An Expert Guide to the Different Types of Sleeping Bags

Sleeping bags are essential for camping, but it can be hard to know where to start when buying one. Camping & Hiking expert Donny O'Neill breaks it down.

Having the perfect sleeping bag on your next camping trip can be the difference from a really enjoyable experience and one with very little rest and relaxation. There’s nothing worse than having a sleeping bag that’s not warm enough, too warm, uncomfortable, or too snug; it has to be just right, and luckily, there are plenty of ingredients that go into making a bag tailored to your personal preferences. This article will take you through the different aspects to keep in mind when purchasing the right sleeping bag to ensure you have a good night’s sleep in the wilderness.

First, it’s important to identify who will primarily be using the bag and what their individual sleep preferences are (cold sleeper, hot sleeper, side sleeper, back sleeper). Then, make sure to keep in mind the majority of conditions the bag will be used in. This includes temperature and climate.

It’s imperative that you weigh all of the pros and cons about your sleeping bag before narrowing in on a specific type in your buying process. With that said, take a look at the multitude of aspects to keep in mind when buying the best sleeping bag for you.

A man in a blue sleeping back leans towards the camera
Photo by Emerson Ward

Shape

Most campers covet a sleeping bag with enough room to comfortably stretch out, rollover, and generally prevent claustrophobic sleeping. It’s very common for manufacturers to construct rectangular bags to achieve this end. These rectangular shapes are much better suited to car camping where weight, packability, and warmth aren’t as important. Mummy style bags are more prevalent when it comes to backpackers, as they cut weight and boost warmth.

Rectangular Sleeping Bag

Rectangular shapes provide extra room, allowing you to stretch out as needed. In general, they can be completely unzipped to act as a blanket or comforter, should you not need total warmth.

An orange rectangular sleeping bag with tan lining
The North Face Eco Trail Bed 35 Sleeping Bag

Semi-Rectangular Sleeping Bag

Semi-rectangular bags make up a hybrid category that walks the line between extra warmth and space, and generally covers a wide variety of different sleeping bag shapes. Other names include “modified mummy” and “barrel” shape.

Mummy Sleeping Bag

Mummy bags are constructed with a tapered shape that’s snug, in order to cut down on weight and increase warmth, two characteristics coveted by backpackers. Instead of rolling over inside your bag, like with rectangular bags, the whole bag will come with you when you adjust during the night.

An orange mummy-style sleeping bag with blue lining
Rab IGNITION 2 Sleeping Bag

Double Sleeping Bags

A double bag allows two people to comfortably sleep inside one sleeping bag, which is ideal for couples who plan on sleeping together in the wilderness. They’re generally bigger and bulkier, so they’re not meant for long backpacking trips where space and weight are at a premium. Some sleeping bags can be zipped together, connecting the right-hand zip of one with the left-hand zip of the other. Big Agnes is known for making really high-quality double sleeping bags.

Women’s Sleeping Bags

Women are anatomically different than men, and therefore their sleeping bags should be built differently. A women’s-specific bag should be narrow at the shoulders and wide at the hips, and should truly fit lengthwise to prevent any loss of heat. Women’s sleeping bags should be slightly warmer than their male counterparts, as women generally feel colder than men, too.

A purple sleeping bag
Sea to Summit Quest Qui Women's Sleeping Bag

Children’s Bags

These bags are shorter than the adult versions, but still have the same properties as those meant for larger-sized humans. Children’s bags should be easy to pack down, compact, and light in weight. Some children’s bags have built-in sleeves meant to house a sleeping pad, which will help a young, inexperienced camper stay comfortable throughout the whole night.

Pod-Shaped Bags

These sleeping bags are gigantic, and offer uninhibited movement within them, perfect for restless sleepers used to sleeping in king-sized beds. The pod-shaped bags are not as tapered to your body as mummy bags, so they’re generally not as warm, but, if you invite another person in to sleep with you, that’ll boost the warmth factor significantly. Many pod bags come with internal pockets, a hood, built-in stuff sack, and wind baffle on the upper zipper to keep the cold off your face.

Sizing

Your individual body height should determine the size of the bag you purchase. If you get one that’s too short, you won’t be able to fit, and if you get one that’s too long, you’ll lose body heat in your feet. If you plan on stowing gear you want to keep warm in your foot box, then you can opt for a longer bag.

Sleeping bag lengths are standardized among brands and generally come in either regular or long sizes, regardless of gender. A men’s regular is 78 inches long (good for someone up to six feet tall), a men’s long is 84 inches (6-foot-6-inches), a women’s regular is 72 inches (5-foot-6-inches), and a women’s long is 78 inches.

Temperature Rating

When relying on a temperature rating to purchase the best sleeping bag, it’s crucial to keep in mind that all bags can be unzipped to dump heat if you feel too warm. With that said, it’s good to choose a sleeping bag that rates down to the lowest nighttime temperature you anticipate for where you’re camping. For reference, summer-specific bags generally rate at 30 degrees Fahrenheit and above, three-season bags fall between 15 and 30 degrees, and winter or cold weather bags rate at below 15 degrees.

Many bags also divvy up the rating of the bag, giving you a “comfort,” “limit,” and “extreme” rating, detailing which temperature the bag excels at, the limit of that comfort, and the lowest temperature you can rely on it for. A comfort temperature rating indicates the best temperature a sleeper will feel warm in; the standard temperature at which an adult can have a good night’s sleep. The limit temperature indicates the temperature at which an average adult male will be able to sleep comfortably when in a rolled-up position. And an “extreme temperature” rating is basically the equivalent of “survival temperature,” the minimum temperature the bag can protect you from frostbite and keep you alive. This temperature will by no means be comfortable and shouldn’t be relied on regularly. It’s more geared toward professional expeditions.

