A good night’s sleep in the outdoors is the refresher we all could use. There’s nothing comfier than snuggling up on a chilly night in a warm sleeping bag while camping. No matter if you’re deep in the backcountry or under the stars in your own backyard, finding the best camping sleeping bag for nature outings near and far is a necessary step in completing your gear checklist.
That’s why we interviewed camping experts to find the best sleeping bags for any adventure. Ashleigh McClary, a gear expert and senior account manager at Backcountry and Emily Pennington, a journalist, photographer and author of the upcoming book “Feral,” share their insights on what makes a sleeping bag warmer than others, which materials stand up best to the elements and what determines the packability and price of different types of bags.
What to consider when buying a sleeping bag
A sleeping bag’s shell and fill — or the internal and external components of a sleeping bag — play a huge role in both comfort and warmth while camping. Campers will want to consider both the fabric the sleeping bag is made of (the inner lining and outer shell of the sleeping bag) and what the sleeping bag is filled with (down or synthetic material inside the bag) to determine their ideal purchase.
Sleeping bag fill
Down insulation and synthetic insulation are the most common types of fill you’ll find inside sleeping bags. Each material comes with its own list of pros and cons — and requires campers to consider the types of environment they’ll most often camp in before selecting their preferred fill.
Most often made of goose feathers, down provides the most warmth, lightest weight and smallest packable size of any type of sleeping bag insulation. The higher the loft — or fluffiness — of down, the more room it takes up, and the more efficiently it traps warmth in cold weather. On the downside, down is not waterproof and takes a very long time to dry. Campers can find water-resistant down sleeping bags, treated with durable water repellent (DWR), which helps protect the feathers during wet conditions. Down bags are also the most expensive type of sleeping bag.
Synthetic insulation, most often made of polyester, is the most affordable fill option for camping sleeping bags. Synthetic sleeping bags are hypoallergenic, will keep you warm even if they get wet and dry much quicker than down. Unlike down, synthetic fill does not compress as small and is heavier in weight.
“The main benefit of a synthetic bag is going to be the cost — they’re usually a bit less expensive,” said McClary. “Some synthetic bags are super comfortable but most of them are not going to be quite as comfortable as down. The way down wraps around your body and provides this super-light and airy feeling is hard to beat.”
Sleeping bag shell
“Most sleeping bag shells you’ll find are made of ripstop nylon on the outside, with the exception of some car camping, hunting or dog-friendly sleeping bags, which are usually made of durable cotton, canvas or fleece,” says McClary. “Taffeta is another common sleeping bag shell material usually found in backpacking sleeping bags, which feels silky and smooth to the touch.”
Beyond taffeta — which is the highest-quality sleeping bag material, known for its durability, softness and breathability — nylon and polyester sleeping bag shells are commonplace. Bags made with these three fabrics are often treated with DWR to help with moisture control and prevent waterlogging the fill.
Like much of the outdoor industry, sleeping bag brands continue to aim to produce more eco-friendly products made with environmentally conscious and sourced materials and more sustainable manufacturing processes.
This is especially true for sleeping bag insulation, which traditionally has been made with harmful, chemical-filled materials or unethically sourced down. Receiving a sustainable down certification from the NSF, including Responsible Down Standard (RDS) or Global Traceable Down Standard (GTDS) certifications, is just one of the ways brands can go above and beyond to responsibly source materials that respect animal welfare and can be transparently traced.
“[Sleeping bags] marked with Responsible Down Standard are a big deal,” says McClary. “It means a lot, for both brands and consumers, to receive this certification. RDS products go through very stringent testing and standards, and it usually takes years and scrutiny to receive them. So, if you see this on a garment or sleeping bag, don’t take it lightly. It means that the company is working really hard to be more sustainable and to be better.”
Temperature ratings — especially if you’re not familiar with the process for how they’re determined — can be pretty complicated.
McClary groups camping sleeping bags into three main categories: summer, three-season and winter bags. Three-season bags tend to perform best during spring, summer and fall camping, whereas summer and winter bags should be used during mostly warm months or mostly cold months. She also says you’ll notice lab-tested ratings, which are marked with an “EN” and/or “ISO” on the bag, which indicate the bag was lab tested for its teperature rating.
According to REI, EN (European Norm) was the original standard adopted by the sleeping bag industry, but today, a new entity called the ISO (International Standards Organization) oversees testing using a nearly identical set of rubric standards. Standard lab tests run by the ISO categorize sleeping bag temperature ratings into two categories: a comfort rating and a lower limit rating.
Comfort rating is the degree at which a cold sleeper might start to feel cold. Lower limit rating is an even colder temperature at which a warm sleeper might start to feel cold. And to make it even more complicated, the rating you see in the product name of a women’s sleeping bag is always the comfort rating, whereas the rating on a men’s bag is the lower limit rating.
