Best Backpacking Sleeping Bags – How to Choose

Sleeping Bags
Our down sleeping bags and liner. The stuff sacks are for backpacking and should not be stored this way, but loosely in the breathable bag.

The best backpacking sleeping bags are rated by temperature, material, weight, and how well they pack down. Quality manufacturing is also of the utmost importance as cheap zippers and poor stitching can allow cold air to seep into a sleeping bag. If you aren’t planning on backpacking in cold environments, you can get by with a very affordable sleeping bag that is still lightweight. The colder the environment the more expensive the bag will be, especially as you attempt to keep the weight down.

Classification and Rating

Best Backpacking Gear
It is hard to imagine that this is what we have the potential of packing into our backpacks.

We classify sleeping bags as essential backpacking gear but we also give it a rating. Obviously, you need some form of a sleeping bag or blanket to go backpacking so it is an essential piece of gear. Our A-F rating is to help newcomers to backpacking know where to best spend their budget. The best backpacking sleeping bags if maintained well will last for many years. Check out our best backpacking gear post to see how we rank and rate all the necessary backpacking gear in one place.

Best Backpacking Sleeping Bags

  • Classification: Essential Gear
  • A-Rating: Spend the money for a quality product that is durable, well-designed, and saves weight.

Quilt vs. Mummy Bag

North Face Blue Kazoo
Jennifer bundled up in her North Face Blue Kazoo mummy bag.

There are basically two types of sleeping bags—the quilt style and the mummy sleeping bag. Quilts are basically a fold over sleeping bag without a hood. They can be warm especially with supplementals like a toboggan and neck gator. However, for my money, I prefer a mummy bag which has a hood that synchs around the head holding in the heat. Some people find a mummy-bag to be restrictive but they can give you more warmth than the quilt style. If you need even more warmth inside a mummy bag you can also wear an additional head covering.

Length

Below you will see some information on specific sleeping bags. This information is listed at the “regular” size but most of the best backpacking sleeping bags come in small, regular, and large. While they typically all have the same warmth rating they will obviously have slightly different weight ratings. So, make sure you get a bag that fits your frame to maximize the weight.

Synthetic vs. Down

Jennifer and I camped for years with synthetic-filled Cosco specials. While these are a nice intro to backpack camping at an affordable price, once you decide that you really enjoy backpacking you will want to upgrade. Down sleeping bag are substantially lighter and pack down very small. (Although they should not be stored longterm that way). Make sure when you are looking at down you look at the fill count. The higher the number, like 850 for example, the better and more consistent the warmth.

Temperature Ratings

Blue Kazoo Ratings
The many confusing and somewhat unscientific warmth ratings on Jennifer’s Blue Kazoo sleeping bag.

Temperature ratings are somewhat subjective and can have dubious accuracy. Look for the ISO and/or EN rating, the best things we have to an independent rating standard for sleeping bags. These ratings are still somewhat subjective because humans feel warmth differently. Many manufacturers often list their sleeping bags at the low end of the survivable range (a terrible benchmark). The best sleeping bags will typically list a manufacturer’s determined comfort range, survival range (not comfortable but you will live), and extreme/risk range (flip a coin… you might get hypothermia). The ISO and EN usually list a sleeping bag at the low end of its comfort rating and the low end of the survival range. These ratings can be different for cold sleepers (typically women) and warm sleepers (typically men) and can be a far different rating than the manufacturer’s internal ratings.

Men’s vs. Women’s Sleeping Bags

Hanging Our Sleeping Bags
It is good to hang your down sleeping bag up to air out after a long backpacking trip.

Typically, men and women have different thresholds to cold weather. As we saw above ratings are subjective. This means a men’s 15° bag would be subjectively rated by a man at that temperature, and subsequently the women’s version by a woman. Men’s bags tend to be lighter with less fill then women’s bags rated at the exact same temperature. This is why it is important to buy a bag designed for your sex/body type. Women typically have bigger hips so the sleeping bags are usually wider in the hips as well and have more fill to receive a perceived increased temperature rating.

