How to Choose the Right Sleeping Bag for Winter Camping


November 30, 2021


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Women in a sleeping bag

You dream of sleeping under the stars and admiring the northern lights, but you don’t have all the equipment you need for winter camping? Here’s a must for any camping trip when the temperature is low: a good winter sleeping bag with sufficient warmth, insulation and coverage to ensure you can recover from a long day’s hiking and get a good night’s sleep without losing body heat. Discover our tips for choosing the right sleeping bag to protect you from the cold. Thinking of going camping in winter? Check out our Winter Camping Guide for our tips on buying a winter camping tent, sleeping pad and more.


n this article, you will learn how to choose the right sleeping bag for winter camping:

  1. How to choose the right sleeping bag for the weather?
  2. What's the best material for a winter sleeping bag: down or synthetic fibres?
  3. Winter sleeping bags: mummy or rectangular?
  4. Other winter camping essentials
  5. FAQ

How to choose the right sleeping bag for the weather?

Choosing the right sleeping bag for the right temperatures means that you don’t have to wear layer upon layer upon layer! However, it’s important not to sleep with the same clothes you wore during the day as you’ll be bringing the humidity into your sleeping bag with you.

What’s the best material for a winter sleeping bag: down or synthetic fibres?

In winter, a comfortable night’s sleep under the tent depends largely on your sleeping bag’s ability to preserve body heat. Your sleep quality depends on several factors (tiredness, nutrition…), but the bag’s temperature rating is crucial. By the way, it’s worth noting that these ratings provided by companies like The North Face, Marmot, or Mountain Hardwear are based on the assumption that you will also be using a camping mat and wearing long underwear.
Every sleeping bag has its own rating, which depends mostly on the type of insulation: down or synthetic fibres.

Down winter sleeping bags

Down insulation offers unrivalled comfort and warmth. Insulation from goose or duck feathers and down has excellent fill power and is perfect for the driest cold. It keeps body heat in and is also breathable, which means you won’t sweat too much when you’re all bundled up.
If your expedition involves covering long distances over several days, a down sleeping bag is the most practical option, as it is highly compressible. It takes up very little space and folds easily into a backpack. This means more space for the rest of your equipment.
While they lose some of their thermal properties when wet, most down sleeping bags for winter are treated with a coating that makes them waterproof and water-resistant.
Naturally, there’s no such thing as perfection, and a down sleeping bag does come with its own set of drawbacks. The more you compress it (by folding it or rolling it into a ball, for instance), the more likely it is to lose some of its fill power. It also requires more careful maintenance than a synthetic insulation sleeping bag, and it usually comes with a higher price tag.

Synthetic fibre winter sleeping bags

In very cold weather, synthetic fibre insulation is generally less effective than natural down. But that doesn’t mean you should shy away from synthetic insulation sleeping bags! They do have their qualities and are quite versatile, although it’s true that they are less suited to low (or very low) temperatures.
When it comes to warmth, nothing compares to down. Synthetic fibres are not as effective at retaining heat due to their lower fill power. For the same warmth level, they are also less compressible than down. On the other hand, they are more resistant to moisture and dry faster – a good option, then, if you’re out on an adventure in wet but not too cold conditions.
A sleeping bag with synthetic insulation also requires less maintenance and is easier to clean than one made from goose or duck down.
Today, an increasing number of outdoor brands are making sleeping bags filled with recycled insulation (often 100% post-consumer recycled polyester) but mind you, this is not the case for all models. If choosing a sleeping bag with recycled materials is important to you, be sure to check the label before making your purchase.

Down vs. synthetic insulation: pros and cons

For your winter trips, it’s best to opt for a down sleeping bag. But that doesn’t mean you should stick to down insulation for all camping trips, destinations, and weather conditions. To help you make the best choice for your needs, let’s have a look at the strengths and weaknesses of each type of insulation.

Pros Cons
  • Warmth
  • Lightness
  • Compressibility
  • Durability
  • Loses thermal properties when wet
  • Price
  • Harder maintenance
  • Maintain thermal properties better when wet
  • Easy maintenance
  • Price
  • Less warm than down
  • Weight
  • Lower compressibility
  • Lower durability

Winter sleeping bags: mummy or rectangular?

The purpose of a sleeping bag is to retain the heat generated by your body when you sleep. When it comes to staying warm, a snug and body-hugging envelope is the way to go, as it contains less air and therefore holds heat more efficiently. Makes sense. That means that in addition to insulation, it’s essential to choose the right shape of sleeping bag for winter camping. Of course, this also has an impact on compressibility.
To put it simply, there are three types of sleeping bags:

  • Rectangular sleeping bags – ideal for summer camping, car camping…
  • Mummy sleeping bags – light and compressible, recommended for long hikes, expeditions, winter camping…
  • Barrel sleeping bags – kind of in between and pretty versatile.

You can find sleeping bags to suit every body type. There are models for men, for women and for kids. Women’s bags are narrower at the shoulders and a little wider at the hips. They also have extra insulation around the feet and torso.
Always make sure your sleeping bag fits properly and is the right size, especially for your winter adventures when staying warm is crucial. If your bag is too short, the insulating material will compress at the bottom. If it’s too long, there will be more air to warm, resulting in heat loss. Choose a sleeping bag that allows 1 to 2 inches of space for your toes. The good news is that manufacturers generally offer their models in three sizes.

Mummy sleeping bags: perfect for winter

Winter camping is a remarkable experience, provided you’re able to stay warm at night even when temperatures drop well below zero. What you want is a sleeping bag that wraps snugly around your body. The mummy shape has a tapered cut that optimizes heat preservation, making it ideal for the winter season.
Narrower at the feet and slightly wider at the shoulders, mummy sleeping bags are equipped with a windproof hood and an adjustable draft collar to protect your head and neck. Remember: you lose most of your body heat through your head and feet. That’s precisely why this sleeping bag shape is optimal.
A mummy sleeping bag is also more compressible and often lighter than a rectangular or barrel-shaped bag. If you plan to walk for several days, you will definitely appreciate this little extra. To choose the right model for your needs, be sure to also consider its details and features: draft tube, ripstop material, water-repellent treatment, drawstring adjustment hood, etc. Check out brands like Nemo or RAB, for example.

Rectangular sleeping bags: comfort first

Let’s say it right away: rectangular sleeping bags are not the best option for winter camping. This shape leaves too much space between your body and the bag’s lining. The larger volume of air inside results in more heat being lost. In short, rectangular sleeping bags are not as warm as mummy sleeping bags. However, they do offer more space and greater ease of movement.
Due to their size, rectangular bags are also heavier and less compressible than mummy bags.
All in all, a rectangular sleeping bag is perfect for occasional camping, weekends by the lake or glamping close to the car. If you plan to sleep under the stars in the colder months, opt for a mummy sleeping bag instead. The quality of your sleep is at stake, and more importantly, your safety in cold weather.

Mummy vs. rectangular sleeping bags: pros and cons

As we have seen, a mummy sleeping bag is the best choice for your winter camping nights. This doesn’t mean that rectangular (or barrel-shaped) sleeping bags don’t have their advantages; they’re just not as effective for sleeping outdoors in cold weather. Choosing a sleeping bag has a lot to do with the season and the type of camping you enjoy. Here are the strengths and weaknesses of each shape.

Pros Cons
  • Warmth
  • Lightness
  • Compressibility
  • Built-in hood
  • Best suited for winter camping
  • Price
  • Less ease of movement
  • Comfort and ease of movement
  • Price
  • Can be used as a blanket when open
  • Less warm
  • Less compressible
  • Weight
  • Not suitable for winter camping

Other winter camping essentials

The best sleeping bag in the world cannot protect you from the frozen ground unless it’s paired with a good camping mat and a winter-ready tent.

Winter camping mat

Sleeping directly on the ground with your sleeping bag is not advisable, as the insulating material gets flattened and loses its ability to keep you warm. Whether you’re going camping in the Far North, Iceland, or Nordic countries, make sure you bring a camping mat to ensure a good night’s sleep. Remember: sleeping bag temperature ratings are based on the assumption that you will use a camping mat for insulation from the cold ground. A bag rated for -15 °C will be effective down to that temperature when used with a camping mat (and if you’re wearing long underwear).
Camping mats are given an “R rating.” The higher the value, the warmer the mat. For winter camping, choose a model with an R rating of at least 4 or 5. The purpose of the camping mat is to increase your comfort and insulation by creating a barrier between you and the ground. Choose an insulated model (either inflatable or non-inflatable) for maximum heat retention during the night.
Some sleeping bag models have a sleeve for inserting a camping mat. If this is the case with yours, make sure that your mat size is compatible.

Camping tent

A winter tent is your shelter from the elements. It must be able to withstand wind and snow, while also keeping out the cold as much as possible. And as with sleeping bags, there are models specifically designed for extreme conditions.
Camping in the Canadian winter requires investing in a winter tent, also known as an expedition tent. A three-season tent won’t keep you warm enough if the temperatures drop well below 0 °C.
A winter tent is designed to protect you from the cold and elements. It has no ventilation, stronger poles, a waterproof coating, etc. If you choose a model designed for expeditions, it will also be lightweight and compact when folded. Be aware that if you camp in summer or spring, you will need to leave your winter tent at home – unless you enjoy sleeping in a sauna. If you want to stay comfortable during the warmer seasons, you will need a three-season tent!


1. How do you stay warm in a sleeping bag?

2. How do you care for a synthetic winter sleeping bag?

3. What is the best insulation material for sleeping bags?

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