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The ultimate guide to sleeping bags 

Knowing what kind of sleeping bag to buy can be an overwhelming task. There’s such a huge range of materials, ratings, brands, shapes and sizes to choose from it can be difficult to know where to start. Here’s everything you need to know about sleeping bags and how to choose the right one for you.

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Firstly, you’ll need to know how you’re going to be using your sleeping bag before you think about choosing one. Chances are you’ve already got a plan in mind, but these are some key questions to ask yourself if you’re not sure. Are you taking it overnight hiking or sleeping in your car or camper? Will you be using it all through the year or only in summer or winter? Will you only use it for camping or as a spare blanket at home as well? Where will you be storing your sleeping bag when you’re not using it? Are you someone who gets really cold at night or are you a warm sleeper? 

Once you’ve thought through these scenarios and decided what you need from your sleeping bag, it’s time to start narrowing it down. Below are the main things to consider when buying a bag. 

Temperature rating

The temperature rating is arguably the most important consideration when choosing a sleeping bag. This number indicates the minimum temperature at which the sleeping bag will keep you warm. 

Typically a summer sleeping bag will have a temperature rating of around +5 -10 degrees, an all-year-round sleeping bag will have a temperature rating of about 0 degrees, and a winter bag will be rated at around -5 to -10 degrees (or lower). 

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Often, brands will divide their temp rating into three categories: comfort, limit, and extreme. Comfort, as the name suggests, is the temp at which you will be most comfortable in the bag. Limit, is the lowest temp you’ll be able to keep warm, and extreme is the absolute limit that you would be able to survive in the bag. 

All people are different and these ratings are ultimately just a guide so make sure to add a few degrees if you’re a cold sleeper. You can also up the warmth of your sleeping bag for colder weather by combining it with a sleeping bag liner. 

Material

Synthetic sleeping bag
Liner and synthetic sleeping bag © Eva Davis-Boermans

Sleeping bags are typically filled with one of three main materials. 

Down

These are stuffed with duck or goose feathers. They are quite expensive but have excellent insulation, are super light and pack down very small. The downside of this material is that it doesn’t deal very well with getting wet and makes the bag tricky to wash. They also need to be stored loosely, not packed away tight. 

Synthetic

Sleeping bags with synthetic stuffing are also great at keeping you warm but not quite at the same level. They are often a little bulkier and heavier than down bags, but they are very easy to wash, often more durable and will keep you warm even when wet. 

Cotton

Sleeping bags made from cotton are breathable and perfect for summer. They’re also quite cheap and easy to wash. While they’re a great entry-level option, they won’t keep you warm if they’re wet and they are often too heavy to carry hiking. 

Loft

This consideration is specific only to down sleeping bags. The reason down is such a good insulator is its ability to fluff up and trap warm air among the feathers. When you see a ‘loft’ rating, it’s referring to how well the down bounces back or fluffs up after being compacted into a bag. The higher the loft rating, the better it will return to its original shape which will keep you warmer for longer. 850 loft is at the higher end of the scale while a 500 loft bag might save you money but it won’t keep you as warm for as long and you’ll likely have to replace it sooner.

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Shape

There are three main shapes when it comes to sleeping bags. 

Rectangular

This is the most traditional sleeping bag shape. It gives you plenty of room to move but can often be bulky to pack up. 

Tapered

These are slightly more tapered towards the legs which gives a bit of extra warmth and allows you to pack up the bag smaller. This is a great option if you want to cut down on size but still want extra room to move about when you sleep. 

Mummy

This is the warmest shape because it is designed to fit snugly to your body with minimal extra space. Mummy shape sleeping bags are often prioritised by hikers because they are smaller to pack down. Stay clear of these if you’re someone who likes lots of leg room when you sleep! 

Size

© Eva Davis-Boermans

The length of your sleeping bag is incredibly important but often overlooked. There’s nothing worse than buying an expensive bag only to realise you’re too tall and it won’t cover your shoulders or that it’s way too long and all that extra space is going to make you cold. 

Another consideration should be how small the bag packs down to. If you are camping in your car it might not matter if it’s a little bigger but if you need to take it in a backpack try to get something as small as you can. Some bags pack down to only the size of a drink bottle! 

Features

You often don’t realise how much you need a special feature in a sleeping bag until you don’t have it. A few that can make or break your sleeping bag are a hood that can be tightened around your head, a zip at the bottom to let your feet breathe, the ability to zip it flat into a doona and the level of waterproofing. 

Cost

Sleeping bags can cost anywhere from $30 to $1000 so you need to think about your budget before diving in. Just because a bag is more expensive, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better for your individual camping needs. Other times, it’s worth forking out a bit of extra cash if it means you’ll be warm and your bag will last a long time. Looking at online reviews is a great way to decipher whether you’re getting a bang for your buck before committing

Protecting your bag

Airing out the sleeping bag
© Eva Davis-Boermans

Once you’ve chosen your bag, it’s important to take good care of it. Using a sleeping bag liner when you sleep in it will keep your sleeping bag cleaner for longer, meaning you won’t have to wash it as often. You should always use a sleeping mat or groundsheet under a sleeping bag and avoid using it on bare ground. 

Once you’re finished your camping trip, let your bag air out in a warm dry place for a few days and make sure you store it correctly. Synthetic sleeping bags can be left in their compact bags but down sleeping bags should be stored loosely so that they can maintain their loft. When it comes to washing your sleeping bag, make sure you use specific wash products designed for the type of material you have and follow washing instructions carefully. 

Hopefully, your sleeping bag will suit you perfectly and will see you through camping trips for many years to come! 

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