How to Choose the Right Sleeping Bag

I was a 19-year-old kid, weeks away from leaving on my first camping trip to Alaska. I’d never slept in the woods before, and I hadn’t spent a single night in a sleeping bag. When it came to purchasing one for myself, I had no idea where to start. I was a total rookie. I drove down to the local Eastern Mountain Sports and picked up the only bag within my budget that was rated to 20F, simply because I knew it wouldn’t get that cold in Southeast Alaska in June.

The sleeping bag turned out to be fine for summertime camping in Alaska. But, when I tried to use it a year later on a soggy climb of Mount Shasta, I was downright uncomfortable and freezing. The takeaway? When buying a sleeping bag, you have to look beyond the price and temperature rating. Specifically, take a larger look at the type of camping you’ll be doing, conditions you expect to face, and which features you want to prioritize, in addition to other personal and technical preferences. Below is a guide to help you choose the right sleeping bag for your next adventure.

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Consider How You’ll Be Camping

Are you a backpacker? Mountaineer? Car camper? Before you buy a sleeping bag, stop to think about the outdoor activity for which you’ll be using it the most. When it comes to backpacking and mountaineering, you want to save weight without sacrificing comfort and safety. Every extra ounce you carry on your back equates to energy spent. Car camping, however, is a bit more laid back. You’re not going to carry your sleeping bag around. Instead, your goal should be to maximize comfort and minimize cost, and think less about weight. From here, you can dive into the bag’s more nuanced specs to make your decision.

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Temperature Rating

The temperature rating is essentially the lowest point at which the bag will keep you warm and comfortable. For example, if a bag is rated to 40F, you shouldn’t get excessively cold in the bag, unless the air temperature drops below that mark. With this rating, it is assumed that you’re using a sleeping pad to create a layer of insulation between you and the ground.

The quality varies quite a bit based on the manufacturer and how frequently it’s used. For this reason, look at the temperature rating as a guideline, rather than a rule. In fact, always buy a bag rated a little bit colder than the actual temperature you expect to experience. You can always ventilate the bag if you’re too warm, but it’s harder to warm up if you’re freezing cold. As a general rule, summer bags run from 35 degrees and up, three-season bags are rated between 10 and 35 degrees, and winter bags run from 10 degrees and lower.

EN Rating

Additionally, many U.S. manufacturers have recently adopted a temperature rating standard called EN13537, or simply the EN rating. Originally developed in Europe, the EN rating is based on a standard laboratory test. This is good news for the buyer. It means that, although sleeping bags are made by different manufacturers, users will be able to compare the temperatures and comfort levels between them.

Based on the assumption that the sleeper is wearing a base layer and hat and is using a sleeping pad, and also assuming that women sleep colder than men, the test determines four temperature ratings:

  • Upper Limit: At this temperature, a standard male can sleep without sweating excessively. This rating assumes that the hood and zippers are open, with the arms and head out of the bag.
  • Comfort: At this temperature, a standard female can expect to have a comfortable sleep, in a relaxed position.
  • Lower Limit: At this temperature, a standard male can sleep, in a curled position, for eight hours without waking.
  • Extreme: This is the minimum temperature at which a standard female can stay for six hours without being at risk for death from hypothermia. Frostbite, however, is still a risk.

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Weight

Again, weight is going to be a determining factor. Most backpackers like to keep their bag lighter than three pounds (using something like the EMS Mountain Light 20), and many lightweight backpackers will strive to go under two pounds. Ultimately, you want a bag that’s going to keep you warm and comfortable at night, but that isn’t too heavy to carry on your back when you’re logging miles on the trail.

A lot of times, this balance boils down to personal preference. Are you willing to carry a little more weight for a bit of added comfort at night? Or, are you willing to chance being a little cold at night in order to reduce energy expenditure? Ask yourself these questions before you buy. The same principle also applies to mountaineering. However, safety—will this bag keep me warm enough if conditions get really, really bad?—needs to be given even greater consideration.