“In my experience, summer bags are usually rated for 50 degrees to 35 degrees Fahrenheit, three-season bags for 35 to 20 degrees and winter bags for 20 to 0 degrees,” says McClary. “Anything rated below 0 degrees is a specialized bag for extreme temperatures and weather conditions.”
Pennington says considering the average weather conditions and climate where you expect to camp is a key determinant when choosing a sleeping bag. Factors like understanding elevation, weather patterns and the typical seasons you expect to camp will help you better understand what temperature rating of sleeping bag to purchase.
“Keep in mind the type of climate you’ll be using your sleeping bag in. Are there freak rainstorms?” Pennington asks. “Does it get very cold very quickly at night? Is it humid? Will you be carrying it for one night or for 20 nights?”
At the end of the day, it’s important to know that temperature ratings are estimates, not the ultimate truth. It’s impossible to predict how warm or cold you personally will be on any given night, so always be prepared to adjust your sleep setup. If you know you’re a super-cold sleeper, consider sleeping with a sleeping bag quilt or adding a fleece liner inside your bag to help you stay warm.
“The [most important] thing to know about temperature ratings for sleeping bags is that they’re subjective,” says McClary. “It totally depends on the person whether they tend to sleep cold or sleep hot, and the weather conditions also play a big role in warmth.”
Packability and weight
When it comes to weight and packability, synthetic bags tend to be heavier and bulkier while down-filled sleeping bags will always be campers’ lightest and most packable option.
Down bag quality is measured by the down fill rating, which ranges from 300 to 900 and above. In technical terms, down fill rating measures the cubic inches of loft that a single ounce of down produces. The higher the down rating, typically the more warmth it will provide. And while counterintuitive, the higher the down rating, the smaller the bag will pack down.
“Synthetic stuffed bags have gotten a lot better in recent years, but as a whole, they aren’t as lightweight or packable as down. They are, however, much more waterproof,” says Pennington. “I typically look for an 800-fill down sleeping bag that’s under 2.5 pounds if I can find it.”
You’ll also find sleeping bags in all shapes and sizes. Each size has its pros and cons, whether that means more warmth, more space to move around or more versatility based on the season you’re using your sleeping bag.
Most often used for backpacking, mountaineering or trips requiring lots of gear, mummy bags tend to provide the most warmth and are super compact. This shape follows the natural curves of your body and tapers at the feet — cutting down excess fabric and space where heat can escape.
Rectangle bags, on the other hand, have ample room for moving around in at night. They tend to be a little on the more breathable (sometimes colder) side but are great for side sleepers or campers who tend to shift around in their sleep.
Sleeping bag quilts, which lay on top of your sleeping bag or can be used as a blanket, do not have a back side. These type of sleeping bags are great if you want an extra layer of added warmth or for use in summer months when you want to easily put it on or take it off as temperature fluctuates. Backpackers also often use quilts without sleeping bags to cut down even more on weight, but they need to be paired with a well-insulated sleeping pad if you’re planning on sleeping with one on a chilly night.
Similar to camping tents, quality sleeping bags come with a high price tag. More often than not, you get what you pay for. Sleeping bags with a promise to stand up to the elements and stay with you for the long haul are bound to be a big-ticket item purchase.
“Off-name brands have not worked well for me in this product category,” says Pennington. “[In my opinion] it’s actually worth it to put down some cash. High-end bags with 850 or 950 fill will cost you a pretty penny.” But to Pennington, they’re worth it.
McClary says synthetic bags are the most economical for car campers and families on a budget. For hikers looking for a backpacking or lightweight sleeping bag, McClary recommends looking for a higher-rated down fill, even if it costs more.
“I usually look for 700 to 800-plus down fill as the magic number,” says McClary. “Sleeping bags with 700 fill and over are usually just fine [for backpacking] and you can also usually find those for a reasonable price.”
The best sleeping bags for all types of camping
To help you find the most practical sleeping bag for your future camping adventures, we’ve rounded up 26 the best sleeping bags on the market. From car camping at a local state park to thru-hiking the entire Appalachian Trail, cozy up and sleep tight with these expert-recommended and favorite picks.
Down sleeping bags
From $379 at Sea to Summit or from $378.95 at Backcountry
“I also love that the Nemo sleeping bags can be zipped together,” says McClary. “That’s a great feature because [a couple] with two different styles of preferences can combine their sleeping bag[s] into one large double bag.”
From $545 at Backcountry
From $399 at Patagonia
From $369 at Sea to Summit
The three different sleeping configurations provide different levels of warmth. You can use the top quilt for summer camping or on trips when you want to travel as light as possible, the inner bag on colder nights, or combine both for the warmest setup. This modularity means you don’t have to buy two separate sleeping bags for warm weather and cold weather.
Synthetic sleeping bags
Additional features include a 100% recycled and machine-washable sheet, double zipper pulls on both sides for ample and custom venting and a foldable draft collar that makes you feel like you’re tucked into bed.