Choosing a sleeping bag can be difficult. There are a ton of factors that come into play. And advanced, innovative sleeping bags and sleep systems aren’t cheap – you need to know how to pick the right solution. Whether it is the best survival sleeping bag you’re after, or you need a 3-season summer or early fall bag, the following tips and concepts in this article should help you land on the right one.
This article will detail what you need to look for, how things like weather, region, materials, and use cases can change the suitability of a given sleeping bag for you as an individual in real world situations.
Have a look at these concepts; take stock of what you know about your sleep habits, and consider where your expected adventures will take you, then use the concepts to make a great decision about a sleeping bag.
What type of sleeping bag do you need?
The first part is simple: What type of sleeping bag do you need? That’s pretty easy, you’re exploring sleeping bags because you already had a catalyst moment that led you to research it.
So, the question just becomes what are you trying to accomplish?
- Do you want to get a survival sleeping bag?
- Do you want to have a sleeping bag that can keep you warm in all conditions?
- Do you sleep warm and need a three season bag that can handle more casual outdoor adventures?
- Do you need something that is made for wet conditions?
- Do you need something that optimizes warmth to weight ratio?
- Do you need a super tough sleeping bag, and don’t care about total weight?
- Do you need something Super hardcore that compromises on nothing, even if it’s a bit overkill for most conditions?
If you already know where you think you will be using it, the rest is easy. So, even if you don’t see your use case or inclination in the immediately above concepts, read on and you’re going to gain insights that will help you find the right one anyway. And if you do see your inclinations above, keep reading, because now comes the nuance.
How materials and design factor into picking a sleeping bag
Materials matter. What you choose can have a dramatic impact on the activities your sleeping bag is suitable for. It can also dictate how warm you will sleep. Materials can determine a lot about longevity and durability. But mostly, it comes down to weight of the sleeping bag, and warmth potential.
Some concepts about fill types:
Down fill is incredible. Goose down is the premium stuff *(down is not feathers, it’s the soft stuff beneath the feathers). Duck down can be suitable, but it’s not as premium or lofty.
Down is soft, and lofty, and holds heat, and feels great, and offers significant warmth for the weight. But, down gets these properties because the fibers are wispy, and spread out and they expand. In wet weather, down can get weighed down and collapse. And it doesn’t dry easily outdoors.
Because it’s so airy, and expands a lot, when it collapses, you get uneven distribution, and thin insulation. It can actually be deadly when it’s wet.
If you like down (and who doesn’t?), opt for water repellent or waterproof fabric shells (more on this below), or be in dry conditions, or with additional shelter from the moisture.
Down, if done right and on the higher end of the scale, is still the premium option for comfort, packability and warmth to weight ratio, but you may need to buy fabrics that help keep it dry, and baby it a bit more than synthetic fills.
Synthetics have taken a huge leap in capabilities over just the past 15 years. It used to be just basic polyfill, or holofil (an early trade name for one of the big players). Now you can get hollow core, waterproof, high loft, low weight synthetics in even the most mainstream sleeping bags, where this was once the domain of only the most premium and hardcore outdoor brands (and innovation has since 10x’d).
But synthetics still have some drawbacks. Namely: they are heavier and bulkier in the stuff sack than down, generally. They are also not as comfortable at times, and sometimes they feel a bit blocky, or hard.
The newest innovations in synthetic fill materials are still very comparably priced with down, and that means they aren’t cheap.
But they do offer warm-when-wet capabilities, so they can be a very good survival option, or for specific needs like on river trips, in areas with significant rainfall, or for where you cannot afford to lose even a bit of insulative capacity.
Synthetics are quickly overtaking down as the go-to fill option as their consistency and durability are getting better and better for multi-use-cases.
Synthetics are good for when you can carry extra weight (like vehicle camping, or for home use, or for expedition use, where the extremes exist, but the pack is expected to be heavier, etc.)
Some concepts about shell materials and coatings
Nylon is the obvious, and now, it’s super uncommon even, to not have a ripstop grid pattern. Innovative techniques have made even the most gossamer fabrics basically sustainable, even in heavy duty use cases.
But temper your expectations if you are new to sleeping bags on the higher end. These silky, lightweight fabrics need to be babied, or at least understood to get them through many situations.
If you need to keep a sleeping bag intact and not repair it every trip, get a higher denier (basically thread count) fabric. Even if it means losing ounces on the ultralight fabrics.
You’re going to want to make sure that you have some DWR (durable water repellent) or other “waterproofing” on down bags. Not because you cannot use a down bag in all environments – you can. But because you want to be able to make sure you aren’t causing unnecessary problems with comfort and usability.