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Insulation

Ah, the age-old debate: Should you choose a down or synthetic sleeping bag? It’s not a question to be taken lightly (pun intended). Specifically, insulation type directly correlates with how much the product weighs, compresses, resists water, keeps you warm, and affects your wallet. All of these factors are going to influence your experience in the outdoors.

Down

Compared to synthetic, down bags provide a greater amount of warmth for their weight. They are highly compressible, and thus pack smaller than synthetic. As well, down is durable and can last for a long time. One of the more notable cons, however, is that if traditional down gets wet, its insulating capabilities greatly decrease. Once wet, it takes a long time to dry and can be difficult to clean. Additionally, down bags are also more expensive than their synthetic counterparts.

If getting wet is a concern, hydrophobic down is a new alternative that has gained popularity in recent years. Hydrophobic down has been treated with a water-resisting chemical, which allows the down to dry much more quickly and resists water for far longer. It also lets the down retain its loft when exposed to dampness. A bag like the Marmot Hydrogen uses Down Defender, a specific brand of water-resistant down. As you shop around, research the bag’s specs to see if the down is hydrophobic.

Synthetic

Synthetic bags, on the other hand, are often favored because they are generally more affordable, are even more water resistant, and continue to keep you warm when they get wet. The trade-off? Synthetic insulation weighs a little more and is bulkier than down. It also provides less warmth for its weight.

There are three basic types of synthetic insulation—cluster-fiber, short-staple, and continuous filament. You’ll also come across a few brand-name options, including Thinsulate, PrimaLoft, and Insotect. Popular in footwear and gloves, Thinsulate has very little bulk. PrimaLoft is another great choice, as it’s highly water resistant, and remarkably breathable and lightweight. Insotect, the type used in the EMS Velocity 35, is a strong bet for those seeking additional comfort. Specifically, it allows for superior body support and retains heat exceptionally well.

Again, the choice boils down to personal preference and how you’ll be using the bag. Consider where you’ll be taking the bag, and the type of weather that you might encounter. You should also think about how much money you want to pay, and the weight you’re willing to carry on your back.

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Shape and Size

Sleeping bags come in a number of different shapes, including rectangular, like the EMS Bantam 30, semi-rectangular, and mummy-style. Mummy is preferable for backpacking and mountaineering, because it allows for greater heat retention and protection from the cold while also saving weight. Rectangular bags, on the other hand, are more suited to car and warm-weather camping.

Sleeping bags also typically come in two standard lengths for men and women: regular and long. Although these sizes vary, depending on the manufacturer, regular men’s sleeping bags generally fit those up to 6 feet in height, and long fits up to 6 feet, 6 inches. For women, a regular is typically up to 5 feet 6 inches, with long being just over six feet.

When choosing a size, make sure the bag fits snugly, but not so much that you’re uncomfortable. The less air space there is around your body, the warmer you will be. However, for those who frequently change positions in their sleep, a little extra wiggle room around the shoulders and feet may be preferable.

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Other Considerations

For the detail oriented, here are a few final things to consider before purchasing your sleeping bag.

Zipper

Zippers come on either the right- or left-hand side. A left-handed zipper will be to your left, assuming you’re lying in the bag facing up, and vice-versa.

Stash Pocket

Most sleeping bags come with a small stash pocket to store things like your wallet, headlamp, and other useful items, to keep them handy at night. If you’re a stomach sleeper, make sure the pocket is not in an intrusive spot.

Sleeve and Hood

Some sleeping bags, like the Big Agnes Lost Ranger 15, have sleeves built into the bottom, allowing for a sleeping pad to fit inside. This means that you don’t have to worry about rolling off your sleeping pad during the night. Mummy bags, like the EMS Women’s Mountain Light 20, have a hood with a drawstring to help retain heat. A lot of heat is lost through your head at night, so for cold-weather camping, this is really important. The hood essentially functions in the same manner that the hood on a jacket does, and the drawstring allows you to cinch it tightly to retain even more heat.

