Finding the Right Backpacking Sleeping Bag

Your sleeping bag is one of the most important things in your backpack. Imagine how miserable you’d be if you didn’t catch some zzzzs before heading out to hike all day.

But there’s a balance that seems impossible to achieve. You want the best equipment to ensure a good night’s rest, but you also don’t want it to weigh 6 pounds, or cost more than you can afford.

The good news is that backpacking gear is constantly evolving and there’s been a lot of innovation in the past few years. New, affordable options are out there for every backpacker. You can have your cake and eat it too.

Sleeping bags, in particular, have come a long way in the past 2 to 3 years. But the current options can be overwhelming. I’ve broken down the basics to help you find the right bag for your trips.

If you want to skip straight to our tips on What to Look For In a Sleeping Bag, click here.

For a table of our recommended sleeping bags for women click here.

For a table of our recommended sleeping bags for men click here.

Looking for our top backpacking sleeping bags for beginners? Click here to check out our top synthetic and down recommendations for men and women.

Sleeping Bag Basics

Temperature Rating

If you plan to backpack in spring or summer, a 30-degree bag will be fine for the majority of your needs. Here in the southeast, you can usually get away with a 30-degree bag all the way until winter.

For those in the Pacific Northwest or Colorado, you may find yourself in a 20 degree versus 30-degree conundrum. Think about the seasons you’re most likely to venture out in the beginning and aim for that.

Whatever you do, don’t skimp on your temperature rating to save weight. You’ll likely be miserable in 20-degree weather if you opt for a 30-degree bag. 

The industry has gotten better about streamlining sleeping bag ratings, allowing for more realistic comparisons.

In 2017, the International Standards Organization (ISO) standard became the industry norm.  Prior to this, the EN (European Norm) was the standard and some bags may still have that rating. The two standards are similar and bags rated by either can be compared using the actual ratings.

Both the EN and ISO have 3 main temperature ratings:

  • “Comfort” – the temperature range where a cold sleeper will be comfortable throughout the night in a relaxed position.
  • “Lower Limit”/ “Transition” – the temperature range where a warm sleeper can sleep for eight hours in a curled position without waking.
  • “Extreme”/”Risk” – The minimum temperature where a cold sleeper can remain for six hours without risk of death from hypothermia.

Most women will want to look at the Comfort rating and most men will likely consider the Lower Limit or Transition rating. Until you actually spend the night in a bag, you won’t really know what works for you. 

Comparing Bags By Rating

Do not use the single temperature rating on the tag to compare bags!  Always check the manufacturer’s website or look at the bag itself to see all 3 temperatures from the standards testing.

This is because there is no standard for the number used on the tag.

For women’s bags, it’s often the comfort rating rounded to a 0 or 5. But they could round either way.  One company may round 32 to 35 and another to 30.

With men’s bags, some brands may use the comfort rating, but others use the transition rating.

So you can’t use the tag to compare bag to bag, and you certainly can’t use it to equate a men’s bag to a women’s bag.  This is also why men’s sleeping bags tend to weigh less than women’s for “equivalent” warmth. The men’s bags usually have less fill for the same temperature rating.

Fill

We can parse this out 100 different ways, but in reality, there are 2 options: synthetic, and down. Don’t get bogged down in waterproof synthetic, duck versus goose down, or other rabbit holes.

Synthetic fill is generally heavier than down and doesn’t compress as well. However, it’s also usually less expensive and can still function if it becomes wet. Many companies have developed their own unique fills, each with its own benefit.

Down is often lighter in weight for the same warmth and compresses into almost nothing. It tends to be more expensive than synthetic and once wet, it’s game over.

Duck down is less expensive than goose down if you’re looking for a price break.  Unless you’re heading into the 0-degree bags, there isn’t a large difference between the two. 

Thanks to all the new innovations, there are synthetic sleeping bags that come close to down in weight but still provide the extra protection of keeping you warm if they get wet. 

You may hear about waterproof down.  This is new technology (as of 2021) where down is treated to make it water-resistant, but how well it works is still up in the air and several well-known brands will not use it. 

Length

Sleeping bags come in two to three lengths: regular, long, and short.

Almost every sleeping bag comes in regular and long, but a few brands actually make a short.

Choose the length that’s closest to your height.

Sleeping bags are designed to trap your body heat, meaning you’re the furnace that’s warming up the bag. You don’t want to spend a lot of unnecessary energy heating up dead space.  

For example, if a brand doesn’t make a short bag, I’ll either find a new brand that does, or I’ll go with the regular and stuff clothes in the footbed.

Once you have your sleeping bag, you’ll want to take care of it. Click here for all the details on how to treat it in camp, at home, and what to do when it needs to be washed.

Shape

While there are 2 to 3 lengths, when it comes to shapes, there is a larger variety of options.

You’ve got the original rectangle, the mummy, the spoon, and within these, you have the more severe tapered mummy, the wider in the hips spoon, etc.

Most of the rectangle bags I’ve seen are 40 degrees or higher bags. As the warmth increases, the shapes tend to switch to the more tapered bags.

The mummy shape which tapers towards the legs is the most popular shape. The idea is to cut back on weight and extra space (going back to the whole “you’re the furnace” idea).

Recently, brands like Nemo have added a twist to the mummy shape by introducing the spoon.  These bags are specifically designed to provide room where you need it and taper where you don’t.

They’re customized for men and women.  The women’s bag tapers towards the legs but also gives a little extra room at the hips, while the men’s provides the extra room at the shoulders. These are reported as more comfortable, especially for side sleepers.

