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Choosing a Sleeping Bag (and sleeping pads)

Joe Kegley

Aside from your shelter, proper sleeping gear is probably the most important camping item(s) you will need to select and purchase. Inadequate sleep can affect one mentally and physically. The last thing you want is to do is put energy into planning and packing for a camping trip, drive hundreds of miles, and be tired and grumpy during the whole camping experience.

Sleeping Bags

The primary purpose of a sleeping bag is to provide warmth which it does through thermal insulation. Most are not designed to protect one from exposure to the elements.

Mummy Sleeping Bag

Mummy Bag with attached stuff sack

Sleeping bag designs (shapes)

  • Mummy bag - The mummy bag is the warmest (provides the best insulation) type of sleeping bag. Contoured for the shape of the body, mummy bags are narrow at the feet and wider at the shoulders. They have a hood that can surround your head. Pros - warmest, lightweight, compresses compactly (preferred by backpackers). Cons - more expensive, more restrictive (if you are claustrophobic you may not like the confinement)

  • Rectangular bag - This style of sleeping bag allows for a lot of movement. Rectangular bags are squared at the corners and have more room than mummy bags. Somewhat more versatile, the bag can be opened completely to make a comforter or two of the same size (same manufacturer) can be zipped together for a two person bag. Pros - inexpensive, allows for more movement than a mummy bag. Cons - not as warm as mummy bags, heavy and bulky (not for backpackers).

  • Semi-rectangular bag - This is a rectangular bag that tapers at the feet. Pros - warms better than a rectangular bag. Cons - restrictive near the feet.

Fill: Down vs Synthetic

  • Down - Down is the layer of small fine feathers found under the exterior feathers of birds, usually ducks and geese. Pros - excellent heat retention, lightweight, easily compressed. Cons - more expensive than synthetic, looses almost all insulation value when wet, long drying time when wet.

  • Synthetic - made from plastic fibers. Pros - much less expensive than down, dries quicker than down, maintains loft and warmth even when wet, requires less care. Cons - heavier than down, not as warm as down.

    Note: Loft describes the fluff (material and air pockets) of the fill found in sleeping bags.

Temperature Ratings

Most manufacturers attach a temperature rating to their sleeping bag products. This rating reflects how cold it can be with you still feeling warm in the specific bag. Unfortunately (or fortunately) people are unique and the rating should merely be used as a guideline. How you sleep (do you toss and turn or lie still), your size, and your sex play a role in the actual temperature comfort of a sleeping bag.

A rough guideline specific to the Southeast might look something like this ... .

Sleeping Bag Temperature Rating Mountain Elevations Piedmont and Coastal Elevations
32 degrees F or higher Summer Summer
20 - 32 degrees F Late spring - early autumn Early spring - late autumn
0 - 20 degrees F Early spring - late autumn Winter
0 degrees F and lower Winter ---------------------

For most folks in the Southeast (excluding extreme mountain temperatures) a 20 up to a 32 degree rated mummy bag will provide the warmth you need spring thru fall. During warmer times, such as the summer months, ditch the sleeping bag and just use blankets.

I have used a 20 degree rated North Face Cat's Meow sleeping bag during a 30 degree night with decent wind and found it just right in combination with a small two person tent.

Sleeping Bag Storage

Mummy bag in storage bag


Inexpensive rectangle sleeping bags can be rolled up and stored. You don't want to do this with the more expensive mummy bags because over time it will damage the loft which will affect the insulation ability of the bag.

The more expensive mummy bags usually come with a large storage bag. You want to store the sleeping bag loose and uncompressed to retain its loft characteristics.

If your sleeping bag did not come with a storage bag then you can use a laundry bag.

Note: The storage bag is not the same as the "stuff sack" used to keep the sleeping bag compressed for travel. Only use the stuff sack when packing for a vehicle, canoe, or backpacking trip.

Sleeping Pads

Sleeping pads add a layer of comfort between you and the hard ground. In addition, they also provide insulation preventing a loss of heat from your body to the ground. Because the bottom of the sleeping bag is compressed with the weight of your body, that section of the sleeping bag loses much of its insulating ability, therefore a sleeping pad adds an important thermal insulation layer. The sleeping pad also adds a layer of moisture protection from the ground.

Therm-a-rest self-inflating mattress

Therm-a-rest LuxuryCamp self-inflating mattress

  • Open-cell foam pads - These are the cheapest, but the least comfortable. Open-cell foam pads are so easily compressed when you lie on them you will feel every bump on the ground if they are not extremely thick. They also absorb water somewhat like a sponge.

  • Closed-cell foam pads - These don't absorb water and are more comfortable than open-cell foam pads. Many are designed with egg crate outer surfaces. More expensive than open-cell foam pads, but cheaper than self-inflating mattresses.

  • Self-inflating mattresses - When you open a valve, the mattress inflates by itself. These are not as thick as an air mattress, but are much more comfortable than foam pads. They are also more expensive than the standard foam pads.

    Therm-a-rest is a leader in self-inflating mattresses and closed-cell foam pads. Therm-a-rest self-inflating mattresses range in thickness from 1 inch (lightweight/backpacker model) to 2.5 inches (deluxe car camping model).

  • Air mattresses - Air mattresses are the thickest and most comfortable type of sleeping pad. Unless you have good lungs and the patience to blow one up, we suggest getting a battery powered or car powered air pump. Most air mattress retailers/manufacturers sell pumps.

Since the weight and size of sleeping pads are relatively insignificant when car camping, and only a minor consideration when canoe camping, we suggest the following:

Therm-a-rest Ridgerest foam pad

Therm-a-rest Ridgerest foam pad

  • Two person tent - For a two person tent double up by using a closed-cell foam pad underneath a self-inflating mattress.

    The thicker, longer, and wider the better. No reason to purchase the lightweight backpack versions, go for the comfort.

    A suggested combination would be a Therm-a-rest Ridgerest foam pad (large - 77in x 25in, thickness .625 in reg, .75 for deluxe) with a Therm-a-rest LuxuryCamp (large - 77in x 25in, thickness 2.5in).

  • Four person tent - definitely an air mattress.

Make sure any sleeping pad you decide to purchase (whether foam, self-inflating, or air mattress) is large enough in length and width for your body size. Also make sure your tent has enough floor space for whichever you choose.

Additional sleeping accessories

Nylon Strap with fastener

Nylon Strap with fastener

  • Pillow - Most folks are more comfortable during rest with their heads raised. You can bring a pillow from home, purchase one of the smaller "camping" pillows, or make one by stuffing your clothes in a stuff sack or pillowcase.

  • Blankets - More than likely most folks will be fine during the summers months by just throwing a blanket on top of themselves. Be careful using blankets in combination with low temperature rated mummy bags. The weight of the blanket may actually compress the fill which will lower the insulation properties of the sleeping bag.

  • Nylon Straps - These are great for rolling up your sleeping pad for travel (foam or self inflating). Actually they work good for anything that needs to be rolled up. You can purchase these from most camping retails stores. The one on the right was purchased from Bass Pro.

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