Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Sleeping Bags for Backpacking

Some friends and I have been talking about going on a multi-day backpacking trip (first one will likely be an "easy" trip, where we'll almost be able to drive up to the camp site, just to test everything out, etc). Most of us don't have the proper equipment (anymore) and things have changed a lot since the last time (in my boy scout days, oh-so-long ago) I've been out on a multi-day camping trip (never really done the backpacking thing before), so I've been doing a bit of research.

First and foremost, I knew I'd need a sleeping bag so the first step was deciding what kind of temperature rating I'd need my bag to meet. Did a bit of reading and discovered that starting this year, most sleeping bag makers in the US have switched over to the European standard for rating sleeping bags. This was comforting news (hah, bad joke) in that comparing sleeping bag temperature ratings would be a lot more like comparing apples to apples (previously each manufacturer had their own method of measuring this, so comparing bags from different makers was impossible to do).

Since my friends and I will likely be sticking to the North East, and probably in the late-spring to early-fall time frame, I estimated that I wouldn't want a bag rated for anything warmer than 30 degrees. Even in mid-summer, the North East can get down to the low 50's and so a 40-degree bag would barely be warm enough. Note that the temperature rating on a sleeping bag is often the "survivability" rating as opposed to the "comfort" rating, and I prefer to be comfortable! Since I'm prepping for the possibility of backpacking trips in the spring and fall as well, I figured a 20-degree bag would be a safer bet.

Next, I had to decide on the type of filling so I read up on the difference between synthetic and down filling. To sum up, here's what I learned:

  • Down is often lighter, especially the higher the fill rating (e.g. you might see things like 650-fill or 800-fill - the higher the fill rating, the less down you need to occupy the same space, resulting in a lighter weight bag).
  • For down-filled sleeping bags, duck vs goose doesn't really matter, what matters is the fill rating.
  • For damp environments, synthetic is often a better choice because synthetic-filled sleeping bags only lose 15% of their effective warmth when wet, while down-filled would lose 100%.

I wanted to keep my expenses below $200 if I could, so with that in mind I did some searching to find some sleeping bags in that price range with good reviews and I came up with the following bags:

Both bags were very highly rated in various magazines and online reviews that I had seen and both were around $160 for the Regular size (up to 6') and $170 for Long (fitting up to 6'6", which is what I needed). There are some cheaper bags, but most of them aren't as lightweight (under 3 lbs!) as either of these 2 bags and/or they didn't get as good a review (or didn't have any review that I could find). If you want cheap, you could go to Walmart and find sleeping bags for as cheap as $10, but I'm not sure I personally trust that any of those bags will be a good long-term investment. Maybe I've just been bitten once too many times by the lure of the uber-cheap.

In the end, I decided to go with the Kelty Light Year as it was a little lighter (4 oz) and packed a little smaller. While the dampness drawback did/does concern me a little, there are easy ways around that. Wrapping your sleeping bag in a plastic (or otherwise waterproof) bag while it is packed away in your backpack and not pulling it out until it is inside the tent should suffice in preventing it from getting wet, even if you have to pitch your tent in the rain.

6 comments:

Jared said...

Being a cycle-tourer, I've read a lot about sleeping bags, particularly light ones. Down bags aren't too large of a problem as long as you don't have too much moisture, although the moisture from one's sweat can build up over time and cause the down to get wet. I would suggest getting a silk bag liner. It feels much better than the weird fabric most bags are made out of, protects you from that fabric, and protects the fabric from you (and your sweat). Another benefit is an added bit of insulation. The following thread on a bike touring website might be of interest since it discusses this very issue:

crazyguyonabike.com Down sleeping bag discussion

Also, you might want to check out some of the product reviews since backpackers and bike tourers tend to have the same requirements vis-a-vis weight and utility.

Jeffrey Stedfast said...

Excellent suggestion, Jared!

I'm also a cyclist and wanted to possibly use my sleeping bag for cycle-touring as well, so I'm very thankful for your comment!

I'll have to check out your link.

Jeff Walden said...

I have known people to use down in wet weather, even to the point of pulling apart a tight ball of down clump by clump after a thorough soaking by a mini-river running underneath a tent. I much prefer to have the ability to crawl into a sleeping bag cold and wet, if need be, so I've never used down (not to mention that, so far, I've received all the ones I've used as gifts). I expect the time isn't far off when they'll have a synthetic that outperforms down (although when, I wouldn't place bets).

I suspect with a little care you could get away without the down bag given a sufficiently good silnylon pack cover. They run around $45ish, and the one I use does an excellent job of keeping out moisture (much better than the previous, non-silnylon, pack cover I'd used). You presumably want one anyway to keep clothes and such dry, so skipping the garbage bag is a win on weight.

Much agree on the liner bit -- especially since, if it's particularly warm (and mid-summer in New England very easily can be that), the liner can function as a lightweight bag in its own right.

xanadont said...

Make sure you pick up a sleeping pad as well. I'm glad you did not go with a synthetic; the performance doesn't compare in almost every category - pack size, weight, loft, and sometimes even cost.

Jeffrey Stedfast said...

Yea, I got a Therm-A-Rest Trail Lite (anything better was too expensive for me).

Anonymous said...

I have a North Face Cat's Meow that I bought 7 or 8 years ago. It still works really well for me. I bought the women's version which is shorter slightly wider (which works well as I like to sleep with one knee up). I got a really good deal on it because I bought the previous year's model.

I bought synthetic because I was backpacking a lot with my dog. When you sleep in a tent with a dog you get a lot of condensation!

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