For synthetics, you can keep the weight in the ballpark with down bags by having materials that are uncoated.
Also, moisture comes from inside the bag too. We sweat when we sleep. And literally ounces of water come out of our skin. This is why Gore-Tex fabric made way for Dry-Loft fabric years ago. The Dry-Loft allowed more moisture to pass through, instead of keeping the down wet.
Today we see this concept in the shell fabrics. Good repellency outside, but still breathable to let moisture escape, too.
You can also use silicon coatings on parachute type fabrics – which will allow moisture to bead. When water is beaded, its molecular structure is less likely to penetrate. So, lightweight coatings and embedding DWR’s into the fabric, means you can get good water resistance with a treatment, and not a full coating of fabric, saving weight and adding functionality.
Some concepts about interior and dimensions
If you need to be more comfortable, opt for bigger shoulder dimensions, and a less constrictive head area. Also, most sleeping bags are made for the mainstream, your options are going to be more limited if you’re above 6’2” or below 5’8” in height. Look for companies that cater to longer dimensions, or opt for a bigger, more roomy foot box.
For efficiency’s sake, most bags are shaped like a mummy’s sarcophagus, because it keeps insulation close to the body, and distributes it easily.
You will want to make sure that the way the bag is sewn allows the loft and distribution of the fill to be consistent, and plentiful. Even if it’s for a bag that is more casual in its temperature rating.
More pockets/channels equals more thread, and more weight, but you also need to be comfortable. And if the fill is moved to only one side because it’s not segmented over a given section, you will suffer in comfort.
Some concepts about durability and ability to service and maintain a sleeping bag regarding material choices
The higher the denier (thread count per inch) the more durable it is generally. It also means it weighs more because the weave is denser.
One does not need the fabric to be thick to stay warm though. The way a sleeping bag ensures its heat containment is in the loft and holding capacity of the fill. In down, it’s an exterior loft and structure; with synthetics, it’s with an internal hollow core (generally), and a tangled, multilayered coverage of fibers.
If you want durability, opt for thinker shells, ripstop patterns, and go with a brand that has a history of delivering on expectations.
There are repair tapes and kits to help you keep the bag maintained, and even the thinnest skinned bags are still pretty durable. As long as you aren’t sleeping on lava rocks, you’re likely to be ok.
Other thoughts about sleeping bags
Also, there is an important ancillary factor here that many sleeping bag users (especially new users) don’t compensate for:
A bag will compress underneath you. And all fills rely at some level, on the loft to trap escaping body heat. So, there is a potential for thermal loss. And paired with the concept that the ground maintains a consistent level of temperature, you should be considering additional insulation underneath.
The best bet? Usually a sleeping pad, but don’t be foolish with your safety and comfort: if you need to add pine needles or forest debris, or dig, and place hot rocks from the campfire to stay warm, with dirt over the top of them. One of your biggest chances for heat loss is in the ground contact.
Let’s talk about extremes with Sleeping bags
Expedition bags are built for heat retention. They are overkill for 90% of the real world scenarios. But they add a boost to confidence, especially for preppers.
Lightweight bags are awesome for summer backpackers in temperate areas, but saving ounces shouldn’t put you in danger.
A good three season bag is probably where most people will shake out and be best suited from a purchase perspective.
And that is where temperature ratings come into play. You should always opt for a temp rating that is suitable for 10% or so, lower than you reasonably expect to need.
That means if you are only using it for beachside camping in Southern California, you should be fine with a 30 or 40 degree bag (Fahrenheit)
If you are planning a 8000 meter assault in Nepal or Tibet, you should be looking at bags that can function below -40 degrees. It’s all relative.
Exploring the minimalist concept
Minimalism is for backpackers and people who are in moderate conditions. Period. If you are casual, or don’t need extremes, this is a great place to start. But, if you’re already spending several hundred dollars on a sleeping bag – and if you want technical designs and fabrics, you are – then opt for something with some creature comforts if possible.
But you’ll know what you need for you, especially after reading this article. So, plan accordingly
Exploring the “All-In” Concept
You will regret overbuying a bag more than you will under buying a bag, though both can sting a bit.
If you overbuy, you won’t be comfortable in any conditions except the most extreme. If you underbuy a bit, you can compensate with liners, clothing, bivvies, or other sleep system components. So, plan for realism.
The benefit of an extreme weather bag is that you often get the best of all worlds – so if you want no corners cut, and can afford the cost, you can probably get away with leaving the zipper open or using it as a blanket for when you aren’t on Mount Washington in January, in White-out conditions.
