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Down Insulation Explained - Sierra 500

How to Choose the Best Sleeping Bag for Camping

Everything you need to know about buying a sleeping bag, including temperature ratings, insulation, features and more.

Overview

Choosing the best sleeping bag for your camping or hiking adventure is one of the most important gear decisions you’ll make. Your sleeping bag is vital for comfort, safety, and in extreme cases — survival. But how do you choose the right sleeping bag for your needs? With so many different types, temperature ratings, fabrics, shapes, and the ongoing debate over synthetic and down insulation, it can be difficult to know which sleeping bag to buy. In this article, I cover everything you need to know about sleeping bags so you can make an informed decision and enjoy peace of mind on your next camping trip.  Shop Bushbuck Sleeping Bags

What Do You Need a Sleeping Bag For?

As with most outdoor gear, this is the question I always advise you to start with: What are you planning to use your sleeping bag for? The type of sleeping bag you’ll need for a summer camping holiday at the beach will be vastly different to the sleeping bag you need for a multi-day alpine hiking trip. It’s a good idea to think of the most extreme situation you might use your sleeping bag in because it’s always better to be over prepared than underprepared. Remember, you can always unzip a sleeping bag and use it as a blanket when it’s too hot, but you can’t make it warmer if you’re too cold. So, let’s start by asking which “type” of sleeping bag you’re after.

Camping Sleeping Bag

You need a sleeping bag for summer camping trips with friends and family. You’ll mostly be camping around sea level in good weather conditions, but you may also consider the occasional overnight hike to a hut during the warmer months. Best option: You probably don’t need a high-performance sleeping bag. A sleeping bag that has a comfort temperature rating of around 5°C should do the trick. If you want to go with a good quality bag that gives you a bit more flexibility, check out the Bushbuck Illumine Sleeping Bag.

Hiking Sleeping Bag

You need a sleeping bag for year-round hiking trips. You’re not doing anything too extreme and tend to stay in huts during cooler months, but you may be exposed to uncomfortable temperatures. You need a lightweight sleeping bag that will keep you warm in winter conditions and doesn’t take up too much room in your pack. Best option: You need a high-performance, lightweight, compact sleeping bag with a comfort temperature rating of around 0°C. It should be able to perform in the event of a survival situation. Check out the Bushbuck Illumine+ and Sierra 500 down sleeping bags.

Adventure Sleeping Bag

You need a sleeping bag for serious alpine adventures in freezing temperatures. You’re a seasoned hiker, hunter, or explorer who braves wild conditions and pretty much always sleeps in a tent or bivvy. Your sleeping bag is your lifeline.  Best option: You need a high-performance, ultra-warm sleeping bag that can handle sub-zero temperatures and a bit of wet weather. It also needs to be lightweight and compact for carrying on multi-day missions. Check out the Bushbuck Sierra 650 goose down sleeping bag.

What to Look For In A Sleeping Bag

It only takes one night of camping in the wrong sleeping bag to know how important it is to choose the right one. So let’s take a look at all of the sleeping bag features to consider before making your decision. 

Warmth: What does the sleeping bag temperature rating mean?

Sleeping Bag Guide - Sierra 1

The number one job of a sleeping bag is to keep you warm. The sleeping bag temperature rating is essentially a measure of how warm a bag is. Today, bags are tested by the International Standards Organization (ISO). The testing uses a heated mannequin that has 15 temperature sensors attached. The mannequin is dressed in outdoor baselayers, including a top, leggings, socks and hat, and placed inside the sleeping bag on top of a sleeping mat inside a cold chamber. As the temperature in the chamber drops, the sensors record the “body” temperature of the mannequin to determine the sleeping bag’s temperature ranges and limits. Sleeping bags are usually given three temperature ratings: Comfort rating, limit rating, and extreme rating.

What is a Sleeping Bag Comfort Rating?

The temperature at which the average woman or cold sleeper in a relaxed position can expect to sleep comfortably in standard conditions. This is the sleeping bag’s lower limit for adequate warmth and comfort.

What is a Sleeping Bag Limit Rating?

The temperature at which the average man or warm sleeper in a curled-up position can expect to not feel cold in standard conditions. At this temperature, you may need extra layers to stay warm and comfortable.

What is a Sleeping Bag Extreme Rating?

The temperature at which an average person should “survive” the night with risk of hypothermia or worse. The sleeping bag should only be used at this temperature in an emergency or survival situation.

Are you a cold sleeper or warm sleeper?

It can get confusing when outdoor brands display different temperature ratings on their sleeping bags.

Which one do you need to pay attention to?

If you’re a cold sleeper, meaning you tend to feel the cold more than most, you should choose a bag based solely on the Comfort Temperature.

If you’re a warm sleeper, meaning you’re the type of person to kick the duvet off during the night, you can probably base your decision on the Limit Temperature.

