How to choose, wash and store your sleeping bag


February 23, 2022


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Camping Sleeping Bags

A sleeping bag is one of the most important pieces of gear in your camping kit. After all, there is nothing worse than being cold at night after a long day of hiking or exploring. Choosing the right bag is not easy: there are many factors to keep in mind, from shape and size to insulation type, weight and cost, and many brands to consider. At SAIL, we are lucky enough to have experts like Bruno Clavette, advisor at our Lachenaie branch, to help us make sense of all the information out there.

In this article, you will learn about, including:

You’ll be able to select a sleeping bag that offers you the perfect ratio between warmth, cost and weight for your particular camping needs.

Sleeping bags and mats Rectangular sleeping bags Mummy sleeping bags

Check out our Camping Guide to learn even more tips and advice on this activity, which is just as enjoyable to do with others or alone in the four corners of the country.

Temperature ratings

Temperature ratings will tell you how cold it can get outside for you to still be comfortable in your sleeping bag. However, many factors will play a part here, including where you will be camping. For example, will you set up camp outside in the backcountry? In a tent or in a hammock? Under the stars so you can enjoy the night sky? Will you be glamping in a VR or a log cabin, or using your car as part of your van life trip?

Other physiological criteria could influence your level of comfort as well, such as how tired or dehydrated you are, or whether you are usually warm or chilly. The quality of your equipment, such as your tent and your sleeping pad, will also impact how cold you get at night. When trying to pinpoint the right temperature rating for you, it’s always best to err on the side of caution.

Most sleeping bags are categorised by season, with the following temperature range as a guide:

Camping season Finding your comfort rating
Summer 10°C to -2°C
3 seasons (spring, summer, fall) -2°C to -18°C
Winter -18°C to -40°C

Despite the above guidelines, most temperature labels can be a bit confusing. There are three metrics on most labels: the comfort rating, the lower limit and the extreme limit. Clavette recommends using the comfort rating and, as a rule of thumb, adding 5°C to it. For example, a 10°C bag would be more comfortable around 15°C. Anything below and you may get a bit chilly despite what the label indicates.

For more detailed info on picking a winter sleeping bag, going camping in the fall or for a full list of camping gear, have a look at our previous blog articles.

Sleeping bag insulation

There are two types of insulation to choose from: down and synthetic. Selecting which one to go for will be a balancing act between a sleeping bag that’s warm enough and doesn’t weigh too much, at a budget you can afford.

Down sleeping bags

Most avid backcountry campers will prefer a down sleeping bag as those tend to pack smaller and weigh less. However, they also come with a slightly heftier price tag depending on their fill power (an indicator of down quality). The higher the fill power, the smaller the bag will pack, and the more it will tend to cost. Look for at least 500 fill power down for a good bag; anything above 700 is great. And for those with animal welfare concerns, there are manufacturers around using ethically sourced down. The North Face established the Responsible Down Standards (RDS), a benchmark used by several companies today, which ensures down does not come from animals that have been subject to unnecessary harm. Brands such as Big Agnes feature the RDS-certified logo.

Remember that while down bags tend to be a better long-term investment, they also lose a lot of warmth when wet. If you’re headed for rainy mountain hikes or long canoeing trips, down insulation may not be the right choice for your next adventure.

Synthetic sleeping bags

Synthetic bags are a good, cost-effective alternative to down. They are a bit heavier and bulkier but will retain more heat should they get wet.

Ideally, your bag should be light, but still keep you warm. The question is whether you will carry it in your backpack for days and need it to pack small, or transport it in the trunk of your car, in which case you can probably afford to select a heavier model.

Picking the right shape for your sleeping bag

Mummy or rectangular, that is the question. Well actually, when it comes to picking the shape of your sleeping bag nowadays, it’s more like mummy, rectangular or semi rectangular.

Mummy sleeping bags

Mummy sleeping bag

These are really the only choice if you’re backpacking. Mummy bags fit better and thus retain more heat. However, some side sleepers may feel a bit stuck as they’ll have to move the bag along with them when rolling.

Side sleeping bags

Side sleeping bag from Big Agnes

Company Big Agnes has come up with a solution with its Sidewinder sleeping bag, which offers a comfortable option with a zipper that stays out of the way when sleeping on your side.

Rectangular sleeping bags

Rectangular sleeping bag

Too bulky and heavy for backpacking, rectangular sleeping bags can still be great for glamping or camping in a VR. They can be used as a duvet or even joined together with another sleeping bag to be turned into a double bed, but make sure the zippers are compatible.

Semi rectangular bags

These are a good in-between option for casual campers who tend to move a lot and need just a little more wiggle room around the feet and legs.

Fit: woman, man, unisex

To a degree, yes. Women’s bags tend to be wider around the hips and have more insulation around the torso and at the feet. However, some people may not feel comfortable in one type or another, so make sure you try it on before purchase.

Sizes are also quite standard:

  • 5’5” or 5’10” (1.65m or 1.77m) for women
  • 6’ or 6’6” (1.82m or 1.98m) for men

Ideally, choose a bag that’s at least three inches (10cm) taller than you are to allow just enough air to circulate. And if you find yourself with a little extra room at the feet, Bruno Clavette has a great tip: “Put your clean, dry clothes at the bottom of your bag. They’ll be warm and ready to wear the next morning!”

Other factors to consider when choosing a sleeping bag

  • There are a few other factors to bear in mind when purchasing a bag, although none as important as temperature rating or insulation type. Here are a few quickfire bullet points:
  • Are you left-handed or right-handed? If you can, select a zipper side that will be easiest to open from the inside.
  • Look for zippers that open both ways so you can vent your feet a little should you get too warm.
    A sleeping bag liner is a great purchase. Sleeping in it could reduce the number of times you have to wash your bag. They can help keep you warmer in cold weather, wick moisture away, and you could also sleep on top of your bag in the liner on hotter days.

How to safely clean your bag

Clavette’s main bit of advice? Read the label first! Most bags can be washed in your washing machine with odourless soap (never use fabric softener!). How you dry your bag however will depend on the insulation type.

Synthetic bags should be hung to dry or put in the dryer for a short time on a low heat. Remember that synthetic filling is made of plastic, so heat could compromise the insulation.

Down bags can be put in the dryer on a low heat dryer setting. Throw in a couple of tennis balls to help it get its original fluffiness back.

Storage and transport

Most bags come with a transport bag, but if you’re carrying your sleeping bag in your backpack along with the rest of your gear, a compression bag will help compress it much tighter. Consider purchasing a waterproof one to keep water from seeping in. When the camping season is over and you’ve washed and dried your bag thoroughly, make sure you remove it from its transport or compression bag as these will squish the insulation and compromise its heat retention power. Store it in a loose cotton or mesh bag, in a dry cool place.

Pro tips

  • Look for a hooded option to keep your head warm
  • Remember your pillow. Some sleeping bags feature a pocket that can be stuffed with clothes for a makeshift pillow.
  • Some bags feature stash pockets. Use those to keep your earplugs handy when dealing with a snoring tent partner!

You now have all the information you need to make the right purchase, but don’t hesitate to come in and talk to one of our experts to find the perfect fit for you.

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