Table of Contents
- Making The Most Of Your Sleeping Bag
- What’s The Best Serious Use Budget Sleeping Bag(s)?
- What’s The Best Sleeping Bag In “The Middle Of The Road Price”?
- Is There A Difference Between Walmart Super-Center Store Bags And Those From REI, Cabela’s And Other Big Names?
- Do Sleeping Bag Liners Really Work?
- What’s The Best Sleeping Bag Liner?
- Should I Have A Sleeping Bag Bivy?
- What Is The #1 All Around Best Sleeping Bag On The Market Today?
- Considering All The Options
- How To Pack Your Sleeping Bag
I’ve used everything from low quality sleep sacks to high end professional expedition grade bags. I’ve frozen in the wrong bag at a mere 30F and other times roasted in the right sleeping bag at -10F. It didn’t take me long however, to realize that not all sleeping bags are equal, even if they’re priced the same. Not only are sleeping bags different in quality and purpose, but how one’s “bed” is set up can make all the difference for that sleep sack to work correctly.
How does one judge what kind of sleeping bag they need? How do you know what you’re buying is going to stand up to old Mr. Winter? Do you just play guess and check? I think not. Most of us have a budget, and we can only spend what we can spend. So when I buy that sleeping bag, I need to know it’s going to work well. We’re going to take a look at how sleeping bags work, what makes a person cold in the middle of the night, and how to remedy that. We’re also going to review various sleeping bags that are on the market and show you what we believe to be the #1 sleeping bag available to consumers in each category and why. The hope is that by the time you’re done reading this article, regardless of what sleeping bag you choose, you’ll know how to maximize its performance so that you get the best night’s rest possible.
In a hurry? Here’s the best cold weather camping/survival sleeping bag gear you’ll need to stay warm in winter/snow summarized…
- The Top 3 Best Rated Sleeping Bags For Cold Weather And Snow Camping/Survival
- The Best Wind Protection To Make Any Sleeping Bag Perform Better
- Snugpak All Weather Shelter – the easiest lightweight packable gear item to protect you from the wind
- The Best Way To Waterproof Yourself And Your Sleeping Bag From Rain And Moisture To Stay Dry And Warm
- Sleeping Bag Bivy – the best moisture protection and added waterproof layer of extra insulation for sleeping below zero overnight in the snow/to keep the rain from soaking your insulation
- Polarmax Wicking Layer – bivys can cause condensation inside your bag overnight. Wear this to keep condensation and moisture out by having a moisture wicking base layer on your skin
- The #1 Way To Stay Warm No Matter Which Cold Weather Sleeping Bag You Buy For Snow/Winter Camping & Survival Situations
- Therm-A-rest – you must insulate yourself and your sleeping bag from the frozen ground or snow you make camp on to sleep for the night. An inflatable or insulated therma-rest sleeping mat will create a separation layer to make even the cheapest sleeping bags perform much better.
- Sea To Summit Reactor Extreme – add 25F of warmth to even the most low cost budget sleeping bags with a thermolite insulation sleeping bag liner
Making The Most Of Your Sleeping Bag
As we work our way into reviewing the best sleeping bags on the market, let’s talk a little bit about how to stay warm when sleeping outdoors. Believe it or not, staying warm in your sleeping bag isn’t just a product of how well the product is rated. Sure, a quality sleeping bag can really mean the difference between a comfortable stay and a survival stay, but what if I told you, a person can really maximize the performance of their bag by understanding the basics of staying warm in cold weather?
There are four main enemies of those who like to sleep comfortably in the outdoors: Wind, moisture, lack of insulation and lack of fuel. Together, those forces combine to make it seem a lot colder outside than it really is. In fact, if the temperature lows drop down to the mid-teens and you experience an unprotected 5 MPH wind, it might as well be 5 degrees out that night! At extreme temperatures, a matter of 10 degrees can mean a world of difference in the comfort department.
In the summer time, a nice 10 MPH breeze can really make a warm day enjoyable, but in the winter, that same wind can kill if the temperature is low enough. The main goal of winter camping is to be one with nature, and live outdoors, but respect has to be paid to the wind if you want to stay warm. The wind steals warmth from both insulation and your body through a process called convection. But there are a few things that can be done to effectively counter the wind.
