A good sleeping bag isn’t just a comfort; it can also help to save your life, sheltering you from the elements and keeping you warm. But what exactly constitutes a good sleeping bag? Here are some things to consider when choosing your next one.
Climate: Match your bag to the season and location. You won’t need an expedition bag to go fishing in Alabama.
Weight: If you’re carrying your equipment on your back, lighter is better. But don’t sacrifice quality in other areas just out of concern for weight.
Loft: In nontechnical terms, loft measures the fluffiness of the insulating material. It’s really the air between the insulating fibers that keeps you warm. More loft equals more insulating air.
Fit: Seek a cozy fit, but one that still allows you to move around enough to adjust your sleeping position. The footbox shouldn’t scrunch your feet and toes. You need adequate shoulder and chest room and enough length to match your height. Some manufacturers offer bags for women that are slightly narrower in the shoulder area but have more generous hip room.
**Construction: **For a cold-weather bag, you want an insulated draft tube along the zipper to prevent cold-air entry; a fully insulated hood with drawstring closure; and large zipper pulls that are easy to grip with either cold fingers or gloves. Extra insulation in the footbox area and in the torso will increase comfort. Make sure the bag doesn’t have sewn-through seams attaching the outer and inner liners. This creates areas of nearly zero insulation.
Accessories: No matter what kind of bag you have, get a waterproof stuff sack to keep it dry. Care and Feeding: As a rule, most synthetic bags can be machine washed; down bags cannot. When the bag needs cleaning, follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Open the bag and hang it up to air it out. Bags are meant to be stored open so the filler material can expand and breathe.
**Material: **There is no question that, pound for pound, nothing insulates as well as prime goose down. And no other insulating material compresses as well, making it easier to cram the bag into a sack. In both the compressibility and the weight-to-warmth wars, down wins. If only life were that simple.
Fill it with down
Unfortunately, there is a “downside” to down: When it gets wet, it quits insulating. And if you get a rip in the bag, the down will fly away. Down can also clump, leaving poorly insulated spots. It also compresses under the weight of your body, leaving you lying on the cold, hard ground.
Does that mean I would never own a down bag? No! But if I owned one, I’d make sure it had a Gore-Tex (or equivalent) cover to keep the feathers dry while allowing my body moisture to escape. And I’d have an insulating pad to go between the bag and the ground.
Some high-tech synthetic materials (such as Polarguard 3D) closely approach the insulating value of down. These materials will not clump. Also, they don’t absorb moisture, so they can be wrung out and insulate even when damp. And they’re far less expensive.
The Right Price
So let’s talk price comparisons for a minute. A 10-degree Coleman Peak 1 bag with all the right features and filled with 60 ounces of DuPont Quallofil will set you back about $70 at Wal-Mart and load your backpack to the grunting tune of 6 pounds. Compare that with a 10-degree down Feathered Friends Widgeon bag with all the bells and whistles, 3 pounds 5 ounces of weight and a suggested retail price of $514. That’s not uncommon. Consider the Moonstone Liberty Ridge, a 10- degree down bag that weighs 3 pounds 7 ounces, has a DryLoft shell and sells for $510. You pay a lot for a lighter bag.
If price is no object, you might choose a bag depending on your activity and mode of transportation. If you’re hunting Roosevelt elk in the Pacific Northwest, where getting soaked is a possibility, go with a synthetic bag. But if you’re hiking into a dry camp where weight is a factor and you’ll be sleeping on a pad, down is my choice.
Hood: Since much of our body heat is lost through the head, it’s essential to have an insulated hood with a drawstring on any sleeping bag being used in freezing temperatures.
Lining: A zip-in fleece liner adds another level of insulation and warmth for cold weather but can easily be removed in warmer climates.
**Body: **You should be able to move in the bag, but the tighter the fit the better the insulation. Bags like this Alps model from Wenger are wider through the chest and tight around the legs.
**Zipper Pull: ** On cold-weather bags the zipper should be large enough to grip easily with gloves or cold fingers. Stiff lining material will keep the zipper from catching on the bag.