A sleeping bag that keeps you warm in the coldest weather, doesn’t get too hot in warmer climates, weighs nothing, costs next to nothing, packs small and looks good. Yes, please! Read on for our guide to choosing not the best sleeping bag, but the best sleeping bag for you.
If you’re planning to bivvy half-way up a snowy mountain, then you won’t be buying a £15 sleeping bag from Tesco. If you’re a casual camper, it’s unlikely you’ll want to pay £300+ for an expedition-quality bag. Most of us, though, fall somewhere in between – wanting a good compromise between cost and comfort.
This guide doesn’t cover the cheap, festival-type bags, nor the high-end technical kit. Instead, we’ve been looking at well-designed, comfortable and affordable bags that you can rely on.
We took a budget of between £40 and £140. This might seem a little high, but we aimed to find three-season options that would stand up to fairly regular use and would last for years and years. We set a maximum weight of 2kg.
You really don’t need this guide…
If you camp a couple of times a year in spring, summer or early autumn and don’t have to carry your kit on your back, then virtually any sleeping bag will do the job. Our advice would be to set a budget and then choose a bag that’s as close to the comfort of home bedding as you can get.
Go for a rectangular bag like the ones shown here. Cotton will feel nicer than nylon. One of the newer quilt-like sleeping bags will give you more versatility. These bags will be heavier (up to 3.5kg) and won’t make small packs. If you want more versatility, then consider spending a bit more on the fantastic Finsuit (see the recommendations at the end of this article).
Why we’ve chosen a synthetic filling (this time)
We started to write a section for this article about the differences between down and synthetic fillings – down is lighter in weight for equivalent warmth, but more expensive and harder to care for; synthetic tends not to keep its fluffiness for as long, but isn’t as affected by damp conditions, and so on….
But here’s why it doesn’t matter: very few of us need the weight reduction that down offers. More importantly, can we sleep well wondering if the down has been plucked from live (and terrified) birds or from birds force-fed for foie gras?
We’ve come across a number of manufacturers who don’t just abide by codes of ethics for sourcing their down, but are very specific about not using live-plucked or foie gras by-products. Rab, for example, say their down “is traceable under the European Down & Feather Association Codex. This code of conduct determines the source of down; ensuring that it is a byproduct of a slaughterhouse or harvested during moulting periods and not illegally live plucked”. Katabatic give access to a Track my Down programme to trace the down’s provenance. Patagonia, Montane and Marmot are among the others. Some companies, however, are vague with their reassurances of “sustainable methods” and “supply chain control”
If you really want down (and nothing insulates as well), then here’s the order of priority – 1. Secondhand. 2. Harvested from moulting or nests. 3. Plucked from birds slaughtered for meat. Here’s more info on down production, and don’t forget to check up on the manufacturer before buying.
We’ve decided, however, it’s easier and safer to go for a synthetic sleeping bag.
Temperature ratings and the seasons
Our first tip is an easy one – choose a bag that offers you a bit more warmth than you think you’ll need. You never know when you might want to camp at chillier times, and it’s easier to unzip and leave a leg out in the breeze if you get too warm than it is to start adding layers if you’re cold. However, there’s no point in adding bulk and weight with too warm a bag if you’ll never sleep in near-zero conditions.
Manufacturers usually show a ‘comfort’ rating.
- Upper limit – the highest temperature that a ‘standard’ man would be comfortable without sweating, with arms outside the bag and the bag unzipped.
- Comfort – the temperature a ‘standard’ woman can expect to sleep comfortably.
- Lower limit – the temperature that our ‘standard’ man can sleep for eight hours in a curled position without waking up.
- Extreme – the limit at which the bag will keep you alive. It’s NOT an indication of the lowest temperature at which you could use the sleeping bag comfortably. Most of us (Arctic explorers aside) can ignore this rating and focus only on the comfort guide.
Tip number two – the lowest rating shown by manufacturers tends towards optimism. We’d always add on a little to be on the safe side.
The other way of rating sleeping bags is using seasons.
- Season one is summer in mild climates
- Season two is like UK late spring to early autumn
- Season three is chilly nights but without frost
- Season four is cold winter nights with frost or snow.
In our recommendation at the end, you’ll see we’ve chosen only three-season bags with a comfort rating that will allow for some cold weather nights.
What shape of sleeping bag?
Sleeping bags keep you warm by trapping your body heat in an enclosed space. That’s why expedition bags are always tight mummy-shapes. This type of bag can be claustrophobic, though, especially for people who move around a lot in their sleep. Rectangular bags, like the ones we mentioned above, are great when weight and size don’t matter.
For the in-between campers, though, the compromise is a slightly larger mummy-style – sometimes called a comfort-fit mummy. These may have a bit more width and a wider foot area. If you’re taller than average, look for bags that come in a longer length. Some manufacturers make women’s versions, which will be shorter and have a bit more width in some areas.
Weight and size
Choosing a bag that’s warmer than you need will add weight. In fact, unless you’re backpacking, weight probably matters less than pack size. Even when packing a car for camping or using a campervan, you’ll want to save space.
