How to Choose Sleeping Bags for Backpacking

A backpacking sleeping bag is arguably the most important piece of gear you can own. Invest in a good one and it will last for a decade or more.   Photo by Dan Slattery.

A backpacking sleeping bag is arguably the most important piece of gear you can own. Invest in a good one and it will last for a decade or more. Photo by Dan Slattery.

How to Choose a Sleeping Bag For Backpacking

When considering a bag, finding one that is sized to fit you and matches your warmth needs are the most important considerations. In Our Best Sleeping Bags guide, we describe criteria that we looked for when choosing the best sleeping bags. Whichever sleeping bag model you choose, you should consider these criteria to a long-lasting bag that will serve you for years.

Sleeping Bag Length

Unless you’re exactly 5’6” or 6’0” or 6’6”, picking the proper length sleeping bag requires most users to make a decision based on their priorities.

A bag listed as 6’0” will accommodate a user up to 6’0”. But what if you’re 6’1”? Can you squeeze into the 6’0” bag? Maybe, but your feet may bottom out in the bag, compressing the down there and thereby losing some warmth capacity. On the other hand, if you size up to the 6’6” bag, you’ve got 5” of dead space at your feet that you need to warm up, which is also inefficient (plus, it’s extra weight to carry and a bigger price tag for a bigger bag).

Sizing a bag is a balancing act.  Try to pick the bag closest to your height without going under. If you have too much room, you can always stuff some extra clothing into the bottom of your bag to take up the extra space on the nights where you find you’re cold.


Choose a sleeping bag that is the closest length and width to your body dimensions.   Photo by Dan Slattery.

Choose a sleeping bag that is the closest length and width to your body dimensions. Photo by Dan Slattery.

Width

There is significant variation in shoulder, hip and feet girth among sleeping bags. Like length, it’s important to find a bag that fits you well. You definitely don’t want the bag too tight. Not only will it feel uncomfortable, but if your body is pushing the dimensions of the bag, the down won’t be able to fully loft and you’ll lose much of its insulation potential, leaving you cold.


If you order online, spend a night in your bag at home. We recommend trying sleeping bags at home before taking them outdoors. Keep the tags on and you’ll still be able to return it if it doesn’t work out. We suggest ordering online because many of the sleeping bag models we recommend aren’t available in conventional outdoor stores to “try on” before purchase. But if possible, get to a store and try out other companies’ sleeping bags to get a comparative sense of what length, shoulder and hip girth fits you best.

Don’t rely only on the temperature rating listed by the manufacturer on sleeping bags! You can get a better idea of how warm your bag will be by looking at down fill weight or the height of the fill of your bag.   Photo by Dan Slattery.

Don’t rely only on the temperature rating listed by the manufacturer on sleeping bags! You can get a better idea of how warm your bag will be by looking at down fill weight or the height of the fill of your bag. Photo by Dan Slattery.

Warmth

Are you a warm sleeper or a cold sleeper? Typically, men tend to sleep warmer than women, but there is wide person-to-person variation. If you know you’re a warmer sleeper, you might be able to get away with a higher temperature rated bag than someone who sleeps colder. Also look for features such as extra down in the footbox if you are prone to cold feet.

Other factors affect your warmth when sleeping, such as water and food intake. Stay well hydrated and eat a calorie dense meal before bed and you’ll stay warmer sleeping. We also recommend wearing a hat and socks on chillier nights. Also, be sure to use a good insulating sleeping pad (see our Best Sleeping Pads guide for recommendations), or you’ll be cold no matter what bag you choose.

Want to learn more about how sleeping bag temperature ratings are determined? See our section on How are Sleeping Bag Temperature Ratings Measured?.

Down bags should be dried out daily, as seen in this photo taken by    Off Trail On Track    guide Duncan Cheung in Big Sur, California. To keep your bag warm for many years, store it uncompressed when at home.   Photo courtesy Duncan Cheung.

Down bags should be dried out daily, as seen in this photo taken by Off Trail On Track guide Duncan Cheung in Big Sur, California. To keep your bag warm for many years, store it uncompressed when at home. Photo courtesy Duncan Cheung.

Storage

One of the great things about all the sleeping bags we considered in our Best Backpacking Sleeping Bags story is their compressibility and how small they pack down in your backpack. However, when you’re not using the bag, it’s important to store it uncompressed for the down to retain its ability to loft. Most manufacturers include a large cotton storage sack to keep the bag in when not in use. This is a good storage option.

If you have the space, store the bag hanging in a closet, which allows full loft. However you choose to store your bag, be sure to keep it safely out of reach of pets - kitty claws are very attracted to down bags!

Read our Full Guide on Best Backpacking Sleeping Bags for details on which sleeping bags we recommend and why.