Finding a budget sleeping bag can seem impossible. There are so many shapes, sizes, weights and styles. If you’re new to camping or backpacking, it’s pretty easy to get overwhelmed. If you’re reading this, you’re probably not rich. Or you don’t care to spend hundreds of dollars on a casual sleeping bag for camping. But you want to know that you’re investing in a quality product. Whether you’re stuffing your gear in the back seat for a road trip or you’re carrying it on your back, your sleeping bag choice makes a difference.
I wanted to find a way to navigate the world of sleeping bags in an analytical way. If we turn off the ads on social media and start looking at the numbers, what do our sleeping bag choices look like? Is there a practical way to determine sleeping bag quality before making an investment?
By breaking your analysis down into a few categories, you can begin to navigate the right choice for you. To get started, ask yourself where you think you’ll be using your sleeping bag. What will the temperatures be like? Are you super tall? Do you like to cowboy camp (on the ground under the stars)? Or will you be within the walls of a nylon tent? Once you answer these questions, take a look at the following information to determine what system will work best for you.
Choosing the Right Budget Sleeping Bag
While shopping for your sleeping bag, you’re looking at three main factors; Is it affordable? Is it heavy? And is it warm? Most hikers say that you have to choose two of the three qualities, unless you’re rich. For example, you might be able to find an affordable bag, but it’ll be a little heavier than some of the fancy bags. Or perhaps it’ll be lightweight and cheap, but it won’t be as warm as you’d hoped. In the following paragraphs, I’ll help you get a feel for the best temperature ratings for your situation. And we’ll be able to customize your choice to your desired activity.
Are You Camping or Backpacking?
Backpackers need to be able to carry their sleeping bag and all the rest of their gear on their back, which means your sleeping bag weight is pretty important. If weight and packability is your priority, the cost might be a bit higher.
Camping allows flexibility in your sleeping bag choice since it doesn’t have to be particularly lightweight or compressible. If you’re just looking to casually camp, there’s more liberty involved. Weight and packability aren’t as much of an issue, which makes navigating the never-ending lists of sleeping bags easier. You can probably opt for a cost-effective sleeping bag, knowing that your sleeping bag will be a bit bulky.
• If you plan to backpack AND camp, opt for the more efficient sleeping bag. It’s tougher to transition from camping to backpacking than visa versa.
Temperature Technical Mumbo Jumbo
While attempting to understand sleeping bag ratings, it might be helpful to take a look at the EN 13537 Standards. EN stands for “European Norm”, alluding to the European standard that was established to create consistency among sleeping bag temperature ratings. Long ago, temperatures were established by the sleeping bag manufacturers. The end result was that you could buy two different 20 degree sleeping bags, and they could perform in entirely different ways. The EN 13537 was established in response to this trend.
Today, temperatures are measured by measuring heat retention in five places on your sleeping bag. Heat retention can be influenced by material thickness and sleeping bag accessories (zippers). By creating standardized testing, sleeping bags are equipped with a more consistent temperature rating.
This system essentially helps us break down the temperature into three categories:
• Comfort: The comfort rating is really geared toward women. Women tend to sleep a little bit colder than men. This number will tell you how cold it can get without compromising your comfort. It’s typically about 5 degrees warmer than the lower limit.
• Lower Limit: The lower limit is intended for men. Like with the upper limit, this number gives you a rule of thumb while determining if you’ll be comfortable in certain temperatures.
• Extreme Limit: The extreme limit is essentially a survival rating. You’ll survive this temperature. But you won’t be comfortable.
It’s important to note that this system offers general guidelines to temperature ratings. But there are often exceptions to the rules, or occasionally the sleeping bags you choose aren’t as warm as they say they are. When in doubt, opt for the warmer version.
This video provides a detailed description on sleeping bag temperatures.
Note: Not all sleeping bags undergo EN 13537 testing.
