Winter is coming, but that shouldn’t stop you enjoying the outdoors. If you haven’t been camping in winter before, the number one product you should be focusing on is a sleeping bag. It’s easy enough to sit closer to the fire, and put on another jacket, but the moment you go to sleep, you need to be warm if you want to get any rest. And beyond insulating yourself from the ground (see our sleeping mattress comparison), a sleeping bag is what you need.
The first thing to decide with a sleeping bag, is what temperatures you’re going to be using it at. In this article we’re going to be focusing on cold weather sleeping bags, that is those rated for under 32°F (0°C). For each brand’s product range, the lower temperature it is designed for, the more expensive it will be. So if you’re only going to be camping in warm temperatures, you can save a lot of money by buying a sleeping bag with high temperature ratings.
On that note, temperature ratings are based on a European standard (EN 13537 ). This standard provides various ratings, the most common two referenced being a comfort rating, and a survival rating. If only one temperature is listed, this will most likely be the survival rating. Ideally you never want to be camping at your sleeping bag’s survival rating. You’ll survive, but it won’t make for a pleasant night’s sleep.
Down vs Synthetic
When it comes to materials, you’ll see products offered in both Down and Synthetic. This refers to the actual insulating material. As with many things, the technology continues to improve, with synthetic products improving every year. That being said, down insulation is still the best. For just below freezing temperatures you can probably get away with a synthetic sleeping bag, such as the Marmot Trestles Sleeping Bag, rated to 15°F.
Synthetic sleeping bags are considerably cheaper than equivalent down bags, but it comes at a cost. And that cost is weight and size. If you’re just car camping, then maybe this isn’t an issue, but the moment you start needing to fit this in a backpack, it is worth forking out the extra for a down bag. Equivalent temperature and dimension down sleeping bags are half the weight of a synthetic bag, and their volume when compressed also half that of a synthetic bag.
With down bags you will often see a down fill rating. For low temperature bags, you can expect this value to be 800+. For near freezing temperatures you can probably get away with a ~650 rating. These ratings aren’t the only thing to go on though. With the standardization of temperature ratings, be more concerned about those than the fill rating.
We’ve already mentioned that you should be looking at the volume and weight of your sleeping bag. Down sleeping bags can easily get well below 3 lbs, with synthetics usually above 4 lbs; consider how this will affect your use case. Likewise down sleeping bags can pack up into around 200 cubic inches, whereas synthetics will be above 400 ci. This is standard for a regular length bag. Most manufacturers will offer each of their bags in three length variants, small, regular and long. If you’re able to, you should pop down to your nearest outdoor adventure store and physically climb into one to check that it fits you. If not, take a best guess on the manufacturer’s recommendations; if you’re buying online you’ll usually be able to switch it out.
The last thing you may need to decide on is shape. For low temperatures, the most popular shape is the mummy or coffin shape. Shape is not too important, but if you’re a restless sleeper, you may want to look for something more rectangular, giving you more moving space. Each manufacturer has their own designs, generally you want to optimize for weight, so less material is better, and the tighter it is, the better for warmth. You’ll want to make sure that the sleeping bag includes a cowl with fasteners, so you can pull it tight around you when you sleep, limiting how much cold air can seep inside.
With all of that behind us, what do we recommend? If you look online, you’ll find many sleeping in the under $50 category. If you’re getting a sleeping bag for cold weather, you don’t want to spend less than $100. Being cold during the day is bad enough, but when trying to sleep it is another issue. You may get away with a synthetic bag at that price, but down is really your best option. Staying on the safe side of sorry, we’ve only listed bags here rated to 0°F. You can always unzip your bag if you’re too hot, but there’s not much you can do if you’re too cold.
In the $100 – $200 range, you’ve got products from new companies Hyke & Byke and Outdoor Vitals. Both are solid entry level products with a 0°F rating, and good customer feedback. Available in a range of sizes and colors, both products will do the job. The Outdoor Vitals’ Summit, although more expensive, does offer a smaller and lighter product, definitely your first choice.
If you’re going to be camping regularly, and putting wear and tear onto your bag, you most likely want to go with something a bit more premium. Both Therm-a-Rest and Marmot offer a wide selection of bags. The Therm-a-Rest Questar has a 650-Fill Nikwax treated down that offers water resistance and a weight of around 3 lbs.
If you can afford it though, Marmot’s Lithium comes with 800+ down. While all the bags are rated to 0°F, customer feedback shows the Lithium is the one that will keep you the warmest in the smallest package. Marmot and Therm-A-Rest are both well established in the adventure scene, and you won’t be disappointed with either of their products.
While generally you can get better prices online, it’s well worth stopping by your local adventure store to compare products in person, try them on and get a feel for it. They will quite often also have their own range of products.