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How to: Choose the right sleeping bag

Wiggy's sleeping bag, best sleeping bag, choose sleeping bag
600 300 Survival Common Sense Blog | Emergency Preparedness

One piece of gear you don’t want to have to improvise is a sleeping bag. If you can’t sleep at night because you’re cold, the next day is guaranteed to be exhausting.

by Leon Pantenburg

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I graduated, less than penniless, from Iowa State University in 1976, and decided to go backpacking in the mountains.

So I did. Trips to the Bighorn and Pryor Mountains in Wyoming only whetted my appetite for more, and I couch-surfed at John Nerness’ house in Mountainview, CA, between trips. In addition to several weekenders around Central California,  my grand finale was a 14-day hike of the John Muir Trail in the Sierras.

My backpack came from Target. My clothing was whatever I had – at the time I’d never heard of cotton killing anyone. My shelter was a piece of visqueen. Freeze-dried food was too expensive, for the most part, so my diet consisted of such things as macaroni and cheese. I borrowed a Swea 123 backpacking stove.

This 1977 photo from Lassen National Forest in northern California shows my gear was pretty sketchy.  I did invest in a quality knife, sleeping bag and boots.

This 1977 photo from Lassen National Forest in northern California shows my gear was pretty sketchy.

But I didn’t scrimp on a few items. My Buck folding knife was purchased for $25 at the Ace Hardware Store in Lovell, WY. My boots were on sale at the War Surplus Store in in Powell, WY, for about $30.

But my sleeping bag was bought at an upper end backpacking store for about $80, which, at the time, was about a third of all my “assets.”

That gear was used extensively in the next few years. The Buck, a Swea 123 and the sleeping bag went on several major backpacking trips and ended being used on my six-month canoe trip down the Mississippi River. None of this gear ever let me down.

Today, I have close to a dozen sleeping bags, ranging from indoor sleepover styles to a pair of  -15 degree winter bags. All  have their specific purposes. You will decide what the best sleeping bag is for your needs, and here are some considerations.

Where will the bag be used? Location is  important. I have slept on top of a sleeping bag in Louisiana, when the night time temperature was about 90 degrees, and snuggled deep in an arctic bag one night during a raging Iowa blizzard when the temperature got to -10 degrees, not counting wind chill.

Both bags were adequate for their jobs, but radically different from each other. One could not have safely replaced the other in those dramatically-different circumstances.

If you will be tent camping, you won’t need as warm a bag as if you’re sleeping under the stars. But that doesn’t mean you can or should buy a cheap, light bag!

Possible uses: The size, weight and composition of the insulation will all  be determined by the potential uses of the bag. A backpacking mummy bag is different from a full-cut bag designed for car camping. The car camping or elk camp sleeping bag, that won’t be carried anywhere, can be roomier, bigger and heavier. If you intend to backpack, or canoe, you’ll need something smaller and more compact.

Igloo interior during winter camping outing.

A heavy winter bag would be needed to sleep in this igloo. It would also need to be one that dries out easily.

Mummy or full cut: These are the two main styles of bag.You wear a mummy bag, so if claustrophobia is an issue, don’t get one! (One of my mummy bags is so snug-fitting it feels like I’m wearing a loose sausage casing. It doesn’t bother me, but make sure you to crawl inside any prospective bag in the store before buying it.) A full-cut bag is roomier, but the additional bulk and weight makes it harder to backpack.

Type of insulation: Sleeping bag insulation can be broken down basically into two categories: down and synthetic. Decide before buying: What is the potential for the bag getting wet?

Goose down insulation is the classic insulation used in sleeping bags, and, despite all the technological advances, is still the most efficient insulation around. Goose down provides the most warmth for the least bulk and weight, allowing for very warm sleeping bags that are in very, very small packages.

But goose down insulation is USELESS when wet, and it can take forever to dry. This could be deadly: What if you fall in a creek, soak all your gear and desperately need to warm up? Or suppose part of the bag gets soaked inadvertently during a rain? I don’t own a down bag, and get along very well with my synthetics.

But some of the very experienced Boy Scout leaders I backpack and camp with do use down bags. They swear by them, and I must admit, the tiny, light bundles the down bags compress into is very appealing!

Synthetics: There are a variety of good synthetic insulation fills on the market, and
generally you’ll get what you pay for. Check the internet and manufacturers’ specifications to decide which will be best for you.