Sleeping Bag Temperature Rating
Most backpackers and campers are comfortable during the standard camping season with a 20-32 degree sleeping bag. If you’re looking to do some early or late season backpacking, it might be better to opt for a warmer sleeping bag. But 20-32 degrees is a pretty standard rating for 3-season camping. Additionally, knowing your preference will come in handy here. If you’re new to backpacking, borrow a friend’s sleeping bag for a night or two to get acquainted with temperature ratings.
As a 5’7, 140 lb female, I personal sleep pretty cold. And I found out the hard way. I carried a 28-degree synthetic sleeping bag while hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2015. While walking through the Great Smoky National Park in early April, we hit temperatures that hovered just below freezing. Even with an emergency blanket, a friend’s extra jacket and my sleeping bag, I shivered through the night. I survived but wasn’t comfortable. Today, I often carry a sleeping bag or quilt that’s rated from 0-15 degrees. But I also push my comfort zone by camping early in the Spring and late in the Fall.
Temperature Quick Tips
• Don’t be afraid to move the down or synthetic material around your baffles to eliminate cold spots. Shifting the materials around can help you maximize sleeping bag warmth.
• Most 3-season tents trap about 10 degrees of heat inside them. So, if you’re worried about getting chilly, make sure to keep your rainfly on to provide a big of added insulation.
Down Versus Synthetic
As someone who predominantly backpacks, I typically choose a down sleeping bag and stuff it in a trash compactor bag so it’ll be really hard to get wet. But there are some cases in which a synthetic filling might be a better fit than down. If I’m backpacking in a particularly wet area, or exploring while there’s still quite a bit of snow, a synthetic option might offer some safety benefits. If you’re predominantly looking to camp, you can get away with any of these options.
- Synthetic sleeping bags don’t compress as well as down sleeping bags, but they’ll keep you warm if your bag gets wet. And they’re typically more affordable.
- Down sleeping bags generally weigh less and compress much better than their synthetic sisters. But they won’t keep you warm if they get wet.
- Water-resistant down offers an additional defense against a little bit of condensation. The coating will add a few ounces to your sleeping bag.
- Hybrids: Today, there’s actually a third option. Companies like Outdoor Vitals are exploring new territory by combining down and synthetic materials. This means that it has the benefits of a synthetic bag (it’ll keep you insulated while wet). And it won’t be quite as difficult to compress. But the weight should be a bit less than your traditional synthetic sleeping bag.
Sleeping Bag Shape
The more contoured a sleeping bag is, the easier it is to trap heat inside of it. This essentially means that mummy bags tend to be warmer than your standard rectangular sleeping bags. And quilts can be even more efficient since you’re able to mold them to your shape.
While camping in the back country, it’s most common to find mummy sleeping bags because they tend to offer additional warmth. Quilts are somewhat new to the gear world, making them less common but very favorable in the world of backpacking because they’re both warm and lightweight.
Budget Sleeping Bag Weight
If you intend to do any amount of overnight backpacking, I’d recommend prioritizing sleeping bag weight. But the lighter your sleeping bag, the pricier it’ll be. I look at this part of my evaluation as the investment piece. It’s pretty easy to cut costs on gear like backpacks and sleeping pads. But the last piece of gear that I want to compromise is my sleeping bag, because your choice can save your life.
• One way to cut a few ounces would be to ditch your stuff sack. Compression sacks tend to weigh as much as half a pound. Once you get your system dialed in, you can just stuff your sleeping bag at the bottom of your backpack.
Budget Sleeping Bag Price
If you’re especially drawn to camping, you can skimp on the price of your sleeping bag. The risks are lower, and packability is less of an issue. This essentially means that you’ll be able to find a decent, affordable sleeping bag. It’ll just weigh more than average and not compress very well (like the Coleman sleeping bag that you stole from your Dad while you were getting ready to go to summer camp).
If you’re a casual backpacker, you probably don’t need to count ounces. But a lighter option will benefit your body. If you opt to choose a big, bulky sleeping bag, it’s likely that the rest of your load will be pretty uncomfortable to bear.
And if you’re a long-distance backpacker, or you’re looking to hike more than 100 miles, it’s best to opt for a lightweight option over a cheap one. Some sleeping bags cost as much as $500 in the backpacking world. While it’s not necessary to get that extravagant, this is an item that I’d be willing to spend a bit more money on. But it’s possible to keep the cost around $200 or less as well.
