Camping and RV Articles > How to select a sleeping bag

How to select a sleeping bag

A sleeping bag is one of the most important camping equipment purchases an outdoors person makes. Spectacular scenery, clear air and the beauty of the outdoors are always a little bit better after a good night's sleep.

Many types of sleeping bags are available. The best bag for you depends on your sleeping habits, what you like to have next to your skin, the temperature and climate where you camp and whether you'll be carrying the bag on your back, in a canoe or in the trunk of your car.

As important as a sleeping bag is, the ground pad beneath you is just as important to your night's sleep. Your body weight compresses the sleeping bag, reducing the air space and its insulating capabilities. Ground pads, with a core of foam and air, provide extra layers of insulation against the ground's chill.


Sleeping bags come in two basic shapes, mummy and rectangular. The best choice for you depends on your sleeping style and how you intend to use the bag.

"If you like to sleep with your legs and arms all sprawled out, then a rectangular bag may be best for you," advises Mary Yeo, a mountaineer and L.L. Bean sporting goods sales representative.

But if you sleep curled in a fetal position, the mummy-shaped bag is your best choice.

Many wilderness backpackers prefer the mummy-shaped bag. The narrow cut can decrease a bag's weight by up to a half-pound, which is critical to backpackers who measure every ounce. The mummy's smaller size also requires less energy to heat up at night than the larger rectangular bag, which has more air space.

While the rectangular bags end abruptly just above the shoulders, the mummy bags have a hood that can be pulled tight around the sleeper's head.

Most rectangular bags can be zipped together to create a double bag. To zip two mummy bags together, one needs to have a left zipper and the other must have a right. Most long mummy bags have a left zipper, while regular-sized mummy bags have a right zipper. Even when you zip two mummy bags together, your feet will remain separate because the zipper does not extend around the toe of the bag.


Sleeping bags come in different sizes. Some bags are made in junior or youth sizes. Most are available in regular and extra-long. Some also come in extra-wide sizes.

Backpackers often buy longer sleeping bags for their winter treks because they store so much gear (such as boots, drinking water, flashlight and batteries) in their bag at night.

Temperature Rating

A sleeping bag acts as an insulator to slow the loss of body warmth. How well a bag insulates depends on its insulating material, construction and amount of loft.

Choose a temperature rating based on the conditions you plan to camp in most often. A bag's temperature rating indicates the lowest temperature at which an occupant would be comfortable. But what is comfortable for one sleeper may not be for another. There is no industry standard for temperature ratings and they vary from manufacturer to manufacturer.

Some things to consider before choosing the right temperature rating for you:

Temperature ratings always assume that the bag will be used with a ground pad.

  • Your metabolic rate, levels of fatigue and hunger, and the quality of your tent and ground pad also impact your sleeping comfort. Some people are colder than others when sleeping and might want a warmer, or lower-rated, sleeping bag.
  • Many traditional camp bags are comfortable to about 40°F, assuming a ground pad is used.
  • A bag rated to 20°F, with ground pad, is considered a versatile three-season bag, usable in New England from early spring to late fall.
  • A bag rated to 0°F, with ground pad, is used for cold-weather and some winter camping.
  • Bags rated from minus 15°F to minus 30°F, with ground pad, are suitable for most winter camping conditions.


Sleeping bags are filled with either goose or duck down or with synthetic fibers.

Down is the best natural insulator known. It is light and compressible. It packs small and its loft can be fluffed back with just a couple quick shakes.

Down costs more than synthetic fill, and if it becomes wet it loses about 80% of its insulating abilities and takes a long time to dry. Keeping your down bag dry is essential (see Storage and Care section for useful tips).

A well-cared-for down sleeping bag will keep you warm and comfortable through several years of outdoor adventures.

Synthetic fill is made from small fibers that are treated with silicon to help enhance their loft. The fibers also have chambers in them to help trap air.

Synthetic-filled bags cost less and are great for people who are allergic to down. They also continue to insulate when wet and dry quickly. However, synthetic bags weigh more and have a shorter life span than down bags. They often take up more space in your pack as well.


Most technical bags come with a nylon taffeta lining (Camp Bags have a polyester cotton lining). You can also buy a fleece liner, which adds extra softness and about 15 to 20 additional degrees of warmth.

Storage and Care

On the trail it is essential to keep your sleeping bag dry. We recommend placing a large plastic bag in the bottom of the sleeping bag compartment of your pack. If you expect rain when you're in the backcountry, you can wrap your stuffed sleeping bag in the plastic for extra protection.

After a trip be sure to allow your bag to dry out thoroughly. All sleeping bags should be hung or stored in a dry area. A large storage sack allows your bag to breathe, helping to retain its loft when not in use. Sleeping bags should be stored in dry rooms, away from mildew and dampness.

You can wash a synthetic sleeping bag in a large commercial front-loading washer. Use a mild detergent and wash on a gentle cycle with warm water. Dry the bag in a clothes dryer set below 140°F or outdoors on a clothesline. Some campers put tennis balls in the dryer to help "fluff" the bag.

You can wash a down bag in a commercial washing machine with a mild detergent or have it cleaned by an experienced cleaner who specializes in down garment care.


Sign In  |  Create Account