by Diane Spicer
Looking for a short list of the best backpacking sleeping bags?
Debating about whether to purchase a backpacking quilt instead?
Not sure what to think about in the sleeping bags versus backpacking quilts dilemma?
Looking for the features to consider when facing the purchase of a new backpacking sleeping bag?
Let's get started!
You can go at this problem of selecting a new sleeping bag from several different directions.
In order to cover all the bases, I'm starting with what I consider to be the most basic problems of sleeping outdoors:
And that's going to take a bit of introspection.
The very first thing to get real about is how cold you are as a sleeper.
If you're a woman who wears footie flannel pajamas to bed and pulls the down comforter up around your ears - in the summertime - your search for the a backpacking sleeping bag is going to be substantially different from a hiker who tosses off the covers in mid-winter.
So don't fool yourself into thinking that you will magically morph into a different type of sleeper under the influence of trail magic.
If you run cold, the temperature rating of the sleeping bag is your first consideration.
For a three season female backpacker, start looking in the +20F range of women specific sleeping bags.
Caveat: These are general ratings, and somewhat unreliable under variable conditions.
Luckily, you can game the system to add warmth to a bag after you purchase it if you find it's a bit too chilly for cooler conditions.
Another consideration is the type of shelter you'll be using on your backpacking adventure.
Each of the following choices provides more (or a lot less) shelter from wind, moisture and cold temperatures.
So be sure to dial down your required warmth rating if you're going to be well protected from Mother Nature's wrath.
Each of us has a favorite way to fall asleep.
I would be shocked if you didn't already know what yours is, but just in case, keep track over the next few nights.
This information is useful when it comes time to narrow down your choices to find the best backpacking sleeping bags for your sleeping style.
Keep reading to combine your sleeping position with your best choices in sleeping bag designs.
I've noticed over the years that some people are what I call "thrashy" sleepers.
They start out in one position, but over the course of an 8 hour sleep cycle, they move around.
If you've shared sleeping quarters with a thrashy sleeper, you know what it's like to be startled out of a sound sleep by someone's elbow in your ear.
Other hikers do their best impersonation of a rolled up rug: put them in one position, and you'll find them in that exact same spot in the morning.
And let's be realistic: some of us alternate between these two extremes depending upon what we had for dinner, how much alcohol or caffeine was consumed in the evening, our stress levels, any physical pain we're experiencing, and the dreams we dream.
But generally, I'm guessing you can place yourself into one of these sleep categories:
Why does this information matter?
Let's answer that question as we look at the types of designs you can expect to find in the best backpacking sleeping bags.
To place this information into the correct context, let's stay with this scenario:
Before we look at the shape of the bag, let's look at what's inside.
You have two basic choices in the best bags on the market, and they will put you firmly into one camp or another in terms of how warm you will stay if your sleeping bag becomes more than a little damp.
They will also put you into different price and weight ranges.
Keep in mind the warmth to weight ratio as you read.
No doubt about it, a backpacking sleeping bag filled with synthetic material will be cheaper up front when compared with a down filled bag.
It will also be heavier, adding additional weight to your load. This becomes more important as the length of your backpacking trip increases.
And here's something that might not occur to you if you've never handled a down filled sleeping bag: it's harder to compress a synthetic filled sleeping bag.
This matters to you because of the volume in your backpack. Every precious liter counts, and you don't want your sleeping bag to hoard room that other gear needs.
The best backpacking sleeping bags should last several seasons - or more (unless you do something egregious to it).
A synthetic filled bag will not have a remarkably long lifespan because synthetic fill will lose loft over time, even more quickly with frequent usage.
One final important note about synthetic fill sleeping bags.
They are miserable to sleep in when they get fully wet. I hope you never, ever have to crawl into one, because that's one badge of veteran hiking that you don't want to earn, trust me.
However, they do have the advantages of retaining some insulating ability when soaked, and drying more quickly than down.
And for hikers who need a hypoallergenic and vegan option, synthetic is the way to go.
I've used synthetic filled bags, and down bags, and to be honest I'm going to state that I prefer down sleeping bags.
Here are my top three reasons: insulation, weight, and water resistance.
Down has admirable insulation properties.
Down is also feather light, making it possible for a well insulated bird to get off the ground.
And here's a fabulous innovation: water resistant down. Combined with water resistant shell fabrics, it takes a lot of exposure to water to get a down sleeping bag wet enough to lose its ability to keep you warm.
