Sleeping Bags for Camping: How to Choose
While backpacking bags focus on minimizing weight, sleeping bags for car or family camping are all about comfort. What's the best sleeping bag for you? This article discusses what features to look for when shopping for a sleeping bag for car camping.
When you're ready to shop REI's selection of sleeping bags, narrow your search by clicking on "family & car camping" under the Best Use option in the left column.
Looking for backpacking bag advice instead? Read the REI Expert Advice article, Sleeping Bags for Backpacking: How to Choose.
Video: How to Choose Sleeping Bags for Camping
Sleeping Bag Temperature Rating
A sleeping bag's temperature rating identifies the lowest temperature at which a bag is intended to keep the average sleeper warm. When a bag is described as a "20-degree bag," it means that most users should remain comfortable if the air temperature drops no lower than 20°F. These ratings assume that the sleeper is wearing a layer of long underwear and using a sleeping pad under the bag.
Metabolism varies from person to person, and sleeping bag temperature ratings vary from one manufacturer to the next. Use these ratings as a guide only—not a guarantee.
Sleeping bags are typically categorized like this:
|Bag Type||Temperature Rating (°F)|
|Summer Season||+35° and higher|
||+10° to +35°|
||+10° and lower|
Note: Most camping bags feature a temperature rating between +15°F and +50°F.
Select a sleeping bag with a temperature rating a bit lower than the lowest temperature you expect to encounter. If you're headed for near-freezing temperatures, then choose a 20°F bag instead of a 35°F bag. If temperatures remain higher than expected, you can easily vent the bag to provide more air circulation.
Sleeping Bag Shape
Sleeping bags keep you warm by trapping and holding a layer of "dead" (non-circulating) air next to your body. Your body heat warms this dead air, and the bag forms a barrier between it and the colder ground or outside air. The less air space there is to heat, the faster you warm up and stay warm. Camping bags are roomier than backpacking bags for greater comfort, with the tradeoff being less efficient warming of this dead space.
Most camping bags are designed with a rectangular shape for maximum comfort and roominess. If you choose 2 bags with compatible zippers, it's easy to mate them and create a double bed. You can mate bags if one bag has a "right-hand" zipper and the other a "left-hand" zipper. (Note: A right-hand zip means the bag opens and closes to your right when you are lying in the bag on your back.) The zippers also need to be the same size, style and roughly the same length. You can lay 2 bags on a queen-size air mattress for the utmost in outdoor sleeping comfort.
Semirectangular (or barrel-shaped)
These can be used for both camping and backpacking. Their tapered design offers greater warmth and efficiency than rectangular bags, but they're still plenty roomy for a comfortable night's sleep. They are popular with larger-frame backpackers or restless sleepers who don't like the tight fit of a mummy bag.
If you think you’ll be doing some backpacking as well as car camping, you may want to choose a mummy bag. Mummy-shaped bags have narrow shoulder and hip widths in order to maximize warmth and reduce weight. However, some people have trouble getting comfortable in these more restrictive bags. For more information about choosing a bag for backpacking, see our Expert Advice Article, Sleeping Bags for Backpacking: How to Choose.
Designed to comfortably sleep 2 people, roomy double-wide bags can be combined with an air mattress (or foam sleeping pad) for a cozy night's sleep. Most models zip apart to create 2 individual bags.
Sleeping Bag Insulation Type
Most campers choose synthetic insulation (versus down insulation) for its strong overall performance and friendly price tag. Typically made of polyester, a synthetic fill has many advantages: It’s quick-drying and insulates even if it gets wet. It’s less expensive than down-filled bags, it’s durable (stands up to roughhousing kids and dogs) and it’s nonallergenic. However, synthetic insulation doesn't pack down as small as down, so it's less versatile if you plan to use your bag for backpacking also.
Offered in some camping bags, it provides a more durable and compressible alternative to synthetic fill but features a slightly higher pricetag.
Water-Resistant Down Insulation
The downside of down is that it loses its insulating power when it gets wet. To help alleviate the problem, some sleeping bags feature down that has been treated to protect the feathers from moisture.
Sleeping Bags for Women and Kids
Women's sleeping bags: These are specifically designed and engineered to match a woman's contours. When compared to standard bags, women-specific bags are shorter and narrower at the shoulders, wider at the hips and add extra insulation in the upper body and footbox.
Kids' sleeping bags: When the kids get a good night's sleep, so do you. Some models feature a built-in sleeve on the bottom of the bag. This holds the sleeping pad so that your child, the bag and the pad stay together all night. (Other bags accomplish the same thing with pad loops that attach the pad and the bag.) Pillow pockets allow a jacket or backcountry pillow to be stuffed inside to create a cozy place for kids to lay their heads. Exterior pockets on the bag keep young explorers' headlamps, MP3 players and campsite keepsakes in easy reach.
Additional Sleeping Bag Features
Sleeping bag shell and lining
The outer shell of a camping bag is typically made of a ripstop nylon or polyester for durability. Many synthetic-fill bags feature a shell fabric treated with a durable water repellent (DWR) finish. DWR allows water to bead up rather than soak through the fabric. Linings, on the other hand, promote the dispersal of body moisture, so DWR is not used here.
To tell if a shell has a durable water repellent (DWR) treatment, rub a wet cloth across the surface. If the water beads up, then it has DWR.
Sleeping bag hood
Camping in cooler temperatures? You'll lose a lot of heat through your head. Consider a semirectangular bag with a built-in hood. When cinched with a drawcord, the hood prevents heat from radiating away. Some hoods offer a pillow pocket that you can stuff with clothing to create a pillow.
This keeps small items, such as an MP3 player, watch or glasses, close at hand.
Sleeping pad sleeve
On some bags, the underside insulation has been replaced with a sleeve to fit a sleeping pad. The result: no more rolling off the sleep pad in the middle of the night!
Most of us need a pillow for comfortable sleep. Some bags include a "pillow pocket" which allows you to stuff your clothes inside to create a pillow. You can also purchase camping pillows, or, if you have room, simply bring your own pillow from home.
Sleeping Bag Accessories
Many bags come with a stuff sack (sometimes sold separately) to easily transport your bag. New or replacement stuff sacks are now sized by volume (liters) in addition to length-by-width dimensions.
You can prolong the life of any sleeping bag by hanging it in your garage or storing it loosely in a cotton storage sack—and not rolled up tight in a stuff sack. This long-term storage prevents the insulation from getting permanently compressed, which reduces its insulating properties.
Sleeping bag liner
Slip a soft sleeping bag liner (sold separately) inside your bag to minimize wear and keep the bag clean. Layering in a liner adds 8° to 15°F of warmth, allowing a single bag to serve you in a wider variety of temperatures. Camping in very warm weather? Skip the bag and just sleep in the liner.
Shop REI's selection of Sleeping Bag Accessories.
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