What shape you prefer is really up to you. The first priority is temperature rating, the second is fill, third is length, then you can think about shape.

Features

You’ll find left zip bags and right zip bags, bags with hoods, and some with gills that you can unzip to help regulate the temperature.

Some bags have little strips that cover your neck and the lower part of your face as you pull the hood in.

In all honestly, most people just wind up accepting whatever features come with the bag that fits their other requirements.

Some bags do have matching zippers for the men’s and women’s so they can be zipped together to make one large sleeping bag if you’re traveling together.  This could be something to look for if you often travel as a couple.  

Many bags have a DWR water-resistant coating to help keep the insulation dry from condensation.

And some brands offer additional waterproofing like a strip of GORE-TEX around the neck and feet. 

What To Look For in a Backpacking Sleeping Bag

What temperature bag should I buy?

Here in the southeast, most beginning backpackers will find a 30-degree bag is the best place to start. 

This will cover spring and summer and you can get most of fall with the addition of a sleeping bag liner or heavier sleep clothes.

If you’re heading or live somewhere with a unique climate, or you know it’s going to be cold, check with locals on their recommendations. Camping at 8000 feet in Colorado even in spring may warrant a warmer bag.

How much should a backpacking sleeping bag weigh?

I’m basing the weight on a 30-degree bag. A warmer sleeping bag will weigh more.

If you can get a sleeping bag under 3 pounds, you’ll be much happier in the long run.

A well-made synthetic sleeping bag should be under 3 pounds for women, and under 2.5 pounds for men. You can find a sleeping bag in this weight range for $150 to $160.  If you are on a tight budget, you can find a $100 sleeping bag for a little over the recommended weight.

A good down sleeping bag should be under 2.5 pounds for women, and under 2 pounds for men. You can find well-made bags for $260-$350.

Usually, synthetic bags are heavier and less expensive than down, and the price increases as the weight decreases, but that’s not always the case. Quality plays a role.

The fabric used to construct the bag can also differ. Lower quality bags are often made from taffeta, while higher-end companies use 20D ripstop nylon which is lighter while still providing durability.

Of course, it’s up to you to decide.  If you really like the bag and feel you’ll sleep well in it, then go for it.

If you’d really like to reduce weight then you’ll need to go to down, and consider a quilt.

You can learn more about backpacking quilts here. If you prefer a video, I’ve got one that demonstrates how a quilt works.

What shape sleeping bag should I get?

Look for something that tapers like a mummy bag or a spoon. The less extra room you have, the more efficient the sleeping bag will be.

What if I’m a Side Sleeper?

Back sleepers can sleep in almost any bag, but side sleepers will want to consider if you can easily move from side to side without getting tangled.

I highly recommend a quilt for side sleepers, but if you go with a bag, try to get a slim mummy that will turn with you.  If you can find a sleeping bag without a hood, that will also help. You can regulate your warmth with a wool hat.

Sleeping Bag Recommendations for Women

This post contains affiliate links. If you click and make a purchase, I may receive payment at no additional cost to you. I only recommend products and brands I know, use, and trust and that I think you would like too. You can read my full disclaimer policy here.

Comparisons were made using a 30-degree bag (or 35 where noted), regular length. If there was any discrepancy in weight, the manufacturer’s data was used.

Be careful when looking at each site and verify you have chosen the correct temperature rating and length. (Nemo’s site often has a 30-degree button and then a box with 30 degrees – the button is actually selecting the 15-degree bag).

I added a bag that is over the recommended weight to provide an inexpensive option.

Type of FillSleeping BagWeightPriceWhere to Buy
SyntheticMarmot Trestles Elite Eco 302 lb 5 oz$150REI.com
moosejaw.com
marmot.com
SyntheticNemo Forte 35 degree2 lb 9 oz$159.95REI.com
nemoequipment.com
SyntheticREI Trailbreak 303 lb 3 oz$99.95REI.com
DownMountain Hardware Bishop Pass 301 lb 15 oz$210REI.com
mountainhardware.com
DownNemo Disco 30 degree2 lb 5 oz$259.95REI.com
nemoequipment.com
moosejaw.com
DownREI Magma 301 lb 7 oz$339REI.com
Sleeping Bag Recommendations for Women

Sleeping Bag Recommendations for Men

This post contains affiliate links. If you click and make a purchase, I may receive payment at no additional cost to you. I only recommend products and brands I know, use, and trust and that I think you would like too. You can read my full disclaimer policy here.

Comparisons were made using a 30-degree bag (or 35 where noted), regular length. If there was any discrepancy in weight, the manufacturer’s data was used.

Be careful when looking at each site and verify you have chosen the correct temperature rating and length. (Nemo’s site often has a 30-degree button and then a box with 30 degrees – the button is actually selecting the 15-degree bag).

I added a bag that is over the recommended weight to provide an inexpensive option.

Type of FillSleeping BagWeightPriceWhere to Buy
SyntheticMarmot Trestles Elite Eco 301 lb 14 oz$150REI.com
moosejaw.com
SyntheticNemo Forte 35 degree2 lb 2 oz$159.95REI.com
nemoequipment.com
SyntheticREI Trailbreak 302 lb 8 oz$99.95REI.com
DownMountain Hardware Bishop Pass 301 lb 13 oz$200REI.com
mountainhardware.com
DownNemo Disco 30 degree1 lb 15 oz$259.95REI.com
nemoequipment.com
moosejaw.com
DownREI Magma 301 lb 4 oz$339REI.com
Sleeping Bag Recommendations for Men

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