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How to Choose a Sleeping Bag

How to Choose a Sleeping Bag

Posted by Dan Goodman on 6th Jun 2019

While picking the right sleeping bag isn’t rocket science, we’ve all spent a night out camping where we woke up shivering in the freezing cold, questioning every life choice we made to get us to that particular moment. With that life experience behind us, it’s worth taking some time to understand what it is you’re buying and why it is right for you when it comes to your next sleeping bag purchase. Today we’ll cover the ins and outs of different sleeping bags for camping including bags for backpacking, car camping, temperature ratings, bag shape, and insulation types.

Backpacking Sleeping Bags vs Car Camping Sleeping Bags

Not everyone wants two separate bags for backpacking and car camping and it is true some sleeping bags are versatile enough to be used for both purposes. Ultimately, the major distinction between these two types of bags comes down to weight differences where backpacking bags are generally lighter weight and more packable overall. They also tend to fit a bit more snugly and are pricier due to the more expensive, lighter weight materials used to build them. Car camping bags, on the other hand, tend to be roomier, heavier, less expensive, and come in all shapes and sizes.

Thus, if you never plan on backpacking, a car camping bag is a good choice that will be a lower price point and a bit more luxurious. If you plan on backpacking though, you’ll want to get a lighter, more packable option, your back will thank you for it later.

The best backpacking sleeping bags are highly compressible and lightweight like the Nemo Disco 30 Down Sleeping Bag (left), Big Agnes Blackburn 0 UL Sleeping Bag (center), and Big Agnes V Notch UL 40 Sleeping Bag (right).

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Car camping sleeping bags offer more comfort and features but are heavier and less compressible. (Left) Big Agnes Hog Park 20 Sleeping Bag, (center) Nemo Jazz Luxury Sleeping Bag, (right) Nemo Huckleberry Sleeping Bag.

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Temperature Ratings

Most major sleeping bag manufacturers have started using the European Norm (EN) standardized test for assigning temperature ratings to their sleeping systems, making it easier to compare bags from different brands side by side. For consumers, it is important not only to read these temperature rating labels but also to understand exactly what they mean.

Without an EN/ISO temperature rating, the number assigned to the bag is likely the brand’s estimate which should be taken into consideration when comparing it against other bags from other manufacturers.While these temperature ratings are standardized, these tests are still performed in a lab where other variables that you may encounter outside won’t be present. In other words, these temperature ratings are helpful guidelines and are not to be taken as undeniable truths. The safest bet is to buy a sleeping bag with a temperature rating that falls below the lowest temperatures you expect to encounter while out camping as it is much easier to shed layers and unzip your bag in the middle of the night than to suffer and freeze in a bag that isn’t up to snuff.

Temperature Ranges

In order to trim down your options, most companies allow you to sort by temperature ranges. Here are a few common ranges as well as some general guidelines about sleeping bags in those ranges:

-20°F to -1°F - Winter or 4-season sleeping bags: Best for winter camping, multi-day ski tours and mountaineering purposes only. While packable for their temperature rating, this is not a bag most people would want to take backpacking due to bulk and weight.

0°F to 15°F - 3-season sleeping bags: In this temperature range, bags are considered to be three-season sleeping bags and are a great choice if you want one do-it-all sleeping system. These bags are perfect for anything from fall backpacking trips to car camping in the early spring and everything in between.

16°F to 30° F - 3-season sleeping bags: Also in the 3-season category, bags in this range are best suited to trips in the late spring, summer, and early fall when temperatures aren’t as brisk.

30°F to 45°F - Summer sleeping bags: Perfect for summertime and low elevation camping trips, bags in this category are great when it is warm outside both day and night. Since these bags don’t have nearly as much insulation in them, they are generally lighter in weight and very packable.

Bag Shape

Rectangular Bags - A very common bag shape for both car camping and backpacking options alike. The rectangular design is wide, roomy, and allows you to lay out comfortably in the bag. With that extra room though, you sacrifice warmth (more dead space in the sleeping bag can lead to cold spots) and you end up with a heavier bag overall due to the extra material.