My first synthetic bag paid for itself in my first two days in the Sierras. Here’s an excerpt (to read the whole story, click on  my 1976 John Muir Trail Journal:

Sunday July 25
Last night was the worst I’ve spent in the mountains so far. It rained all night, and I got completely soaked in my sleeping bag. The rain started after I was sound asleep, and drenched me before I even woke up. (I’d slept under the stars, and not bothered to set up the tarp).
The bag kept me warm, but it was sure was wet and clammy. Stayed awake most of the night. The rain kept stopping, then pouring down, so I kept getting wet, then getting wetter.
My camp was at 10,500 feet, so the temperature was pretty cold. Some of my clothes got wet, but I made sure to keep my boots dry.
“Got up, wrung out the sleeping bag and placed everything on rocks to dry. The sun is just coming up over the mountains, and the sky is clear. Looks like another nice day.

It rained, intermittently for  nine days straight after that, and keeping anything dry was a real struggle. I’m glad I didn’t have a down bag on that trip!

Weight: Sleeping bag weight is supposed to be a determination of how warm the bag might be. But beware! A lightweight down sleeping bag will be very warm, while a heavy, cheap cotton-filled bag will be heavy and cool. A better indication of warmth is probably the temperature rating.

Temperature Rating: My experience is that the manufacturers are very optimistic and that these ratings are more a statement of purpose than anything else! My rule of thumb is to look at the temperature rating and subtract 20 degrees.

Also, some people sleep colder than others. My snow camping equipment consists of a four-season dome tent and a minus 15 degree sleeping bag. I have slept comfortably in that setup down to zero, during blizzards with gale-force winds. But my wife took the same gear on a June Girl Scout campout in Oregon and was very comfortable.

What about getting sleeping bags that zip together so the loved one can snuggle? Again, this will depend on the couple.  If one is a colder sleeper than the other, both will be miserable.

Make your sleeping bag choices wisely. Otherwise, you may have some really long, uncomfortable nights to ponder and regret your hasty choices!
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4 comments
  • Leon

    Jerry, glad you read the post and thanks for the feedback! As you know my Wiggy’s Thule is my go-to bag for winter camping, and I have used it in igloos, snow trenches and below zero temperatures. And I re-posted the initial review about Wiggy’s for the article. The things I do know about insulation are based on what keeps me warm, with experience from many nights of backpacking, back country, hunting and winter camping. My hope is that I help guide a newcomer into choosing a bag that would work for his/her circumstances and needs. While it’s not my intent to do an in-depth article about the scientific differences in insulation, I’m happy for you to respond with anything in my article that was incorrect, so I can take a look. If I find I made a mistake, I’ll be happy to correct it. You’re also welcome to submit a comprehensive post about sleeping bag insulation, and I would certainly consider it for publication.

  • Tim Langdon

    Hi Leon, enjoyed you sharing your escapades, which certainly lend credibility to the subsequent wisdom you’ve gleaned the hard way. I’ll pitch in my two cents worth, from living in the outdoors up in Alaska for the last 35 years, and having more “character building opportunities” (LOL) than I care to remember.
    That said, we are really fortunate to now have access to some awesome synthetic materials and products which have really come into their own. In the old days, I used to siwash out on the trapline in a circa 1930’s down “sleeping robe”, whereas these days, I’m more likely to find myself cozy in a military ECWS modular system which I can add or subtract layers to, whether it’s +40F or -40F. Either I sure like those gore tex camo bivy sacks as an outer layer, it’s a life saver. Another thing I’ve learned the hard way is that those temperature ratings on bags (or boots) tends to be optimistic. Good thing to test them out first before going on the big expedition. I have Jim Grenfell to thank for teaching me how to think about gear and gadgets for their specific purpose- I still use his woods skills tips forty years later, and looks like now I’m learning a new thing or two from you, too…Thanks- enjoy the Great outdoors!

  • jerry wigutow

    YOU ARE NOT A SURVIVALIST OR SURVIVAL EXPERT BY YOUR OWN ADMISSION. YOU ALSO ARE NOT A PERSON QUALIFIED TO DISCUSS INSULATIONS EITHER. SINCE YOU ARE A “JOURNALIST” YOU SHOULD READ ALL OF WHAT OI HAVE WRITTEN THAT IS AVAILABLE ON MY WEB SITE SO YOU CAN “LEARN” ABOUT INSULATIONS.

    YOU ARE GIVING OUT IN THE AREA OF INSULATED PRODUCTS VERY BAD INFORMATION. GO TO http://www.wiggys.com

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