• Quick Tip: As a general rule of thumb, the lower the cost of your sleeping bag, the less likely it is to be as warm as it says it is.
Do I Need a Sleeping Bag Liner?
While I hiked the Appalachian Trail with a sleeping bag liner, I don’t think it’s totally essential. Depending on the liner you choose, you can add anywhere from 10 to 30 degrees to your temperature rating. Plus, a liner is a lot easier to clean than your sleeping bag. So, using one means that it’ll take longer for your bag to smell funky. However, if you use your bag regularly, chances are it’ll end up smelling with or without a liner. I’d recommend opting for a liner if you think there will be a large variance in temperature when you’re hiking. Or if you end up investing in a sleeping bag that you wish was just a tad bit warmer, maybe add a liner to your setup. But otherwise, you don’t need it.
Sleeping bag liners vary in type and cost. But they can offer a good option for long-trail hikers who don’t want to swap out any gear when the temperatures start to drop.
Look at your sleep system, not just your sleeping bag.
It took me a long time to figure out that your sleeping bag is important, but so is your sleeping pad. If you choose a sleeping pad with a warmer rating, then you can probably get away with a sleeping bag with a warmer rating.
After sleeping on the Thermarest Z Lite Sol for nearly 3,000 miles, I found myself sleeping on frozen ground in the San Juans. While my sleeping bag was well-equipped to handle temperatures as low as zero degrees, I shivered all night. This experience helped me understand just how much heat your sleeping pad can (or cannot in this case) trap beneath you. If you carefully choose your sleeping pad in conjunction with a reliable sleeping bag, you shouldn’t have any problems.
In order to help you gage sleeping pad warmth, take a look at the R value. R values range from 0-5.5. Winter backpackers use sleeping pads that air on the high side (4 or 5), while summer campers can get away with a 2 or possibly even less. If you opt for a sleeping pad that’s somewhere in the middle, there’s wiggle room in your sleeping bag choice. While the original R Value of the Thermarest Z Lite Sol was 2.6, after putting thousands of miles on it, the efficiency was compromised, leaving me shivering in Colorado.
Sleeping Bag Storage
While backpacking or camping, there are a number of ways you can store your sleeping bag. Some people use a compression sack, allowing you to squish it down to a small size. Others use a conventional stuff sack. In any case, it’s usually least efficient to roll your sleeping bag. Rolling your bag usually makes for a bulky, hard to compress mess.
While backpacking, I typically stuff my sleeping bag at the bottom of my bag (without a sack) to keep it lofty and to fill empty space in my backpack. I wouldn’t recommend this method if you’re worried about fitting everything into your backpack. But I typically have extra space, and filling it makes my backpack fit a bit better. And I’d like to think that minimizing sleeping bag compression will keep it lofty for longer.
Storage Quick Tip:
• When you make it home, make sure your sleeping bag is dry before you tuck it away. Store it in an uncompressed fashion – hang it up in a closet or store it in a trash bag. This will help with the longevity of your sleeping bag.
Final Thoughts About Budget Sleeping Bags
Backpacking and camping gear is a long-term investment. While you don’t have to spend tons of money to find a quality product, sleeping bags are a pretty important part of your gear setup. For me, this is the item that I’m unwilling to compromise to save a few bucks. But I spend a lot of time in the back country. If you’re looking for a casual sleeping bag, you might be able to cut costs. My best advice is to do your research. Rent a few different bags or borrow a friend’s sleeping bag to figure out what type of system you’re most comfortable with.
Ultimately, everyone is different, which means that sleeping bag choice will vary. Factors like where you’re going, how cold you sleep, and how much money you have to spend will help you narrow your choices down. Only you can figure out which option is right for you.
It took me many years, and several thousands of miles to become comfortable with my choices. And I’m still open to the possibility that there might be a better product for me. Outdoor gear is constantly changing and making headway in efficiency. But hopefully my tips will help make your choice a bit easier.