Choosing a backpacking sleeping bag in 2016 can be a nerve-wracking experience — but it doesn’t have to be. You can obsess over the size and shape of your bag, obsess over the material or cost, or you can understand what will give you the best backpacking sleeping bag experience, find a bag for you, and get on with planning your next trip into the backcountry.
I’m going to make this really simple: Down is the best. Get a down bag.
If you don’t know what down is, down is super lofty and compressible goose or duck feathers. Down will give you the lightest and warmest bag possible. What’s the alternative to down? Some sort of synthetic insulation that comes with some sort of “special name” to make it sound like it’s light and warm, too.
Synthetic bags will weigh more than down, offer less insulating loft (which is what makes your bag warm), and cost less.
Your first challenge is figuring out your budget. If you can afford any bag, stop reading now and skip to the bottom and pick one of the best, most expensive down bags available. Or buy three and try them out in the field.
Down Sleeping Bags and Your Backpacking Budget 2016
The rest of us have to balance the cost of the bag with the cost of other backpacking supplies. When I first started backpacking, I spent the bulk of my investment on a good pair of boots ($229) and a great backpack ($219). I shared a tent, received a backpacking sleeping pad as a gift, and most other core gear I borrowed or shared with my buddies. And the backpacking sleeping bag? I’m a tall guy, so I had to buy a long bag, which I found online at Sierra Trading Post (which sells a lot of previous season gear at great discounts) for less than $60. It’s synthetic, nothing special about it, sort of heavy and not particularly warm. At least it’s dark green and not some girly purple color. On really cold nights I wear fleece pants, socks, and a light fleece shirt. If you’re like me, at some point you’ll see your buddies packing insanely small and light down bags, and they’ll rave about how warm and comfortable their night was. And once you go down, you’ll never go back to synthetics, plus you’ll likely pick up an ultralight down jacket, too. Such is the nature of a down.
What You Need to Know About Down
Down is rated by fill power, usually 600-to-900 fill power. Bigger numbers are better and more expensive because they will produce more loft. The type of down is either goose (the best) or duck — but don’t overthink this. Few people can tell any difference between goose or duck down inside a bag, and a 700-fill rating is a 700-fill rating no matter which bird feathers are used.
The Only Time Synthetic Wins: Water
There is only one time where a synthetic bag wins out, and that’s if you’re in a really wet environment. If a down bag gets wet, the feathers will compress and it will be essentially worthless for warmth. In this situation, you better have a lightweight survival blanket because you’ll need it. Synthetic bags usually won’t compress quite as badly as down and their materials may do a better job of repelling water, giving you a bit more warmth. The bottom line? Don’t get your bag wet!
To combat this risk, you can bring along a kitchen garbage bag to wrap around your stuff sack as an extra measure of protection against an afternoon rainstorm while you’re on the trail (most backpacks are not waterproof). You can also use a rain cover for your pack. And when you set up your tent in the rain, spread the fly first and set up the tent underneath the fly. An alternative here is to go with a down bag that has a very water resistant shell or feather treatment, but they usually cost more.
Seasons and Temperature Ratings
Each bag on the market has a temperature rating, but use it only as a general reference because everyone’s “comfort” level while sleeping related to temperature is relative anyway. In general, don’t waste your money on any bag rated higher than 30 degrees? Why? If you’re summer camping, you can always just unzip your bag or even use it like a blanket . . . but it’s damn hard to make a thin bag warmer.
If you’re heading high up into the mountains — above 5,000 feet — error toward a 15°F, 20°F, or 25°F bag. Even summer nights can drop unexpectedly into the teens. If you plan to do winter camping, you’ll want a 0-to-15°F bag, and it might be smart to get one with water-repellent exterior fabric to help shed snow that will inevitably get into your tent.
Weight, Length, and Shape
A decent down bag will weigh less than 2 lbs while a similarly rated synthetic can easily weigh 4 lbs or more. When you buy, pay attention to the length and girth dimensions: If you’re 6’5″, don’t buy a “regular” bag that’s fitted for guys up to 6′. Similarly, some bag styles might be more narrow than others around the shoulders. If you’ve got big shoulders, you can sometimes gain some width by going with the “long” version of a bag.