The Extreme Temperature is only relevant in survival situations, although it can speak to the overall quality of a sleeping bag.

On average, women are said to feel the cold more than men so women are generally advised to look at the Comfort Temperature.

Sleeping Bag Seasons: Another Measure of Warmth

A simpler way of choosing the right sleeping bag is to check which seasons it’s made for.

You’ll find sleeping bags are often advertised as 2-season, 3-season, or 4-season. Alternatively, they may be labelled Summer, 2-season (Spring and Autumn), or Winter sleeping bags.

Summer Sleeping Bags

Generally rated for temperatures of 5°C and higher. These sleeping bags are designed for warm weather and are usually lightweight and less insulated. They often have features like full-length zippers, allowing them to be fully opened for ventilation on particularly hot nights.

2-Season Sleeping Bags

Typically rated for temperatures between 0°C and 5°C. Two-season sleeping bags are suitable for late spring to early autumn in most temperate climates. They offer more insulation than summer bags but are not as heavy or insulated as winter bags. They strike a balance between warmth and weight, making them versatile for campers who venture out in mild to cool conditions.

Winter Sleeping Bags

Rated for temperatures below 0°C, often down to -10°C or lower. Winter sleeping bags are designed for cold weather conditions and are significantly more insulated than summer or 2-season bags. They typically feature advanced insulation materials, zip and neck baffles, and hoods to retain heat. 

Insulation: Is Synthetic or Down Best?

Should you go with a synthetic sleeping bag or a down sleeping bag? This is a long-standing debate and there’s no correct answer. At Bushbuck, we currently only offer down sleeping bags as they have superior performance. But if you’re on a tight budget, a synthetic sleeping bag will do the job. Here are some pros and cons of each:

Synthetic Sleeping Bags Pros

  • Water Resistance: Synthetic fibres excel in wet conditions. They retain warmth even when wet, making them suitable for damp environments or activities where moisture is a concern.

  • Allergy-Friendly: For those allergic to down, synthetic bags are a non-allergenic alternative.

  • Affordability: Generally, synthetic sleeping bags are less expensive than their down counterparts, offering a budget-friendly option for campers and hikers.

  • Maintenance: Synthetic insulation is easier to care for, as most can be machine washed without special treatment.

Synthetic Sleeping Bags Cons

  • Lower Insulation Efficiency: Synthetic fibres generally require more material to achieve the same level of warmth as down, making them less efficient insulators. 

  • Weight and Bulk: Synthetic materials are typically heavier and do not compress as well as down, making them less ideal for backpacking where space and weight are at a premium.

  • Durability: While synthetic fibres are robust, their insulating power tends to degrade faster than down over time with repeated compressions and usage.

Down Sleeping Bags Pros

  • Warmth-to-Weight Ratio: Down insulation offers an unmatched warmth-to-weight ratio, which means it delivers exceptional warmth for how little it weighs. 

  • Lightweight and Compact: Because of the warmth-to-weight ratio, down sleeping bags tend to be lighter than synthetic ones. They can also be compressed more than synthetic bags, which is great for storing in your hiking pack.

  • Longevity: With proper care, down bags can last many years without significant loss of loft or warmth.

  • Comfort Range: Down insulation adjusts well to varying temperatures, providing a broad comfort range in different conditions.

Down Sleeping Bags Cons

  • Cost: Down sleeping bags are more expensive initially, reflecting the cost of sourcing and processing down.

  • Moisture Sensitivity: Down loses its insulating properties when wet. However, hydrophobic down (water-resistant down) overcomes this issue (Note: We only use hydrophobic down in Bushbuck sleeping bags).

  • Care and Maintenance: Down requires special care for cleaning and storage to maintain its loft and insulating properties.

Duck Down vs Goose Down Sleeping Bags

When considering down sleeping bags, the source of the down (duck or goose) is an important factor:

  • Goose Down: Typically offers higher fill-power ratings than duck down, meaning it provides more warmth for its weight. Goose down is often considered the premium choice, especially in colder conditions, but comes with a higher price tag. The Bushbuck Sierra Sleeping Bag range uses goose down.

  • Duck Down: Still provides excellent insulation and is more affordable than goose down. The Bushbuck Illumine Sleeping Bag range uses duck down.

What is Down Sleeping Bag Loft and Fill Power?

The loft or fill power number refers to the fluffiness and thermal efficiency of a down sleeping bag. The more “fluffy” the down is when fully expanded, the better its ability to keep warm air inside the bag. Generally, the higher the loft, the warmer the sleeping bag.

However, you also want to consider the fill weight, or how many grams of down a sleeping bag has.

Hybrid synthetic-down sleeping bags 

Hybrid sleeping bags are a relatively new option that may offer the right balance of performance and affordability for some people.

Hybrid synthetic sleeping bags use combination of synthetic insulation and down insulation.