Compression and Storage Sacks

For storing your bag, it’s important to have both a compression sack and a storage sack. The former helps you pack your bag down as small as possible for camping and backpacking purposes. When you’re not using your sleeping bag, keep it in the storage sack to preserve the bag’s insulation and extend its lifespan.

 

Equipped with this knowledge, you should be able to make an informed decision to purchase the sleeping bag that’s right for you. Unlike 19-year-old me, take some time to consider how and where you’ll be camping, weight and comfort, and especially personal preferences in order to get a good night’s rest. Once you have the right bag, the only thing left to do is get out there and enjoy sleeping in the outdoors!

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11 Tips for Staying Warm While Backpacking in Fall

When you’re in the backcountry during the shoulder seasons, it’s no fun to wake up freezing cold in the middle of the night. You can’t just “turn up the thermostat” or grab an extra blanket from the closet. So, since shivering uncontrollably is only fun for so long, here are 11 tips for staying warm:

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1. Wear dry clothes to bed

If you go to bed in the shirt you’ve been sweating in all day, it’s going to be hard to escape the damp chill. I often pack a spare base layer, so that I’ll have something dry to put on just before bed, and I’ll put all my dry layers—including puffy jackets, hats, and gloves—on over it.

2. Set up camp in a protected area

Finding a campsite away from the wind is another way to increase your chances of keeping warm through night. If you’re doing a multi-night Pemi Loop, for example, you’ll be much warmer if you walk the extra mileage down to the Mt. Guyot tent platforms instead of camping in overflow sites right on the Bondcliff Trail. If you’re unfamiliar, these are located on the ridgeline and get exposed to wind all night long. By contrast, the Guyot tent platforms are tucked away a few hundred yards below the ridge.

3. Keep your stuff warm, too

There’s nothing worse than waking up in the morning and trying to force your feet into damp socks and ice-cold boots. To prevent this, dry your socks in your sleeping bag overnight. And, if it’s really cold and your boots are soaking wet, consider putting them in a plastic bag—a grocery bag works well—and stuffing them into the bottom of your sleeping bag. They’ll stay warm enough, so that your feet won’t turn into icicles when you put them back on.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

4. Zip your sleeping bag all the way up

It never ceases to amaze us that the person complaining about how cold the night was is also the same person who didn’t bother to zip his or her bag all the way up—or who wasn’t using the mummy hood. Pro tip: Wearing a hat to bed is a good insurance policy if you’re likely to squirm out of your mummy bag during the night.

5. Bring two sleeping pads

Although most focus on a sleeping pad’s comfort, it also serves an important insulating purpose by preventing conductive heat loss. I’ve found that the best combination for warmth and comfort is a closed-cell foam pad, like the Therm-A-Rest Z Lite Sol, on the bottom with an inflatable, like the Sea to Summit Ultralight, on top. Pro tip: Closed-cell foam pads also work great around camp, and are much warmer than sitting directly on the ground or on rocks.

6. Make a heater

Fill your water bottles with boiling water before you go to bed, and then stuff them in your sleeping bag. They’ll act like a heating pad, keeping you warm all night long. Just make sure the caps are on tight!

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7. Bring a heater

Get yourself some Yaktrax Handwarmers. Disposable hand warmers are an awesome addition to your fall backpacking kit. It’s amazing how much warmth these little suckers add when tucked into your pockets, at your feet, or simply stuffed into your sleeping bag.

8. Pack and eat extra food

When it’s cold out, your body has to work extra hard to keep warm. To fuel your furnace, make sure to bust into that stash of cookies you hid in your partner’s pack.