Meanwhile, what about that skinny “mummy” shape? Mummy bags cut down on material, making them lighter. In addition, they keep the insulation closer to your body, which in turn should keep you warmer on cold nights. The downside? Constriction. Claustrophobia. Knees that either bend together or not at all. For wild thrashers, mummy bags can reduce your ability to sleep, no matter how warm it is. Personally, on most nights I end up unzipping my mummy bag and I use it like a blanket . . . while I wear a fleece sweatshirt to fight the inevitable drafts. And sometimes I wear a stocking cap rather than mess around with trying to snug up a hood. (In seriously cold weather, though, you’ll snug up your hood and be happy with the mummy shape.)
Options? Thrashers can choose a rectangular shaped bag that weighs more and usually costs more. Unfortunately, many of the rectangular shaped bags have 30-to-50°F temperature ratings, so you might need to bring merino wool long underwear (usually a good idea for high mountain trips) to stay warm. Alternately, you can pay more to buy a stretchy down bag, like the Montbell Down Hugger series, or try something like the new Sierra Designs Backcountry Bed. Most backpackers want to try one of these bags, if not both, and they simply don’t because of the cost — so they make fantastic gifts if you’re looking for a generous, amazing gift.
How to Find a Backpacking Sleeping Bag
Obviously you can walk into any REI store and check out bags in person. If your budget will let you walk out of the store with a bag, this is a good plan. For most of us, though, we have to pay attention to cost. So here’s how to find the best deal on a decent bag: Go to Sierra Trading Post and look for a down sleeping bag from previous seasons, which will usually save you $60-to-more-than $100 off of the usual retail cost. Better yet, use the link to Sierra Trading Post from the first link under “Cool Deals” in the right side column on Man Makes Fire — it always goes to the latest extra savings deal from Sierra Trading Post. Find the sleeping bag you want and put it in your shopping cart — then enter in any Coupon Codes from the link. (It’s worth it, so remember that it’s there, and you’ll save some dough if you’re happing buying manufacturer closeout gear from previous seasons.)
Also, check out these down bags in our handy list below — there are a lot of great options, including the Kelty Cosmic Down Sleeping Bag, which comes in several lengths and temperature ratings. For instance, a long 20°F option can be had from Amazon for about $170.
The important thing, though, is not to obsess over this. Save the obsession for when you’re a die-hard backpacker. As for now, find an option that matches your budget and when you go backpacking, take a stocking cap just like I did starting out. I had as much fun as anyone else. Seriously. I know how guys are. Don’t overthink it. Get the bag and turn your mind back to trip planning.
Montbell Down Hugger Series — Montbell’s claim to fame is its innovative “Down Hugger” elastic stitching design. The spiral elastic stitching not only makes the bag conform to your position, keeping you warmer, it also lets you move your body against it, giving you extra room to thrash about when you’re sleeping. Pretty much any version of this bag is the bomb.
Sierra Designs Backcountry Bed — The innovative zipperless cover flap acts like a blanket that you can still tuck in around your arms and shoulders, giving you the warmth of a mummy with the versatility of a down blanket. Bonus? You can poke an arm out for freedom or to cool off without exposing your shoulders and neck.
Nemo Coda 0 — 850-fill power, rated to 0°F, stretch construction in the knees, body heat vents, water repellent coating, great for cold weather.
Great Down Sleeping Bags
Mountain Hardwear Ratio 32 — A 650-fill, 27°F bag with water repellency added to individual down fibers — great bag for possibly damp conditions.
Sierra Designs Mobile Mummy — 15°F, 800-fill duck down, “DriDown” water repellent treatment to the down feathers . . . and this bag has slats for slipping your arms out as well as a footbox that lets your feet out so you can walk around camp.
Marmot Plasma — 30°F bag with high-quality 900 fill power goose down.
Remember what I said about Sierra Trading Post, which offers closeout gear from previous seasons? If you use the first link under Cool Deals in the right side column of Man Makes Fire, it will take you to Sierra Trading Post. Note any coupon codes. Find an interesting down sleeping bag. At the time of this writing, Sierra Trading Post had about 20 options, including some from one of my favorite manufacturers, Marmot. For example, a Marmot 5°F 600 fill power down sleeping bag was already reduced from its original $339 retail price to $269. Nice. I put that in my shopping cart, then it got even better: I entered in the current 6-digit keycode coupon code and applied it to the bag. The new price? $189. Boom. That little process just saved $80 and turned a decent price into a stellar price. Another example? A Mountain Hardwear 20°F Spectre bag dropped from the already discounted price of $562 down to $394. Like I said, this little tip can get you new, previous season gear at great prices. Works for hiking boots and other gear, too. Remember the Marmot Sorcerer synthetic bag noted above? Its price drops to about $65 with this trick, depending on the special deals that Sierra Trading Post is running at any given moment in time.