How you site your shelter is the first concern. It makes no sense to put up a lean to if it doesn’t protect you from the prevailing winds. A lean-to that closes off the west or north-west direction of your sleeping location generally does well to keep you much warmer at night. Due to terrain and changing wind directions, you may have to set up your lean-to or wind-break up in a different direction.
It’s very important when winter camping however to dig down and set your bed up below the snow line. Whether you’re in a tent or sleeping under a lean-to, you have to get down to ground level if at all possible. If there’s two feet of snow on the ground, it only makes sense to get yourself lower to the earth, out of the straight wind. That way you’re better protected, even if the wind is constantly changing directions.
(Pictured below is the Snugpak All-Weather Shelter configured as a lean-to)
Next is the actual wind break itself. Whether you use a hardware store tarp, or an expensive rainfly, you need to break the wind. No, I did not say “break wind”. If you can effectively set up a lean-to, you force the wind to ride up the tarp like a ramp, letting the wind bypass you and your sleeping bag without losing precious heat through convection. Some people like setting up in tents, but I prefer keeping an open side where I can build a fire and reflecting wall if I so choose.
(Pictured below is a primitive heat reflecting wall)
Another way you can counter the wind is to get a “bivy” for your sleeping bag. A bivy is useful against rain, snow and wind because they are generally water resistant. Basically it’s a thin, Gore-Tex type zip up housing for your sleeping bag – a rain jacket for your bag, if you will . . . It’s important to note that a bivy is great for keeping moisture out, but it’s also great for keeping moisture in, which is not always a good thing as we’ll talk about below. There are several brands of sleeping bag bivvies’ on the market from companies like REI, Wiggys, Outdoor Research and Slumberjack. They all work on the principle of repelling water and wind to increase the insulating performance of the bag you’re in.
In wet weather above 20F, or where some sort of lean-to shelter or tent is not available, a bivy is a must. While a bivy will keep condensation in the bag, it’s more important to keep wind and wet weather out. If you’re really on a budget you can find a Surplus US Government Gore-Tex bivy on eBay for a great deal.
(Pictured below is a Gore-Tex Sleeping Bag Bivy)
In the same way wind steals heat from our bodies, so does moisture. It’s like being between a rock and a hard place though. On one hand your body produces sweat and condensation when breathing, and there’s almost always precipitation in the air or on the ground. Finding way to keep dry is the key to staying warm.
While a bivy is great for keeping excess moisture out of your bag, it keeps condensation inside if you don’t regularly separate it and air it out.
Another way to fight moisture, giving your sleeping bag an edge, is to wear dry synthetic base layer for wicking away perspiration. If you only have two sets of clothes and one set gets damp, save and wear the dry set when you sleep.
If at all possible, I turn my bivy and sleeping bag inside out every day I’m in the field. While you can’t always see it, there’s moisture in your bag and airing it out helps for the next night’s comfort.
One of the biggest factors in making you cold in your sleeping bag, aside from the cold air is the frozen ground. It acts like a vacuum working all night long to rob your sleeping bag of all the heat your body supplied to warm it up.
If you’re planning on sleeping outdoors, you need a sleeping mat. Some are constructed of closed cell foam, some are self-inflating mats. Therma-rest, Multi-mat, REI and Cabela’s are some of the more common brands available. They all work on the premise of trapping air to work as an insulating layer between the ground, your sleeping bag and you. The good thing about the self-inflating models is that they fold down pretty compact for to fit in your backpack. I use a compact self-inflating Therma-rest model which does very well even into sub-zero weather.
Another effective insulation measure against the cold air is thin or hollow fiber fill that is in the sleeping bag you are about to purchase. The first hollow fiber filled sack was Cabela’s 3D sleeping bag. It worked really well too! I was somewhat comfortable at -30F. The idea behind very thin and plentiful fibers is that they create many air pockets that add layer upon layer of “dead airspace”. Each layer of “dead airspace” adds to the overall temperature rating given the quality of the fiber fill in the sleeping bag.
*Keeping the Bag Clean: It’s really important to keep your sleeping bag clean. Dirt particles that get into a sleeping bag inhibit the insulating ability of the fill. While you don’t want to over launder your sleeping bag so that its insulation stays nice and lofty, dirt will mat and destroy sleeping bag insulation much more. For this reason, using a bivy bag to protect the outer side of your sleeping bag is smart. As well, using a sleeping bag liner helps keep clean the inner surface of the sleeping bag. As long as you keep your sleeping bag clean, the insulation should remain effective.
