Backcountry Gear 101- Sleeping Bags

When I first was able to start spending some money on higher end gear back in 2010, the first purchase I made was a good sleeping bag. I had froze my butt off too many times in cheap 40 and 50 degree sleeping bags, because they were the only way I could afford a bag that was around 2 pounds in total weight. The old adage of picking two of the three qualities between lightweight, quality, and price held true. A $80 2lb bag that is rated at 40 degrees is a recipe for a lot of miserable nights, and after several years of putting up with not sleeping much at night in the woods, I knew where I first wanted to spend some money.

When it comes to sleeping bags, there are a few various factors that separate them into categories. The first will be down vs. synthetic, to put it simply. Both have their advantages, and not all down and synthetic bags are created equally. The other main choice is going to be the temperature rating. While the EN test rating does provide some baseline numbers to go off of in backing up a manufacturers claim on warmth, it is still largely subjective, and different companies rate their bag on different figures from EN testing, while others don’t use the test at all.

The other factors are obvious but just as important. The amount of weight you want to carry, and the amount of money you are willing to spend for a sleeping bag are both going to frame your decision. So now, more in depth information on how you can find your ideal sleeping bag.

 

Fill Type- Down vs Synthetic

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Down

Let’s start with down. Most high end bags are going to be filled with goose down. The advantage to down is that it will give you the lightest weight bag for the warmth that you are looking for. In other words its warmth to weight ratio will be the highest. Quality down gear also lasts a very, very long time when treated properly, and can have a lifespan of well past 10 years. Down is also the most compressible option by far, often yielding a compressed sleeping bag that is half the size or smaller of an equal synthetic bag. All this makes down seem like the ultimate backpack sleeping bag option right?

Unfortunately down has one major draw back, and that its useless if the bag is wet. Down dries incredibly slowly, and once it becomes wet, the feathers flatten, the loft of the bag is lost, and it no longer provides insulation. For the majority of backpackers and recreationalists this isn’t much of an issue. The majority of people backpacking don’t spend much time outside when the weather is bad. However, for a hunter this can become a major issue as the we plan our trips around season dates, and not weather.

A couple things to keep in mind when going with a down sleeping bag is that you will need to do your absolute best to keep the bag dry. This includes avoiding outside moisture and inside moisture both. A good stuff sack, a good shelter, and dry clothes to sleep in are all an absolute must in my opinion when it comes to a down bag. If however, you are planning on using your sleeping bag in conditions that never break above freezing, down will simply be your option. If all the water around you is frozen, you wont be worried about water soaking into your down near as much. On the flip side, a packraft hunt where you are living on the water probably isn’t the ideal situation for a down bag.

Lastly, down is tedious to wash, and often is best done by having someone else who specializes in it wash it for you. Both the process of washing, and the long process of drying are tedious and must be done carefully to avoid destroying your sleeping bag.

Down Fill Power

Fill power is something that I find is often misunderstood. Simply put, the number of fill power is the amount of space 1oz of down will occupy when full lofted. So 1oz of 900 fill power down will fill 900 cubic inches of space when fully lofted in a cylinder. Typically you will see sleeping bags from 650 fill to 950 fill. The higher the fill power rating, the lighter your bag will be, because it takes less ounces of down to occupy the lofted space needed for insulation. However, each step up in fill power will also take a step up in price, as it requires a more premium and select type of goose feather.

The other thing that I feel is more important to note is that a bag with a lower fill, like 650 down, will not be less warm. It just takes more ounces of down to get the same warmth, so you will get a heavier product in the end. Fill power numbers will apply the same to down jackets and garments as well. There is an argument that fill ratings above 850 are fragile and can degrade quicker, but I am not completely sure if this has solid proof, but it is a theory to be aware of.

 

Synthetic

Synthetic insulations, on the other hand, perform virtually the same when wet as they do when they are dry. In my opinion, the main reason to go to a synthetic sleeping bag is if you are worried about water contacting your sleeping bag. They will generally be heavier, bulkier, and slightly shorter in lifespan than a good down bag. However, for certain hunts, the ability to go to sleep in wet clothes and wake up with them dry is a major benefit. Synthetic sleeping bags also dry much faster than down in the field, and they can be washed much more easily at home with proper precaution.

