a right-handed zip. Learn which you prefer and go for this.

Me personally I don’t have a preference, so long as it keeps me warm I am happy.

Footbox

Most sleeping bags have a description of Foot Box, but what does it mean?

Basically, the bottom of your sleeping bag is designed to expand at the bottom to allow your feet to lay naturally.

Extra’s

These are available on all sleeping bags but are becoming more common so wanted to cover them.

Inner Pockets:

These have been around the longest and are basically an inner pocket within your sleeping bag to keep your valuables like phone and keys. I personally never use them and just leave the stuff in my sleeping section of the tent. I have never had any security issues whilst camping.

Zipped Pockets:

These are a bit newer but basically, they are what they say, a pocket on the outside of your sleeping bag with a zip. These are sometimes referred to as stash pockets.

group of cheering hikers jumping in a sleeping bags on the seaside

Women’s Sleeping Bags:

While all the above still applies to a woman’s sleeping bag, the only difference between a man’s and a woman’s is the design. They are designed slightly differently to match a woman’s body shaped compared to a man’s.

If a woman slept in a man’s sleeping bag, it’s not really going to make much difference to her night’s sleep and visa versa. My wife sleeps in a man’s bag because we have two identical apart from ones left and one’s right-hand zip so we can zip them together.

 

Kids Sleeping Bags:

In theory, they are the same as above – just made to a smaller size. The big difference will be you will struggle to get the more advanced ratings. They are available on the market but are more difficult to purchase.

Due to the nature of children and accidents, it’s worthwhile getting a synthetic sleeping bag just in case they have an accident and spill a drink etc on the bag.

If you are taking the kids, make sure you read these tips on enjoying camping with kids.

 

What to sleep on

It’s ok having the perfect sleeping bag to match the conditions but having the wrong thing to sleep on can be serious.

You need something to stop you losing your body heat to the ground.

There are several options you can use.

Roll Mats:

These are the most common type and everybody remembers their childhood and using these. Like sleeping bags, these come in different seasons – which basically adds more insulation between you and the ground. I only ever use 4 seasons, while I pay a bit more it means I only need one mat for all year. Unlike a 4 season sleeping bag, you won’t overheat on a wrong season mat, whereas you can lose too much heat if you tried to use a 1 season mat in cold temperatures.

Self Inflating Mats:

These are very similar to roll mats and roll down to about the same size, but they have a little value in them which you open up to allow air in.

For most people, they offer a more comfortable nights sleep than the traditional mat but weigh more and take up slightly more room.

Air Beds:

These come in a wide range of styles and types and some of the more advanced features of air pockets to help you get a decent night’s sleep.

Most people own an airbed for “emergencies” when people come over to stay and usually take these camping.

While they may be popular and fairly cheap and can take up less room than self-inflating mats, they aren’t for me.

I haven’t found one that either doesn’t go down or I can get comfy one, maybe its just I spent so many nights as a kid on a mat, but I just prefer them.

These tend to be used more on family holidays as it’s not something which would easily be chucked into a rucksack.

Campbeds:

These come in a wide variety of styles, shapes and weight – but fundamentally they are a bed which raises you off the ground and collapses fairly small.

They can be bulky and quite heavy, defiantly mostly used when you have transport to your destination and not carrying it around.

The only time I have used one was when I was about 17 and went on a 5-week expedition around Kenya. During the camel trek section we slept under the stars and this meant we weren’t sleeping on the sand and was raised off the ground.

 

I actually find these much more comfortable than airbeds, but because they tend to be larger and off the ground it can mean you touching the side of your tent or it not quite fitting.

If you do purchase one of these, would recommend you trying it out in your back garden for room, if you don’t have space take a roll mat with you just in case.

Extras:

While these aren’t part of a sleeping bag and helping to keep you warm, they can make your camping experience a little bit more comfortable.

Pillows:

We covered pillows earlier, there are several options. You could take your favourite pillow out of the house, not hugely practical if you were backpacking.

Another option is to purchase a blow-up pillow, similar to an air bed these can be fairly comfy and help you get a good night’s sleep.

My favourite method though as mentioned above is to use tomorrow’s clothes as a pillow as well as helping you to get a good night’s sleep, you also get warm clothes to put on in the morning.

If I have room and usually can find it I take a pillowcase to put my clothes in.

Bag Liners:

If you are one of those people who are always cold or you have a 2 season sleeping bag and the weather forecast for your trip means it’s going to get a lot colder than your bag is designed for.

Sometimes purchasing a brand new sleeping bag for one night isn’t the right option, for one it can be quite expensive. An option and this isn’t a long-term strategy is to purchase a sleeping bag liner.

It’s exactly what it says a liner to put inside your sleeping bag to help keep you warm. They usually come in a few materials so chose the ones that are best for you, but great for short term use to help keep you warm.

Another side benefit of these is if you sweat a lot, or are dirty when you get into your sleeping bag, it’s much easier to clean a small bag liner than to try and clean your sleeping bag.

Compression Sacks:

While a sleeping bag usually comes with a decent compression sack sometimes these might break or you need to compress it down further. A specific compression sack can help with this.

Don’t try and compress a sleeping bag too much otherwise, it can damage it heat retention of the bag.

Waterproof compression sacks:

If you’re planning on trekking in wet conditions then this is a must. It will help to keep your sleeping bag dry allowing you to get a good night’s sleep, which can make all the difference to an enjoyable trip.

The key to finding the perfect sleeping bag is to consider what you are going to use it for. Once you know this you can narrow it down using the above info.