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.

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