Sleeping Bag Features

We’re at the point now where sleeping bags come in all shapes and sizes with all sorts of bells and whistles. Here I will cover some of the most important features to consider when choosing a sleeping bag.

Sleeping Bag Shape

The shape of a sleeping bag can have a major bearing on its performance and warmth. Here’s a quick rundown of the man sleeping bag shapes.

  • Rectangle Sleeping Bags: Straightforward, rectangular design with plenty of room inside the bag. Low thermal efficiency as there’s more space for your body to warm. Generally only suitable for summer.

  • Relaxed Mummy Sleeping Bags: Tapered around the shoulders and hips, the relaxed mummy shape has decent thermal efficiency while still allowing a bit of wriggle room. 

  • Mummy Sleeping Bags: Narrower around the shoulders and hips, the mummy shape provides the most warmth relative to its size and weight. The mummy is ideal for all-season use and carrying in a pack. One thing to note is mummy sleeping bags can feel a bit claustrophobic for some people.

Sleeping Bag Size

Sleeping Bag Guide - Sierra Packed

There are two sizes to consider when choosing a sleeping bag: The size when it’s open and the size when it’s packed. A lot of sleeping bags come in “One Size Fits Most” or regular size, but you can get kids’ sleeping bags, women’s sleeping bags, and large sleeping bags to suit more specific needs. Make sure to always check the packed size of a sleeping bag because they can vary considerably.  A down sleeping bag and synthetic sleeping bag can look the same size when displayed in a shop, but the down bag will likely pack down to a much smaller size.

Sleeping Bag Baffles or Collars

A baffle simply refers to a compartment of insulation in a sleeping bag. They’re utilised to prevent the insulation from getting bunched up in one spot. However, some sleeping bags are equipped with extra baffles along the zip and around the neck to provide additional warmth — similar to a draught stopper you put on the bottom of a door.

  • Bag Baffles: The two most common types of sleeping bag baffles are stitched (sewn), which is more affordable but can create cold points, and box baffles, in which separate fabric is sewn between the shell and inner lining to house the insulation. Box baffles minimise cold spots or heat leakage around the seams.

  • Zip Baffle: This is a tube of insulated fabric that runs down the length of the zip. The zip is one of the only places heat can escape from a sleeping bag so the baffle provides an extra barrier.

  • Neck Baffle (Collar): The neck baffle is a tube of insulated fabric that wraps around your neck, trapping more warmth inside the sleeping bag. Note: The Bushbuck Sierra Sleeping Bag range has an innovative ‘passive’ neck baffle that doesn’t require any adjusting.

Sleeping Bag Zip Position

The importance of sleeping bag zip position comes down to your sleeping preferences and convenience. When you wake up during the night, you want to have easy access to your zip.

  • Left Zip Sleeping Bags: Best for people who prefer to sleep on their left side.

  • Right Zip Sleeping Bags: Best for people who prefer to sleep on their right side.

  • Centre Zip Sleeping Bags: Best for people who sleep on their back or move positions. In mummy sleeping bags, the centre zip should always remain in the middle.

Sleeping Bag Hoods

Every high-performance sleeping bag worth its salt will have an attached hood. The head is the number one place where you lose heat during the night and the insulated hood helps to retain as much heat as possible. Having an adjustable hood allows you to tighten the hood around your face for even more heat retention. 

Water-Resistant Sleeping Bags

If you’re planning to camp in a tent, out in the open, or be exposed to heavy rain during the day, it’s worth considering getting a water-resistant sleeping bag. Sometimes it’s possible for moisture to build-up inside a tent in cold weather, which can compromise a sleeping bag’s performance. Some sleeping bags are made from fabric treated with Durable Water Repellency (DWR), which gives it some protection from moisture. The Bushbuck Sierra sleeping bags are water-resistant. You can also get water-resistant covers for your sleeping bag if you're planning to sleep out in the open or expecting wet weather.

Selecting the Best Sleeping Bag for Your Next Trip

Sleeping Bag Guide - Sierra 2

I hope this sleeping bag buyer’s guide provides you with all of the information you need to make your decision. Whether you’re just getting started with camping and hiking, you’re a seasoned adventurer, or a hardcore hunter, the best sleeping bag is the one that ticks your boxes. Bushbuck sleeping bags are all engineered to an extremely high standard and are suitable for a wide range of adventures. We’re developing our range of down sleeping bags to suit a wide range of levels, environments and budgets.

Shop Bushbuck sleeping bags now 

Jonathan-Carson
Jonathan Carson

Jonathan Carson is a Content Writer and Copywriter at Bushbuck. He's a wordsmith who handles most of Bushbuck's website, marketing copy and oversees our blog, The Campfire. 

Outside of work, he's big on hiking and dabbles in surfing and bouldering. His favourite wilderness area in New Zealand is Nelson Lakes National Park, particularly the Blue Lake, home to the clearest known freshwater in the world.

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