Quality Innovations

Innovations in the best backpacking sleeping bags can really make a difference in warmth. Quality zippers with zipper flaps called draft tubes help to keep warmth from seeping from the sleeping bag. Neck baffles (AKA: head gasket) help to close off the area below your head so that less heat escapes the bag. Extra insulated foot boxes can also add a lot of warmth to a bag as feet are typically the first thing to go cold in cold weather.

Women’s Blue Kazoo

Jennifer gets very cold so we nearly broke the bank upgrading her sleeping bag to North Face’s Women’s Blue Kazoo. There are of course more expensive sleeping bags out there, but going from a Costco special to this bag is expensive. The Women’s Blue Kazoo sleeping bag is rated for 19°F (EN) and weighs in at 2lb 4oz. That alone shaved nearly 3lbs off the weight of the old Costco special. The Costco synthetic was rated for 0°F (not EN) but the Blue Kazoo has a low-end manufacture’s survival rating of -10°F. While the Costco synthetic was well used and had deteriorated the perceptive difference, the Blue Kazoo is much warmer. This leads me to believe that the Costco bag was rated at the low end of the survival temperature which is to often the practice of sleeping bag manufacturers.

Sleeping Bag + Liner Combo

McKinley Sleeping Bag
Jake bundled up in the McKinley Trekker D5 sleeping bag.

For my (Jake’s) sleeping bag we decided on an unorthodox solution. We camp in hot and cold weather but we don’t have enough storage space in our nomadic rig to carry two different sleeping bags. I do not sleep well if I am hot. However, I was triggered into getting a new sleeping bag when I almost froze to death on the Assiniboine Trail in the Canadian Rockies. My Costco special was a 20°F bag. If that was the survival rating I had pushed it beyond its limit. I needed a solution for extreme 3-season cold and adequate for the sweltering summer heat. I decided to go with a lighter down to maximize pack weight and added a fleece liner to increase the warmth. The liner can also double as a second sleeping bag when we are camping in hot weather and Jennifer needs an alternative to her Blue Kazoo.

Trekker D5 & Thermolite Liner

My McKinley Trekker D5 sleeping bag is listed as a 2lb, 5°C (41°F) but it is more equivalent to a 50°F bag on the ISO/EN scale. This obviously isn’t all that warm, so I added a Sea to Summit Thermolite Reactor Fleece Liner that adds up to 32°F of warmth. This theoretically gives my combination bag an equivalent rating of 18°F. When I set about this solution, I could find no one else who backpacks with a similar setup. What I have found is that the 18°F is probably a bit generous but it isn’t that far off as I have slept comfortably in subfreezing temperatures. If I had to rate the setup I would say it is closer to 26°F (ISO/EN for men).

Positives and Negatives of a Liner

A Mummy Sunset
Enjoying the cold sunset from the warmth of my mummy bag.

The downside to this setup and liners, in general, is trying to shimmy your body into a mummy bag inside of a mummy bag. It isn’t easy and takes some considerable effort to get in and comfortable. The benefit, other than flexibility in temperatures, is that the liner can be easily cleaned and dried in machines. Down sleeping bags should definitely not be placed in a drier and some people recommend never cleaning them at all. I lean towards cleaning them once a year after the camping season has ended.

Warmer Options

If I could justifying having two sleeping bags, I would keep the Trekker D5 for warm nights but add either the Sea to Summit Spark 18°F or the REI Magma 15. The Spark 18° weighs and astonishing 1lb 7.5oz and is rated to be comfortable at 18°. The Magma 15 is rated to be comfortable at 28° and has a weight of 1lb 12.2oz. I lean towards the Spark but it is pricey. While not cheap either, the Magma 15 might win out. I have researched both of these a lot and was very close to buying each at different times.

Choosing the Best Backpacking Sleeping Bag

Best Backpacking Sleeping Bags
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A sleeping bag is one of the most important pieces of gear when backpacking. When used in tandem with the best sleeping pad and a quality 3-season tent, adventurous souls can sleep comfortably and warm in all kinds of weather.

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