How to choose sleeping bag for trekking or hiking

It’s easy to become obsessive when trying to choose the “right” sleeping bags. It is a balance between

having enough insulation to keep you warm at night but not too heavy to carry around. So taking the time to choose sleeping bag for trekking or hiking for you is time well spent.

So what is a trekking or hiking sleeping bag?

A trekking or hiking sleeping bag is generally

  • Lighter than a camping sleeping bag
  • Pack down smaller than a camping sleeping bag
  • Higher cost because of the requirement to provide warmth, reduced size and weight
how to choose a trekking or hiking sleeping bag
Choosing the “right” sleeping bag is a balance between weight, size and keeping you warm at night

So what is an Alpine sleeping bag?

Choosing an alpine sleeping bag is not dissimilar to choosing a sleeping bag for trekking. Needs to be light weight, provide added focus on warmth and water resistance.

In order to provide the lightest bag whilst providing additional warm Alpine bags do come at a higher price. Their shell materials will also often feature waterproof/breathable membranes and water repellent coatings to deal with increased moisture levels.

alpine sleeping bag
For comfort and health, important to take the time to choose a sleeping bag which is right for you

Kinds of insulation

A sleeping bag traps air and keeps it from circulating. This “dead air” around your body is warmed by the heat created by your body’s metabolism. Remembering the bag forms a barrier between this air and the colder ground or outside air. Smaller spaces warm up faster and retain heat more efficiently.

DownFill

When choosing a sleeping bag for trekking or hiking there are two different types of fill, Synthetic and Down Fill. Down Fill are feathers from geese and ducks.

Downfill insulation is more expensive than Synthetic, its lighter and more compressible. It is also more durable and provide greater warmth. Typically the high level of Downfill in a bag the more expensive the bag (visa versa).

A note about ethical down: Most brands take steps to monitor the treatment of ducks and geese that provide down. You can identify a bag from one of those manufacturers when you see it labeled as either RDS (Responsible Down Standard) or TDS (global Traceable Down Standard). To learn about what goes into those standards, read Animal Welfare and Outdoor Gear.

enjoy the outdoors by choosing the best sleeping bag for you
Enjoy the outdoors by choosing the best sleeping bag for you

Synthetic

Synthetic insulation offers solid performance at an affordable price. Unlike down, it continues to insulate when wet, so it’s the bag of choice for damp climates. 

Downfill versus Synthetic

Insulation Type Key Benefit
Down Lightweight
Easy to compress
Excels in cold, dry conditions
Durable
Synthetic Quick-drying
Insulates when wet
Non-allergenic
Affordable
choosing a sleeping bag
Photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash

Temperature Rating

Because waking up shivering is a terrible experience, it is best to have a sleeping bag which will keep you warm. If you have a reasonable idea of what temperature you will be sleeping in, you can pick a bag based temperature ratings.

How are they rated?

In the past manufacturers test their own sleeping bags using a variety of methods. The sleeping bag industry solved this by agreeing to industry standards, however not all manufacturers use or rate their bags.

The EN (European Norm), was the original standard adopted by the sleeping bag industry. Today, a new entity, the ISO (International Standards Organization), oversees bag testing, but the method is almost identical to the EN bag test. (Because ISO testing is so similar to EN testing, you can compare your old EN-rated bag to a newer bag that sports an ISO temperature rating when you shop.)

Image supplied by Sea to Summit

The standard measures 3 temperature ratings:

Comfort – the temperature at which a standard woman can expect to sleep comfortably, without feeling cold and in a relaxed position.

Lower Limit – the temperature at which a standard man inside the bag sleeping in a curled position is starting to feel cold but not shivering, this is the limit of performance for the sleeping bag.

Extreme – at this temperature anyone can expect to feel particularly cold and there is a risk of hypothermia. You should only use the sleeping bag in this range when it’s an emergency.

If you want to read more about the EN 13537 rating standards and validity, there is a paper from the Outdoor Industry which discusses in detail.

choosing a hiking or trekking sleeping bag
Time taken to choose a sleeping bag for trekking or hiking is time well spent

Final Thoughts

There are number of factors to consider when choosing a sleeping bag for trekking or hiking. Enough to make your head spin. However, taking the time to choose the right sleeping bag for you is time well worth spent.

My own experience I have found it difficult to find the perfect sleeping bag. Instead made some compromises that include going for a warmer sleeping bag and carrying a bag which is 20 grams heavier. For the simple reason I like to be warm and don’t like waking up freezing at 2am in the morning.

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