The Big Agnes Anvil Horn 15 Down Sleeping Bag - A rectangular shape

Mummy Bags - Typical for lightweight and backpacking specific sleeping bags, this style cuts down on weight by using less material and offers a better warmth-to-weight ratio by keeping the insulation closer to your body. The downside is that some people find these bags less comfortable as you don’t have much wiggle room once the bag is zipped closed.

The Big Agnes Pluton UL 40 Down Sleeping Bag - A mummy shape

Semi-rectangular Bags - Considered by some to be the best of both worlds. Not as claustrophobic as a full mummy shape and lighter than a rectangular shaped bag, the semi-rectangular bag is a nice in-between for folks looking to cut some weight and still maximize comfort.

Nemo Riff 30 Down Sleeping Bag - A semi-rectangular shape

Doublewide Bags- Perfect for couples not wanting to deal with the hassle of zipping two sleeping bags together, doublewide bags offer a roomy option that lets you share your partner’s body heat and snuggle up close. Doublewide bags don’t pack down as small as a single bag and tend to be heavier, but can be used for both car camping and backpacking purposes.

Big Agnes Dream Island 15 - A doublewide sleeping bag

Insulation Type: Down vs Synthetic

The great debate of which insulation type is best. Backcountry philosophers and scientists alike have struggled with this question and with no clear winner, all we can do is give you the pros and cons of each and let you decide.

Down Insulation

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Synthetic Insulation

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Synthetic bags are great if you plan on getting your sleeping bag wet in any way, like if you are planning an extended trip to the Pacific Northwest. But, most down bags are now being treated with a hydrophobic or DWR coating to make them perform better in damp conditions. Both down and synthetic fill bags have their pros and cons, but at this point, the biggest considerations for most are based on the price point and the weight of the bag itself.

Other considerations

Women’s Sleeping Bags

Although women’s bags are very similar to men’s bags in many ways, there are a few key differences that are worth noting. First, women’s sleeping bags are generally built with a slimmer profile in the shoulders, a wider width in the hips, and can be available in shorter lengths. Most women’s specific bags will also come with excess insulation as women tend to sleep colder than men physiologically. Finally, the temperature rating of these bags is the EN “comfort rating” and not the “lower limit” rating, as with men’s or unisex bags.

(Left) Nemo Jam 15 Women’s Down Sleeping Bag, (Center) Big Agnes Sunbeam 0 Women’s Sleeping Bag, (Right) Nemo Rave 30 Women’s Down Sleeping Bag

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Right zip vs Left zip

A lot of folks wonder, does it matter if I go with a left zip or a right zip bag? And the answer is, not really. Sleeping bag manufacturers make zippers on different sides to make it easy for folks to zip themselves up with their dominant hand. Thus, if you are right-handed, a left zip option will be easiest and vice versa.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, there really are a lot of things to consider when it comes to buying a sleeping bag. Temperature ratings, shape, insulation type, and weight are just some of the factors that might influence your decision when it comes time to buy. Don’t forget to zip yourself up in a few different bags to see how they feel, review sleeping bag features, check bag length, and double check packed size to make sure that when you pull the credit card out, you don’t end up with buyer’s remorse. Feel free to reach out to us at any time at if you have questions about a specific bag or about sleeping systems in general, we’d be happy to get you all set up for your next adventure! 

About Campman

Campman is an outdoor retail store located in Salt Lake City, Utah that specializes in gear and equipment for camping, skiing, backpacking, climbing, and everything in between. We understand that the difference between a bad memory and the experience of a lifetime can come down to the gear you take with you when you head into the outdoors, and we want our customers to have the best experiences possible. That’s why we put our gear to the test, write reviews, and work directly with our customers to make sure that every piece we sell is simply the best.

Questions? Feel free to contact us by phone at (801) 999-8117 or by email at so we can get you the gear you need to get outside.