Survival Sleeping bags are important for preparedness-minded people
You’re here because you are either a prepper familiar with our website – we cater to the preparedness-minded people, survivalists and homesteaders. Either that or it’s because you found us organically by searching for sleeping bag information (or another search, and clicked on this article).
Either way, the fact that you are looking at our opinion on sleeping bags, and you’re on our preparedness website, means that you’re going to get that take from us – because we live that lifestyle.
So, whether you just want the best survival sleeping bag you can find, or you are looking for a way to keep the homestead full of options, while satisfying the need for quality outdoor gear, here’s our take:
Sometimes freak weather hits a region. In 2022 and 2023, parts of Texas were hit with extremely cold, unpredictable, and unexpected weather. People actually died. And it wasn’t just at-risk people, like the unhoused, or senior citizens, or people on fixed incomes that couldn’t afford high utility rates. Average citizens were at risk of dying by exposure in their homes.
An important note: the weather is demographic agnostic. Extreme temperatures can kill. Period. It doesn’t matter who you are, or where you are from, or what you are used to.
There is a saying (something to this effect): You can live approximately 3 minutes without air, 3 hours without temperature control, 3 days without water and 3 weeks without food. If it were my 3 hours, I would want to know I could survive because I planned well.
Some of those that didn’t die in Texas, had gear and equipment for their hobby (maybe camping, or backpacking or mountaineering) or because they were prepared. And those sleeping bags saved their families, or at the very least, made them comfortable when their fellow residents were less so.
Others knew that even though the temperature never dropped below 40F (or only on rare occasions), prepared with sleeping bags that added another 30 degrees of coverage. Those preps are kind of the point.
It’s cheap insurance at any cost, to have a life saving item, in a life saving situation. So, from the prepper’s world view – sometimes you just don’t know when, and it’s better to be prepared than not.
This article is more about general concepts, but we think you probably get the point. If you live in Juneau Alaska, you have extra gear for cold winters. But sometimes, you need to think about what is possible, even if it isn’t probable.
This author lives in California, where earthquakes are a common fear, but earthquakes haven’t affected me as much as wildfires and flooding and chicken diseases and fruit tree diseases. And aside from the wildfires, who would have thought that those were concerns in California?
The point? Think about your worries, and address them reasonably, because you can, not because you expect to have to. Because if you’re expecting something, then you are already prepared for it, generally. A lot of people don’t prepare properly until after a life-changing event.
Why it’s not always cut and dry when choosing camping, survival or casual sleeping bags
Every single thing can affect the use cases of sleeping bags. Fill type, material choices, waterproofness, sleeping pad integration. So, you need to take a real audit on what you want to accomplish with a sleeping bag before you drop $250-1000 on a quality option. You’re likely to make a single sleeping bag purchase (maybe two) in your lifetime, unless you are a hardcore outdoor adventurer, so do your research and get the right one.
And “use case” is everything. Even just in being prepared by having some sleeping bags in the closet or “on the shelf”.
You can buy the extreme bag to cover all the bases for the worst that the world has to throw at you, but then it’s possibly not even a usable item because it’s so over the top for every other condition.
You can grab the Wal-Mart special because it is cheap and readily available, but when the materials and conditions matter, it won’t be enough.
You can grab the ultralight down bag with super thin, gossamer nylon fabric, but if you have to sleep on rocks or in the rain, you’re going to ruin the bag, or potentially get hurt or killed because down, when wet, is not a very good insulator (it loses its loft, which equates to its heat retention).
So again – explore your potential use cases, and decide what you’re comfortable with. Don’t just buy on a “blanket” recommendation (see what just happened there?).
Survival means something different based on where you are geographically and what season it is
If you need recommendations for the best survival sleeping bags we wrote a top ten list about them. Go ahead – CLICK.
But what’s super relevant here, is that survival on Mount Washington, New Hampshire in the winter, is a lot different than in La Jolla, California in the summer. And, while you may need a sleeping bag for both excursions, they are at different ends of the spectrum.
So, consider your environment.
Consider your extremes in that environment.
Consider the volume of trips you will take, or outings you will use it on, or how you sleep, and other accouterments that will be there in place.
Mostly, consider what is realistic.
Know that survival is more about knowledge and experience, and understanding the conditions, than it is just about gear. But sometimes the gear matters (when extremes come into play)
The final words here are that a reality check is often the most important buying tip a person looking for the right sleeping bag can receive.
Cater your buying inclinations to what is most realistically going to happen and the environment and variables that are most likely to come into play more often than not. If you do this, you’re going to get the right sleeping bag for a majority of your needs, and it can often help solve problems outside of that majority, if asked to, in a pinch.
And that’s what survival, and preparedness is all about: not sacrificing your life or comfort because of adverse, or unexpected, or different conditions.
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