Sleeping Bags

Posted: January 3, 2014 in Uncategorized

Sleeping Bags are the last of the BIG 3 items (tent, backpack, sleeping bag) that contribute most of the cost and the weight to a set of camping gear. In general, I try to recommend things that hit the sweet spot of price/performance where you get something that won’t let you down, without getting gouged.  For backpacks and tents, the things I’d recommend are pretty mainstream and could be grabbed off the shelf at many REI’s or outdoor retailers.  For sleeping bags, I recommend an imported item that’s a little more off the beaten path, for the weekend to week-long camper like myself.

Overall TL;DR: get a High Peak Extreme Pak 0 degree (mine is the XL), synthetic, about 3 pounds, good to around freezing, about $80 new at Amazon, available in both left and right zip if you want a matched pair to zip together or use separately.  You won’t get anything else close to this for under about $250 new.

Down vs. Synthetic.  All magazine articles about sleeping bags are required to discuss this down vs. synthetic thing, and you will see it talked to death out there, so I’ll mention it briefly.  Down has a better warmth/weight ratio than good synthetic, but usually loses a lot more of its warmth when it’s wet than synthetic does.  There, done.  They’re not the same, and a ton more could be said.  The bottom line is that you can find serious thru-hikers on the PCT, Appalachian Trail, etc., who are using both types (down and synthetic).  I take this to imply that  neither is a slam-dunk over the other.  Another huge difference other than down vs. synthetic, that’s often less talked about, is the difference between different fills of down.  Long story short, not all down is created equal, by a long shot.  A good down bag manufacturer like Western Mountaineering or Feathered Friends will break it down for you on their website.  Higher fills have better warmth for the same weight, and cost more.

Temperature ratings.  Sleeping bags are often described by the temperature they are rated to: for example 30 degrees, 10 degrees, etc.  People will spend lots of time telling you how to interpret this number, based on whether it means “worst case but you’ll live” temperature, “warm and comfy” temperature, etc.  Ignore all of this, because it all overlooks the fact that there is no universal standard for these numbers, and manufacturers can say whatever they want, so in practice there is a huge amount of variation in what these numbers might mean.  You should get real, end-user feedback for a specific sleeping bag when deciding how cold it can be used comfortably or safely, and ignore the temperature numbers stuck onto bag names or labels.  If you’re worried about getting stuck by surprise in temps dangerously below what you had planned for, something like this mylar bivy / bag is very cheap insurance so that you don’t feel any anxiety about not shelling out for a $400 bag just to do some summer camping!

Big square car camping bags.  If you have one already or can borrow one, this is fine for car camping in the summer, or for trying camping on for size.  Otherwise, don’t do it!  Very heavy, and not that warm.  They are more for slumber parties or camping in a bunk at the cabin.  If you don’t already have one laying around, I wouldn’t spend money on one, even for car camping.

Here’s my left-field pick.  The High Peak Extreme Pak 0 degree is cheap, well designed, reasonably light, and comfortable to about freezing at least.  It’s about $80 on Amazon.  It comes with its own sturdy stuff sack, and has a nice drawstring and internal baffle layout.  It’s available in a regular or XL size, and can be had with a left-sided or right-sided zipper, so you can order a matched pair that can be zipped together, if you want.  I’ve slept in mine down to the high 30’s (F) with my clothes and beanie on, and not woken up once from cold.  Based on this I think you could push it into the 30’s with a little more bundling up or more ground insulation (I only use an uninsulated air mattress).  People’s responses to cold can really differ, so feel free to find multiple reviews on any model of sleeping bag, including this one, to see what the range of comfortable temperatures really is.  To get something much warmer or any lighter, you will have to spend closer to $350 as opposed to $80- Just to get something equivalent will run you upwards of $250.  If you get the High Peak Extreme Pak, the stuff sack has some decorative heavy nylon strapping that’s not structural.  If you’re sure you can tell which are the straps you compress the bag with, and which are the extra decorative crap, I’d cut all of that crap off.  You can probably get from the listed 3.2 pounds to 3 pounds total weight (for the normal size) by doing that.


High Peak Extreme Pak

Alternatives. If you’re planning on camping in temps a lot below freezing, or want to get the weight of your sleeeping bag down from 3 lbs to 2 lbs, you should be ready to spend quite a few bucks more.  If that’s you, I’d recommend Western Mountaineering as a real standout in price/value for nice down bags, although even then down bags are expensive!

Extra Tips: Compressing your bag makes it a worse insulator.  Don’t store it in its stuff sack between trips: hang it by the loop on the toe end, or tie it up loosely (not air-tight) in a big lawn-size hefty bag.  For the same reason, as soon as your tent is up, you should shake out your bag and let it expand a bit before bed.

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