“I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know.”
~ Ernest Hemingway
Perhaps the most cherished item in a hiker’s kit. After a long day on the trail is there anything better than crawling into a warm sleeping bag and drifting off to Mother Nature’s wondrous soundtrack?
Intangibles aside, it’s important to have a sleeping bag that meets both your own individual needs and the dictates of the environment into which you are venturing. Consider the following points:
Down Vs Synthetic
Generally speaking down bags have a better warmth to weight ratio, last longer and are more compressible than their synthetic equivalents.
The primary negative commonly associated with them is that they are useless when wet. I’ve always felt this backpacking “truism” to be overly dramatic. The fact is, it takes quite a lot to completely soak the insulation of a sleeping bag. We’re talking getting slam-dunked during a river crossing or standing underneath a waterfall. The occasional bit of transferred moisture from the inner wall of your tent or tarp doesn’t do too much harm, and will generally dry out pretty quickly if you lay your bag out in the sun during a midday break.
The key is simply to take some basic precautions in order to keep your bag dry. Line the inside of your backpack with a garbage/trash compactor bag. If you know you have some pretty serious river fords coming up, put your down items (along with electronics) in a separate dry bag inside your liner. Prevention is better than cure.
Almost forgot. If you do feel the need to stand beneath a waterfall, be sure to take your pack off first.
The Ratings Game
Just because a company claims that a bag is rated to “X” ° celsius/fahrenheit, doesn’t necessarily make it so. Traditionally such ratings tend to be a little on the high side of your average person’s reality. For example, a -9°c / 15° F bag that leaves you shivering when the temperature is hovering around freezing.
Fortunately in recent years companies such as Katabatic Gear have joined long time market leaders such as Feathered Friends, Western Mountaineering and Marmot, in placing a higher emphasis on accuracy when it comes to rating their products. Before purchasing your sleeping bag, scour the internet for as many reviews as possible. It won’t take long for you to discover whether the bag you are looking at is everything it is made out to be by the manufacturers.
It is worth noting that generally speaking, women tend to sleep 5 to 10 degrees colder than men.
Warm or Cold Sleeper?
Before shelling out big bucks on an expensive sleeping bag, it pays to have an idea where you are situated on the scale of warm to cold sleepers.
For example, if winter is approaching and you are still sleeping in shorts and t-shirt while everyone else around you has broken out the heavy-duty thermal underwear, chances are you are a warm sleeper.
Two For One
If most of your hiking is done with a spouse or partner, it may be a good idea to buy bags with compatible zippers. That is, one with a left hand zip and one with a right hand zip. The shared body heat will increase the warmth factor considerably.
If you would like to take things a step further and save even more weight, you and your partner may consider investing in a 2 person quilt (see The Big Three in GOING LIGHT). However, before making such a purchase, take a moment to think. A double quilt may be fine for “cuddly” sleepers, but not so good for those who need their own space. Definitely steer clear of this option if your partner is a “blanket” hoarder.
Shape & Size
When it comes to sleeping bags, most hikers go for mummy models, which are wider at the top and taper in towards the bottom. However, if you are a restless sleeper who tends to move around a lot, you might consider buying a wider bag. You really can’t put a price on a good night’s sleep.
Note that roomy bags mean more airspace, which in turn translates to loss of warmth.
You Get What You Pay For
While most lightweight hiking gear is less expensive than its heavier equivalents, the opposite is true of sleeping bags (and all down products, for that matter). A good down sleeping bag is not cheap.
One factor which provides a clue as to the bag’s quality is its fill power. Basically, a high fill power (eg. 800+) equates to better quality down, which means superior insulation and warmth to weight ratio. In real terms, upgrading from a down bag with 600 fill-power to one with 800 fill-power, both of which have the same temperature rating, can mean a weight saving of up to 300grams (10.6 ounces). The catch? Bags with higher fill powers are more expensive.
Sleeping Bag Liner
They keep the inside of your sleeping bag cleaner and add up to 5 degrees of warmth. Personally I don’t carry one when I am hiking. I would rather utilize the extra weight to bring along a beanie and a warm thermal top that will keep me toasty inside my bag and be useful outside as well.
I recommend full length zippers over their half sized equivalents, as this gives you the option of using your bag as a quilt when temperatures are warmer.
Hood & Neck Collar
A large amount of body heat is lost through our head. An insulated collar and a well-contoured hood make for a warmer sleep. Alternatively, a beanie and shirt wrapped around your neck should do the trick.
Insulation from the Ground
Keep in mind that a sleeping bag, no matter how warm its rating, will not be able to perform to its optimum level without adequate insulation from the ground. In cold weather, a sleeping mat is vital in preventing your body temperature from dropping due to conductive heat loss to the ground. See the Sleeping Mat section for more details.
Sleeping Bags Vs Sleeping Quilts
For much of my backpacking life, I chuckled at the idea of swapping my sleeping bag for a quilt. For a life-long side sleeper, I couldn’t see how it would be possibly be as warm if I happened to change sleeping positions during the night. In recent years my reservations have disappeared. Here are seven reasons why I now prefer quilts over bags:
Quilts are generally between 20 and 30% lighter than their sleeping bag equivalents. Why? Simply put, quilts provide insulation on top of the sleeper where it matters, but not underneath where the users weight will negate the benefits of loft.
2. Less Volume
A quilt takes up less space. Rather than use this extra room for additional gear, I tend to utilize it by not compressing my quilt as much as I normally would a sleeping bag. This means that when I remove the quilt from my backpack at the end of a hiking day, it doesn’t take as long to re-loft. No small matter if it is freezing cold, I’m exhausted and the only thing I really want to do is go to sleep. It is worth noting that by minimizing compression over an extended period, you are potentially improving the longevity of your quilt.
3. Less Restrictive
Quilts provide greater freedom of movement; particularly if you are a side sleeper.
“Can’t an open sleeping bag do the same thing?” Yes, however your sleeping bag won’t have an attachment system underneath to keep out the drafts if you happen to turn over.
4. Just as Warm
This wasn’t necessarily true in days past. However, in recent years companies such as Katabatic Gear have upped the ante in regards to design and workmanship. These days top quality quilts come with neck collars and vastly improved attachment systems, meaning that those bracing drafts which were once the bane of quilt users around the backpacking universe, are now largely a thing of the past.
“How will I keep my head warm?” Wear a beanie.
“What if that’s not enough?” Add a bandana or hat.
5. No Zipper Issues
Nothing to snag or break.
6. Less Moisture
With your head outside rather than inside, there is less chance your bag will be compromised by moisture buildup from respiration.
If you are using a sleeping bag and have a tendency to toss and turn in your sleep, you may flip over during the evening and end up face down in the hood. This will not be an issue if you are using a quilt.
No zip and less materials equates to a more affordable night’s sleep.