Seasonal Rating

Manufacturers keep in mind the intended seasonal use when embarking on sleeping bag design.

  • One-season bags generally have a temperature rating above 40 degrees Fahrenheit, are lightweight, have minimal insulation, and are intended to be used indoors or in tropical climates.
  • Two-season sleeping bags generally offer the bare minimum warmth for campers, meant for warm climates, a warm sleeper, or mid-summer adventures. They’re generally rated between 32 and 40 degrees.
  • Three-season bags are the most common for experienced campers and stand up to year-round conditions except for winter, rating between 23 and 32 degrees.
  • Three-plus bags are less common but are meant to endure cold climates where a camper is not exposed to things like wind or high-elevation temperatures. They’re rated between 14 and 23 degrees, can be used in the winter but probably not in the coldest climates.
  • A four-season bag will withstand harsh winter conditions at high altitudes and are rated between 5 and 14 degrees.

Some companies, The North Face, for example, produce four-plus or five-season bags, but these are meant for professional explorers who will be heading to the ends of the earth.

Types of Sleeping Bag Insulation

The two types of insulation you’ll be looking at are synthetic insulation and down insulation. Both have beneficial characteristics, as well as some cons associated with them.

Synthetic Insulation

Synthetic insulation is generally more affordable than down. The biggest advantage of synthetic fill is that it dries fast and maintains insulation even when damp. Synthetic sleeping bags come in handy in wet camping environments such as those found in places like the Pacific Northwest.

Synthetic fill doesn’t have a standard test to define its power because each synthetic insulation manufacturer relies on unique characteristics.

Down Insulation

Down sleeping bags are perfect for sleeping in colder, drier climates, like those found in the high peaks of the Rocky Mountains or for colder nights in the desert. Down often is treated with a durable water repellent to protect it from damp conditions, but it’s not as good at warding off moisture as synthetic fill. Down is also durable, light, and easily compressed down small for easy packing, making it a great backpacking option.

Fill power is what indicates the quality of down, and comes from a test measuring how many cubic inches of loft is produced by one ounce of down. Down with high loft and insulation has a high fill power number—900-fill down is about as high as it goes.

Fabric

The face fabric of your sleeping bag is what protects the insulation inside it from damage. The inner fabric of the bag is what you’ll feel against your skin when you’re inside it.

Types of Face Fabrics

Nylon: Nylon is soft to the touch, and therefore improves the comfort of your sleeping bag. Nylon provides the best combination of comfort, durability, and breathability.

Ripstop: Ripstop is a super durable fabric that’s also lightweight, which equates to a great backpacking sleeping bag. It’s a bit rough to the touch, however.

DWR: Durable Water Repellent is often used to treat face fabrics and prevent moisture from soaking the bag. Down bags that lose insulating properties when wet need a water repellent treatment.

Types of Inner Fabrics

Nylon: Nylon is by far the most common fabric used inside sleeping bags, mostly due to its soft feel. It’s also breathable, which helps moisture generated from your own body heat escape.

Polycotton: Polycotton is soft on the skin, and is common in warm-weather sleeping bags because it takes a while to dry and isn’t made for cold temperatures.

Other Things to Keep in Mind

Weight

Weight, as well as a bag’s ability to pack down small, becomes an issue for backpackers who have to haul all of their gear into the wilderness with them. Most brands will list measurements and weight in the product specs of the sleeping bag, so keep those in mind if you’ll be backpacking with your bag.

Stuff Sacks

The stuff sack is what your sleeping bag will be stored in. Many stuff sacks have straps that cinch it down into as small of a package as possible. Stuff sacks can come in handy for storing things in when your bag isn’t in them, too. Be sure not to misplace it, as the stuff sack is an added layer of protection for your bag when in storage.

Storage Sacks

Your sleeping bag will likely come with a mesh storage sack that’s for long-term storage. A sleeping bag that’s left in a stuff sack for too long can sustain long-term damage to its insulation, so the storage sack allows for less wear and tear when the bag isn’t in use.

Sleeping Bag Liners

You can purchase a soft sleeping bag liner that slips inside your bag to provide extra warmth and keeps your bag clean, and thus improve its durability. If you’re camping in really hot climates, you can also just sleep in the liner.

A blue shiny sleeping bag liner
Rab Hooded Vapour Barrier Liner

Pockets

Some sleeping bags come with pockets built into the inside of them, which offers a great place to stow small items like your phone, wallet, keys, or even hand warmers if you want a boost in warmth.

Draft Collars and Hoods

A draft collar seals the top of the bag around you in order to prevent heat loss and keep your neck and shoulders nice and warm. A full hood, on the other hand, prevents loss of heat from your head, and an adjustable cord allows you to tighten or loosen the hood, depending on if you’re too hot or cold.

Zips

It may sound inconsequential, but it’s imperative to buy a bag with a zip that’s on the opposite side of your leading hand, in order to make it easy to get out of the bag. Some bags come with two-way zips, which allows for better venting.

Pillows and Pads

A small inflatable camp pillow can really bring the comfort of home into your tent, and some sleeping bags even come with a built-in pillow pocket, to prevent your pillow from moving around in the night. Sleeping pads are also imperative for sleeping in the wilderness, and many come insulated to give you more warmth and prevent body heat from escaping into the cold ground.

And there you have it. Everything you need to know to pick a sleeping bag. And if you still need some advice, any of our experts here at Curated are happy to help.

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Written By
Donny O'Neill
Camping & Hiking Expert
I've spent a near-decade in the outdoor industry as an editor with FREESKIER magazine. I've tested and written about thousands of products, and learned from the best representatives in the outdoor world. I'm an avid backpacker, mountain biker, and mountaineer, who is most at home in the woods.
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