While we’re on the subject of packing your sleeping bag – don’t leave it compressed in its sack for long periods or you’ll damage its ability to hold heat.
Waterproofing and washing
Only sleeping bags made for extreme conditions and for bivvying will be properly waterproof. Many good sleeping bags, though, are treated with durable water repellent (DWR), which causes water to bead on the outer shell rather than soak in. It will wear off after time and washing.
Sleeping bags stuffed with synthetic fibre are easy to wash in the machine. They’re best dried outside in the sun and wind, but they can go into the dryer too. Don’t use too high a heat and turn the bag inside out half-way through the cycle. It can be hard to tell if the insulation is completely dry, so leave it out to air for as long as you can.
And now for our favourites– our top nine sleeping bags
Vaude Finsuit – around £90
A very clever option that can be a sleeping bag and a blanket. It has a mummy-bag hood (detachable for use as a pillow) and a front zip,, which makes it much more comfortable for side-sleepers. The width of the shoulder area can be adjusted with a hidden cord. You can either put your legs in the footbox or leave them out for full mobility, such as when you’re sitting around the campfire. The Sensofiber microfiber is made from environmentally friendly bluesign® materials.
- Comfort 5 °C and limit 0 °C
- Pack size: 25 x 30-40cm (depending on compression of packsack)
- Weight: 1.55kg
- Length: 230cm
Mountain Hardwear Lamina Z Flame – around £140
More of a mummy shape but with a wider area for your feet. The Lamina Revamp ripstop shell has DWR treatment, and there’s a full-length zip. It’s filled with Thermal.Q synthetic insulation. There’s a women’s version too.
- Comfort 0°C and limit -6°C
- Pack size: 18 x 39cm
- Weight: 1.22kg
- Length: 198cm
Mountain Hardwear Lamina Z Spark 34 – around £140
A slightly less warm version of the Flame, but with a reduced weight.
- Comfort 6°C and limit 1°C
- Pack size: 15 x 30cm
- Weight: 0.94kg
- Length: 198cm
OEX Fathom EV – around £70
A Go Outdoors own brand three- to four-season synthetic sleeping bag with Du Pont Thermolite™ fill.
- Comfort 0°C and limit -6°C
- Pack size: 39 x 20cm
- Length: 215cm
Mountain Equipment Starlight II – around £100
A comfort fit and wider foot area, this one also comes in larger sizes and a women’s cut. There are also higher spec versions in the range, but this three- to four-season on looked good enough!
- Comfort 3°C and limit -2°C
- Pack size: 22 x 29cm
- Weight: 1.42kg
- Length: 185cm
Nordisk Hjalmar -2 – around £60
Hjalmar is a rare thing – a rectangular bag that’s still light and warm and has a soft brushed lining. Zip two together to make a double or use open as a blanket. Don’t buy the summer weight version (Hjalmar 10) by mistake!
- Comfort 4°C and limit -2°C
- Pack size: 25 x 31-37cm
- Weight: 1.23kg
- Length: 190cm
Nordisk Abel -2 – around £70
A novel egg-shape for this sleeping bag, giving you extra shoulder and knee room but without creating large air pockets that reduce warmth. An option of two lengths, a hood and soft lining make for great comfort. Again, there’s a summer version, so check which one you’re ordering.
- Comfort and limit 4°C and limit -2°C
- Pack size: 25 x 31-37cm
- Length: 215cm
Nordisk wants us to try their affordable rectangular Almond too – so watch this space to find out more. Two versions – a -2 and a -10).
Vango Cocoon 250 – around £40
A comfort shape with wriggle room and the cheapest of our favourites. It has a good non-slip fabric too.
- Comfort 3°C and limit -3°C
- Pack size: 43 x 25cm
- Weight: 1.7kg
The Kelty Tuck range – around £100
Offered in five performance levels and women’s options: -4, -6, -7 and even -18 and -29 (although they don’t make it clear whether this is the extreme limit or the low limit). They’re lightweight and have a rounded, oversized mummy shape that opens at the bottom so you can stick your feet out in warmer weather. We’ve liked this US brand for its shelters, but it can be hard to find their kit in the UK. Keep an eye out for them on Amazon because they occasionally come into stock.
- Temperature range stated as -4 through to -29 (depending on model), but it’s not clear how this relates to the comfort and limit ratings
- Pack size: 20 x 33cm to 21 x 44cm
- Weight: 1.36kg to 1.5kg
- Length: 183cm to 213cm
We’ve still to try the Thermarest Saros, which looks super-warm, but may be a bit too mummy-ish. It does, however, have a slip-in area for your mattress. And the Snugpak Softie 9 (Equinox or Hawk…we’re not sure how the naming/differences work yet) looks warm and lightweight. We’ll be testing that one soon as well.
We’ve also had a great response from manufacturers of more technical, lightweight (often down) bags designed for more extreme conditions, so we’ll be featuring those in the future. Meanwhile, sleep well!!