Choosing a Sleeping Bag
Whether you're camping in the backwoods or sending a kid to a sleepover, a comfortable sleeping bag is essential for a sound night's sleep. Prices range from about $20 for a cheap sleeping bag suitable for a backyard slumber party to $800 or more for the kind professional mountaineers use. When you factor in purpose, quality, and budget, your options begin to narrow. That said, there are good cheap sleeping bags to be had, and Cheapism.com has compiled the best in this guide.
Pricey vs. Cheap Sleeping BagsThe upscale end of the market is where you'll find sleeping bags by Marmot, REI, Big Agnes, Sierra Designs, GoLite, North Face, L.L. Bean, and Mountain Hardwear. These companies produce highly rated sleeping bags for use in extreme cold weather by serious hikers and campers. Many are filled with goose down, which is lighter than man-made fibers, lasts longer, and provides the most warmth.
You won't find goose down in a cheap sleeping bag, however. All the bags we researched contain synthetic fill, which is bulky but stays warm. Synthetic fill holds up better in wet weather than down, which loses much of its insulating ability when wet and dries very slowly. If you're planning on sleeping in subzero temperatures or pitching a tent on a snowy mountainside, experts strongly advise that you don't skimp on a sleeping bag. But if Alpine climbs or expeditions to the Arctic aren't on the calendar, there's no need to spend hundreds of dollars. The best sleeping bags under $100 are suitable for indoor use and camping in less extreme conditions.
Rectangular vs. Mummy BagsSleeping bags come in two basic styles. Rectangular sleeping bags give you room to stretch out and change position easily while you sleep, and most can be fully unzipped and used as blankets. They tend to be lightly insulated, making them suitable only for three-season or summertime camping. Rectangular bags rated for extreme climates tend to be heavy and bulky, making them appropriate for tent camping but not backpacking.
Mummy bags are more form-fitting. They are cut close in the shoulders, hips, and feet for a shape that hugs the body. The tapered cut eliminates cold spots, keeping campers warm even in extreme conditions. These bags are usually designed for winter or three-season camping and often have synthetic fill that makes them very lightweight and portable. On the other hand, some campers say mummy bags can be too snug, making them feel overheated or claustrophobic.
Some manufacturers also offer semi-rectangular or barrel-shaped sleeping bags, which look like a cross between a rectangular bag and a mummy bag. These sleeping bags are good for three-season camping because they're relatively roomy yet warm and lightweight. Double sleeping bags for couples are also available.
Sleeping Bags for Women and KidsWomen who camp regularly may prefer a sleeping bag designed specifically to fit a woman's body. These bags are a little shorter and narrower than unisex sleeping bags and have extra insulation at the feet and chest for comfort.
Kids' sleeping bags often are little more than cheap bags with cartoon prints meant for sleepovers, not camping trips. A temperature-rated kids' sleeping bag can cost up to $100. Some have inner pockets or hooks for attaching a sleeping pad or pillow.
Sleeping PadsA good sleeping pad does more than provide a more comfortable night's rest. It can also help keep you warm by creating a barrier between your sleeping bag and the cold ground (or a rocky surface). The chief drawback: It's one more thing to pack. Sleeping pads come in two styles: inflatable and foam. Foam pads are more rigid, providing a firmer foundation, and some can do double-duty as a windbreak or seat. They typically fold or roll up for storage, some more compactly than others. Inflatable pads are essentially slim air mattresses. They can be deflated and stored very compactly, a major advantage over foam sleeping pads, but they must be manually inflated and can get cold at night. Inflatable sleeping pads are also prone to leaks and deflating overnight. Expect to pay about $50 for a good sleeping pad.
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Sleeping Bag Reviews: What We Considered
Sleeping bag reviews and comparative tests by professional hikers and climbers abound, but expert assessments of cheap sleeping bags are harder to come by. Hundreds of consumers have posted their opinions on retail and review sites, although their experiences are mixed because comfort is so subjective. They also comment a lot on portability -- how heavy the bag feels and how easy it is to roll up -- as well as durability. Few of the sleeping bag reviews we read were written by serious, all-weather campers; most seem to come from occasional users who venture into the wilds during spring, summer, or fall.
Temperature RatingSleeping bags are rated according to the minimum temperature at which they will keep you comfortable and warm. Pay attention to this number. Experts recommend that sleeping bags be rated for a minimum of 35 degrees Fahrenheit for summer use and 0 to 10 degrees for winter use. However, the manufacturer's temperature rating is only an estimate -- despite claims about independently certified ratings -- and your own sleep preferences must be factored in.
Experts say women usually "sleep colder" than men and recommend choosing a women's sleeping bag with a warmer (that is, lower) temperature rating. According to reviews, all our recommended sleeping bags are quite cozy and comfortable, and the temperature ratings seem accurate. That said, reviewers suggest springing for a pricier bag if you expect the temperature to dip below 20 degrees on a regular basis. Keep in mind that a sleeping pad can also help keep you toasty during the night by keeping your bag off the ground.