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Sleeping Bags: The Good, the Bad, and the Extra Fluffy

Written by Jessica on June 6, 2011

Let’s get a few things out of the way. #1. I’m assuming you are camping, in a tent. #2. I’m assuming that packing space is a concern.

A sleeping bag is one of the most important pieces of personal gear you need to buy. If it gets too cold and you opt to spend the night in a hotel, it will cost much more than camping. Over the course of a long trip, that warm and cozy sleeping bag may save you a lot of money.

Jessica in a Western Mountaineerin Sleeping Bag

Main Considerations

You and Me

Before we get into the details of sleeping bag options, let’s talk about me. I’m probably the worst case scenario.

I hate being cold. I get cold really easily. And when I get cold it takes a long time (or a big heater) for me to get warm again. When I’m cold I don’t sleep. Ever. It’s a curse.

My husband is pretty much the opposite. He wears t-shirts in snow storms and complains about the heat. However, he’s not a fan of humid weather, and if he can’t completely control the temperature of his feet, he’s miserable.

We have two completely different sleeping bags. Moral of the story: if you don’t know how you sleep and what you need to be comfortable, choosing the right sleeping bag will be impossible. If you are just starting out, find a store with a 100% satisfaction guarantee and take advantage of it. It may take a few tries to find the right bag.

Mummy vs. the Rectangle (or somewhere in between)

The first choice and probably the easiest. The only reason to not buy a mummy bag is cost. They are smaller, lighter and warmer. If you have a giant RV at your disposal, an old school rectangle bag will do. Otherwise, stick with mummy bags. The technology is far superior.

If you’re worried about the constraints of a cocoon shaped bag, check out some semi-rectangle bags. Also, look for bags designed for bigger people. Mountaineers may not have a lot of fat, but they are built like wrestlers. If you’re taller than 6 feet and weigh more than 200 lbs, don’t fret, there are plenty of options.

Synthetic vs. Down

There is really no comparison. Buy down. Period. End of story.

Down bags are lighter, warmer and last much longer. Unfortunately they are also more expensive. Unless you are planning to throw the bag out at the end of your trip, spend the extra cash and buy down.

I have used synthetic bags for years. Mostly because they are advertised as being able to keep you warm when they are wet. Number of times in 10 years of versatile, round-the-world use that my sleeping bag has been wet? Zero. If you are really that concerned, take your down bag and put it in a garbage bag. It will still be lighter and warmer than a synthetic alternate.

Most decent down bags are also made with a waterproof shell. I just bought a down bag, and held it under the faucet for a good ten minutes. Not a drop of water went through.

Down weight

Not all down is created equal. It’s rated by fill power. The highest is around 850. The higher the number, the higher the quality of the down and the lighter and warmer it will be. Expect to pay more for anything over 600 weight.

Temperature Rating

Temperature ratings are pretty much bull shit. They might be a good place to start, but when it comes down to it, they vary drastically between manufacturers and individuals.

There is no international standard for testing temperatures in sleeping bags. Most manufactures claim their ratings are only valid in a tent, with no wind, a super insulated ground mat, no moisture, and assume you have been well fed and well rested. I don’t know about you, but I get into my sleeping bag to rest, not because I’m rested.

Some manufactures, like Marmot, have all of their bags independently tested and offer comfort ratings for men and women. There is a HUGE differences in ratings between the sexes. Generally all ratings are 10-15 degrees warmer for women. Kudos to Marmot for at least taking the initiative to have the bags independently tested.

Follow these rules when looking at temperature ratings.

  • Are you a cold or warm sleeper? If so, consider adding or subtracting 10 or 15 degrees.
  • Are you going to damp or windy places, and does your tent have mesh? You’ll need something warmer.
  • Check other specs. What’s the weight of the down? It’s lofting ability? The size of the bag? All of these can be signs of a warmer bag. When comparing bags look at specs beyond the arbitrary temperature rating.
  • Read user reviews! Lots of them. Talk to hikers (and NOT sales people). is a full of gear-heads who write useful reviews and will answer questions.
  • Test it out. Nothing compares to taking the bag out in the woods and trying to get a good night’s snooze in a snow storm. If you really want to know, that’s your only option.


The size of your sleeping bag is more critical than you would think. The closer the bag fits your body, the warmer it will be. If the bag is too large your body will have to heat the extra space. On the flip-side, if the bag is too small and there is no air to heat, you’ll be cold and cramped.

Most bags are made for men, with broad shoulders, no hips, and a rectangular foot box. Most women’s bags are substantially shorter, with equal width for shoulders and hips. As a tall woman, with no shoulders what-so-ever, finding a bag that is long and slender enough was practically impossible.

Western Mountaineering (the world’s best sleeping bag manufacturer, in my humble opinion) names their bags according to how they are cut, so once you know the size you are looking for, surveying the options is easy.

Other Features

Zip side

Sleeping next to your honey? Make sure you get zippers on opposite sides. You might never actually zip them together, but as a spouse who has lost the battle of “who gets to sleep with their zipper facing the cold door vent,” many times. Trust me it’s worth it to get bags with zippers that face each other.

Continuous Baffles

A neat feature which allows you to pick your bag up width-wise and shake the down to the back of the bag. If you’re traveling in a variety of climates it will help control the temperature.


The outside material of your bag is called the shell. They are made of all types of high tech fabric. The higher the tech, the higher the cost. Most high end bags come with an option to add a waterproof shell. Although, I’ve found the normal model is fairly water resistant. Unless you are planning to sleep outside in a rain storm, the standard shell will do just fine.


Bags come in a wide variety of weights, from under a pound to over 6. Unless you are doing some hard-core trekking, I wouldn’t base you decision on weight. Most good down bags are in the 2-4lb range. You’ll be fine with that.


Without fail, you will get what you pay for. More expensive bags come with better quality materials, but also better construction, better design, and almost always better warranties.

High end down bags cost between $300-600. Synthetic bags are around $200-400. But both have cheaper options in the $100-200 range, good for climates above freezing.

If you are buying your first bag, start cheap. There’s no need to break the bank on something you may never use again. Upgrading is easy, and after a few months in your cheap bag, you’ll appreciate the qualities in a high end version so much more.

What we use and recommend

I use a 5 degree Western Mountaineering Antelope. It’s a standard cut bag, a full 6’ in length. It set me back a whopping $470. It is worth every penny. If you’re serious about living in your sleeping bag, buy from Western Mountaineering. They are unbeatable.

My husband has a North Face Mammoth. It’s a 20 degree synthetic bag. It’s a little bit big, but opens up flat so we can use it as a blanket, and so he can vent his feet at the end. It was on sale at a nice $160, and given my husband’s uncanny ability to be warm in any condition, it works great.

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