The types of synthetic insulation are endless at times it seems, as many companies have a name for their own take on a synthetic insulation. It is impossible for me to list all of the variations of synthetic insulations, but I will say that the best one I have used personally for a sleeping bag is probably Apex Climashield. As a synthetic its very efficient for its weight, and it compresses decently well. It also handles moisture extremely well, and would be my choice when I need a synthetic bag. For jackets and garments, I prefer primaloft and Apex alpha, but I can touch on that much more in depth in a separate post.

 

Temperature Rating

Personal preference and needs are really the entire game when it comes down to picking what temp rating you need. In general, I would recommend that you pick a bag about 10 degrees colder than the temperatures you expect to be sleeping in on most nights. However, like I mentioned before, there isn’t a great temperature testing standard which to compare all sleeping bags to across the board. From what I have seen, bags that are cheap, and/or seem to be incredibly lightweight for their temp rating usually are too good to be true.

Personally, I would recommend the following temperature bags for these times of year, but keep in mind that women and people who get cold often while sleeping should probably lean towards a bag with some additional warmth.

40°+ Summer use and occasional 3 season use in warm climates

30°- 35° Light 3 season use in good weather

15°- 25° Solid 3 season use for mountain hunting

-20°- 10° 4th Season use in very cold conditions.

Out of these 4 categories, I will say up front that I would recommend down for the upper and lower ranges, and consider the debate between down and synthetic for the middle two groups. The reason for this being that temps above 40 degrees wont likely experience bad weather, and even if it were to occur, the temperatures will not threaten personal safety assuming that you have a decent clothing system. Also storms that occur in warm weather are short lived, and you will most likely have time to dry gear out the following day, or even sooner. On the cold side of the spectrum, weather well below freezing eliminates most of the possibility of water getting into a down filled bag. Synthetic bags much below 20 degrees also become so bulky and heavy that I don’t consider them a good backpacking option.

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Quilt vs. Sleeping Bag

With as popular as the quilt has become in recent years, I feel like I need to address the topic a little bit at least. This past winter I bought a quilt and tried it for a few weeks of hunting. Last week I sold it and went back to a sleeping bag. While my opinion is probably somewhat biased, the quilt just wasn’t for me.

Typically I am not someone who gets cold sleeping, but with a 10 degree quilt I would find myself waking up even on 40° nights slightly chilled due to the quilt shifting and becoming drafty. The more I used it, the better I did become at managing the quilt, but it still wasn’t as secure or comfortable to me as a sleeping bag. The other part of the equation that I believe that led to me sleeping colder was the lack of a hood on a quilt. There is so much heat loss through your head, that I would consider a down hood a must for any quilt use in relatively cold weather. A stocking hat simply didn’t cut it for me, and left my head and face cold.

There were some things I did really like about the quilt though that I will mention. The first of those was the weight. Cutting the bottom of your sleeping bag out cuts weight no matter which way you look at it. You get more thermal efficiency for the weight and bulk you are carrying in your backpack. The second was that the quilt was less restrictive. When sleeping in a quilt you don’t end up getting wrapped in your sleeping bag as you roll over during the night. This makes it comfortable to sleep in, and very versatile to use.

While the quilt wasn’t my favorite, I still wouldn’t recommend against people trying them if they are interested in doing so. I actually slept very well in mine the majority of the time, but with fall approaching I am anticipating spending several nights in the woods well below freezing, and I just didn’t feel like the quilt was going to cut it for me. However, in fair weather or for hammock camping (which I really enjoyed with the quilt) it is a very hard option to beat.

Other Thoughts

I hope this has put a good dent in the surface of sleeping bag research for you, and given you a few things to think about. One thing I didn’t mention was the introduction of water resistant down. I’m aware of it, and I have tried it, but from my personal experiences, it doesn’t live up to the hype. I don’t believe that it is a bad thing to have, as it wont hurt the performance of the down, but I really haven’t seen it help a whole lot either after trying several companies products which include it. I believe there is a reason that the companies making the highest quality down gear aren’t using it, and I tend to view it more as gimmick than a necessity.

Lastly, if you’re looking for a product suggestion or have a question on something I didn’t cover, please comment below or reach out to me on social media. I’d also greatly appreciate it if everyone gave this blog a follow as it will help me to continue creating content.

Cheers