Side note of great importance:
Now for the bad news about down: the best backpacking sleeping bags filled with down will be more expensive, and require a bit more care than a synthetic fill bag.
If you're in this backpacking thing for the long haul (backpacking humor!), down will lighten your load, extend the life of your bag, and create a cozy nest for your dream time on the trail. So start saving up!
Tip: Never store your down sleeping bag compressed in a stuff sack or inside your backpack for longer than a day.
Once you're at home, hang it up in your gear locker to avoid creating a "dead spot" where the down has lost its loft.
If you've decided to purchase a down sleeping bag, you're not done yet.
Before we get into the profile of the bag, there's one more number you need to pay attention to: down fill power, reported in a range of 550 to 900.
Power determines how fluffy the down (small feathers located beneath the waterproof outer feathers on ducks and geese) will be if you see a pile of it.
Geeky fact: The sleeping bag manufacturers determine loft by placing a known weight of down into a graduated cylinder to measure the volume the feathers occupy.
And it stands to reason that the more loft, the more insulating value those feathers will give you because they will trap your warmth more efficiently.
If you're a beginner three season backpacker, start out by looking at 800 fill power to get yourself comfortably through your first few years of backpacking.
If you're a summer only backpacker, you can get away with less, but as a female cold sleeper, I wouldn't go below 700 without carrying additional technology for warmth if the weather decides to turn on me.
Tip: Unless you're a mountaineer who plans to sleep in extreme cold and windy conditions, 900 fill would be a waste of your money. But it's really, really warm and light :)
To see how I approach the task of choosing a high quality sleeping bag, read this.
The profile of the best backpacking sleeping bags hews toward the mummy style.
This means there is a hood that can be cinched down around your face, making you resemble ... well, you're probably already ahead of me here.
There are various degrees of mummy-ness however.
And that's important for women hikers who are looking at the best backpacking sleeping bags for their gender.
Why buy a bunch of excess material to haul around if you're a petite or slender female?
But here's a thought.
If you're a thrasher, a very trim profile for a mummy bag might induce nightmares, quite literally.
Even some non-thrashers might find mummy bags to be confining and restrictive when it's time to roll over.
Another consideration: your preferred sleeping position.
To narrow down your quest for the best backpacking sleeping bags for your desired style and location of hiking, pay attention to these numbers:
And one more dimension I have not mentioned yet: length.
Some bags are available in short, regular and long lengths, giving you the ability to factor this into your search for the best backpacking sleeping bags for you.
Need some suggestions for sleeping bags to look at?
I thought you might ;)
Cold, active sleepers:
Inexpensive bag for moderate usage, calm sleepers:
Which one of these descriptions fits you best? There's a bag waiting just for you!
If you are truly concerned about sleeping warm enough for restful sleep during a backpacking trip, this Marmot bag is the answer.
It's not cheap, but it's one of the best light weight bags to eliminate temperature concerns.
If you are looking for a "generalist" type of sleeping bag to go along on different types of three season backpacking trips, here's the one I use.
It's a perfectly cozy cocoon for the cool, damp conditions I love to hike in, and roomy enough to accommodate my side sleeping habit.
Do you feel claustrophic in bags with side zippers, especially if they aren't full length?
Take a look at Patagonia's 850 fill bag.
Cotopaxi's Sueño sleeping bag offers versatile zippers: a traditional right-side zipper, plus a half-length zipper on the left side.
So depending on ambient temperature and your own temperature fluctations (think menopause or pregnancy), you can fold the top section of the bag up or down, or completely unfold it as a blanket covering.
Psssst... you should also be considering backpacking quilts.
If you have the time and patience, you can pay the very best price for the very best backpacking sleeping bags from these trusted merchants:
Tip: When you spot a great deal, jump on it.
These merchants don't keep a steady inventory, so if you wait even one day to purchase, it's likely that the item you want will be long gone.
But that's what makes visiting these website so much fun! You never know exactly what you'll find.
Now that you've read all about how to approach your search for the best sleeping bags, Hiking For Her is standing by to answer your sleeping bag questions.
Use this CONTACT link.
Here's to your comfort, warmth and safety on your next backpacking trip :)
Best Backpacking Sleeping Bags
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About the author
Diane is the founder of Hiking For Her.
She’s been on a hiking trail somewhere in the world for nearly five decades & loves to share her best hiking tips right here.
All rights reserved.
Photo credits: All photos on this website were taken by David Midkiff or Diane Spicer except where noted.
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