As long as you can put an effective insulating layer between you and the cold ground, and you choose a sleeping bag with a good quality fiber fill, you’ll probably achieve that temperature rating listed.
Your body is like a furnace that heats your internals, as well as the sleeping bag you’re in. When working right, your furnace heats the sleeping bag like an oven. Your body makes heat from supplied energy in the form of food. If you’re not feeding your internal furnace correctly, you will get cold no matter what sleeping bag you’re in. In extreme temperatures, I make sure to eat something with a good amount of protein, carbs and fat before I hit the sack. Assuming I ate proper meals during the day, that last snack right before bed helps to stick with me and keep my “furnace” going all night long.
Combining It All to Fight the Cold:
When it’s time to go to bed outdoors in winter, I’m concerned about staying out of the wind, staying dry, insulating myself and having a bit of food in my belly. Believe it or not, one can actually take a middle of the road sleeping bag and make it perform like a much more expensive sack, just by stopping the four enemies of staying warm. One of the best things about managing wind, moisture, insulation and the fuel you put into your body is that you can do some of these things at virtually no added cost to your gear expenditures. And I’m sure you know when you’re planning a weekend outdoors, and every little cost saving helps.
The last thing to think about when managing the four enemies of sleeping comfortable outdoors, is that during a weekend stay, it may mean the difference between being well rested and not, but in a survival situation could mean the difference between life and death. I like the think about it like this: the more I get out and have fun with friends and family by sleeping under the stars, enjoying winter and doing it right, the more expert I become in a survival situation.
So let’s get into the top rated sleeping bags on the market shall we…
What’s The Best Serious Use Budget Sleeping Bag(s)?
Snugpak has hit the mark with their Softie brand Elite series sleeping bags. Snugpak has several affordable, yet effective sleeping bags. The “Softie” series is the best serious use sleeping bag for someone on a tight budget. The Softie Elite 1 can be had for under $100, while the Softie Elite 5 can be had for under $200 on Amazon and various outdoor gear sites.
You might notice there’s not a great difference in cost between the Softie Elite 1, 3 or 5, but there are some differences in size, weight and temperature rating. So whether you’re a weekend warrior that has a bunch of other outdoor items to buy, or someone who values a great balance between performance and cost savings, you should check out the specifications on these bags, one of them might be for you.
Softie Elite 1 – You can see from the picture above the Softie Elite 1 is not too much bigger than a water canteen. This bag serves the outdoor enthusiast from late spring through early fall. It’s rated for use down to 43F to 35F at the extreme low. The Softie Elite 1 can be had for under $100.00 and is a true two season sleeping bag. Most areas of the U.S. (except for up in the mountains) are above 35F at night from late May through early September, if need be, you can use a sleeping bag liner and bivy to squeeze every last bit of warmth out of the Elite 1. The size and good construction make this sleeping bag the #1 sleeping bag under $100.00. At 2.5 lbs., you might forget that you have your sleeping bag with you. For the light backpacker, this sleeping bag is a must.
*With the proper liner you can add 14F to 25F to your sleeping bag’s temperature rating. Perceived comforts in various temperatures are subjective depending on how sensitive to cold you are, but you should check out Sea to Summit’s Thermolite Reactor series sleeping bag liners.
Softie Elite 3 –The Softie Elite 3 is our pick for the best serious use budget sleeping bag. At prices ranging from $117 to $140, you cannot go wrong with this relatively compact, lightweight sleeping bag. It has a temperature rating much lower than bags that cost more and are bigger in size. At 23F to 14F this sleeping bag alone will take you through early spring to late Fall. Weighing in at 3.8 lbs., it’s almost a pound and a half more than the Softie Elite 1, but it’s worth it given the broad seasonal use that it provides. If I was on a tight budget, but needed a serious 3, almost 4 season bag, this would be it. I’ve used the Softie Elite 3 with great success. If you use a sleeping bag liner like I do, adding a Sea to Summit Extreme Reactor can increase your rating by 25F and will push this sleeping bag comfortably into 4 season use in most regions.