9. Have something warm to drink

Hot liquids both increase your body’s temperature and work as fantastic morale boosters. If possible, avoid alcohol, which, in spite of the warm feeling it gives you, actually speeds up heat loss, and caffeinated beverages. The latter is known to dehydrate you—bad for circulation—and could send you on a cold run for the bathroom in the middle of the night.

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10. Get up and get warm

Good circulation is a sure way to beat the cold. If you’re hanging around camp, periodically get up to jog in place or do some jumping jacks—just try to avoid sweating—to increase blood flow and fight off the freezing temperatures.

11. Spread the love warmth

When the going gets tough, cuddle. If it’s colder than expected or you’re less prepared than you thought you were, there is always the miracle of body heat. You always wanted to get closer to your hiking partner…didn’t you?

 

Do you have a tried-and-true trick for staying warm in the backcountry? If so, share it in the comments.

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Pads Fly Free: The Sea to Summit UltraLight Sleeping Pad

Two summers ago, we were preparing for a trip to California’s Mount Shasta. Our group of four had plans to climb up multiple routes—Avalanche Gulch as a “warm up” and then either Casaval Ridge or a glaciated route on the mountain’s north side.

But, as we began to pile the gear into duffels for our cross-country flight, we realized we had a problem: We needed to bring a lot of gear. As the duffels quickly filled with ropes, crampons, ice axes, tents, stoves, and sleeping pads, our concerns grew. How were we going to get everything across the country and then up the mountain?

Packing “Creatively”

Not wanting to pay through the nose for extra or overweight bags, we each began to look closely at the gear we truly “needed” to bring. A first pass allowed us to cull some stuff. Out went the mountaineering tent in favor of a tarp shelter, and we did the same for a second stove. Climbing gear was pared to only essentials. But, this only got us so far. Our duffels were still too many and too heavy.

One thing we recognized was that, while airline staff measure your carry-on, they don’t weigh it. So, we filled our carry-ons with all the heavy stuff. But, since most mountaineering gear is sharp, and thus can’t be in the passenger cabin, this too only got us so far. Furthermore, some permissible items, like our closed-cell sleeping pads, didn’t fit, no matter how creatively we tried to stuff them.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Burrito-Sized Comfort

Enter the lightweight and super-small Sea to Summit UltraLight Sleeping Pad.

It was around the time that Sea to Summit entered the sleeping pad market, and their first salvo looked like it already hit its mark. The pad packed to the size of a small burrito, and the regular size weighed just 12.5 ounces. When we saw it, a light bulb went on. It looked exceptionally comfortable and, more importantly, would fit in our carry-ons.

But, we were all initially dubious: Would the lightweight material stand up to several nights of rocky bivvies on Shasta, especially now that we had skimped on a tent with a floor? And, the thought of the pad popping, and a sleepless night at altitude before that all-too-early wake-up call left us wondering whether the expenditure was worth the risk.

Still Climbing

Turns out, the pad was way better than expected. It packed up as small as advertised. Due to its 181 Air Sprung Cells creating little pockets of air to lift you two inches off the ground, it also proved to be even more comfortable than we anticipated. Specifically, the cells help prevent the air from shifting under your body weight and provide even support across the entire mattress while never producing the bouncy-castle feel of other inflatable pads. Finally, durability wise, it survived several days on Shasta with ease, and has since become a fixture of our overnight kits. And, for those taking the pad to cooler climates, the insulated versions are sure to keep you toasty.

On our trip to Mount Shasta, the Sea to Summit UltraLight Pad more than paid for itself by helping us avoid extra baggage fees. And, over the years, it has continued to pay its way by keeping our luggage under the airline’s restrictions. Furthermore, having the pad in our carry-ons benefitted one trip in particular, as we had a near-miss with an airport bivvy.

These days, whether we’re doing a trip out West, a long hike like the Pemi Loop, or a stealth car bivy in a random parking lot, it’s a sure bet that the Sea to Summit UltraLight Pad is there to let us sleep in comfort.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck