How to Choose and Use a Sleeping Bag




Introduction: How to Choose and Use a Sleeping Bag

In this instructable, we'll help you choose the right sleeping bag for your style of camping.

Picking a sleeping bag can be daunting, especially if you're a casual camper and aren't aware of all the technical jargon. We'll talk through how to decide your camping style, how to choose an insulation type, and different kinds of sleeping bags.

We'll also go a little bit into the care and use of sleeping bags after you purchase one.

Step 1: Determine Your Camping Style

Answer these questions for yourself:

Question 1: "Do I plan on driving a vehicle to my campground most of the time or will I be hiking in with a backpack?"

If you plan on driving into your campground, this is typically referred to as "Car Camping" (SURPRISE!) or "Overlanding".

If you plan on hiking in to your campsite, then you might be "Backpacking".

Now let's think about WHEN you'll be going camping.

Step 2: Choose Your Season

Question 2: "Do I plan on camping only in summer (June-August), during the warmer months (March-October), winter months (November-February) or during the shoulder seasons (March-May; September-November)?

Most people choose to camp either during the summer or during the warmer months. But you CAN camp year round if you're properly equipped. Forethought is key!

Step 3: Choose Your Insulation Type

So now you know your camping style (Car Camping or Backpacking) and your desired camping season.

Now let's talk about what kind of INSULATION you want in your sleeping bag and the features of each type. Generally, there are two types of insulation used in sleeping bags: Down and Synthetic.


Down comes from birds (geese, ducks, etc.) and its the small, puffy feathers that nature has equipped them with to keep them warm in their environments. It's sorted by grades starting at "550" and going all the way up to "800+". The "why" of these numbers is less important that what they mean.

The higher the number of your "fill" or quality of the down, the puffier and lighter the feathers will be. 550 down will be found in less expensive, and heavier sleeping bags generally whereas 800 fill will be found in the high end, mountaineering type sleeping bags that need to be very light and very warm.

Down, as a whole, is generally more "packable" than synthetic insulation. It packs up into a smaller space and is more light weight. It also lasts longer than synthetic bags. A general rule in the outdoor industry is that a down bag will last about 25 years if you care for it properly where as a synthetic bag will usually last around 5-10 years.

Down is also more breathable than synthetics, so if you're a sweaty sleeper, that is something to consider! However, once the feathers become saturated with moisture, it takes longer to dry than synthetic insulation does.


Synthetic insulation is made of tons of tiny lengths of nylon (plastic-based) threads. Many manufacturers have their own "type" of synthetic insulation but we will speak in generalities for our purposes.

Synthetic is a man-made type of insulation which means it can be more humanely produced than the harvesting of down from birds. It also means that it can be manufactured much more cost-effectively leading to a less expensive end product -- your sleeping bag.

However the strands of plastic insulation generally don't pack up as small as down feathers do, making it a bit more bulky. And because the strands of plastic are long and smooth with less surface area than their animal based counter parts, it takes more strands to produce an equivalent heat-trapping effect which in turn makes your sleeping bag heavier.

For wet, or humid environments though, the quick-drying characteristics of nylon are a huge advantage. Another advantage to synthetic is that they are generally less maintenance than down bags. You can use a light detergent and a front load washing machine and tumble dry them. For down, you have to use a special "down-only" detergent to remove oil buildup from the feathers then hang dry so the feathers don't get beaten and broken and lose their loft (and thus your warmth).

To summarize:

  • DOWN:
    • PROS:
      • Packs smaller ; lighter weight
      • Warmer per ounce
      • Long-lasting
    • CONS
      • Questionable ethics in sourcing
      • Becomes saturated more quickly
      • More maintenance
    • PROS:
      • Less expensive than Down
      • More animal friendly
      • Quick drying
      • Easy maintenance.
    • CONS
      • Bulkier; Heavier
      • Shorter life-span
      • Less breathable

With these lists in mind, we can make some connections to the last step.

  • DOWN
    • Great for backpacking
    • Better warmth to weight ratio
    • More compactable
    • More breathable
  • Synthetic
    • Great for car camping
    • Less expensive
    • Easier to maintain
    • Faster drying

Step 4: Choose Your Temperature Rating

The temperature rating of the sleeping bag might be something you're already familiar with. However it is more convoluted than it appears at first glance. There are generally two types of ratings when it comes to sleeping bags: Comfort Rating and Survival Rating. Let's talk more about those.


The "Comfort Rating" is generally what people assume all sleeping bag rating systems are referencing. Its the environmental temperature that the bag is designed to keep humans comfortable in. For instance a "15 Degree" Comfort Rating is designed to keep you nice and warm when the temps outside your tent plunge to 10-20 Degrees. Which brings up an interesting point. Comfort ratings are completely subjective. Some people are more comfortable in a cold bedroom and others like to pile on the blankets. Its important for you to know how you tend to operate at home and buy your bag accordingly. For example if you're comfortable in a 65 degree room with only a sheet on your bed, you might plan to get a bag that is Comfort Rated a little higher than someone who has a sheet, a blanket, and a duvet in the same type of room. HOWEVER, if you're unsure, buy warmer than you think you'll need because you can always unzip the bag and get cooler, but its a lot harder (and dangerous) to be too cold and try to get warm.

That brings us to...


What most people don't know is that many sleeping bags are advertised at their "Survival Temperature Rating". This is the temperature that the manufactures have determined that you are more likely to survive the environment you're in than not. So when you see a sleeping bag for $30 that says it's a "-20 Degree" rated bag, be skeptical because you might be alive at -20 degrees in it, but you probably won't be happy. You tend to see these ratings advertised more in the entry-level, less-expensive sleeping bags, so make sure you do your research and are clear on what kind of rating is being given.