Softie Elite 5 – The Softie Elite 5 doesn’t disappoint with its temperature rating of 5F to -4F. For such a low temperature rating you’d expect this to be a 6 or 7 lb. bag, but you’d be wrong, it’s a mere 5 lbs. Snugpak has designed these bags with lightweight performance materials to keep you from burning extra calories while packing this sleeping bag all over the wild. At under $200 (and sometimes much cheaper), the Softie Elite 5 is probably the most serious use, budget friendly bag we’ve found. It’s just a quality designed bag with excellent fill.
And while we’re at it, let’s talk about the construction. Snugpak uses its own Paratex outer and inner lining. It’s somewhat water resistant and breathable, which helps keep precipitation out and still lets perspiration and condensation escape. The seams and zippers are reinforced as well as the foot lining. The sleeping bag has hanging tabs for drying condensation. The Softie Elite series also has an expandable panel feature. Whether you’re a bigger person or a smaller person you can tailor the bag to your needs. This is a great feature!
The Snugpak Softie Elite series hits a couple “best of” categories. The Elite 1 wins the best budget sleeping bag under $100, while the Elite 3 and Elite 5 are two of the best serious use budget bags around. Whether you need a compact 2 season sleeping bag, or a dedicated 4 season bag, if you’re on a tight budget, this is the series for you.
(Pictured above is the Snugpak Softie Elite 3)
Does Size Matter For Heat Locking?
Just like having the right fighting shoe or boot, sleeping bags need to fit the user to be efficiently warm. If you have a sleeping bag that’s way too big, your body is trying to heat not only the immediate lining of the sleeping bag, but the dead air space as well. If you sleeping bag is too tight, not only may you be spilling out of it, but a tight sleeping bag doesn’t have the loft it needs to insulate properly. Most sleeping bag manufacturers will give the internal dimensions on their website so you can see what you’re getting before you buy it.
Are Sleeping Bag Temp Ratings Accurate?
One of the most frequent questions about sleeping bags on the internet is, “are sleeping bag temp ratings accurate?” That’s somewhat of complex question, and here’s why: It’s a yes and no answer at best. Some low end or knock off brand sleeping bags advertise a temperature rating of 20F, but the consumer finds out they do all of the techniques mentioned above to make their bag perform, only to find out that they’re freezing at 40F. In that hypothetical case the problem comes from inferior sleeping bag insulation fill.
In the other cases with reputable manufacturers, to achieve the sleeping bag rating, there is a caveat: you have to use an effective sleeping bag mat. Quality sleeping bag mats can be had for under $100. They can be rolled up and attached to the outside of a pack. If moisture is a concern, wrapping it in a thick garbage bag helps to keep it dry while hiking in the rain. As mentioned before, the ground is like a vacuum and has to be addressed to get ANY sleeping bag to perform to the advertised temperature rating.
*If you find yourself without your favorite Therm-a-rest sleeping mat, you can always build an expedient “bed” to lay your sleeping bag on for the night. Logs, covered with lots of pine boughs, or dry leaves all help to insulate against the ground’s vacuum effect. I also like to cover an improvised “bed” with a vapor barrier like a ground tarp to seal out residual moisture that may be in the natural material.
Another point to consider for folks concerned about the temperature rating of their sleeping bag, is not reading the full description of the manufactured product. For instance, I used to use a US Government Issue -30F, 3-piece sleeping bag, complete with Gortex bivy. While it’s a pretty decent sleeping bag if you can pick up a surplus set on ebay, the -30F rating was not where I found comfort. I could get comfortable sleep in the military sleep system down to about 0F. When I looked into the rating further, I found that the sleeping bag was only designed to provide the user with 4 hours of rest at -30F.
So I recommend doing all you can to fight wind, moisture, improve insulation and keep your body full of calories, but it’s also important to do a little research when considering a sleeping bag and find out what the manufacturer says. While most reputable manufacturers are trying to sell you a product, they should be upfront regarding design and maximizing their product performance. When I cannot find the information on a sleeping bag (or any product for that matter), I call in and talk to a live human being at the company. Sometimes I find useful information about the item, whether it be a sleeping bag or binoculars.
What’s The Best Sleeping Bag In “The Middle Of The Road Price”?
