Ruby Bayan
is a freelance writer who enjoys sharing her simple joys. She used to be an avid backpacker.

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Choosing a Sleeping Bag
by Ruby Bayan

Imagine yourself at the tail end of a long hike, dog-tired and just aching to get a good night's sleep. You wish to the high heavens that the campsite would be flat, the night breeze would be gentle, and the nocturnal creatures would leave you alone. One thing you won’t have to wish about: whatever Mother Nature has in store for you tonight, you will be safe and snug and happy in dreamland -- in your trusty old sleeping bag.

Why? Because you choose your sleeping bags wisely, and the one you have with you on any particular trip is the best one for that specific adventure.

How do you choose wisely? Here are the essential things to consider in picking the right sleeping bag for your backpacking trip:

What's your itinerary like?

Your choice of implements for quality sleep will depend on the situations you will find yourself in along the way and into slumber land.

Will you be traversing rivers and snoozing in rain forest country? Will you be climbing high altitudes and dozing in an igloo? Do your travel plans include sherpas and llamas, or will you have to carry your "bed" on your back the whole time?

Temperature, humidity, and weight are the itinerary-related factors to take note of when choosing the right sleeping bag material for any particular trip.

What's your metabolic rate?

Because no two people are exactly alike, what may be the right type of sleeping bag for one person will not necessarily be the right one for another, even if they have identical itineraries.

Some folks raise a finger and they perspire, while some hike for miles without breaking a sweat. Siberians will eat ice cream in a blizzard and Hawaiians will dance the hula in boiling point heat. Depending on your natural or acquired reactions and tolerance levels to heat and cold, you should choose a sleeping bag that will give you just the right temperature for restful sleep.

What's it made of?

Taking temperature, humidity and weight into consideration, and of course your personal sleeping comfort and safety, here are sleeping bag construction options to check out:

Insulation: Down insulation may be soft and warm and durable and relatively light, but because it absorbs moisture, it can get cold and damp in a humid habitat. Once it gets wet, that's the end of its usefulness. Synthetic insulation is your other option.

Shell Protection: The sleeping bag's outer fabric will spell the difference between a comfy and restful snooze and a cold and clammy sleepless night. Nylon and polyester are common and economical choices that are durable and good UV shields but on humid tropical trips, they won't protect you from wetness and high winds. Microfiber remains top of the list when it comes to water and wind resistance but most of the brand name microfiber shells add weight on your back and on your budget.

Temperature Rating: All reputable sleeping bag manufacturers rate their products according to the temperature levels the bag can be subjected to and still remain comfortable for the average human body inside it. Summer camping sleeping bags are rated 40 to 50 degrees F. If outside temperatures drop lower than 40 degrees F, the sleeping bag will be inadequate in terms of keeping the person warm and comfortable. Average three-season bags are usually rated along the 20 degree F range. For high altitude and ice conditions, the appropriate sleepers should be around the 0 to -30 degree F rating.

What does it look like?

Aside from the material, weight, and temperature rating, you should examine a sleeping bag for its features and accessories.

Stuff sack - it helps if the sleeping bag's stuff sack is waterproof. Even if your sleeping bag is guaranteed water resistant, double protection is always a good thing.

Zippers - a good sleeping bag has durable two-way zippers that don't snag, restrict access, or slide open in the middle of the night.

Hood - the ideal sleeping bag should be able to enclose your whole body and protect it from the cold environment. The hood should fit your head snugly, the drawstring should be accessible and easy to adjust, and the hood's draft collar (for ice conditions) should hug the neck adequately.

Pad - most sleeping bags are equipped with built-in pads to protect your back from the irregular terrain and the cold ground. Built-in or as an accessory, the porous, spongy pads are light and cushy, but they are also highly absorbent. Non-porous pads are non-absorbent and durable but they are usually thin and stiff. Inflatable pads are portable air and foam mattresses, which, though utterly comfortable, can be heavy and expensive.

Does it fit?

Before swiping your credit card and making one of your most important investments as a backpacker, go through the "fitting" exercise. Make sure the bag fits you. Here's why:

  • A sleeping bag that's too wide or too long means there will be air pockets that you will need to warm up to attain your ideal sleeping temperature inside the sleeping bag.

  • A sleeping bag that's too tight or too short means you will be pressing on the walls of the bag and diminishing its insulation properties.

  • Between a short one and a long one, prefer the long one -- then just fill the empty space with dry stuff from your backpack.


Choosing the right sleeping bag is crucial -- keeping it in its ideal condition is just as important. Using a liner helps minimize having to wash the sleeping bag too often. Frequent washing, harsh detergents, molds and mildew, and exposure to sunlight are your sleeping bag's worst nightmares. Take good care of your sleeping bag and you can look forward to years of sweet dreams under the stars.


Introduction to Backpacking

A first guide and set of tutorials on preparedness, presence of mind, and delight in memorable escapades in the great outdoors.
[First published as an online course at Suite101 University.]

Fitness Exercises
Outdoor Survival Basics

Choosing Equipment:
Choosing a Backpack
Choosing a Sleeping Bag
Choosing a Tent
Choosing Hiking Boots

Gearing Up:
What to Wear
How to Pack a Backpack
How to Pack Food

Campsite Management:
How to Choose a Campsite
How to Pitch a Tent

Emergency Situations:

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