Step 5: Choose Your Length

Sleeping bags generally come in several lengths, usually in 6" differences (5'0",5'6", 6'0", 6'6") with very few over the 6'6" length. You might be tempted to buy the longer size just to make sure you can fit inside comfortably. However it takes more body heat to heat up that empty air space so in the middle of the night, you may find your self getting colder in a bag that is longer than you need.

A good general guideline is to buy a bag that is no more than 6" taller than you. This gives you space to place tomorrow's clothes in the foot of the bag and get them warmed up, or to let damp clothes be dried by your body heat in the foot of the bag without being right next to your skin and making you cold.

If you buy a bag that is too big, you may actually find your self more exhausted in the mornings because of the work that your body is doing while you (try to) sleep to keep you warm. You'll end up eating more food to compensate for that work as well. That might not be as big of a deal when you're car camping, but when you're backpacking and have fixed rations, it can become a game changer very quickly.

Step 6: Choose a Cut-style

There are a few different types of cuts for a sleeping bags that you may have to choose from:

  • Rectangular
  • Mummy


This cut is exactly what it sounds like. It's shaped like a rectangle and has plenty of room for campers with more girth, side sleepers and folks who tend to toss and turn while they sleep. The feel is very similar to your bed at home. Some rectangular bags can be unzipped all the way to form a double wide comforter or to be zipped together with another rectangular bag to form a double wide sleeping bag.

The disadvantage here is that there is a lot of wasted space to heat and extra material to pack up. This style is best suited to car camping.


The advantage to a mummy bag and it's body-contoured cut is that there is not wasted material or void spaces in your bag which allows it to be lighter and to pack down smaller than a rectangular bag. The big disadvantage here is that there is not a lot of room inside. If you're claustrophobic, these bags can be a real challenge to endure the night in. Generally they don't unzip all the way to mate with another bag. These bags are best suited to backpacking or people that love tight spaces.

Step 7: Choose Your Sleeping Bag

Based on what you know now, you should be able to determine:

  • What is your camping style?
    • Car Camper or Backpacker
    • Your preferred camping season.
  • What kind of insulation do you want?
    • Down or Synthetic
  • What Temperature Rating do you want?
    • Knowing generally where you want to camp most often and when you want to go there will help you decide
  • What style of bag cut do you want?
    • Rectangular
    • Mummy

From here, you'll need to determine your own budget and find what bag fits your profile. Below are a few retailers with a decent sleeping bag selection to help you get the bag you want.

Step 8: Packing Your Sleeping Bag | Tied Bags

Packing your sleeping bag can be a challenge in and of itself. There are a couple different types of packing/storage solutions in the market right now.


This type of packing/storage is usually found in the heavier/more bulky bags, often marketed to the hunting demographic. Sometimes these bags will have 2-3 sets of two strings attached to the bag near the foot-side zipper.

To pack this type of bag follow these instructions:

  1. Lay the bag out flat on the floor/ground/tent floor. Zip all to the "closed" position.
  2. Smooth out any wrinkles. Tuck one string from each set of ties on the bag under the bag and pull the other string from the set down away from the bag.
  3. (Optional) Fold the bag in half width-wise so that the bag is now folded to be the same length but half as wide.Some bags include ties on one corner near the foot of the sleeping bag and then only a few inches over. If your bag is not like this, disregard step 3.
  4. Begin rolling the bag from the "head" end of the bag and roll it up as tightly as you can toward the foot of the bag.
  5. Kneel next to the bag, placing one knee and a fair amount of weight ontop of your rolled sleeping bag.
  6. Find the end of the strings that you tucked under the bag in Step 2 and bring it up and over the top of the sleeping bag. Take the other end that you stretched out away from the foot of the sleeping bag and bring them together on top of the sleeping bag.
  7. Tie a shoe-knot using only the strings from step 6 to secure the rolled bag. You should have two or more sets, each set will require a knot. DO NOT Remove your knee from the sleeping bag before you tie the knots.
  8. Once the knots are tied, remove your knee from the sleeping bag.

Step 9: Packing Your Sleeping Bag | Stuff Sack

Another type of packing/storage is the "stuff sack" or "compression bag" The stuff sack is typically a sack made of material similar to the exterior of the sleeping bag; it's typically closed at one end and has a drawstring or roll top closure at the other end. Another type of packing/storage is the "stuff sack" or "compression bag" The stuff sack is typically a sack made of material similar to the exterior of the sleeping bag; it's typically closed at one end and has a drawstring or roll top closure at the other end. To efficiently stuff your sleeping bag into the stuff sack, follow these steps:

  1. Grasp your sleeping bag by the top (either the hood in a Mummy Bag or the top corner in a Rectangular Bag) in your dominant hand and hold the stuff sack by the opening in your non-dominant hand.
  2. Stuff that corner as far to the bottom of the stuff sack as you can.
  3. Release the sleeping bag and pull your arm out of the stuff sack to grab another handful of the sleeping bag along the long edge of the sleeping bag.
  4. Stuff it into the bottom of the stuff sack.
  5. Rotate the stuff sack slightly then repeat steps 3-4 until you have stuffed the entire sleeping bag into the stuff sack.
  6. Pull the drawstring to cinch down and close the open end of the stuff sack then slide the retention bead down the drawstring to keep the stuff sack from opening back up.

The key to a successful pack is to keep hold of the edge of the bag as your stuffing it in to the sack and to guide it down along the edges as close to the bottom as you can get it and then rotate the stuff sack before you put the next handful in. This will help you maximize the volume of the stuff sack and also to pack it evenly which helps cut down on bulk.

Step 10: Summary

Now you know more about sleeping bags than you did before and you're ready to go out and choose which bag is right for you. Happy trails!

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    storr der
    storr der

    1 year ago

    Nice summary - thanks a lot!