The Mountain Hardwear – HyperLamina Torch is the pick for the best moderately priced sleeping bag. This bright beauty can be yours for under $300 dollars. At just a hair over 2.5 lbs., it’s hard to believe this sleeping bag is rated for comfort from 16F to 3F on the low end. The insulation is made of synthetic fibers. Unlike down feathers, the synthetic fibers of the HyperLamina Torch won’t clump and lose its loft.
I wish more sleeping bags had this half-length zipper. Quite honestly it’s simple and less likely to get caught and snag on a piece of clothing upon entry or exit.
One of the features that make this sleeping bag so effective is that the insulation is “welded” to the lining instead of being stitched. The result is the lack of cold spots along stitching seams.
Combine the wind resistant material with its low temperature rating and light weight as well as the fact that you have an effective draft collar to block cold air from entering the bag, well . . . it’s no wonder that the this Mountain Hardware sleeping bag is the best moderately priced sleeping bag around at stores like REI.
Is There A Difference Between Walmart Super-Center Store Bags And Those From REI, Cabela’s And Other Big Names?
I’ve spent my fair share of time discussing outdoor products with many different people. Some folks are convinced that a sleeping bag under $50 is just as good as any. Other people won’t be happy unless they’ve spent upwards of $500.00 on their sleep system. So . . . is there in fact a significant difference between the super-center sleeping bags and the high end professional grade sleep systems? Let’s consider a few criteria that help make that determination:
Are you getting teddy bear stuffing in your sleeping bag, or are you getting intelligently designed hollow fiber material that insulates better than wool? Anyone can slap a cool sounding proprietary name on their company insulation, but does it wick water away? Does it retain some shred of insulating quality when it’s wet? For anyone who’s had an extended stay in the wilderness, sometimes you come out and EVERYTHING is wet and dirty. How well does the manufacturer test their product and are those results available for the public in video or downloadable report format?
Does the sleeping bag you’re evaluating return to its original loft after being compressed? Hopefully the manufacturer has tested this as well. The loft of the insulation goes back to the quality of product used. But as discussed earlier, the more loft (which equals layers of dead air space), the warmer the sleeping bag will be.
Stitching & Material
Does the sleeping bag you’re considering saving money on use the same quality stitching and rip resistant material that the higher end bags do? I’ve seen bags rip on 4 or 5 day wilderness excursions, and that’s not a good time!
When you consider all the angles – insulation quality, loft, material and construction, it’s apparent that “knock-off” and low end sleeping bags just cannot compete with more expensive, performance driven sleep systems. When I was younger, I used “cheap” sleeping bags for summer camping and non-serious use. When I go out to wild places though, I want a good sleeping bag, something like the Snugpak Softie Elite series or better if I can help it. Do I have to spend $500? No, but there’s many middle of the road options that will better serve your hard earned dollars than overseas knock-offs and poorly designed sleeping bags.
Do Sleeping Bag Liners Really Work?
A good sleeping bag liner can really be a game changer and take your sleeping bag performance to the next level. If you’re sleeping bag is teetering between a 3 and 4 season sleeping bag, it can definitely make the difference. Most sleeping bag liners had between 5F and 25F to the rating of your sleeping bag, depending on the make and model of the bag, the conditions and the user. Sea to Summit, REI, and Snugpak all have reputable sleeping bag liners. Here’s the sleeping bag liner I use and recommend.
So why not get a sleeping bag liner that adds 25F to your warmest winter bag and really get toasty? My grandfather used to say “a little does a little good, and a lot does a lot of good”. But that’s not the case when it comes to being warm in a sleeping bag though. There’s such a thing as being too warm, which causes one to sweat, and then to get cold. So while I love having my warm sleeping bag liner, I don’t use it unless it’s really necessary with air temperatures getting close to the lower end of my sleeping bag comfort range.
I highly recommend having a sleeping bag liner if for nothing else to keep your sleeping bag a little bit cleaner. The cleaner you keep your sleeping bag, the less you have to wash it. The less dirt and washing the sleeping bag is exposed to the more loft it will retain and warmth it will provide.
What’s The Best Sleeping Bag Liner?
The Sea to Summit Thermolite Reactor Extreme is without a doubt the best sleeping bag liner on the market. In extreme sub-zero temperatures, you’d be glad to have one. It’s constructed of hollow core fiber. Not only does it aid in warmth retention, but it wicks perspiration and condensation very well.
