What Sleeping Bag to use for Overlanding, Hiking, or Backpacking?
Essentially, sleeping bags are insulated bags with a quilted appearance. Their purpose is to keep a person warm while sleeping, usually outside. Duh, am I right? But figuring out what kind of sleeping bag to use while overlanding, backpacking, or hiking is anything but simple. There are many factors to consider when choosing the right bag for your endeavors.
How will you use your sleeping bag?
Each type of sleeping bag gears towards a particular activity that you are trying to enjoy. No, not that kind of activity. I’m talking about overlanding, backpacking, or mountaineering/alpine usage. It is possible to use one bag for a few different types of activities, but bags for overlanding aren’t generally used in the backcountry pursuits as they tend to be bulkier and heavier.
- Overlanding/car-camping bags tend to be the heaviest type of sleeping bags because you don’t have to carry them very far. The sleeper’s comfort is the chief design consideration so they tend to be bulkier and heavier than other types. If you’re concerned about vehicle weight, you can obviously use lighter-weight bags for overlanding. Also, you can zip them together for sharing. A standard Coleman rectangle bag is a great example of a car-camping bag.
- Backpacking bags are the middle of the road here. They are lighter than the previous option, but not as light as the mountaineering bags. Although these bags are a bit bulky, they are usually stuffed into compression sacks to reduce their overall size in a backpack. The backpacking bag is usually designed for temperature rating/warmth retention and lower overall weight. The North Face mummy bag is a great example of a backpacking sleeping bag.
- Mountaineering/Alpine bags are the lightest and least bulky of the bunch. They are primarily designed to wick water and retain heat. People who choose this type of sleeping bag need a light bag that will keep them warm and dry at high altitudes. The Sea to Summit Alpine mummy bag is a great example of a mountaineering/Alpine bag.
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Rectangular or Mummy? Shape Counts.
Once you have decided how you will use the bag, you can start thinking about the shape you want. The standard rectangle and the mummy type are the two main shapes of sleeping bags.
Rectangle Sleeping Bags
The rectangle bag is exactly what you think it is: the standard issue bag you see at almost any car campground. Since it has a full zipper you can completely unzip it and use it as a blanket if necessary. It’s geared toward sleeper comfort and allows you to move around the most, like in your bed at home. It is generally lined with flannel to help with heat retention and bed-like sleep. The drawback to this bag, other than the bulk, is that it doesn’t contour to your body as a mummy bag does so there is a lot of dead space that will require your body heat. Let me tell you, nothing is as unpleasant as rolling over in the night to discover you entered the arctic zone of your bag and you are suddenly chilled to the bone.
Mummy Sleeping Bags
Mummy bags contour around your body, making you look a little like a pharaoh of Egypt whilst sleeping. These bags are great in that they cut out a lot of the extra bulk that comes with a rectangle bag, thus eliminating the dead zones. A major drawback is that you are more confined within the bag and can’t move around as easily. If you’re claustrophobic like me, it can take some getting used to before you’re comfortable in it.
There are other shapes and sizings out on the market outside of the rectangle and mummy bags. Some of the newest bags are semi-rectangle that marry the best attributes of both the mummy and the rectangle combined. This type of sleeping bag gives you a bit more space throughout (like the rectangle) but has more of a mummy outline to eliminate dead spots. The spoon shape bag is a new type of sleeping bag that keeps the general design of the mummy but allows for a larger foot box to help eliminate the claustrophobic feel of the mummy. (I am in love with the NEMO spoon bag.)
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Let’s not forget about the ladies here either. Most all sleeping bag lines will have a women’s version of whichever bag shape you choose. Generally, they are shorter and slimmer, which is appropriate for the usually smaller shape of women’s bodies. Also, they come in feminine color schemes.
It’s what is inside that counts: Synthetic vs. Down
As I said before, your bag will be filled with either down or synthetic fibers, regardless of the bag type you pick. Down insulation is a powerhouse here. It packs down ridiculously small and will keep you warmer time after time compared to the synthetic, thanks to those feathers. But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for the down. Down bags, as a whole, will be more expensive than the synthetically insulated bags. If you get the down wet at all, you lose that warmth rating. It seems like it gets wet if you even talk about rain around it. There are advances in treating down to help out with the water-resistance, but that problem hasn’t been solved as of yet.
That’s where synthetic comes in. Compared to down, it retains heat better when wet, and it dries out faster than down. It can pack down pretty darn small as well and will fluff back up after coming out of a compression sack. While the synthetic bags will be cheaper than the down, you have to think about your use of the bag. In the chance that you’ll encounter rain on your adventures time after time, maybe the synthetic bag would be less hassle.
There is no one right answer for the best sleeping bag. What would be best for me might not be exactly what you’re looking for. Try them out, feel them out, and pick one that’s best for you.
Want more overlanding knowledge? Check out this previous column about stoves. Or check out my gear upgrades.
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