The Reactor Extreme compacts to the size of a fat soda can. I keep mine spread out in my sleeping bag and it goes right into the main compression sack when it’s time to move camp.
Sea to Summit also has several other models that don’t add as much to the overall temperature rating of your sleeping bag. Perhaps you want a liner that only adds 15F or maybe only 5F, well, they have more than a couple options to chose from.
Should I Have A Sleeping Bag Bivy?
There’s a recurring question I see on outdoor forums regarding whether or not to pack a bivy for your sleeping bag. Is it worth the trouble? In weather above 20F, sleeping in anything other than a completely sealed tent, I would make sure to have it.
The job of a bivy bag is to shield your sleeping bag from wind and outside moisture. While some bivy bags allow some moisture out, most do not let it out to the point that you will be without any condensation over a few days. That being the case, I’d still make a well-constructed bivy part of your pack list. If you’re under a lean-to or rainfly in the great outdoors and the rain & sleet gods decide to unload on you, it might make your sleep a bit more bearable at night.
What Is The #1 All Around Best Sleeping Bag On The Market Today?
The Wiggys Super Light with FRTSS Over-bag is my favorite bag yet (and I’ve had more than a few different brands). This is a 4 piece sleep system (which includes the pillow and stuff-sack). You get the sleeping bag which is rated down to 0F, the over-bag which adds 40F rating to the core bag. As well, the stuff-sack and pillow are great too! When everything’s included it weighs in at 4 lbs. For under $350.00 you can have your Wiggys with an FRTSS over-bag.
Comparable Wiggys Sleeping Bag Alternative If You Can’t Ship To Your City Or Need A Bag Fast From Amazon
Editor’s note – I haven’t personally used a Big Agnes sleeping bag, but I know a lot of people have trouble shipping to remote locations from mom and pop websites (myself included)… So I did a bit of research, and found some comparable alternatives that are sold in the big box stores and on Amazon so they’re easily accessible to everyone with two day shipping. The most prominent being Big Agnes.
What makes this bag so effective is the Lamilite insulation. It’s siliconized lamb’s wool. After being compressed, Lamilite comes back to its original loft like no other insulation I’ve used. It retains amazing insulating properties even when soaking wet. Take a look at this review:
Folks, these sleeping bags are no joke. If you go to remote places where becoming wet and cold is a real concern, you need to have one of these sleeping systems. I’ve run classes and had hunting trips where I’ve gotten in my Wiggys Super Light FRTSS when I was damp, can come out dry. The Lamilite insulation wicks water away from the skin and out to the surface of the bag very efficiently.
Wiggys bags are also made in the USA. It’s nice to have a product that supports American working folks, when so many other products are made overseas. Not only is Wiggys products made in the USA, but they are absolutely bomb-proof. The zippers, the outer and inner linings all have a feel of quality.
I’ve used this equipment at -15F with 25 mph winds and was comfortable during my stay. Granted I had my shelter sited correctly and used a great sleep pad, but I was comfortable in a very extreme environment none the less. As I mentioned above, I’ve gone into this bag damp and come out dry. I’ve carried it on my back for miles at a time. I don’t know of any sleeping bags under $400.00 that can do what this one can. In the high end camping gear class, this one is very affordable, and worth every penny.
Considering All The Options
I’ve slept in swamps, in the rain, snow, wind and nasty places. Every time I was uncomfortable and cold, it was because I was dirty, wet and facing the wind. Among many things, I’ve learned through those experiences to value a warm, clean, dry place to sleep.
No matter which bag you choose to go with, it’s important to consider where you’re going to actually be sleeping. If you’re going up to your county camp grounds to camp sometime between July and August (in a 400 square foot tent with heat options should it get chilly at night), you don’t need a $400.00 sleeping bag. On the other hand if you do sleep in places that could go into extreme weather conditions and you don’t have a luxurious tent, there are great options out there, even if you’re on a tight budget.
Hopefully the next time you’re camping or hunting you’ll be able to use your bush-craft and camp knowledge to set up a protected spot for the new #1 sleep system on your list. If you’ve never experienced sleeping under the stars, I highly recommend it. With the right sleeping sack, and a good shelter set up, you’ll love sleeping outside the tent.
Here’s wishing you warm and comfortable outdoor slumbers.